The Monopoly of Information Through the Power to Control the Press and Radio Is Most Dangerous to Society When It Is Used to Boycott Facts.
THE NEXT most important branch of modern monopoly is “monopoly of information.”
As in all other forms of monopoly, there is a wide margin still left. Information is not monopolized in the sense that it can only be obtained from one source; but the tendency to monopoly in it is very marked, and it is increasing under our eyes. The importance of this tendency will escape no one. We can make no judgment on public affairs, and very few judgments on our own private affairs, without adequate general information. If information be withheld, or warped in the interests of those few who control it, the gravest harm is done to the citizen and to the commonwealth.
There are three forms in which this tendency appears: (1) What is called “the air”—it used to be called “the ether”—that is, the wireless; radio, (2) The general journalistic press; and (3) books, with which may be counted the more instructed magazines.
The wireless tends to monopoly in two ways: First, it may be bought up by a few commercial interests which tend, like all forms of capitalist control, to get fewer and more powerful. Secondly, it may be an admitted monopoly of the government.
Of these two the latter is certainly the more dangerous and the worse. In European countries, and particularly in England, the radio is a public monopoly of this kind. It is, of course, mere hypocrisy to say that it is not controlled by the State. It is controlled by a corporation which the State charters, and of which the State appoints the officials. Those who prefer this form of monopoly by wireless are always pointing out the evils of the alternative system, where wireless is free to be bought by anyone who chooses to hire it. They say that this puts too much power into the hands of private capitalist enterprises. It certainly puts power into their hands, but I have never seen that power abused as it is abused by government monopoly. You at least know who has hired the wireless, and may experience of this form of publicity is that, apart from the quite open advertisement, for brief moments of the service or goods furnished by the firm that hires, there is full freedom. But where you have government monopoly of wireless, as in Europe, there is no freedom at all. The mass of men remain, so far as the wireless is concerned, completely ignorant of whatever the government chooses to shut off from them.
The tendency to monopoly in information by newspapers is strong and dangerous, but it may be exaggerated. There are a few cases in which what is called “a newspaper magnate” really controls all the printed daily information available to the public, even in a limited area. Moreover, although the man with a large number of newspapers under one control and distributed over vast areas had much too much power, yet there is a limit to it in another form, which is that people do not necessarily take his advice. The real danger of such men is that “they can suppress truth.” The positive advocacy which they go in for has much less effect; their effective falsehoods are much more falsehoods of silence than of active untruth, and mere boycott or silence can usually be pierced.
There have been a number of instances, as we all know, of a partial monopoly of information breaking down. Your own presidential elections in the United States are a very good example of that, and sp are many movements on our side. To have nearly the whole of the press against one will not necessarily mean that one will fail. But the boycott is another thing. When the few who control the mass of the press over a given large area agree to say nothing about some important matter, it is very difficult indeed to get the matter ventilated. We had a comic example of that over here in England two years ago. The whole available strength of our fleet was sent to the Mediterranean to frighten Italy. Hardly anyone in England heard of that because our press consented to be silent, but all over the rest of the world everybody heard of it, including of course, the Italians, the only people from whom it was desired to keep a secret.
There is yet another force counter-balancing the monopolies of the press; this is what I myself called in many an article and pamphlet “the free press”. A little free weekly journal, with quite small circulation, will often have the power to break down a most formidable ring of silence, or falsehood, and there is also private conversation, passing on the sufficient information received by the few who read the “free press.” Such information spreads out in circles.
We had a very fine example of that half a lifetime ago in one of our innumerable political scandals, called the Marconi scandal. A little newspaper, with a circulation of not more than about three thousand a week, run by Mr. G. Chesterton and myself did the whole of the work of the exposure in the face of complete boycott and silence by all the official press in England. It is true that culprits were not brought to justice; they continued to hold high office and to draw large fortunes out of the taxes, but at any rate they did not save their reputations.
There remains the freedom of the press in the matter of books and the better instructed magazines. This, as yet, is secure over here, and on your side of the Atlantic, of course, it is still more secure. It is not secure under despotisms; but wherever normal conditions of civic freedom exist the book is free. Now the effect of the book is very great. It has not the immediate effect of the monopolist daily press. The effect of the book is long range. But it tells at last. If you want an example of that look at the effect of a book published eighty years ago, which at first hardly anybody read—the book called “Capital” by Karl Marx. It took a lifetime to produce its effect, but at the end of that lifetime it had given birth to international Communism.
It may be asked what other remedy we have against the monopoly of information as it is now exercised through the more widely distributed newspapers. Well, we have, or rather should have if we carry out our proper reforms, the remedy of public demand. A public possessed of well-distributed property will create a demand for information such as free citizens need and insist upon.
Most of the harm that is done by the monopolists of the modern popular press is only done because they appeal to men dependent upon wages, and enslaved by the industrial system. In their lack of security and lack of sufficient freedom they develop an appetite for sensation. They are the less interested in civic business because they are not as much true citizens as their fathers were. For man is not a full citizen unless he is free; and a man is not fully free unless he has economic freedom. And economic freedom you cannot have without property, either individual, or family, or guild.
~Hilaire Belloc: Published in Social Justice, May 16, 1938.