From all parts of the world the daily Press has been for some time clamouring about threats to its freedom; our own newspapers have taken their full share of the clamour, so it is opportune to examine critically just how free it is.
There are very definite standards to which a Press calling itself free should conform: Its news service should be unaffected by any political or racial bias; its correspondence columns should be open equally to all sides of any serious political or social discussion; they should also be open to reasoned criticism of any opinion expressed by the paper itself, and such criticism should have the same prominence as the original opinion. When any important news reported is later proved, or stated on reasonable authority, to have been incorrect, the correction should be as prominent as the original report.
These criteria are not mere foibles. The public importance of an unbiassed Press can hardly be exaggerated in a modern democracy, since in the democratic State policy should be shaped largely by the force of public opinion, which, in its turn, is shaped by what the public believes to be happening. Obviously, if its Press continually feeds it misstatements or untruths, the opinions it forms must be worse than useless; they must be dangerous, since they will be formed on a false view of events, and no policy based on an untruth can be anything but disastrous.
One example should be enough to illustrate this: before the last war practically all the world Press lied about developments in Russia, and particularly about the strength of her industry and of her armed forces. As a result the great mass of the public formed a quite incorrect idea of the value of Russia as an ally against the menace of Germany, which made it easy for the Chamberlain Government to follow its disastrous policy of appeasement during the Austrian and Czechoslovakian crises. If the people had been told the truth by their Press, public opinion might have been strong enough to prevent the tragedies that followed. The public could hardly form a just estimate of Russian power when it was constantly fed with statements like that of the Sydney Bulletin of 7.12.1938: ‘Moscow and its panegyrists…perpetrated acres of mush about the Might of the Soviet War Machine. Their bluff was called in September. The impression left in impartial quarters was that the Russian Army would be hard put to it to beat the Salvation Army.’ Of course, not much of the world’s Press could equal such crude vulgarity, but the import was the same, and without question the responsibility for the unspeakable horrors of the last war falls largely on its political bias.
The present attitude of our Press to overseas news is well illustrated by the way in which it handled the crisis of the Hungarian Parliament in June, 1947. The headlines spoke constantly of a ‘Communist Coup,’ with sub-headings to the effect that Smallholder Premier Nagy was forced to resign by the Russians and the Hungarian Communists. The only reasonable interpretation would be that the Communists had violently seized power, and that was the suggestion of most of the Press. Then, on June 7, the Sydney Morning Herald, in heavy type, across two columns, says, ‘Hungarian Premier’s Son as Hostage in Communist Coup,’ followed by the statement that ‘Communists who carried out a coup in Hungary this week forced the Premier, Mr. Ferenc Nagy, to resign by threatening to kill his four-year-old son, according to Mr. Nagy’s eldest son…’ There was only one possible way to take the Herald headline, that is, as a statement of fact. But if we read further on into the smaller print we find that it was simply the reported ex-parte statement of a witness who was very likely to be biassed; and if we read further still we see that the eldest son was at the time in Washington, many thousands of miles away. Two days later the Herald, having already stated that Mr. Nagy had been forced to resign by Russians and Communists, says that he himself stated that he was asked to resign by M. Balogh, Secretary to the Smallholders Party, ‘in view of feeling in the Cabinet and the Smallholders Party.’
During the period of the ‘crisis’ the Press consistently denied the report that there had been a threat to the safety of the Hungarian Republic from the Right, saying that it was only a Communist fabrication to excuse their coup, and conveniently forgetting what had been reported in their own columns just three months before. The Sunday Telegraph of March 9 had said: ‘…Thousands of reactionaries, former Horthyites, and even straight out Nazis, joined the Small Landholders because it was the only non-Marxist, national political organisation of any significance. Their plan was to infiltrate the party, to occupy key positions, and eventually grab the reins of government. Repeatedly the party had to purge members; although a genuine democratic political organisation, the scandalous political past of some of its members did it a lot of harm. To make matters worse, two Horthyite conspiracies were detected within three months. Former Army officers, members of the diplomatic staff of the Foreign Ministry, and others were involved…’
If, then, one takes the trouble to read carefully through all the small print, it becomes evident that what really happened was that Mr. Nagy was asked to resign by his own party and was replaced by another member of the Smallholders; that there had been a Right-wing plot to seize power; that the balance of power in the Parliament was not affected, and that ordinary Parliamentary government continued. For the Herald reported, in a not very prominent place, on June 27: ‘There was another violent scene in the Hungarian Parliament yesterday, but it ended in the rejection of a motion by the Communists and Socialists. They sought to have a non-party member of the House…brought before the Privileges Committee, because, in a speech in Parliament, he had called a former Socialist Deputy a traitor.’ A party that had just seized power would not tamely submit to a democratic vote.
