Insights from the UK and beyond
Constitution in crisis as tyrannical journalists devour cowed politicians
A sordid tale of excess and brutality, of a world dominated by journalists with their ears to the keyhole, of tyrannical newspapers wielding remarkable power and of a political class not only cowed, but consumed, by that power.
Sound familiar? With two of Britain’s most senior policemen out of a job, the prime minister under pressure for his serenading of News Corp and one of the world’s most powerful press barons, in the form of Rupert Murdoch, summoned to testify to parliament, it would be one way of describing the current state of affairs.
In fact, it is how Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde saw the state of Britain 120 years ago.
“In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising,” Wilde wrote in 1891, several years before a court case in which intimate details of his own private life became the centre of a media storm.
Wilde believed that in America “the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever” but that its power there had been diminished in the eyes of the public having “carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme”.
In England, having not been pushed to ”such excesses of brutality”, the press remained a really remarkable force: ”The tyranny that it proposes to exercise over people’s private lives seems to me to be quite extraordinary,” he wrote in his 1891 essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism”.
Then, as many are doing now, he debated whether newspapers had the power to mould peoples’ minds or whether they merely held up a mirror to the public mood.
“The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.”
He also questioned newsgathering methods, harking back to an old practice of nailing or chopping off the ears of those who spread rumours, committed libel or wrote seditious pamphlets the authorities didn’t much care for: ”In centuries before ours the public nailed the ears of journalists to the pump. That was quite hideous. In this century journalists have nailed their own ears to the keyhole. That is much worse.”
For want of a written constitution, Britain relies on a number of institutions to make democracy work. The Crown, parliament, the forces of law and order and a free press are all supposed to keep each other, and the powerful executive that is the Prime Minister, in check. When one of those institutions becomes too powerful, tyranny comes knocking.
“Somebody–was it Burke?–called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time, no doubt. But at the present moment it really is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism,” Wilde wrote.
So is what we are witnessing now — and what Wilde described in 1891 – a breakdown in that system or just the system operating as it should with the balance being restored, albeit with a seismic swing that is rocking the establishment and even risks tipping too far the other way?