On Newspaper Proprietors

THE weekly organ called the Nation might very well be called the Notion. For it really excels, apart from all the irony, in the suggestion of that sort of half-truth to which the word 'notion’ can be correctly applied. Its present name, I need hardly say, is simply a joke in large letters. It is, quite simply and seriously, as if the Church Times were actually called the Baptist, or as if the Morning Post were actually called the Fenian; as if the chief vegetarian organ took the title of the Butcher, or the chief teetotal organ were called the Bacchanal. There is no doubt about it, and certainly no disguise about it. The editor keeps the word ‘nation’ as a title; but he is almost invariably uses the word ‘national’ as a term of abuse. Nor does he narrowly confine his hatred to his own nationality; with a broader sense of the human brotherhood, he bestows it upon all nationalities, and sometimes rather specially upon certain small nationalities. I doubt whether he could claim to have sneered more persistently at English patriotism than at Polish patriotism. He is truly international; and does not limit his native and sincere loathing to the narrow boundaries of his own land.

But, as I have said, though the Nation has nothing to do with nations, it has a great deal to do with notions; and they are very interesting and valuable notions. I mean by a notion an incomplete idea; and half an idea is better than no intelligence. Mr. Massingham, the editor in question, is a man of great intelligence; and has distinguished himself very often by going further along the path of truth than any of his comrades or rivals, even if he never quite got there. He told too much of the truth about Marconi; and is the only Liberal journalist alive who is now kicking himself for having so successfully whitewashed Mr. George. He has the courage to mention the Secret Party Funds, in the days when nobody else mentioned them except ourselves. And he has recently made a somewhat similar movement in the same direction, in the particular passage with which I am concerned just now. In this case also the Nation got hold of half the truth; even half the truth is important, and this is a very important half. But in this case also what might have been an idea tailed off into a mere notion, which is ultimately fanciful and even false. A recent article, in the paper under discussion, actually recognized that the press is now the private property of an extremely small number of extremely rich men. That is, a newspaper is now about as much a popular organ as a coronet is a popular organ, or a ribbon of the Garter is a popular organ. The writer realizes that controlling journalism is now as narrow as the very narrowest aristocracy; and he proceeds to compare it with other and older forms of aristocracy. It is when he comes to this comparison that he rather abruptly misses the point. He says, truly enough, that there is a certain type of rich man who now tends to own newspapers, and, therefore, to order news. He says that this type resembles the type of the old brutal robber barons. This, it will be agreed, is a rather hard thing to say about the brutal robber barons. Nor do I believe that it would sound convincing to repeat the ballad of Chevy Chase with the names of Harmsworth and Hulton substituted for those of Douglas and Percy. The barons had some superiorities; including the fact that they were willing to be killed sooner. The primary peculiarity of the man who comes to the top, in our own plutocratic time, is that he need not necessarily have passed through any discipline, even a militarist discipline, and need not have any virtue, even a barbaric virtue. Anyhow, the experiment of putting two of our newspaper noblemen on horses in heavy armor, and throwing them at each other like thunderbolts in a tilting yard, is an experiment that has yet to be tried. It is possible that they would enjoy it; it is at least very probable that we should.