This brief examination of the Press handling of the Hungarian crisis shows one of the methods used for distortion – the view to be impressed on the minds of the public is given in heavy headlines; anything that conflicts with that view is put well down the column in small print; previous news that may negative the effect aimed at is ignored. The efficiency of this method depends on the well-known fact that most readers of a paper merely glance at the headlines, and do not remember news more than a few days old, unless the subject is of special interest to them; and unfortunately it is doubtful if any but a small percentage of readers is well enough educated to study foreign and political news with a critical eye.
Another example of biassed reporting was given in the account of the Petkov trial. Most papers said that he had fought in the Resistance, that he was tried for being leader of the political Opposition; that he was tried before a ‘special court’, and that he belonged to the Agrarian Party. Now there is very strong evidence that he never fought with the Resistance; that he was tried for ‘directing and inspiring sabotage and military conspiracy’; that he was tried before the Sofia District Court, in public, defended by five prominent barristers, none of whom complained of unfairness, and that the Supreme Court of Cassation confirmed the procedure and the sentence; and that he was not the leader of the Agrarian Party, but of an extreme Right-wing break-away group.
There is a fun examination of the case in the New Statesman of 18.10.‘47. An unbiassed Press would have given its readers the opportunity of hearing both sides of the Petkov affair. The technique of the conspicuous headline and the obscure contradiction was well illustrated early this year when the American press was in hysterics about the Russian submarine scare.
The Sydney Morning Herald used 72-point headlines on the front page in their announcement that Russian submarines were reported to have been seen off the American coast; the whole handling of the story was calculated to increase distrust and fear of the Soviet Union, far beyond what was justified by the flimsy evidence.
When Tass Agency, on behalf of the Soviet Government, denied the report, the denial was given about an inch of space in 8-point type on page 3.
If we read our Press carefully we will find that besides using headlines for distortion, out editors can do a great deal to misinform the public by suppressing news that is contrary to the line of the paper, or printing it in some obscure corner. Norman Corwin, the American playwright, who was selected as the first representative of the Wendell Wilkie Foundation, visited Australia towards the end of his tour. While here he spoke to a packed audience in the Sydney Town Hall: the A.B.C. broadcast the whole of the speech, which gave a most able review of world affairs. Although Mr. Corwin was such a distinguished man the S.M. Herald ignored his speech, while the Telegraph printed a few lines – about the only lines which had no political significance. The only reason one can imagine for this extraordinary suppression of news, which should have been of vital interest to every reader, is that he was highly critical of all war-mongering, had faith in the common man, and was sympathetic to the Soviet Union – an attitude exactly opposite to the line of the Press.
An even more significant piece of suppression occurred when Commander Robert Jackson, Senior Deputy Director of UNRRA, who had been in charge of relief in Russia, returned to his native Australia; one would have imagined that the Press would have featured anything said by an Australian who had filled such an important international post.
While he was in Sydney he gave a Press conference, at which he highly praised the Soviet Union for its handling of relief. The Press was not then praising the Soviet Union: one can think of no other reason for the iron curtain that fell between Commander Jackson and the public.
Another Australian, who had held a high position abroad, was on his return almost completely ignored by the Press. Colonel A.W. Sheppard had an important position in Greece, which gave him an opportunity to see the conditions in all parts of the country and to observe the elections with intelligence, as he spoke Greek. He felt strongly enough to write a pamphlet in which he branded the elections as a fake, and put a convincing case for the guerillas. This view not being popular with the owners of our Press, he has been given no opportunity to let his countrymen know what he saw and the opinions he formed.
It is very apt to our argument to remember the rapturous welcome of the Press to Mr. J.J. Maloney, and the columns of space it gave him for his most un-diplomatic attack on the Soviet Union. One may also remember that the Sydney Morning Herald cut by about 50 per cent Professor R.M. Crawford’s reasoned exposure of Mr. Maloney’s mis-statements.
