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JOHN DELANE AND MODERN JOURNALlSM."
Journalists have been described as the Sophists of modern life; and, within certain limits, the parallel may be said to hold good. By a "journalist" we mean a man who seeks to influence public opinion in this direction or that through the columns of a dally or a weekly paper, not the invaluable and indispensable person who purveys "news," properly so-called, and the data upon which "the policy of the paper" is based. Bearing this in mind, and remembering that the proprietor, the editor, and the leader-writer are not absolutely independent of one another, but represent in most cases a combination cemented by "the policy of the paper," we can trace, not unprofitably, the parallel between the typical Athenian Sophist and the typical English journalist.
Let us note first that the prototype and the counterpart are only possible under a system of government which recognizes and protects an absolute freedom of thought and expression of opinion. Further, let us admit, on the one hand, that the Sophists, as a class, did not exercise the corrupting influence attributed to them by Aristophanes and by Plato in the more Socratic passages of the various dialogues in which they are introduced; and, on the other, that they were not always the disinterested advocates of political and social reform that Grote represented them to be. Grote, in his passionate admiration—idolatry would hardly be too strong a word—for democracy in all its forms, and especially in its Athenian form, is naturally prone to exaggerate; but, when he says (ed. 1888, vol. vii, p. 30)
•1. "John Thadeus Delane, Editor of the • Times '; his Life and Correspondence." By A. I. Dasent. Two vols. London: Murray, 1908.
2. " The Qreat Metropolis." By James Grant.
it was the blessing and the glory of Athens that every man could speak out his sentiments and criticisms with a freedom unparalleled in the ancient world, and hardly paralleled even in the modern, in which a vast body of dissent both is, and always has been, condemned to absolute silence,
the exaggeration is pardonable. England, it is said, is governed by talk; and, when we remember that the Sophists were the immediate heirs of the teachers of rhetoric and dialectic, we perceive how real the parallel is. That there were some Sophists whose doctrines and methods were elevating and beneficial, and others whose influence was pernicious, is as true as the truism that there are some newspapers which instruct and enlighten their readers, and others which tend, deliberately or unconsciously, to lower the tone of public opinion. There is not more differonce between the best journal of the day—whichever that may be—and the worst, than there was between lsocrates and Thrasymachus as depicted in the first book of the "Republic." lt must be borne in mind that Plato himself, as he becomes more Platonic and less Socratic, changes his attitude towards the Sophists. ln the earlier books of the "Republic" they are charged (as indeed was Socrates himself) with being the corrupters of society, while in the later they are described as the products of a society which was itself corrupt, and invoked the aid of intellectual drugs to stimulate its depravity. One or other of these views is taken by pessimists with regard to journalism. lt is said, for instance, that newspapers have created
First series, vol. Il. Third edition. London: Saunders and Ottley, 1838.
8. "The Government of England." By A. Lawrence Lowell. Two vols. London: Macmlllan, 1008.
a craving for sensationalism, or that, finding this morbid appetite in existence, they have pandered to it. This criticism is at best a gross exaggeration when applied to seriously conducted newspapers, but it indicates a real danger to which we will presently revert.
To continue the examination of our parallel: the object of the Sophists, as it is set forth by isocrates, was to teach young men "to think, speak, and act" with credit to themselves as citizens. lf for "youth" we substitute the English political equivalent "untrained," the motto of isocrates is one which all serious journalists would gladly adopt. it is worth while to recall a passage from the criticism of Grote's History which appeared in the "Quarterly Review" (No. clxxv), cited by Grote in a footnote (vii, 80) as "able and interesting."
"lt is enough here to state" (said the reviewer) "as briefly as possible the contrast between Mr. Grote's view and the popular representation of the Sophists. According to the common notion, they were a sect; according to him, they were a class or a profession. According to the common view they were the propagators of demoralizing doctrines, and of what from them are termed 'sophistical' argumentations. According to Mr. Grote, they were the regular teachers of Greek morality, neither above nor below the standard of the age. According to the common view, Socrates was the great opponent of the Sophists, and Plato his natural successor in the combat. According to Mr. Grote, Socrates was the great representative of the Sophists, distinguished from them only by his higher eminence and by the peculiarity of his life and teaching. According to the common view, Plato and his followers
were the authorized teachers, the established clergy of the Greek nation, and the Sophists the dissenters. According to Mr. Grote, the Sophists were the established clergy, and Plato was the dissenter, the Socialist who attacked the Sophists (as he attacked the poets and the statesmen), not as a particular sect, but as one of the existing orders of society."
These irreconcilable judgments find their echoes to-day in the extreme views taken by different schools of the value and the dangers of the press. lt will probably be recognized that while, as regards both Sophists and journalists, the views referred to are exaggerated, the favorable opinion stands, in both cases, nearer the truth than does the other.
