With All Our Faults We’re Better Than We Were

“I think that those who report politics, and by and large that would be members of that group of journalists called the lobby (in England; the Press Gallery in Canada), I think they are a very inward-looking, very incestuous bunch of people, who are overly preoccupied with process rather than policies.”

It is something President Trump would like to say today, but his vocabulary can only get him as far as bleated “fake news.” It was the well-known Brit politician Peter Mandelson who voiced that razor-edged criticism in a parliamentary speech a few years back – and he was just re-echoing William Windham, Minister of War in the UK in 1798, who had lamented the quality of press reporting on a war with France.

It was a time when parliamentary proceedings were not supposed to circulate beyond the walls of the debating chamber but were being “smuggled” out to unscrupulous publishers of news sheets.

“Newspaper writers are not the best judges of political affairs,” said Windham. “Their reports are evil in nature” but are being believed as true “by a great mass of readers who are not the most discerning class of society … newspapers are being carried everywhere, read everywhere by persons of very inferior capacities, and in common alehouses and places frequented chiefly by those who were least of all accustomed to reflection, to any great mental efforts …”

Oh dear, oh dear, what a bad bunch my forefathers in the news writing business were, “scattering poison where they could, bringing virtue to discredit … teaching the ignorant and credulous to despise every man and every measure that was respectable …”

Windham said he could not look at a man “of low condition with a newspaper in his hand” without comparing him to “a man who was swallowing poison under the hope of improving his health.”

There are more than 200 years between Windham’s tirade (1798), Mandelson’s scalpel slice-and-dice (2002), and the childlike trumpeting of President Trump to please his base support. But the theme remains unchanged. The masses – the people – could never be expected to understand what politicians were doing or why. And reporters should never be trusted to properly explain a government’s thinking.

For a hundred years or more, the contents of parliamentary debate were confined to parliament. MPs could not publish their speeches without special permission of the House. It was resolved in 1641 that “no Member of the House shall either give a copy or publish in print anything that he shall speak here without leave of the House.”

Lord Digby was caught distributing a printed copy of one of his speeches and reprimanded. All copies of his speech were collected and ordered destroyed by “the public hangman” as a gentle warning of what could have been much tougher justice for publicizing a parliamentary speech without permission of the House..

A year later, Sir Edward Dearing had a collection of his speeches printed and in the process of distribution when he was apprehended, expelled from the House, and imprisoned in the Tower “for acting against the honour and privilege of the House.” His speeches were bundled and “the public hangman” ordered to arrange another bonfire.

But the need for the censorship created to keep the King from punishing MPs who spoke against him was slowly diminishing. In 1660, parliament passed a licensing act for regulating printing and printing presses, though debate reporting was still not allowed.

It wasn’t until 1771, after riots, arrests, hasty trials, and imprisonments of printers in the Tower, that the Commons caved and parliamentary reporting as we know it today was established. The House of Lords followed in 1775.

It’s called one of our greatest freedoms – freedom of the press, but one thing has never changed: the lingering suspicion that “the press” can’t really be trusted; that reporters, columnists and editorial writers are told what to write by never-seen editors and publishers once described as “holding power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

It isn’t true,but the doubts linger. Not a perfect arrangement, but as De Tocqueville wrote in defence of democracy and our free press: “In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberties of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.”

(Andrew Sparrow’s Obscure Scribblers –a history of Parliamentary Journalism, is an entertaining read – if you can find a copy.)

One comment

  1. An interesting history of press freedom and Parliament and one that begs the question whether the expansion of democracy in England preceded press liberty or was it the other way round. I think the latter.

    magine saying today that reporters and their readers are too stupid to fathom the intricacies of government.

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