THE end of the article which I write is always cut off, and, unfortunately, I belong to that lower class of animals in whom the tail is important. It is not anybody's fault but my own; it arises from the fact that I take such a long time to get to the point. Somebody, the other day, very reasonably complained of my being employed to write prefaces. He was perfectly right, for I always write a preface to the preface, and then I am stopped; also quite justifiably.
In my last article I said that I favoured three things—first, the legal punishment of deliberately false information; secondly, a distinction, in the matter of reported immorality, between those sins which any healthy man can see in himself and those which he had better not see anywhere; and thirdly, an absolute insistence in the great majority of cases upon the signing of articles. It was at this point that I was cut short, I will not say by the law of space, but rather by my own lawlessness in the matter of space. In any case, there is something more that ought to be said.
It would be an exaggeration to say that I hope some day to see an anonymous article counted as dishonourable as an anonymous letter. For some time to come, the idea of the leading article, expressing the policy of the whole paper, must necessarily remain legitimate; at any rate, we have all written such leading articles, and should never think the worse of any one for writing one. But I should certainly say that writing anonymously ought to have some definite excuse, such as that of the leading article. Writing anonymously ought to be the exception; writing a signed article ought to be the rule. And anonymity ought to be not only an exception, but an accidental exception; a man ought always to be ready to say what anonymous article he had written. The journalistic habit of counting it something sacred to keep secret the origin of an article is simply part of the conspiracy which seeks to put us who are journalists in the position of a much worse sort of Jesuits or Freemasons.
As has often been said, anonymity would be all very well if one could for a moment imagine that it was established from good motives. Suppose, for instance, that we were all quite certain that the men on the Thunderer newspaper were a band of brave young idealists who were so eager to overthrow Socialism, Municipal and National, that they did not care to which of them especially was given the glory of striking it down. Unfortunately, however, we do not believe this. What we believe, or, rather, what we know, is that the attack on Socialism in the Thunderer arises from a chaos of inconsistent and mostly evil motives, any one of which would lose simply by being named. A jerry-builder whose houses have been condemned writes anonymously and becomes the Thunderer. A Socialist who has quarrelled with the other Socialists writes anonymously, and he becomes the Thunderer. A monopolist who has lost his monopoly, and a demagogue who has lost his mob, can both write anonymously and become the same newspaper. It is quite true that there is a young and beautiful fanaticism in which men do not care to reveal their names. But there is a more elderly and a much more common excitement in which men do not dare to reveal them.
Then there is another rule for making journalism honest on which I should like to insist absolutely. I should like it to be a fixed thing that the name of the proprietor as well as the editor should be printed upon every paper. If the paper is owned by shareholders, let there be a list of shareholders. If (as is far more common in this singularly undemocratic age) it is owned by one man, let that one man's name be printed on the paper, if possible in large red letters. Then, if there are any obvious interests being served, we shall know that they are being served. My friends in Manchester are in a terrible state of excitement about the power of brewers and the dangers of admitting them to public office. But at least, if a man has controlled politics through beer, people generally know it: the subject of beer is too fascinating for any one to miss such personal peculiarities. But a man may control politics through journalism, and no ordinary English citizen know that he is controlling them at all. Again and again in the lists of Birthday Honours you and I have seen some Mr. Robinson suddenly elevated to the Peerage without any apparent reason. Even the Society papers (which we read with avidity) could tell us nothing about him except that he was a sportsman or a kind landlord, or interested in the breeding of badgers. Now I should like the name of that Mr. Robinson to be already familiar to the British public. I should like them to know already the public services for which they have to thank him. I should like them to have seen the name already on the outside of that organ of public opinion called Tootsie's Tips, or The Boy Blackmailer, or Nosey Knows, that bright little financial paper which did so much for the Empire and which so narrowly escaped a criminal prosecution. If they had seen it thus, they would estimate more truly and tenderly the full value of the statement in the Society paper that he is a true gentleman and a sound Churchman.
Finally, it should be practically imposed by custom (it so happens that it could not possibly be imposed by law) that letters of definite and practical complaint should be necessarily inserted by any editor in any paper. Editors have grown very much too lax in this respect. The old editor used dimly to regard himself as an unofficial public servant for the transmitting of public news. If he suppressed anything, he was supposed to have some special reason for doing so; as that the material was actually libellous or literally indecent. But the modern editor regards himself far too much as a kind of original artist, who can select and suppress facts with the arbitrary ease of a poet or a caricaturist. He “makes up” the paper as man “makes up” a fairy tale, he considers his newspaper solely as a work of art, meant to give pleasure, not to give news. He puts in this one letter because he thinks it clever. He puts in these three or four letters because he thinks them silly. He suppresses this article because he thinks it wrong. He suppresses this other and more dangerous article because he thinks it right. The old idea that he is simply a mode of the expression of the public, an “organ” of opinion, seems to have entirely vanished from his mind. To-day the editor is not only the organ, but the man who plays on the organ. For in all our modern movements we move away from Democracy.
This is the whole danger of our time. There is a difference between the oppression which has been too common in the past and the oppression which seems only too probable in the future. Oppression in the past has commonly been an individual matter. The oppressors were as simple as the oppressed, and as lonely. The aristocrat sometimes hated his inferiors; he always hated his equals. The plutocrat was an individualist. But in our time even the plutocrat has become a Socialist. They have science and combination, and may easily inaugurate a much greater tyranny than the world has ever seen.
G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered, 1908