But the writer in the Nation not only compares the press monopolists to robber barons, but adds a phrase which interests me even more. He says that the type in question by its nature sees no further than national boundaries. It is by no means altogether true even of the mediaeval lords; and it seems to me singularly untrue of the modern lords. Touching the practical and personal test once more, there is one question that must occur to most people in most cases. If the great plutocrats have grown up only in a narrow patriotism, what is their patriotism, and for what are they patriotic? The Harmsworths, for instance, are of Irish origin, I believe; and if they are Nationalists, they must be Irish Nationalists.  If they are fanatics, we must look for them among the Fenians or Sinn Feiners; though it has hitherto been rather for a family than a nation that they have borne the motto of ‘Ourselves Alone.’ Anyhow, we should expect them to be concentrated on the cause of the Green Island; whereas, in truth, it has rather been Great Britain that has proved an exceedingly green island for their own pasturage. Lord Northcliffe has not concentrated on a national idea or any idea; he has concerned himself with a series of schemes and scoops as fleeting as music-hall songs. The banjo that was once in Tararaboomdeay’s halls the soul of music shed, now hangs silent if not exactly amid silence; and from the offices in Carmelite Street it is really a long way to Tipperary. Lord Beaverbrooke is not very likely to be a narrow Nationalist; but if he is, I suppose he is a Canadian Nationalist, among whom there are many very interesting and enthusiastic people. Indeed, his choice of a title carries picturesque localism to quite a peculiar length; it somehow suggests not so much an American as an American Indian. The beaver seems more fitted for a totem than a crest. Nevertheless, the reader may be surprised to hear, I cannot believe that he is singly sworn to champion the Canadian nation against all the nations of the earth; any more than I believe that he wields a tomahawk for the Ojibways against all the tribes of America; that he would die for the Dakotas, or knows no loves outside the wigwams of the Blackfeet. There are many other cases that could be followed out if space permitted. There are newspaper proprietors who, if they are Nationalists, must be Zionists; and I am sure I hope they are. But I do not believe it of the general types treated above; and I do not believe it because the Nation’s notion of these men, who rule modern journalism, happens to be, from first to last, a hopelessly wrong notion.

The modern newspaper proprietor is much more progressive than the Nation supposes; in fact he is a product of the progress that the Nation supports.  He is generally an uneducated man; but for all that he is an outcome of modern education. Most outcomes of modern education are uneducated men. Our education is uneducation; its whole tendency is to unteach people the traditions of their fathers. And it is this negative character, in the second-hand and second-rate culture of uneducated people in our time, that is more determining than any positive thing, especially so positive a thing a patriotism. The truth is that the mind of a man of this sort has been swept clear of all positive convictions by the skepticism at the end of the nineteenth century. It is true that such a skeptic gets his skepticism from authority; only it is, first, the wrong authority and, second, an authority he has not really consulted. He does not arrive at his free thought by thinking or even by reading, but by rumor. He has not read Darwin; but he has a vague idea that Darwin has shown that men are monkeys who have left their tails behind them. Therefore, you will invariably find that he flings wide his hundred newspapers to receive anything about eugenics or evolution, or the suggestion that men can be bred like beasts. He has not read Ibsen; but he has a vague idea that Ibsen has shown that every house is a doll’s house, and that can be taken to pieces. Therefore, the press plutocrat will always placard the world with the need for divorce, and with every interference with domesticity; especially with those small houses which look most like dolls’ houses and might easily become unglued. Chatsworth or Stafford House were toys rather too big to be broken. He has not read Tolstoi, the prophet of Mr. Massingham’s religion; but he has a vague idea that Tolstoi has shown that the cross-hilted sword is a contradiction in terms; that there is some incompatibility between the cross and the crusade. Therefore, concluding that chivalry is as irrational as Christianity, he decides that war must be unchivalrous. Seeing only a compromise and a contradiction in the straight sword of the crusader, he prefers to conquer with the crooked sword of the Sultan. That notion, and not any national sentiment whatever, is responsible for anything called imperial or piratical in his foreign policy. He is a Jingo, but he is not a patriot; least of all an extreme or an extravagant patriot. For patriotism must at least be a love, even if it as wild a lust. There is nothing so positive as a love or lust in the stale and yawning cynicism of the yellow press. It is wholly negative and even nihilist; what is left in a dull mind after the destructive criticisms of the nineteenth century. Like the men who made a solitude and called it peace, they make an emptiness and call it enlightenment. It has already been noted that an open mind often means an empty mind; and Mr. Massingham will find that the millionaire newspaper proprietors have very open minds. The rich man who rules the world to-day looks like a man with an open mind; that is, he looks very like a man with an open mouth. Some would say he looks like a silly fellow; I am content to say that he does not look at all like a passionate and fanatical patriot. The diagnosis is incorrect; and the error of the newspaper trusts is not identical with the error which destroyed the Zealots in the fall of Jerusalem, or the Sinn Feiners of that awful Easter that was red rather than white.

~G.K. Chesterton

Originally published in The New Witness (Nationalist and Chestertonian Weekly). Republished in The Living Age; Vol. 300, March 1, 1919; pp. 546-548.

Resource pages for names mentioned in this article:
• Marconi
• Mr. George 
• Mr. Massingham

G.K. Chesterton