DURING the second general meeting in May last year, in London, the International Press -Institute set aside one of its morning sessions for the discussion of that important and intriguing problem "The State of the Press."
The 1.13.1, was established in 1951 as—to quote its own leaflet —"the first international organisation in the field of journalism to concern itself exclusively with editorial problems." Its members are drawn from countries "where the Press is free"; its headquarters is in Zurich, which should be an advantage in impartial investigations into journalistic problems as Switzerland must be regarded as one of the greatest centres for serious journalism; and it is endowed by American grants which enable it to conduct studies on all questions related to the responsible task that is journalism.
All these facts make the I.P.1. perhaps the most suitable journalistic institution to apply itself to the study of the question of the state of the Press, and in particular to determine whether we are witnessing an increase in its importance and prestige or a decline.
THE I.P.I. has recently published an interesting survey about the "flow of the news." Done conscientiously, though slightly overloaded with statistics, it is often guilty of comparing things which cannot be easily cornpared; there seems to be little point in comparing countries blessed with enormous resources, like the U.S., with countries with limited facilities for maintaining a foreign service, like Austria with her Press still struggling to get on its feet. Again, in some countries, interest in foreign affairs—which is the main theme of the LP.i. survey —is rather modest, while in more "politically minded" countries there is more readiness to read news from abroad.
But in spite of those short
comings, the survey gives a useful insight into the problem of the "flow of the news," and it shows that interest in foreign problems is comparatively small in the majority of countries — a fact which is by no means reassuring, since without a public well informed about foreign affairs no sound basis can be built for an enlightened world opinion.
IT seems to me that the I.P.I. should conduct another survey about the vaster prob
lem, the state of the Press today, the problem only slightly skimmed during the London session.
We then heard four eminent writers, Dr. Henry Steele Cornmager, Professor of History at Columbia University, in New York, Bertrand de Jouvenel, whose books and articles are widely known both here and on the Continent, Sir Harold Nicolson, one of the best contemporary writers in this country, and Dr. W. Roepke, Professor of Economics in the Institute of International Studies at Geneva.
The time allotted to the speakers was too short for them to make any exhaustive contributions, and the discussion which followed proved much too sketchy and restricted in time to throw any light on the "State of the Press." That is why the 1.P.I. should devote one of its future sessions to that paramount problem and direct some of its research studies towards the question: Is the Press today in decline and, if so, what are the causes?
ONE of the speakers in the debate that followed rightly called attention to the remark Bertrand de Jouvenel quoted in his short address. He said that that eminent French historian, Halevy, whose monumental work on English social history remains one of the finest studies in that sphere, said that until 1914 the British Press constituted a reliable source of information about the social, political and economic situation in this country; but since 1914 that has not been the case.
Haldvy's remark about the Press of this country could be easily enlarged to embrace the Press of many other countries; • and that leads us to the real causes of the decline in the prestige and truthfulness, as well as seriousness, of the Press throughout the world. I think this fact cannot be glossed over, and the quicker it is recognised, the better. Higher and higher circulations are no reliable guide to the importance of the Press; some people would even be inclined to think that the reverse is the case.,
IT seems that there are two main causes for the appalling decline of the European Press : two World Wars and the curse of totalitarian regimes. The idea of propaganda was .born during the first war and reached maturity during the second. Propaganda and the art of manipulating truth and facts proved a deadly food for the Press. It debased its standards; it affected its truthfulness; it undermined its morals.
From this fatal illness the European Press has not yet recovered; and even in countries not subjected at any time to totalitarian rule— like this country—one could have witnessed on at least two occasions, dictated by political expediency, disturbing signs of manipulation of truth or the silent declaration of an embargo on certain kinds of news.
The first policy was applied by some sections of the British Press before the war to Hitler's Germany, and during and after the war by a much larger section to the Soviet Union and many aspects of Russian life.
TOTALITARIAN rules have spelled death to a free and alert Press. ThF best proof is afforded by Germany, where, before the advent of Hitler, great papers Iike the Frankfurter Zeirung, Koelnische Zeitung, Hamburger Fremdenblatt, Berliner Tageblatt, to name only a few, were representative of journalism at its best.
This decline was probably less drastically marked in Italy, where the Press was not so widely read and did not attain as high a level as in Germany with the exception of, perhaps, Corriere della Sera and Stampa.
In Russia, once great papers, like Novove Vretnya, and others, were ruined, and the conformist and dull Pravda and Izviestia began to sweep the country.
In addition, once-famous Austrian papers like the New Freie Presse have largely lost their vigour through the shrinkage of the old Empire.
IT is significant that Scandinavian countries and Switzerland have largely escaped this lugubrious process, and today the Press of Sweden, Denmark and, especially, Switzerland, can look with just pride on its flourishing condition. The pleasure of staying in Switzerland is for me always slightly spoiled by the nostalgic realisation that here is Europe as it existed before 1914, with its liberalism, its free exchange of currency, and its reliable Press.
Swiss papers shun sensationalism: they are still motivated by the old precept that a paper should instruct and that serious matters should be discussed seriously. World problems are reviewed impartially; propaganda has not left its ugly traces. The great papers of Basle, Lausanne, Geneva, Zurich are a real treat for people coming from other countries of Europe previously affected either by totalitarian rule or by war. The fact that Switzerland has escaped the two calamities of war is largely responsible for the high standard of her papers.
THESE factors do not, of course, exhaust the list of causes which have contributed to the sorry decline of the Press. For even in countries spared the devastion of war and the dictatorial rule, drastic changes have been taking place.
The new public in some countries—Great Britain included—has demonstrated an increasing taste for sensationalism. The majority of papers decided to pamper to that taste of the new public; playing up to the gallery of the potential millions of readers. This competition for the favours of the new public resulted in a serious deterioration of the standard of many papers and in the disappearance of serious papers reluctant to follow the new lead.
The type of the "tabloid" paper, invented in the U.S. and splashing sex and murder as the best "hot news" demanded by the masses, invaded Europe and got a firm position also in this country.
AS Sir William Haley, the former Director-General of the B.B.C. and now Editor of The Times, recently remarked in the course of a remarkable address in Manchester, the whole concept and role of the Press has been transformed in recent years.
In the past, papers had an ambition to give the lead, to shape public opinion, to educate their readers: now they want to amuse them, to distract their attention from the serious problems of the day, to proceed in the wake of their interests and taste, The Press is on the way to abdicating its great mission for the price of popularity; and sensationalism is flooding the pages of papers bent on increasing their circulation to some new and hitherto unattained figures.
THIS race after the favours
of the new readers, alarmingly evident in the Press of this country, is likely to produce a public very poorly informed about the really important problems of the modern world. During the war, one of the shrewdest political writers in this country, Mr. F. A. Voigt, wrote about the dangers of the "new obscurantism"—corning from the half-educated masses, fed on a sensational Press, thrillers and Cheap "scientific" literature. This danger seems to be a very real one : and the Press ready to abdicate its educational role and to play up to the gallery of the millions of half-educated citizens appears to he greatly contributing to this process.
We regret that in Count Adam Romer's review last week of George Iranek ()smears The Unseen and Silent (Sheed and Ward), the price was wrongly stated as 15s. It should have been 21s.