Public Opinion and Newspapers
Newspapers are one of the vital organs of the modern world. Literally, a ‘newspaper’ means a paper which furnishes us with news or makes a record of contemporary events from day to day, and this was what the first newspapers undertook or attempted to do. Now, however, they go much farther. Besides making a chronicle of daily events, they offer advice on public questions, criticize the administrative measures of Government or any other public body, accord praise or blame for acts which they approve or disapprove, and so on. They are thus organs of public opinion on all kinds of questions—social, administrative, moral, literary, legal, industrial, and commercial. There is hardly a question affecting society which does not fall within the province of a newspaper’s comments.
A newspaper is properly the organ of public opinion, but to serve this function well it is necessary that the press should be free, subject to no censorship and at liberty to express what opinions it likes without reserve. It is also necessary that the press should be strictly honest, not susceptible to bribery on the part of those who wish it to ventilate their prejudiced opinions. The press must also be absolutely impartial and un-biased, so as to keep itself above all individual interests, and so as to prevent its columns from becoming the battle-ground of private enemies fighting for some selfish purpose. Press morality does not, however, prevent a newspaper from becoming the champion or the mouthpiece of a particular party. Indeed, it is considered the right thing for a newspaper to attach itself to some one party and to advocate and uphold its interests in the general clashing of interest which is inevitable in a nation divided into numerous sects and parties.
But there is nothing easier than for a newspaper to abuse its position. The editor may take a bribe and advocate a bad cause or lend his support to public proceedings of a question-able nature; or he may, through some other corrupt influence, try to extenuate or defend some flagrant private or public wrong. A newspaper may further abuse its privileges by throwing open its columns to libelous attacks or private slanders published from motives of private malice or jealousy. A newspaper forfeits its good name when it publishes news that it knows to be false or not sufficiently authentic, or when it gives disgusting details of a shocking crime or a scandalous incident merely to pander to the low taste of the low classes; or even when it knowingly inserts fraudulent advertisements intended to rob the public.
There are, however, sufficient checks in existence to counteract these tendencies. Since newspapers serve as the organs of a party, and since the interests of different parties conflict and clash, it follows that just as partisans are in the habit of picking holes in each other’s proceedings, so do newspapers keep a constant watch over one another’s policies. In this way one acts as a sort of spy upon the other, and loses no time in exposing anything wrong that it might happen to detect in the comments of the other. This it does, not only in the interests of the party whose cause it is supposed to advocate, not only for the sake of its own reputation, but also because of the, keen competition that exists in the journalistic world. For newspapers are after all run on commercial lines, and so far as they are commercial concerns they are subject to the commercial law of competition.
The true value of a newspaper consists not in the news that it publishes, but in the comments that it makes on questions of public interest. The same question, if it is sufficiently important, is commented upon by a number of newspapers, simultaneously or successively; and the reading public, after judging, between conflicting views or contradictory statements, is enabled to draw their own conclusions from the controversy. In this way newspapers serve to form a healthy public opinion. It is as a popular educator that the press fulfills its most important function. This educative value of newspapers is felt in every department of human life. In the field of intellectual culture, the business of the press is to discuss problems of education, to criticize new works published from time to time, and thus to set a high standard both for education and for authorship. Supposing any subject of high educational value is omitted in the curricula of studies laid down for schools and colleges, it is the duty of the daily press to bring this to the notice of the authorities. Supposing any book written by an author does not come up to the standard required for works of that nature, the press will at once come down upon it and restore the standard to its normal level. It is from the fear of press criticism that inferior authors are deterred from bringing out their inferior works; for had it not been for this physical check, the moral check of modesty would scarcely have proved strong enough to prevent the world from being deluged by a flood of printed trash.
In the sphere of society, the influence of newspapers is still greater. The strongest advocate of social reform in India is neither the platform speaker, nor the pamphleteer, but the public press. The orator speaks only for an hour to a small audience : the newspaper speaks to the whole country, in a more permanent manner, and gives them time to think and reflect and carry out their resolves. The orator’s charms of ‘eloquence are comparatively short-lived; the newspaper’s pleadings, though not so eloquent, are more permanent and therefore more effective; and they also appeal to a much wider audience. Then again the orator is nothing without the press reporter and the daily paper. His commanding personality is, by these two agencies, made to be felt over a greater circle than the attentive group he actually addresses. It is in these ways that newspapers are a potent agency for working out social reforms. Already the Indian press has rendered a great service to the cause of social reform in the directions of widow marriage and female education, and there are hundreds of other questions on which newspapers are still crying themselves hoarse almost every day and every week.
In the domain of morals, the influence of newspapers is no less strong than in the spheres of intellect and society. For they inculcate some of the highest moral qualities that human nature can show, as for example, love of truth, freedom from prejudice, regard for the common good, patriotism, etc. Newspapers make us feel that we are not an isolated body, but an integral part of the state; that the petty affairs of our home or our village or our district are nothing compared with the larger concerns that affect our country as a whole or that affect the whole human race.
Newspapers thus foster a feeling of brotherhood within the nation. They bind together the different sections of a nation in sympathy with great causes and noble ideals. All great discoveries and inventions, as soon as they are made, are announced in the press and thus become known to millions. The purity of justice is maintained by the reports of cases decided in the courts of law. No act of high-handed tyranny, no miscarriage of justice, no neglect of public duty can long remain undetected by the press. All questions of public interest are one by one brought to the bar of public opinion. It is in these indirect ways that newspapers create and develop a feeling of kinship, a bond of common interest among the various sections of a nation.
But newspapers really go further than that. They also bind together different nations by ties of common interest and common ideals. They thus serve to found international friendships. If the press of one country is sympathetic towards the people of another, the result is that a political friendship is at once formed between the two; whereas if the press happens to be hostile, such friendships, however old they may be, are quickly dissolved; mutual springs up, and ultimately the two nations come into conflict with each other. It is true that as a form of literature, a newspaper lacks the quality of permanence; but the ideas stimulated in the minds of men by newspaper articles produce an effect that is sometimes quite as permanent’ as the “thoughts that wander through eternity” contained in the pages of an immortal classic. If the idea of the universal brotherhood of man is at any time to be actually realized in human life, as poets and sages have hoped and said, this result can only be achieved by the influence of newspapers.