One of the charges levelled against the Sophists—a charge especially damaging in a cultivated democracy resting upon slave-labor—was that they took money, often large sums, for teaching. lt was "banausic," and in the eyes of Socrates and Plato it was simony or worse to sell "the true, the beautiful, the just."1 Down to the very eve of the Victorian epoch there was the same disposition to regard paid journalism with the same aversion as a vocation not fit for gentlemen. We find this fact very explicitly stated by Mr. Grant, himself a working journalist, who was responsible for a dozen volumes or so of "chatty gossip" in the thirties of the last century. His judgments do not perhaps amount to much, though he. a Liberal in politics, anticipated a great future for Disraeli when the onnosventi believed him to be a spent squib; but his value as a contemporary witness is unquestionable. We shall have several occasions for drawing from his reservoir. ln a volume dealing with "the Newspaper Press," he tells us that
1 Prof. Rhys Davies reminds us that ln the sixth century R. C, just before the blrth of the Buddha, there existed ln lndia teachers called the "Wanderers," who resembled in many ways the Greek Sophists. Like them, they differed much ln intelligence, earnestness and honesty. Some are described as "eelwrigglers, hair-splitters," and this not wlth
out reason. But there must have been many of a very different character. ... So large was the number of such people that the town communities, the clans and tne rnjas vied one with another to provide the Wanderers with pavilions, meeting halls, and resting-places, where conversations or discussions could take place. t" Earlv Buddhism," p. 4.)
the character of the newspaper press of the metropolis has been greatly raised within the last quarter of a century. Before that time no man of any standing, either in the political or literary world, would condescend to write in a newspaper; or, if he did, he took special care to keep the circumstance as great a secret as if he had committed some penal offence of the first magnitude. Now, the most distinguished persons in the country not only often contribute to newspapers, but are ready to admit it, except where there may be accidental reasons for concealment. ("Great Metropolis," vol. ii, p. 164.)
He adds that in his day
the great majority of (Parliamentary) reporters have enjoyed the advantages of a university education, and many of them belong to the learned professions. Several of those at present in the gallery have been educated for the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Rome. Some of them have been regularly ordained, and have only been induced to turn their attention to reporting because they have no immediate prospect of obtaining a respectable living in the Churches to which they respectively belong. Among the reporters are several physicians and surgeons; while a very large proportion of them are either barristers-at-law or young men studying for the bar (lb. p. 204).
He cites a long list of distinguished persons who had been reporters in their day, including, of course, Dr. Johnson, whose avowal that he always "took care that the Whig dogs should not have the best of the argument," mightily shocks Mr. Grant's professional conscience. Amongst the successors of Johnson he names Sir James Mackintosh, Allan Cunningham, and others; and amongst his own contemporaries he picks out Charles Dickens,
already author of "Sketches by Boz" uml the "Pickwick Club," who "is a reporter on the establishment of the 'Morning Chronicle.'" and of whom Mr. Grant says:
l may here be permitted to remark that Mr. Dickens is one of the most promising literary young men of the present day. For an exquisite perception of the humorous he certainly has no superior among contemporary writers.
He further tells us that "almost all the editors of the daily papers have been reporters." John Delane served an apprenticeship in "the gallery"; and his predecessor, Barnes, had been a reporter. Stenography has caused reporting to be more professional than in those days, when we are told:
Some years ago not more than about a fourth part of the reporters used shorthand; of late the number has increased, and now perhaps one-third of them use it. On the "Times" and "Herald" there are gentlemen who cannot write a word in shorthand, and yet they are considered the most elegant reporters in the gallery (lb. p. 208).
ln a still more important respect the gravamen against Athenian Sophists and modern journalists is identical. The most serious charge against the former—and it was the chief count in the indictment against Socrates himself—was that of "making the worse appear the better reason" * That is the commonplace charge against all advocates in the senates, the schools, the courts, and the press. "Orthodoxy is my doxy, heterodoxy is other people's doxy"; or, as a well-known and a recently deceased Oxford lecturer used to put it, "When anything unpleasant happens to a friend we call it a visitation; when it befalls an enemy we say
* Isoorates, referring to his accuser, says (Or. zv, i!S):nii, Si yi\ei pit ut iy& rob <jttoui \6yovi Kptlrrmt Mmnai irouir.
It is a judgment." Till there is a general agreement as to what is "right" and what is "wrong," or, more important still, what opinions and actions are to be excluded from both categories, it is idle to attribute dialectical defeat to the diabolical "sophistry" of the successful advocate.
Upon the wider issues involved it is here unnecessary to trespass; it suffices to glance briefly at the narrower application of the charge of sophistry to political journalism; and when we talk of journalism as a curse or a blessing we all mean political journalism. Of course it is not journalism as such that is specifically arraigned, but the whole system of party government, to which system party newspapers are auxiliary. Leading articles expounding the policy of the paper are denounced as onesided and partisan. Of course they are, exactly to the same extent as are the speeches of most statesmen, of polemical divines, and, above all, of counsel learned in the law, in the discharge of their recognized duties as handmaids of justice. Nowhere is the case better stated than by Prof. Lawrence Lowell in his invaluable work, recently published, on "The Government of England."
