A DEFENCE OFCORRUPTION IN THE PRESS. E VERYTHING is questioned nowadays,
from the existence of God to the use of going on living ; but it is still with some surprise that we read a formal defence of corruption in the Press. The Westminster Gazette of Monday, however, published one, given to an interviewer by a gentleman who is "proprietor and manager of two influential newspapers in Paris," and it is plausible enough and injurious enough to deserve a moment's attention. The French proprietor and manager declares that, owing to the absence of advertisements, independent journalists cannot live in France, that they must obtain incomes somehow, and that they mate up the deficiency of their pay by acting as advocates. All manner of groups in France, political groups, social groups, and financial groups, require publicity for their views, or, to use the usual expression, for their "causes," and their practice is to hire journalists connected with papers more or less friendly, and through them to carry on for a period which differs with the necessity, " subsidised cam- paigns." "For instance, if a political group or a com- mercial coterie has special interests to defend, it usually subsidises two or three newspapers for a certain length of time to keep those interests before the public. That is a generally recognised practice When a French newspaper—I except the purely party journals —hunches out into a violent attack on a political per- sonage, on a Ministry, or on an economic theory, people merely inquire whose cash it may be that inspires the militant scribes. They are not so naïve as to suppose that a newspaper excludes attractive ' copy ' for love, in order to make room for a series of monotonous diatribes. Never- theless a campaign frequently produces the desired effect, if it be skilfully conducted, just as a clever advocate will often win his client's case, though every one knows that he is paid for his pleading. Sometimes, too, counter-cam- paigns are started." The practice, which extends to every financial "cause," and almost every company started, syndi- cates, for instance, paving heavily for protectionist articles, and many Banks shielding in this way their statements of accounts, is so thoroughly established that there is a " usual " minimum rate of pay—X400 for a " campaign " —and, says this newspaper proprietor, any one with £4,000 to expend could, for a time, have ten newspapers at his disposal, all saying substantially the same thing, and declarieg, we may add, that their aggregate opinion, for instance, on Colonial conquest or British interference with French contractors' monopoly, is obviously "the voice of France."
The speaker declares not only that these are the facts, which we do not presume to doubt, and which has indeed long been the belief of those who study French newspapers, but that the system is perfectly moral, for three reasons, one being that journalists must live, a second, that the system is thoroughly understood by all readers who are not too " naifs," and a third, that advocacy through a, journal is no worse than advocacy from the barristers' bench in Court. The first argument we need not discuss, it being sufficiently answered by the Judge's reply to the thief who pleaded that he must live,—viz., that he did not see the necessity ; and the second, oddly enough, is answered by the newspaper proprietor himself, who, of course, knows Paris and its reading classes in a way to which no foreign observer can attain. He was asked by the inter- viewer, who, we should mention, showed himself a little shocked, and therefore unfitted for his trade, whether "a French newspaper would carry on any campaign that it was paid to carry on ? Would a Republican paper, for instance, undertake Monarchist propaganda, or a Free- trade journal advocate Pi otection if sufficiently well paid ? ' To which the proprietor and manager replied, " Not exactly. The campaign must, of course, not be in flagrant contradiction with the usual tone of the paper ; otherwise suspicion would be at once aroused." The readers, in fact, are not aware that they are not reading independent opinions. So far from the practice being recognised, it is not even suspected by those whose opinion it is intended to influence ; and there is not a French journalist who, if told that he was bribed, or was a mere funnel for his pay- master's ideas, would not at once send his seconds to arrange a meeting with his "traducer." And the ignorance of the public, being established on the evidence of the proprietor and manager himself, the third argu- ment falls hopelessly to the ground,—becomes, in fact, even a little ridiculous. The advocate goes into Court avowedly as the agent and mouthpiece of his client, who, whether guilty or innocent, is entitled to a fair trial under the laws of the country he resides in ; he, by the mere fact of his appearance, announces that he is paid ; and he is, as a rule, most careful to state that any facts he may allege, or any motives he may impute, are "in his brief,"—that is, he has for them no personal responsibility. The French journalist, on the contrary, assumes in his paper, especially if be is not anonymous, to be giving his own opinions, and facts he personally believes ; he conceals carefully his rela- tion with his outside client, and be is rigidly silent on his pay, admits, indeed, that if he acknowledged the receipt of pay "suspicion would be aroused," and his opinion would be rendered worthless. He is, in fact, in the posi- tion, not of a paid advocate' but of a bribed witness, who by the laws of every