Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Modern France

Review of:
Modern France. Its Journalism, Literature, and Society (by A. W. Kirwan, 1863).

Mr. Kirwan has taken what has now become the almost universal course of republishing some of his contributions to periodical literature. They are distinguished from some other productions of the same kind by the fact that they have a common subject—namely, the state of France. They are not equally distinguished by their intrinsic merits. They are a collection of second-rate reviews written in a loose, fluent, gossiping style, and just worth running over by any one who wants to acquaint himself with the gossip of French journalism. Journalism is the principal subject of the book, though incidentally some other subjects receive notice. There is a little talk about Paris, a little also about the French army, and some observations on French authors—but this is only by the way. The thing in France that Mr. Kirwan really knows and cares about is the personal gossip of French newspapers. In his pages those who are curious on the subject ma find out when, and how, and with what capital most of the French newspapers were founded, what is and has been their circulation, and who are and have been the principal writers in them. This is neither very interesting nor very instructive, especially as the whole story is now a thing of the past, and French journalism has descended to a condition in which it has lost all merits except those of elegance of style and adroitness in insinuating what it is not permitted openly to assert. There was, no doubt, room for a good essay on the subject, inasmuch as for some years the position held by the newspaper press of Paris was almost, if not altogether, unprecedented in modern history, and afforded a singular illustration both of the bad and the good side of the French national character. From 1830 to 1848 writing in newspapers was perhaps the best road to the attainment of political power, and nearly, every leading man in the French political world has or had been more or less closely connected with some journal. The rewards given to ability in this pursuit were wonderful. A good writer of leading articles might hope to get, in course of time, all the prizes of political life; and, in order to do this, it was by no means necessary that the paper in which he wrote should be highly successful in a commercial point of view. Many journals with but a trifling circulation had great political influence, and conferred fame and its substantial rewards on the contributors. Mr. Kirwan tells us that, at the height of its power under Armand Carrel, the National had only 4,300 subscribers, yet its writers and managers were amongst the most prominent figures in the three days of 1830. There cannot be a doubt that under this system rewards were held out to literary ability, and to that kind of tact which the management of a public journal requires, utterly unlike anything which has ever been afforded to them in England. The only matter of much interest which Mr. Kirwan's book either suggests or discusses is connected with this. He frequently contrasts the English and French views of the condition of journalism. In England, he says—and says truly—a newspaper is, before everything else, a commercial speculation. Whatever else it does, it must pay; and whatever else it contains, it must contain matter that will sell. This being so, the contributor is of course a secondary personage. The editor, as agent for the proprietors, is alone responsible; and the writers are not only anonymous, but are, generally speaking, in fact, unknown. He admits that our papers are written with great ability—with as much ability, on the whole, as the French papers were written with in their better days, at least in certain cases, and far more than they are at present allowed to exhibit, except upon literary topics. But the writers, though able, are not proud of their performances; they expect no results from them beyond payment; and no one who has any pretensions to eminence in any serious walk of life adopts the profession of a journalist as he would adopt any other of the regular professions. Mr. Kirwan observes that this is the very reverse of the old French practice. Journalism was with our neighbours as much a liberal profession as any other. It was as openly practised, and at least as highly rewarded by public estimation, and even by official and political promotion, as any other pursuit. Mr. Kirwan occasionally descants upon this in the usual way, condemning the vulgarity of the English practice, and extolling the French as calculated to produce, not only better, newspapers, but a higher tone of general feeling upon all subjects connected with journalism and with political life.

No doubt there are two sides to the question, but more is to be said for the English side of it than Mr. Kirwan appears to think. If leading articles ought to be like despatches, if journalists had to discharge precisely the same duties as statesmen, and if every newspaper ought by rights to be a sort of seed-plot for politicians, no doubt the French theory would be the true one; but not only is this not the case, but it is so far from being true that it overlooks the essential function of journalism—a function which is fully discharged in this country and hardly anywhere else. This function is that of expressing nakedly and plainly the unbiassed opinion of that part of the public by which each individual paper is read. If our newspapers were political engines in the same way as the French papers used to be, this would be impossible. When a man writes in his own name and with a view to his own political objects, he never does and never can be expected to express himself quite fully. He is obliged to think of the effect which his writings will have on his own individual prospects. Speeches in Parliament never fully represent the opinion of the speakers. They only give the opinions which the speakers think it right to express, regard being had to all manner of party considerations. A well-written newspaper goes far beyond this. It puts into plain words what every one of a particular class feels, and what many of that class would not like to say—indeed, what no one could be properly called upon to say in his own person. Look, for instance, at the Times. No one could write its leading articles if he had to sign his name to them; and why not? Not because people would be too timid, nor because the articles are such that a man of honour would be ashamed to sign them; but because they throw aside the reflection as to personal consequences and the fear of comparison with other opinions, which induce every one who speaks in his own name to speak with considerable reserve. It may be said that it is undesirable that these restraints should be removed, but this is by no means true. It is highly important upon many subjects to know what is the real unbiassed opinion which people hold, apart from the question whether or not it is creditable to them to hold it. Suppose it to be highly desirable to know whether or not a given man is really able or is only a coxcomb and a charlatan; would not the result of a ballot be far more likely to be proximately correct than the result of a number of signed testimonials? If the real and full opinion of the public is a matter worth knowing, it can be known only through anonymous journalism.

This, it may be said, makes journalism, a low occupation, an organized system of stabbing in the dark; but this is altogether absurd. No doubt it enables malignant people to write malignantly with impunity, but it has no tendency to make men malignant. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it would be most unfair to describe the press of this country as generally abusive or slanderous. It would soon lose its influence if it were. Its peculiar characteristic is extreme plainness of speech on all subjects. By comparing together a sufficient number of English newspapers, the comparison being guided by a competent knowledge of the classes of readers for whom they are intended, any one who cares may learn precisely what is thought in England upon almost any political subject. Be the value of such knowledge what it may, there it is in an authentic form, and nothing of the sort is to be had elsewhere.

Next to Journalism, the subject on which Mr. Kirwan speaks most readily is the Empire. He is never tired of writing about it, and his tone is bitterly hostile. In the main, he is probably right enough; but we must remember, after all, that the Empire does represent France at large as few other Governments do represent the nations over which they preside. The Emperor did not make that passion for material enjoyments of all sorts which appears to be overpowering every other feeling in the French character, nor did he originate that inconsiderate flighty violence which could not bear the suspense and anxiety of Parliamentary Government, or face the unpleasant truths which it is the nature of such a system to bring to light. His power is but a symptom, and requires explanation like everything else. It is one of the most singular of familiar facts that we know so little of France. It is our nearest neighbour, it is one of our best customers, it is connected with us in a thousand intimate ways, and yet it is foreign to a degree of which few English people seem to be aware. A traveller in France, with something of the powers of Arthur Young and a little of the philosophy of De Tocqueville, might write one of the most curious books that could possibly be composed. It would, however, take him a good deal more ability, time, and trouble than Mr. Kirwan was in a position to give to the subject.

Saturday Review, December 19, 1853.

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