Pressmanship and Statesmanship

THE TIMES — Leader — February 6, 1852

The Earl of Derby remarked with considerable emphasis in his speech on the Address, that as in these days the English press aspires to share the influence of statesmen, so also it must share in the responsibilities of statesmen.  If the first of these propositions be established, the second follows as matter of course ; and we, of all men, are the least disposed to lower the proper functions or to deny the responsibilities of the power we may derive from the confidence of the public.  But, be that power more or less, we cannot admit that its main purpose is to share the labours of statesmanship, or that it is bound by the same limitations, the same duties, the same liabilities as that of the Ministers of the Crown.  The purposes and the duties of the two powers are constantly separate, generally independent, sometimes diametrically opposite.  The dignity and the freedom of the press are trammelled from the moment it accepts an ancillary position. To perform its duties with entire independence, and consequently with the utmost public advantage, the press can enter into no close or binding alliances with the statesmen of the day nor can it surrender its permanent interests to the convenience of the ephemeral power of any Government.

The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation. The statesman collects his information secretly and by secret means; he keeps back even the current intelligence of the day with ludicrous precautions, until diplomacy is beaten in the race with publicity.  The press lives by disclosures; whatever passes into its keeping becomes a part of the knowledge and the history of our times; it is daily and for ever appealing to the enlightened force of public opinion — anticipating, if possible, the march of events —standing upon the breach between the present and the future, and extending its survey to the horizon of the world.  The statesman's duty is precisely the reverse. He cautiously guards from the public eye the information by which his actions and opinions are regulated; he reserves his judgment on passing events till the latest moment, and then he records it in obscure or conventional language: he strictly confines himself, if he be wise, to the practical interests of his own country, or to those bearing immediately upon it; he hazards no rash surmises as to the future; and he concentrates in his own transactions all that power which the press seeks to diffuse over the world. The duty of the one is to speak; of the other to be silent.  The one expends itself in discussion; the other tends to action.  The one deals mainly with rights and interests; the other with opinions and sentiments.  The former is necessarily reserved; the latter essentially free.

It follows, therefore, from this contrast, that the responsibilities of the two powers are as much at variance as their duties.  For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are.  We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences — to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgment of the world.  Statesmen, it is said, have duties of a nicer order; they are bound to repress the throb of indignation which will rise at the sight of evils and oppressions they cannot avenge; they are prone to pursue particular objects rather than to pledge themselves to general principles; they are forbidden to risk for an instant the important interests confided to their care; and, though the support of public opinion is essential to their success, it is only by rare and occasional efforts that they can attempt to guide it.

If the public writer shares in any degree the influence of the statesman, he shares at least few of those personal objects which constitute so large a part of ordinary statesmanship. He is not toiling or sacrificing the best years of his life and the best faculties of his nature in the pursuit of personal aggrandizement, for none can either reward or corrupt the obscure course of his labours.  Even the triumph of his opinions is not accompanied by the applause of a party or the success of a struggle for patronage and power.  Those opinions which he has defended, and, so to speak, created, slip from him in the moment of their triumph, and take their stand among established truths. The responsibility he really shares is more nearly akin to that of the economist or the lawyer, whose province is not to frame a system of convenient application to the exigencies of the day, but to investigate truth and to apply it on fixed principles to the affairs of the world.

The responsibility we acknowledge has therefore little in common with that of statesmen, for it is estimated by a totally different standard of rectitude and duty. Of all professions, statesmanship is that in which the greatest laxity of practice is tolerated by the usages of society. Concealment, evasion, factious combinations, the surrender of convictions to party objects, and the systematic pursuit of expediency, are things of daily occurrence among men of the highest character once embarked in the contention of political life. [...] But they are absolutely destructive to the credit, the power, and the success of a public writer; and he who would traffic with his pen on such terms had better take refuge at once among those mercenary hacks who court the favours of every successive Government.  Of all journals, and of all writers, those will obtain the largest measure of public support who have told the truth most constantly and most fearlessly.

Again, the eyes of a Minister are rivetted upon the interests of his own country, and his duties can scarcely be said to extend beyond it.  The press owes its first duty to the national interests which it represents, but nothing is indifferent to it which affects the cause of civilization throughout the world. The press of England, standing, as it now does, alone in the enjoyment of entire freedom, would grievously neglect its exalted privileges if it failed to recollect how much is due to the common interests of Europe.  It may suit the purposes of statesmen to veil the statue of Liberty, and to mutter some formulary of disingenuous acquiescence in foreign wrongs, dictated by their fears rather than by their convictions; but we prefer to await for our justification the day when the entombed and oppressed liberties of Europe shall once more start into life and array themselves under the standard to which we cling. [...] It is the unquestionable duty of Ministers to watch over the maintenance of our pacific relations with other States, and to disclaim all that might be erroneously construed into hostile intentions on our part, while they provide efficiently for the independence and security of Britain against all contingencies.  But it seems to us the first duty of public writers is to take care that the people of England are not lulled into indifference to the destruction of liberty and the violation of political rights in such a country as France  , since that liberty and those rights were the chief pledges of our pacific relations and our common interests. [...]