"In the English system" (he says) "the initiative in most matters of importance has come into the hands of the Cabinet Ministers as the representatives and leaders of the predominant party. It is their business to propose and it is the business of the Opposition to oppose. But the attitude of the latter is not quite spontaneous. On rare occasions it congratulates the Government upon some action which it supports heartily. More commonly it seeks to criticize everything, to find all imaginable faults. Impotent to legislate, it tries to prevent the majority from doing so; not content with expressing its views and registering a protest, it raises the same objections at every stage in the passage of a Bill, and sometimes strives to delay and
even to destroy measures which it would itself enact if in power. Its immediate object is, in fact, to discredit the Cabinet. Now this sounds mischievous, and would be so were Parliament the ultimate political authority. But the parties are really in the position of barristers arguing a case before a jury, that jury being the national electorate; and experience has shown, contrary to the prepossessions of non-professional legal reformers in all ages, that the best method of attaining justice is to have a strong advocate argue on each side before an impartial umpire. Unfortunately the jurymen in this case are not impartial, and the arguments are largely addressed to their interests; but that is a difficulty inseparable from democracy, or indeed from any form of government" (i, 445).
As Mr. Lowell truly says, "Government by party is not an ideal regimen," but at present it has no rival or alternative; and, so long as the party system prevails, its factors, good and bad, including oratory and journalism, will be obnoxious to the charges brought against the Sophists. As to the individual journalist, who is supposed to write persistently against his own convictions, we believe him to be a myth. Grant, it is true, mentions the case of a long since defunct Tory paper, of which both editor and assistant-editor, who wrote all the articles between them, were confirmed Radicals. Such cases, however, must in the nature of things be rare. It is imaginable that a capable journalist should now and again write articles in flat contradiction to his own political creed; but it is inconceivable that any man should or could habitually write good articles against his settled convictions. Writing under the conditions imposed by modern journalism, a man who persistently used arguments he held to be false would always be tripping himself up. The popular delusion arises from the fact that some journalists who command a ready pen have, like many other people, no strong political convictions at all: and these usually imbibe "principles" from the atmosphere of the office in which they work. Added to this are the facts, often ignored, that at least four-fifths of controversial political problems involve no questions of "right" or "wrong," though the words are very ready to slip from tongue and pen; and that the claims of "expediency" are frequently so nicely balanced that considerations much less weighty than partisan prejudice and the policy of the paper suffice to turn the scale in the judgment of the proprietor, editor, or leader-writer.
To sum up this aspect of journalism, it may be said that the average journalist, like the average sophist, the average statesman, and the average man of business, accepts the recognized rules of his calling, is desirous of doing good and not evil, and plays a more or less essential part in the complicated machinery of government. He is not better than his neighbors, nor is he worse; he has his own temptations and bis own responsibilities, just as others have theirs. His power for good or evil is theoretically great, but in practice it is strictly limited. He is neither the savior of society nor its destroyer, but its servant; and, if the master delegates to him his authority, the principal is to blame and not the agent. He is rarely the originator of new ideas, and when he essays that task he almost invariably comes to grief; he is the conduit-pipe which distributes the fluid opinions he accumulates in reservoirs, but does not create.
lf, then, there is little or nothing morally to distinguish journalists as a class from members of any other vocation which depends chiefly on brainpower, what is to be said of the individual journalist? ls "the great journalist," like the artist, the philosopher, the poet, born and not made, the
product of exceptional conditions of national life, as were the Greek tragedians, the Augustan, the Elizabethan, and the "Revolutionary" poets? Or is he as little rare as are first-class physicians, lawyers, and men of business? The unknown is proverbially overrated; the mysterious is own cousin to the unknown; and the anonymous is only one step removed from the mysterious. Anonymity is a magnifying haze; and journalists, being very human, are by no means indisposed to regard themselves as being as large as they seem to the outside world to be through the veil that magnifies their shadowy outlines
The journalist, like the man of letters properly so-called, and unlike the politician and the lawyer, is practically never seen in action. His style, if he indulges in such a luxury, is kept in check and curbed by a variety of conventions and bylaws which forbid him to stamp indelibly his own identity upon his work. The ridiculed editorial "we" is not a device invented to inspire the reader with awe and admiration; it represents very real conditions. There is hardly such a thing as a free hand in anonymous journalism. A leader-writer may be shut up in a room by himself, and have no verbal or written communication with the proprietor of the paper or the editor, beyond a curt instruction to write, let us say, on the question of the House of Lords; yet he is surrounded, as it were, by the spirits of the proprietor, of the editor, of his colleagues, and, above all, of that nebulous, but most potent entity, "the policy of the paper." He may be unconscious of the presence of these invisible, intangible influences, but they are at work all the same; and the result of their operations is an article expressing not "my" views, but "ours." This truth deepens the mystery which shrouds the great journalist, and intensifies his greatness in the public 1m