Saturday, August 3, 2013

The freedom of the press

A reference at "In Which I Read Vintage Novels" sent me to a 1946 collection of essays by Dorothy L. Sayers where, after reading the ones about feminism to which that post referred, I found "How Free is the Press?" from 1941 that, although the war started in 1939 is not about the censorship of the wartime press, but about its limitations in peacetime. I think this passage applies almost equally well today:
When we speak of "the freedom of the Press," we usually mean freedom in a very technical and restricted sense—namely, freedom from direction or censorship by the Government. In this respect, the British Press is, under ordinary conditions, singularly free. It can attack the policy and political character of ministers, interfere in the delicate machinery of foreign diplomacy, conduct campaigns to subvert the Constitution, incite citizens to discontent and rebellion, expose scandals and foment grievances, and generally harry and belabour the servants of the State, with almost perfect liberty. On occasion, it can become a weapon to coerce the Government to conform to what it asserts to be the will of the people.

So far, this is all to the good. Occasionally, this freedom may produce disastrous hesitations and inconsistencies in public policy, or tend to hamper the swift execution of emergency measures; but, generally speaking, it works to secure and sustain that central doctrine of Democracy as we understand it—that the State is not the master but the servant of the people.

The Press, as a whole, and in this technical and restricted sense, is thus pretty free in a peaceful Britain. There is no shade of political opinion that does not somehow contrive to express itself. But if we go on to imagine that any particular organ of the Press enjoys the larger liberty of being a "forum of public opinion," we are gravely mistaken. Every newspaper is shackled to its own set of overlords and, in its turn, like the Unmerciful Servant, exercises a powerful bondage upon its readers and on the public generally. Indeed, we may say that the heaviest restriction upon the freedom of public opinion is not the official censorship of the Press, but the unofficial censorship by a Press which exists not so much to express opinion as to manufacture it. (Dorothy L. Sayers, Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays, Victor Gollancz, London, 1946, pp. 127-128.)
In our time it is, of course, not just newspapers but also the television networks, whose selective narrative is today, I'm happy to say, subverted by cable and internet.