THE FAILURE OF JOURNALISM.
NO speech of Mr. Cobden's ever elicited angrier criticism than one upon the cheap press, in which he said that the proper function of newspapers was reporting, in the broad sense of the
word, and not comment. It was declared that he wished to be his own critic, to let his views go forth to an ignorant public unspoiled by the adverse analysis of the educated. Lord Gran- ville, however, expressed very nearly the same idea at the News- paper Fund dinner, when he treated reporting as the main function
of journalism, and we fancy it is more prevalent among statesmen than the profession is usually willing to admit. Men versed in affairs are willing enough to read foreign letters or accounts of occurrences at home, because, whether accurate or otherwise, they at all events represent the popular impression as to the facts. They are very willing, too, to study essays, which are in fact the condensed speeches of politicians not in Parliament, which may be as eloquent as speeches, and are far more likely to be closely reasoned and carefully weighed. But they grow extremely impatient of the regular daily "leaders," which do not profess to add to the general stock of argument or information, but to express in a nervous form the somewhat pulpy impression which this or that class, or party, or country, has formed upon the argument or infor- mation brought before it. They do not enjoy, and frequently do not like, journalism in its capacity of cullender,—as the medium through which public opinion is strained for ultimate use. It may be worth while to examine a feeling which is widely spread even in England, which in America has affected the whole management of news- paper enterprise, and which in France has been formulated into a legal system. The French law, as it stands, if mildly worked, or worked through juries, would carry out the thought which seems to us traceable in Lord Granville's mind, allowing free reporting, admitting of any essay its author chose to sign, but forbidding the use of journals as filters for general opinion.
It is, we confess, in performing this last function, one exceedingly valuable, and indeed, unless Parliament is to sit in permanence, almost indispensable to free government, that the press in England, as elsewhere, seems to us chiefly to fail. It is not a good strainer at all, and does not tend to become a better one ; on the contrary, the meshes seem to us to grow finer and finer, till nothing coarse, or thick, or solid can gat through at all, till nothing but very fine wine will escape; milk only drips at intervals, and even rich port is stopped by the beesvring which accompanies it. Journalists have become too much of a class, a good class, well informed, highly trained, and with great aptitude for affairs, but still a class, which, like every other, has certain failures of sympathy. Every rush of opinion, unless overwhelmingly strong, has to pass through minds trained to a certain hardness of temper, highly critical, impatient of enthusiasm, still more impatient of opinions which cannot be justified on paper. The concrete mass of dull prejudice, or here- ditary opinion, or interested opinion, or ignorant opinion, has a wonderful difficulty in getting through them. Clear common sense of the incisive or vinegary kind, particularly if flavoured with a little pococuranteism, gets through easily enough, but any- thing solider sticks. There is, for example, absolutely no represen- tation of the mass of English Conservatism in the press, though that is certainly the second strongest influence in the country. It is strained through the journalistic mind till the rich, muddy, goat- producing port, so useful and even pleasant in its place among wines, comes out as the thinnest and most flavourless vinegar. The Herald, the Standard, the Times sometimes, and many other papers, try very hard to let the real thing appear, but they cannot do it. They can praise the men Con- servatism likes and abuse the men it distrusts with great heartiness, particularly in the abuse, but can no more translate Conservatism into words than they could translate the low deepen- ing growl of a Tory mob when a Radical insists on addressing them. The mass of English Conservatives no more think, as the Herald, for example, says they think, and probably believes they think, than they think as we do. They are, even outwardly, twice as stubborn, as good-humoured, and as tolerant. No journalist could write as Mr. Newdegate talks, yet Mr. Newdegate embodies one side of Conservatism in almost perfect completeness. As to the reasons for action, there is even less similarity between the party and their papers. No journalist, for example, defending the British Constitution would dare to say that King, Lords, and Commons was the natural and therefore divine arrange- ment of human society ; he would be quizzed in his club if he did, and seem a fool to his wife, but a notion of that kind, held in the mind much as iron is held in the blood, has more influence in the counties than any subtle reasoning about the necessity of building on an historic basis. Strained through the journalist, the notion becomes almost invariably a mere hatred of democracy, which is not the operative notion at all. So with theology. As a rule, the mass of religious opinion in England, with its enormous and sometimes irresistible influence, never gets through the strainer at all, and has to be sought elsewhere, till foreigners make mistakes as great as that of Pius IX., who to this day does not understand why his appointment of bishops with territorial titles annoyed the English so much when they had always borne it in Ireland. • The publicists gave him historical reasons and others, but did not reflect the true one—the dumb hereditary unreasoning fear of Papal designs, which made a "bull against a comet" seem an insult. The Guardian tries very hard to reflect the Church-and-King set of opinions, still so powerful, and very often succeeds in a marvellous way, but its editor could not and .would not use the ideas and embryo ideas which sway an immense section of his constituents, and which, for example, helped to turn out Mr. Gladstone. The