Memo to Walter Bagehot, ex-editor, The Economist: did you really mean to defend a partisan press, the most insidious enemy of democracy?

We cannot let the reign of the 4th Estate end in nothing but frayed and faded ideals. Composition by Tricia Meynell.

6 May 2012

to: ghost of W. Bagehot, Esq., editor, The Economist, 1860-77

from: post-Gutenberg, a 21st-century blog

Sir: this blog is not in the habit of addressing spectres. We are not even sure we believe in ghosts. But if that isn’t a phantom you writing the column titled ‘Bagehot’, and the ‘Bagehot’s Notebook’ blog for your old paper in St. James’s Street, then someone is spouting a stunningly unpersuasive argument in your name.

Let us assume that you do exist. This somehow seems friendlier in the age of social media – and we are thrilled by the possibility of a ghost going to the trouble of broadcasting his opinions.

Are spectral attention spans long or short? We cannot decide, so will make our response easy to scan.

Please refer to your post ten days ago: ‘Are British newspapers a menace to democracy?‘:

• Partisanship in the 4th Estate. Why do you defend a partisan press when impartiality has been the noblest aspiration of the 4th Estate – and its American equivalent? See this list of principles in The Elements of Journalism, quoted here a few weeks ago:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.


4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. …

And, as the judge presiding over the Leveson Inquiry explained as its purpose, at the start of the proceedings,

…[A]ny failure of the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry therefore may be one simple question – who guards the guardians?

• Democracies need unbiased facts. Have you forgotten that a democracy is virtually pointless without disseminators of facts who can give voters the truth – the chance to get as close as possible to factual completeness — to help them make the best decisions in elections and referendums? That is why – as you know — the 4th Estate has long been granted such special privileges as access to lofty authorities, the right to protect sources of information, etc..

You seem to be under the illusion that whether the press is good or bad for democracy turns on how the media direct and manipulate their audiences’ opinions about voting choices — rather than on the reliability of the facts about the world that they serve up.

• If there is any justification for a partisan press, you haven’t supplied it. You said, about journalism that takes sides:

Newspaper campaigns clearly influence policy-making. […]  But arguably their greatest day-to-day influence is indirect. […] Britain is an outlier […] In lots of European countries politics encompasses angry extremes, with the hard-right and far-left attracting hefty votes. By contrast, newspapers in such countries are often small-circulation, centrist, and prim. Britain does things the other way round. Partly because of first-past-the-post voting, the big parties cluster at the political centre. The brass-band blare of dissent comes from a fiercely partisan press. 

About that, one commenter (not anyone we know) expressed the essence of our reaction at post-Gutenberg:


April 27th, 06:13

Bagehot repeats the old trope that British newspapers are extreme and therefore its politics is moderate whereas in Europe politics is extreme because the media is moderate. Does anyone seriously buy this argument. That the nature of the press determines the nature of politics. And that politics is opposite to the press. And that you can only have extreme and vicious press or moderate centrist press. What a piece of nonsense.

If Konker is mistaken and that isn’t nonsense, then – to justify such an exotic argument – why not cite a respected political scientist? Or offer your readers a hyper-link to a table with statistics for European voting patterns? Link to a book or study that supports those statements?

When you say, ‘lots of European countries’ — with surpassing vagueness — which ones are you referring to? To the best of our knowledge, the largest, France and Germany, have big political parties clustered at the centre. Just like Britain. So? … Walter! The outlines of your life mention your pride in writing about politics and economics with scientific precision. Science = substantiation. Since you know how to blog, you can surely use these tools that think with strings of 1s and 0s to share evidence with us? You could put a URL or two into your texts — yes?

Sorry, this argument sounds like something you might say at the merry end of an evening at your club. (Spectres don’t haunt those, do you?)

• The preferences and political agenda of even a free press are not the most important forces in a democracy. It is the will of the people that matters most. Even press freedom is about the people, and not the press – as the Lord Chief Justice said in a speech he gave just before the formal proceedings of the Leveson Inquiry began (words to which the press largely played deaf). He quoted a famous statement in 1762 by the reformer and political agitator, John Wilkes:

“The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country”.

We embrace that statement. The significance of what John Wilkes said was not, as those connected with the media sometimes suggest, that the statement is upholding the liberty of the press. […] It is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent.

We speak of ‘media’ because they represent channels for expressing the opinions and feelings of the people. Newspapers are not goads, nor licensed wielders of carrots and sticks. Read Paul Johnson on the rise of democracy in 19th-century Europe. ‘Towards the end of the 1820s, the world moved a decisive stage nearer the democratic age,’ he has written, listing among the chief factors and trends behind that, the spread of literacy, and ‘huge increase in the number and circulation of newspapers.’ In Britain, it was not just newspapers through which public sentiment was expressed:

… [T]he demand for fundamental reform was growing again. One reliable index of political intensity is the number of political prints produced, which can be gauged from the vast stocks held in the British Library. Artists and print sellers mirrored middle-class opinion …

• Your own readers do not want a partisan press. If the results of this poll running on your own site since last July can be trusted, 73 per cent of 2,686 of them have voted ‘Yes’ in reply to: ‘Some commentators welcome the rise of a partisan press […S]hould respectable news organisations strive to be fair and balanced?’

• Partisan reporters on politics cannot do their jobs properly. You end your reflection on whether British newspapers undermine democracy by saying,

Journalists and politicians can never be truly friends. Lowly reporters and MPs always knew this: given a big enough story, each will turn on the other.

Really? If that were true, why did staff journalists on the Whitehall beat fail to get this century’s biggest scoops in politics — and leave the job to outsiders, the freelances Heather Brooke and Nick Davies, as this blog recorded last week.

… There’s a beard-scratcher for you, old bean!


[ More on this subject: 

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate? ]

One thought on “Memo to Walter Bagehot, ex-editor, The Economist: did you really mean to defend a partisan press, the most insidious enemy of democracy?

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