The Press reporting of the Melbourne tram strike of January, 1948 gives a fair indication of its attitude to Labour in general, and especially to the Left-wing. Practically all the papers ignored the background of the strike, picturing it as a wanton outrage on the public, engineered by Communists. The men, in fact, had a reasonable case; when the 40-hour week became law, industry generally began to arrange its rosters for a five-day week. In November, 1947, the members of the Tramways Union, in a secret ballot. voted 5 to 1 for a five-day week, and notified the Victorian Premier and the Tramways Board. By this time most employers in transport and industry had arranged for the shorter week, including the management of the tramways in other Victorian cities, Tasmania, Queensland and N.S.W. The men offered to work 44 hours, six days a week, on the usual shifts. with pay for overtime, until the Tramways Board could take on enough extra men to permit the working of the 40-hour five-day week. But the Board was adamant, and the strike began. I did not see that background fairly stated in the Press, which pictured the strike as utterly irresponsible, provoked and led by Communists.
After 13 days it ended on these terms: the Board to apply the 40-hour week; 5-day rosters to be prepared and posted by April 1, but not later than April 15; the Board to pay overtime in excess of 40 hours; all meal breaks in excess of an hour to be paid as time worked. This was almost exactly what the men had claimed from the start, yet when they returned to work the Sydney Press wrote of it as a Communist rout. The Daily Telegraph had a leader and another long article eulogising the Liberal Government for the strong line which had led to this great victory over the subversive Communists. Any reader who had not heard the ABC news, which gave, with admirable impartiality, the terms of settlement, would have been completely deceived about the result of the strike (as well as about its causes), for I searched that issue of the Telegraph in vain for any mention of the terms of settlement.
To blame the Communists for the strike was as false as most of the other press statements about it, seeing that the men decided to insist on a five-day week by an 80 per cent majority in a secret ballot.
The reporting of the 1948 Queensland railway strike was of the same pattern: the background of reasonable grievance was never stated; it was labelled as Communist-led, although only four of the ten members of the Disputes Committee were Communists, and every decision taken by the Committee during the strike was unanimous; they praised Premier Hanlon for the strong leadership which ended in the rout of the Communists, although as in the Tramways strike, the men won a large part of their demands.
Finally, the Press constantly smothers discussion after some particularly biassed anti-Left article. Four times in the last two or three years 1 have written to the Sydney Morning Herald, temperately pointing out obvious inaccuracies in such articles; in no case was my letter, or any other critical letter published; so the biassed statements went unanswered.
There is little doubt but that distortion and suppression would be far more blatant than they are now, if it were not for the objectivity of the ABC news service. It is easy to understand the tenacity of the fight waged by the proprietors of the Press to prevent the ABC from having an independent service, and their generous offers to make their own available at cut rates. If the independent news service of the ABC cost us ten times as much as it does, it would be well worth the price.
I have dealt mainly with the Sydney Morning Herald, because of its reputation as the most important, the most accurate, the most sober and respectable of all our papers; but any daily would provide similar examples.
We find that the inaccuracies and the bias all conform exactly to one pattern; they are all directed against the Left – against the USSR; against the Eastern European Democracies; against the Communists; against Labour (except the Right-wing).
The reason is obvious; the daily papers are all owned, or have their policy directed, by wealthy men, who fear the growing strength of socialism.
But the results of this policy of suppression and distortion are vitally important; it has already created artificial divisions, tensions and hatreds in our society and, if continued, may easily lead to civil strife. Further, all who depend on the Press for international news must have an utterly false picture of the world; a picture that will inevitably cause an irrational distrust, fear and hatred of the Soviet Union; emotions that can make a sane foreign policy impossible, and might well end by dragging us into an unnecessary and disastrous war.
Much has been said lately about the importance of a free Press. I agree that there can be hardly anything in the world more important, but unfortunately we have not got it; our Press is bound hand and foot to the interests of a group of men who for their own selfish purposes are using every device in their power to prevent their readers from knowing the truth. When one seriously considers the possible results of this policy one is justified in accusing those responsible for it of being the most deadly enemies of our country.
The Sydney Morning Herald was invited to comment on Dr. Dark’s criticism, but declined to do so. It is proposed to follow up this article with others dealing with the daily press. —THE EDITOR.
Dr. Dark wrote this article about the middle of last year. It arrived too late for inclusion in the Spring issue, and was crowded out of the Summer number. —Editor
Eric Payten Dark (1889 – 1987) was medical practitioner, social and political activist and writer.