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The Importance of the Press

The newspaper is a powerful medium. It is powerful because it has the ability to influence the way that people view the world, as well as their opinion of what they see. In peaceful times (or in times of oppression, for sometimes they can appear to be happening at the same moment) the press is usually one of the instruments used by the state in order to maintain the status quo. However, during times of political unrest it is often the press who becomes the major antagonist in the fight against the government.

Why is this so? Why does the press get so deeply involved in, not just he reporting of, but the instigating and propagating of political change? In order to properly answer this question there are several other key ideas and questions which must first be examined. To understand the nature of the press’ involvement in political change, one must initially understand the nature of political change in its own right. In this vein, the first section of the paper is dedicated to this investigation.

An examination of the motives behind revolution will be given in order to provide a framework for the second part of the paper, which will look at the involvement of the press during revolutionary imes in more specific terms. The French revolution of 1789 will be used as a backdrop for this inquiry. There are many different types of political movements, and accordingly there are many different reasons for these movements to occur. Value-oriented and norm-oriented movements deal with matters of social and political concern, but do so in the setting of the already existing political and social structures.

Revolutionary movements seek to make fundamental changes to society in order to establish a completely new political and social order. 1 The distinction being that the first aims to make subtle changes to society from within, while the atter’s aim is to make drastic changes to society by getting rid of the principles that society was based on. Usually this will involve a change in political beliefs and values, or political ideology. In today’s world there are numerous forms of political ideologies, but in essence they are all derived from two basic root ideologies; socialism and liberalism.

Socialism is an ideology which places power in the hands of the state, rather than in the people who populate it. Examples of modern socialist states include: the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. Other more extreme forms of socialism are fascism and authoritarianism. These ideologies more closely resemble the monarchies that ruled much of Europe and the new world, before the great revolutions. Monarchism is an ideology that believes in the absolute rule of a “royal” family. The king and/or queen have the power to make decisions without question from anyone.

The series of revolutions which included the English Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, and to a lesser extent the revolts in Upper and Lower Canada, were all confrontations over who should hold political ascendancy. Moreover, they were clashes of ideology, between monarchism and liberalism. Liberalism was developed during the Enlightenment. This was a period of time when writers, scientists, and philosophers began to openly question certain aspects of society and the role that they should or should not play.

Attacked were the kings and queens, the clergy and feudalist system as a whole. The ideas of this time formed the basis of revolutionary thought. The goal of the revolutionaries was to build a new society based on liberal values of the Enlightenment. “Liberal politicians in Europe wanted to establish a framework of legal equality, religious toleration and freedom of the press. 2 It was the deprivation of these principles, by the monarchical leaders, which led to discontent among the people of France.

Above all, liberalism stresses the primacy of individual rights. One can see that these ideals were at the forefront of French revolutionary thought by examining the Declaration of rights, which in 1789 stated that, “All men are equal by nature,” and brought republican concepts such as liberty, equality and fraternity into awareness. 3 When one looks at the motives behind the great revolutions of our time, a recurring theme seems to prevail in all of them. There is a part of human ature which makes freedom almost as much of a necessity as food and water.

When people’s freedom is somehow oppressed or taken away, discontent emerges. “As soon as discontent is generalized a party is formed which often becomes strong enough to struggle against the Government. “4 The conditional nature of this statement can be attributed to the fact that discontent among a minority of people is not enough to cause a revolution. There are other factors which are necessary for a complete revolution to transpire. First, there must be a medium whereby the masses are able to learn about the principles which will be fought or.

Second, there must be a means by which the masses can acquire sufficient knowledge of the wrongs that have been perpetrated against them, in order to foster and unite support for the cause. Third, there must be a way for the m asses to receive information about the revolution all the time, so that support does not wain, and so the revolutionaries can organize itself. The best and easiest way for these factors to be satisfied is through the news media. The involvement of the news media is important to any revolutionary cause.

In a democratic revolution it is especially important. When the opulation revolts, in an effort to obtain democracy or a more liberal society, it is only natural that the press become involved. The reason for this is not as complicated as it may seem to be. In a democratic revolution, the radicals are fighting for the rights that they believe they should have, if for no other reason than by the fact that they are born. These rights are based on liberal values such as the right to life, liberty and property.

They also include the right to freedom of speech and expression, and all the aspects that go with it, like freedom of the press. In a revolution where freedom of the press is being ought for, it is only natural that the press play a large role in the fight. Harold Innis, when observing the development of a free press stated, “the advantages of a new medium will become such as to lead to the emergence of a new civilization. “5 Without a free press, the success of the great revolutions and the societies that they helped to create, would not have been possible.

So we have seen why the press becomes involved in revolutions. Essentially it is because the press, as we know it, is a liberal and democratic institution which gives it strong ties to the revolutionary cause. However, the uestion of the role that the press actually plays in a revolution still remains. It is obvious that during a revolution, the newspapers do more than just report on the facts. The facts, while still important, are not what the people want to hear or what they need to hear.

