Freedom of the Press? by A N Wilson

A N Wilson

Freedom of the Press?


Every so often, the paper boy oversleeps, or the railwaymen, or NALGO or the civil servants go on strike, and I find myself sitting at the breakfast table with, as I usually put it on such occasions, ‘nothing to read’. Never mind that I have never read Goethe, or half the Michael Innes books, or three of Turgenev’s. The Times and the Daily Telegraph – even, I am ashamed to say, on Fridays, The Church Times, Mandy and The Beano – have not been delivered, and I have ‘nothing to read’.

Whence does this addiction to newsprint arise? In part, one turns the pages in search of information. It may be very depressing that people die, marry and get born, but one likes to know about these things. I nearly always turn to the death column first. Who won the football, or the General Election, is less interesting to me; so is what they said in Parliament yesterday. As for what they said in Transport House, or the European Parliament, I don’t know and I don’t care. The only stories which arrest my attention in the papers are those which are funny, harrowing, disgusting or grotesque. For my money, therefore, the Daily Telegraph is a better paper than the Guardian not because it thinks differently, but because it has more news: ie crime, divorce, sinister clergymen, and silly asses. I liked the American woman who drove all the way from London to Penzance in a hired car she had picked up at the airport: seventy-five gallons. ‘These British cars sure use a lotta gas’ was her comment before being told that she was not driving an automatic and that she had made the whole journey in first gear. A typical Telegraph story which the other papers neglected. They were too busy reporting the ‘important’ story of the day, whatever it was.

Journalists are not, in my experience, a particularly pompous lot of people, but on this question of the ‘importance’ of news, they do have a tendency to be pompous. ‘I think we should be told’ is a joke-cliche among them. But they do really believe it. Similarly, anyone who goes on to Any Questions and says the freedom of the West depends on a free press can be certain of rapturous applause. The calls from Labour party luminaries during the last election to nationalise the press brought howls of protest from those who said, a little fantastically perhaps, that Mr Scargill (chief advocate of the scheme) was trampling our liberties underfoot and trying to erect in their place an organ of state opinion such as Pravda.

I am always troubled by this smug belief in the press, so often trotted out by journalists. It implies that our opinions are largely formed by reading the newspapers (which I sincerely hope is untrue); and it also implies that the newspapers describe the most interesting aspects of the world. They don’t. Novels and poems, and paintings and diaries and letters from our friends do that. The newspapers choose to concentrate on economics, war, crime and politics. If we accepted their picture of the world, we would start supposing that the leaders of the Trade Unions and of the Political Parties were the most interesting people in our lives. We would think that the most important event of last week was whether Mr Basnett had signed a pledge with Mr Tebbitt or Mr Scargill scored a victory off Mr Murray, or Mr Reagan made yet another ghastly blunder in foreign policy. In fact, the most important event of last week was that someone was born, that someone got married and someone died. The political harlequinade only really impinges on our lives when it starts to go hideously wrong, and then it is usually too late to do anything about it. Meanwhile, we continue to be chiefly concerned with the people nearest and closest to us. If I were Mrs Basnett I might, before committing suicide, be interested in Mr Basnett’s Trade Union Activities. But only because they were preoccupying my husband. If I were Mrs Thatcher, I would, before changing my name and going to live in Australia, give a passing thought to my son Mark; but I would not expect the general public to be interested in his doings and affairs.

Much of the stuff which journalists sell us as being of public moment is of no public concern whatsoever. Who cares whether Princess Anne likes her husband, or whether the child of this or that politician takes drugs or sells contraceptives? We might be interested in them now, in the same way that we want to know what will happen next on the Archers. But that is because our interest has been whipped up artificially.

‘Ah’, but the journalist will say, ‘that argument is all very well. But freedom depends upon the general public being given unbiased accounts of what the military, the politicians, and the leaders of industry are up to. You wouldn’t like it, surely, if we could not have a free news service concerning the American activities in the Lebanon? It would surely be a less healthy society if we could not pry into the business affairs of the Prime Minister’s children?’ This is one of the orthodoxies which we are all taught to lisp from an early age in the West, like ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’. And I am not suggesting that Pravda is less boring than the Guardian or the Daily Mail. Nor, for a moment, do I suppose that it is more pleasant to live in Moscow than in London. But the idea that western ‘freedom’, such as it is, depends upon the liberty of Charles Douglas-Home to write what he likes in the Times leader is a superstition compared with which belief in the existence of leprechauns and the Loch Ness Monster is sober and scientifically rational. Undoubtedly, some of the more brutally stupid governments in recent history have shared this superstition and have therefore exercised heavy press censorship. They have shared the belief that prevails in Fleet Street bars when the drink has been flowing for an hour or two that the public has its opinion formed by men such as Alan Watkins, Bernard Levin or Peregrine Worsthorne. Well, supposing (not a supposition which it is altogether possible to take seriously) supposing it does. What does it matter what you or I think about Unemployment, or Lebanon, or the Bomb? We might like to believe in a ‘democracy’ that our opinions counted for something. But with whom? Our police force is perhaps marginally more humane than those of totalitarian countries; our judiciary and our prison officers considerably more so. The equivalent of Greenham Common protesters in some other countries would be treated more savagely. But what we think, or the ladies of Greenham think, will not have the slightest effect on anything that any member of any British government does or thinks. Certainly, that is true in relation to Foreign Policy. Certainly it is true in relation to Economic Policy. In these areas, the notion that the politicians themselves have much control over what happens is more pious than plausible.

For all these reasons, I am rather glad when the occasional strike or late morning on the part of the paper boy causes me to miss my daily ‘fix’ of Fleet Street rubbish. Half the unhappy things in the newspapers – it goes for wars and murders as well as for displays of political exhibitionism – would never have happened if there had not been newspapers. The human race survived until the seventeenth century without any form of journalism whatsoever. It is not wholly callous and obscurantist to be more interested in our immediate friends and neighbours than in the disgusting brutalities or absurd self-conceits which editors consider newsworthy. Our freedom does not depend upon being able to read such stories. And our lives are infinitely saner when the ‘news’, if we are conscious of it at all, is pushed to the borders of consciousness. Every schoolboy is taught the story of the old ploughman who was asked by the King’s standard-bearer if he would move his team of horses out of the way since they were about to fight the battle of Edgehill. Oh, asked the ploughman, and who are they? The King and the Parliament. ‘Ar. Have them two fallen out, then?’ he asked, with some indifference, before drifting to the edge of the field and letting the battle start. The first time I heard that story, an energetic history master compared it with the moment in 1939 when everyone in England was glued to their wireless sets listening to Chamberlain. When the comparison was made I could not feel that the contrast between the two outbreaks of war suggested progress. Quite the reverse. When wars were simply isolated battles, fought between mercenaries and unwilling conscripts and wound up at the end by the bigwigs who declared themselves the victors, it might be thought that warfare was less dangerous and appalling than those conflicts which are artificially supposed to involve us all, merely because we have been exposed to the ‘news’. In so far as they amuse us, newspapers are to be tolerated. The moment I pick up The Times and The Beano from the mat and think one document more ‘important’ than the other, I shall know that it is time to read something else over the breakfast table. In so far as they persuade us to be more public-spirited, newspapers are silly, or even dangerous. For, once they start to play at that game, they have joined the baying ranks of the propagandists and the dictators.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

OUP Niven

Follow Literary Review on Twitter