civilised and most uncivilised countries is liable to penal consequences. It is true,:no doubt—for we will state our opponents' case as honestly as we can—that in England party journalists do take salaries, that they do occasionally subordinate their convictions to party interests, and that when they do so they are playing the part substan- tially of hired advocates. But then in this country they are not witnesses, they do not lend the weight of their personality to any opinion they may give, or statement they may make, and all they say is credited to the paper in which they write, a paper usually and avowedly devoted to the advocacy of a cause. Even this concession to pro- fessional necessities is, when the subject is serious, in- d.fensible,—for example, the present writer would have no right even to state the case for slavery, except with the design of answering it,—and the French prac- tice, so far as it is truly described, seems to us utterly dishonest. A Member of Parliament might just as well take £400 to speak and vote for a Bill promoted by a great financial "interest." Even if he agreed with the Bill he would be a thief, his duty being to advise the House and influence the result without being paid for doing so ; but if he disagreed with it he would be guilty of theft and treachery too, robbery from those who em- ployed him, and who would not pay him if they could help it; and treachery to his constituents, who elect him to defend their interests, as be and they under- stand them, and not those of any private paymasters, whether seeking gain or not. Take, for instance, the case of Madagascar. A Colonial syndicate, let us say, obtains a promise of the concession of certain gold.fields in Mada- gascar, when the island is conquered, and immediately devotes £20,000 to the purchase of twenty newspapers, which, for that consideration, will advocate an expedition. The twenty papers keep up for a month incessant agita- tion, the public believes that all France is boiling with patriotic zeal, the Deputies, some of whom also may be "subsidised," catch fire, and France is incontinently burdened with an expedition which she had not desired, to which she had not consciously consented, but into which she had been tricked by journalists whom she had be- lieved to be independent. The case we have supposed is of course imaginary ; but we believe that something very like it did occur in the cases both of Mexico and Tunis, and we cannot conceive conduct which comes morally more close to positive treason. Indeed, it is treason ; and to find a decent Frenchman defending it while he speaks of treason as a crime which in France is never pardoned is to us a melancholy instance of the self- deception which grows on any profession that forgets, in its eagerness to "live." the first principles of true professional morality. Englishmen often express their surprise at the contemptuous dislike which Continental statesmen feel for "the Press" at large ; but if the "proprietor and manager" explains the situation truly, —and though there are splendid exceptions we fear he is too near the general truth as regards the lower Con- tinental Press,—their scorn is easy both to understand and justify.
Is there any possible remedy from law ? We can think of only one, and that would be both imperfect and difficult of application. At present in all countries the journalist who blackmails is punishable by law, and that very severely ; and we suppose if any journalist or news- paper proprietor who took a fee for the publication of an article, or a series of articles, were liable to the same penalties, the practice would in some degree be checked. Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to prove that a special series of advertisements, or a special order for thousands of copies to be distributed, was intended as a bribe, and failing such proof, the more rascally among the guilty would continue their "subsidised campaigns" with as much impunity as before. The real cure is the one which has established itself in England, the total extinction of any restrictions on journalism, except with respect to libel, and the consequent creation of a sense of security which allows honest men and men with capital to enter the profession. Unfortunately, even that system, though it has in the main succeeded here, has not succeeded so completely in America, and we fear we must depend, as in so many other cases, upon a slow improvement in the sensitiveness of the average conscience. It is fairly sensitive here, the immense majority of journalists being as unapproachable with offers of money as Judges or Members of Parliament. We cannot remember a proved case of the bribery of newspaper proprietors in the last thirty years, and have scarcely heard even of a case of suspicion, except as regards financial journalists, who, we are bound to add, would be suspected, however carefully they might guard their honour. We are, it is true, nearly unable to believe in the perfect disinterestedness of those newspaper proprietors who publish glowing articles in praise of the goods sold in particular shops ; but the abuse, if it is an abuse, only hurts their shop rivals, and is entitled to, or at all events receives, a certain toleration of contempt. There is a "dignity of history" which must be respected, even in tracing out deviations from the unwritten laws which in England secure " sincerity " in all the intellectual professions, and in the immense majority of cases render bribery an offence of which no one not an elector in a medium borough, is even so much as suspected.