excerpts from the book

The Free Press

an essay on the manipulation of news and opinion, and how to counter it

by Hilaire Belloc (1918)

IHS Press, 2002, paperback


Nicholas von Hoffman

Left, right and center, people by the tens of millions have stopped watching network news. And that may be a healthy thing if it betokens skepticism, disbelief and an effort to find out for one's self.

Little has been done to address the astonishing ignorance of Americans regarding the U.S. role in the world, the extensive use of terrorism by the United States, and the history and politics of the Middle East, Palestine and the Islamic world ....

The reasons for this flawed coverage can be located in two places: the weaknesses in the manner professional journalism has been practiced in the United States; and the ultimate control of our major news media by a very small number of very large and powerful profit-seeking corporations.

[T]he largest media corporations are among the primary beneficiaries of neo-liberal globalization, and of the U.S. role as the enforcer of global political etiquette. For these firms to provide an understanding of the world in which the United States military and Capitalism are not benevolent forces, might be possible, but it is unlikely.

Most Americans get their information from media that have pledged to give the American people only the President's side of the story.

Norman Solomon

Whatever the case may be, there's no doubt that journalists generally understand critical words about Israel to be hazardous to careers.

Robert Fisk

Rarely since the Second World War has a people been so vilified as the Palestinians. And rarely has a people been so frequently excused and placated as the Israelis .... Our gutlessness, our refusal to tell the truth, our fear of being slandered as "anti- Semites" - the most loathsome of libels against any journalist - means that we are aiding and abetting terrible deeds in the Middle East.

We can avail ourselves of a number of solid [news] sources without having necessarily to subscribe to their ideological presumptions.

The world must be made safe not "for democracy" but for the Truth.

in a letter to Orage, October 14, 1917

Mere indignation against organized falsehood, mere revolt against it, is creative.

I am certain that the battle for free political discussion is now won. More knowledge of our public evils, economic and political, will henceforward spread; and though we must suffer the external consequences of so prolonged a régime of lying, the lies are now known to be lies. True expression, though it should bear no immediate and practical fruit, is at least now guaranteed a measure of freedom, and the coming evils which the State must still endure will at least not be endured in silence. Therefore it was worthwhile fighting.

False ideas are suggested by also news and especially by news which is false through suppression.

News, that is information with regard to those things which affect us but which are not within our own immediate view, is necessary to the life of the State.

Long before the last third of the nineteenth century a newspaper, if it was of large circulation, was everywhere a venture or a property dependent wholly upon its advertisers. It had ceased to consider its public save as a bait for the advertiser.

We see the growth of the Press marked by these characteristics. (1) It falls into the hands of a very few rich men, and nearly always men of base origin and capacities. (2) It is, in their hands, a mere commercial enterprise. (3) It is economically supported by advertisers who can in part control it, but these are of the same Capitalist kind, in motive and manner, with the owners of the paper.

It is the advent of the great newspaper owner as the true governing power in the political machinery of the State, superior to the officials in the State, nominating ministers and dismissing them, imposing policies, and, in general, usurping sovereignty - all this secretly and without responsibility.

The Press in itself simply represents the news which its owners desire to print and the opinions which they desire to propagate.

The strength of a newspaper owner lies in his power to deceive the public, and to withhold or to publish at will hidden things: his power in this terrifies the professional politicians who hold nominal authority: in a word, the newspaper owner controls the professional politician because he can and does blackmail the professional politician, especially upon his private life.

[The] Capitalist Press has come at last to warp all judgment. The tiny oligarchy which controls it is irresponsible and feels itself immune. It has come to believe that it can suppress any truth and suggest any falsehood.

The big daily papers have become essentially "official," that is, insincere and corrupt in their interested support of that plutocratic complex which governs England... All the vices, all the unreality, and all the peril that goes with the existence of an official Press is stamped upon the great dailies of our time. They are not independent where Power is concerned. They do not really criticize. They serve a clique whom they should expose, and denounce and betray the generality - that is the State - for whose sake the salaried public servants should be perpetually watched with suspicion and sharply kept in control.

The result is that the mass of Englishmen have ceased to obtain, or even to expect, information upon the way they are governed.

Side by side with what I have called "the Official Press" in our top-heavy plutocracy there has arisen a certain force for which I have a difficulty in finding a name, but which I will call for lack of a better name "the Free Press."

I might call it the "independent" Press were it not that such a word would connote as yet a little too much power, though I do believe its power to be rising, and though I am confident that it will in the near future change our affairs.

Most men will only read that which, while informing them, takes for granted a philosophy more or less sympathetic with their own.

The professional politicians all stand together when a financial swindle is being carried out.

What I do doubt in the approaching and already apparent success of the Free Press is its power to effect democratic reform.

It will succeed at last in getting the truth told pretty openly and pretty thoroughly. It will break down the barrier between the little governing clique in which the truth is cynically admitted and the bulk of educated men and women who cannot get the truth by word of mouth but depend upon the printed word. We shall, I believe, even within the lifetime of those who have taken part in the struggle, have all the great problems of our time, particularly, the Economic problems, honestly debated. But what I do not see is the avenue whereby the great mass of the people can now be restored to an interest in the way in which they are governed, or even in the re-establishment of their own economic independence.

So far as I can gather from the life around me, the popular appetite for freedom and even for criticism has disappeared. The wage-earner demands sufficient and regular subsistence, including a system of pensions, and, as part of his definition of subsistence and sufficiency, a due portion of leisure. That he demands a property in the means of production, I can see no sign whatever. It may come; but all the evidence is the other way. And as for a general public indignation against corrupt government, there is (below the few in the know who either share the swag or shrug their shoulders) no sign that it will be strong enough to have any effect.

All we can hope to do is, for the moment, negative: in my view, at least. We can undermine the power of the Capitalist Press. We can expose it as we have exposed the Politicians. It is very powerful but very vulnerable - as are all human things that repose on a lie.

We may expect, in a delay perhaps as brief as that which was required to pillory, and, therefore, to hamstring the miserable falsehood and ineptitude called the Party System, to reduce the Official Press to the same plight. In some ways the danger of failure is less, for our opponent is certainly less well-organized. But beyond that - beyond these limits - we shall not attain. We shall enlighten, and by enlightening, destroy. We shall not provoke public action, for the methods and instincts of corporate civic action have disappeared.

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