There are three essential functions that the press perform during a revolution: education, unification and the safeguarding of the new constitution. For a revolution to begin, the people must know what it is they are revolting against. For a revolution to continue, once started, the people must have knowledge of the events that have been carried out in their name. The Enlightenment served this first purpose somewhat, but for the most part, the ideas of the Enlightenment were confined to the upper classes for reasons of wealth and education.

The ideas of that period did not reach the masses because they were either unable to afford the books, or unable to read them, and most of the time both. It was not until the censorship laws were lifted, that the people really began to get a sense of the corrupt behavior of the monarchical government. In pre revolutionary France, the press was tightly controlled by the King and his government. It was officially forbidden to discuss the pros and ons of government policies….

The French government, increasingly willing to allow periodicals that stimulated public discussion in every other area of life, balked at officially permitting any honest discussion of its own doings. 6 The only way for French citizens to find out about their government was through the foreign press which was only moderately censored by the government of France. However, towards the end of the Old Regime, even these foreign papers were no longer sufficient to satisfy the reader’s demands for commentary and behind the scenes stories in the news. These were necessary so that the

French could try to make sense of what was happening. 7 The road to a censor free press was paved in May of 1788 when the French government in an attempt to raise new taxes, tried to abolish the parlements, who were opposing the tax increase. This move created great opposition to the ministries and flooded the market with pro-parlement pamphlets. The strength of this opposition was enough to make the government try another route. They called the first meeting of the kingdom’s traditional representative assembly in 175 years, the Estates-General, which could undercut the authority of the parlements and get the taxes passed.

To build up support for this move, and to counteract the anti ministerial pamphlets, censorship restrictions were lifted and all authors were encouraged to publish their ideas about how the Estates- General should proceed. 8 In this way the press was able to begin educating the masses on the problems caused by the absolutism of the French monarchy. These early pamphlets provided the spark that was necessary for the traditional periodical to take hold as the medium of the revolution.

The political pamphlet was too limited a medium to satisfy the demand for the news and ideas that the calling of the Estates-General had created. The relative advantages of daily newspapers were recognized early in the revolution. Two men in particular, Jacques-Pierre Brissot and Honore-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, realized the power that newspapers could give to the revolutionary cause, and they issued the first numbers of their unauthorized newspapers shortly after the beginning of the sessions of the Estates-General.

One of the advantages that the newspaper has over the pamphlet is its extensive readership, and the fact that it is a constant source of information. Whereas, the pamphlet was only able to reach a limited audience and do so in a sporadic nature. As Brissot said of the newspaper, “one can teach the same truth at the same moment to millions of men; through the press, they can discuss it without tumult, decide calmly and give their opinion. “10 The revolutionary press was able to promote the ideas of the revolution in a manner that would have been impossible for the pamphlets to carry out.

The newspapers were able to unite people and ideas from all over the country, something that mere geography would have prevented the pamphlets from doing. The third function that the revolutionary press performed, was to act as the safeguard of the new society. The French Revolution was part of the series of great modern revolutions, based on liberal democratic values. This series of events made popular consent the only basis with which a government can claim legitimacy. 11 However, the French revolutionaries felt that all politics must be carried on in public for it to be completely legitimate. Publicity is the people’s safeguard,”12 according to Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the revolutionary mayor of Paris. To promote this theory, the revolutionary assemblies opened their doors to the public. The only problem with this is that France happens to be a ery large country, and even then it had a very large population. In 1789 the population of France was 28 million and the population of Paris alone was 600 000,13 which made it theoretically impossible for everyone to take part it the new government.

The newspapers were the only way that all of the citizens of the new republic could, in a sense, participate. In providing a link between the government and its citizens, not only did they allow most citizens to be “active” participants, but the revolutionary newspapers also filled the position of political watchdog. It was the absence f a responsible press, that allowed the monarchs to rule unchallenged for so long a period. That is why it has been said that the emergence of the press was, “a development that was watched with unfriendly eyes by kings and Parliaments alike. 14 The revolutionaries did not want there to be any possibility for the new government to take advantage of their power, in the same manor that the monarchs had used theirs. That is one of the reasons why they felt so strongly about freedom of the press. Only a press independent of government interference and regulation, would be able to effectively monitor the actions of the new overnment. The press plays a large role in revolutionary times for various reasons. The basis for this involvement is found in the very nature of the revolution itself.

Liberal revolutions fight for certain values, of which, the press and its freedom are one. As a participant in the revolution the press also has many specific roles. It acts as an educator, bringing knowledge of what the revolution is fighting for and why. The press also acts as a common voice for the revolutionary fight. It unites the revolutionaries from all over the country and allows them to coordinate and organize. It also allows the people to keep track of events on a daily basis because the newspaper can reach them all the time.

The third role of the press during revolutionary times is to serve as the watchdog of the new political order. Without a free press, the new government might be tempted to abuse the powers that have been conferred upon it. Many historians have downplayed the importance of the press during these periods of political upheaval, saying that the press was no more than an observer. However, one cannot ignore the obvious influence that the press has had in the bringing about of revolution.

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