Record often employs arguments which seem to outsiders wonderful in their imbecility, but even the Record could not reflect the kind of ideas powerful in some Evan- gelical coteries and expressed at tea-tables, yet with them every bishop has to reckon. So with the opinion of working men. Immerise effort is expended by very acute writers to express the governing thoughts of this class, but with very little effect, the strainer being in fact too fine to let certain powerful ideas through, such, for instance, as the " meanness " of doing more work than a comrade, and so taking bread out of his mouth, or the belief in the existence of a " natural " price for labour, or the suspicion that the educated class is banded together to cheat the poor man. Labourers' opinion nobody attempts to represent, or even to understand, the journalists' filter in this case not even receiving the ideas which are chiefly powerful,—the con- tent, for example, with which a wretched lot is regarded, as part of the order of nature, as little open to cavil as the existence of disease. The journalist thinks the cottager must fret at a bad cottage, while the landlord, knowing the datum to be false, lets the appeal based on it pass unheeded. So, above all, with Irish opinion. The idea of Fenianism, that compound of class-hatred, religious rancour, and noble aspirations, never gets through the holes, or, getting through, is attenuated into a totally different and much thinner thing. Statesmen all the while know that they have to meet these great silent opinions, and fret under a cry, say, for improvements which there is no reason against, which every journalist would approve, and which, as the politicians perfectly see, will be resisted by a dumb, dull, wrong-headed, but irresistible "No." Take education. Everybody in print upholds national education. If the matter were left to the Peers, the Commons, and the journalists, compulsory education would probably be carried before the end of the year, but Lord Granville sees clearly that his difficulty would not be argument, but an insuperable dumb anti- pathy, combined of dislike to change, fear lest society should be inverted, and the unconscious thirst of clergymen, ministers, and deacons for power over the next generation. Therefore the leaders which profess to represent the opposition to education seem to him feeble, because beside the truth, a perception he would probably embody in a platitude about "public sentiment not being ripe,"
which would drive enthusiasts half mad. There is no statesman who fails so egregiously as the man who is too much in advance of the people, and journalists are always in advance. They are city men, with their mental angles rubbed off and hereditary ideas knocked out of them, with very few prejudices except about per- sons, and an almost morbid quickness of brain, and they cannot receive heartily the impressions which sway the solider, less mutable, less gregarious mass. The idea of the club, or the city, or of the cultivated hundred thousand—that to them is opinion, and they can admit no other to pass through.
This failure, patent in domestic politics, becomes quite painful in foreign affairs. Our journalists are Englishmen, that is, belong by nature to the least sympathetic race of mankind, and their inability to receive the impression of foreign public opinion abso- lutely paralyzes their judgments. They write often admirably on foreign affairs, know facts, apply principles, give sound advice, do everything except express or understand that foreign opinion which is the one inevitable datum of action. They will point out the dangers of Austria, for instance, with admirable clearness, suggest the principles which would relieve the Empire, advise conduct which certainly if pursued would lead to peace and pros- perity. •Austria fights all the same, and they pronounce Austria silly, while Lord Clarendon, who knows that the governing motive for the hour in Vienna is to perish sooner than be " dishonoured " by a concession to military menace, thinks the English people would be better informed without journalism than with it. We remember feeling a similar emotion ourselves. It happened to the conductors of- this journal—by accident, let us say—to be as well informed on Northern opinion as statesmen usually are about domestic opinion, to see as it were that, reason or no reason, wise or unwise, the freeholders of the North had made up their minds to retain the South or to perish out of the land. So seeing, the leaders published all over England suggesting this or that reason for compromise, or chance of peace, or motive for ceasing to fight,. were a daily fret—they were so beside the point, seemed so clearly to be helping to delude, not to instruct their readers. That must happen to statesmen with special knowledge every day of the week. The reports from Italy, for example, will strike Lord Clarendon as very good. The Times' essay upon those reports will also be very good. But the Times' deduction as to what Italy will do in presence of the facts, and ought to do in the presence of the facts, will strike the Foreign Secretary as very wearisomer simply because he hears and believes what the Times also hearts and believes, but cannot reflect, that Italians will to take- Venice if they are all hanged in consequence. Those articles, sts far as they essay to reflect Italian opinion, will seem to him deluding, and to a great extent doubtless will be deluding. The journalist is sensible, in the English view of sense, but the Italian is for the moment not sensible, but enthusiastic, and the one can no more reflect the other than a sane man can reflect a mad man, or, to use a better illustration, than an indifferentist can reflect a religious one. That notion that because he is cool and shrewd, therefore foreigners will do and are doing what cool and shrewd men would do, is the standing delusion of the journalistic class. If a French revolution broke out to-morrow the journals would be no guides, simply because the journalists could not reflect the emotions of a nation in temporary delirium, and in all cases the will of the foreign mind fails to reach Englishmen unadulterated.