Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The mote and the beam

One day last week the Times contained an excellent article on a couple of scoundrels who were convicted at the Old Bailey of extorting money from a young man whom they had deluded into consulting them about a malady, real or imaginary. These rascals received the severest punishment which the law could give—namely, two years' imprisonment and hard labour. The Times remarked, with perfect truth, that this was far too light a sentence, that they were as much worse than garotters as a systematic receiver of stolen goods is worse than a common thief, and that the means which they used were, to those used by garotters, what prolonged torture is to transient violence. In all this we heartily agree, and amongst the fruits which the next session of Parliament is to bring forth it may be earnestly hoped that one will be an Act, in a single section, assimilating the case of those who extort by exposing their patient's diseases to that of those who extort by accusing of infamous crimes; and if, in addition to the penal servitude which can be, and already is, awarded in the last-mentioned cases, flogging were superadded to both, the public at large would be well pleased, and the infamous wretches who carry on such practices would be addressed by the only argument which they are certain to be able to understand.

The Times, however, did not stop here. It very properly said that to publish the filthy advertisements which enable these wretches to carry on their robberies was in some degree to partake of their guilt; and it added, that those loathsome mock-scientific exhibitions which are to be seen in some of our leading thoroughfares were nuisances of the same kind, which ought to be abated in the same way by the strong hand of the law. This is perfectly sound doctrine.  We would even go a step further. Why not make it penal either to publish, or distribute in the streets, or post on the walls these filthy things? It would be no difficult matter to draw an Act which would effectually put down the scoundrels who live upon the agonies, bodily and mental, of a number of poor lads, who, having yielded to the temptations of youth, exaggerate the consequences and character of their fault, and, instead of going to a respectable surgeon—who would both cure them, and respect their confidence, as a mere matter of course—put themselves in the power of gangs of ruffians who are capable of ruining them utterly in body and soul. We have been far too mealy-mouthed in this matter. There can be no real reason why common decency should not be protected, and why the streets should not be purged, once for all, from foul advertisements and still fouler exhibitions.

Upon all this we are happy to agree with our contemporary, and probably no decent person would be inclined to dissent. The evil is one of those which no human creature would stand up to defend if any one would denounce it. We cannot, however, stop here. There is a point on which we should hardly agree so readily. The daily press in general, and the Times in particular, would do well to remove the beam from their own eye whilst extracting the mote from the advertising columns of their neighbours. It is quite true that the most innocent lad or the purest woman may read the Times advertisements from end to end without meeting anything to offend the eye or stain the imagination. From the announcements of births, deaths, and marriages, down to the end of the “want places,” all is perfectly proper; but can the same be said of the news? What about the report of Codrington v. Codrington? Which is worst—to put, for the sake of a few shillings, into the corner of a paper, an advertisement which, however filthy, cannot be called attractive even to the most degraded, and which would hardly be read by any one to whom it could do any moral harm; or, to promote the sale of the most popular and influential paper in the world by filling five or six columns a day for three or four days together with a story more attractive, more immoral, more coarsely expressed, more closely studded with every filthy detail which could excite and gratify the prurient curiosity of young people hovering on the verge of innocence, than the most voluptuous imagination of the most impure of French novelists?

We are accustomed to boast, and not unjustly, of the morality of English fiction. It is perfectly true that, on the whole, though they are open to objections on other grounds, English novels are pretty clean. Our sensation romances turn, for the most part, on murder; and if they do, happen to derive their interest from breaches of the seventh instead of the sixth commandment, they generally avoid details. This may seem cold praise, but it certainly does put even our worst writers on a somewhat higher level than the worst writers amongst our neighbours. But what is to be said of our newspapers? Are there any other journals in Europe, or even in America, which would degrade themselves in so loathsome a manner? It is said that the most notorious member of the New York press owed its early success to the adroitness with which its enterprising editor mingled dirty stories, gleaned from various sources, with authentic commercial news; but the American press of the present day gives far less prominence than our own to the wretched garbage which has to be brought forward in courts of law. The Times seems to revel in it. It reports dirty trials with a detail and apparent relish which makes one wonder where it gets its reporters. No doubt they possess for the most part a certain kind of talent. The Times' reports of law proceedings are, as a rule, very well done, and it is no secret that the conductors of that journal have so laudable an anxiety on this subject that, both on the circuits and in London, they usually employ barristers for the work. What must a man of education, a member of a liberal profession, a gentleman probably by birth and position, be made of who condescends to such degradation as that of reporting in the Divorce Court in the style approved of by the Times? Of course a barrister is often engaged in dirty cases. There is more or less dirt in a surprising proportion of trials, both civil and criminal. In such cases he only does his duty by taking a full note on the back of his brief of the evidence which is given; but does it follow that he ought to use means to give, say, a hundred thousand readers an opportunity of reading such matter?, What would be thought of a judge who should needlessly publish at full length his notebooks, or a selection from them? Yet, if he were to do so, he would do nothing half so bad as the Times did in the case in question, and habitually does in similar cases.

We wish it to be observed that our censure is founded exclusively on the way in which the class of trials in question is reported. It is, of course, neither to be expected nor wished that a newspaper should exclude from its columns every reference to wickedness, or even every reference to sexual immorality. There must be many things in newspapers which are not exactly fit for the reading of boys or women. No doubt the Divorce Court must be open, and some notice must be taken of its proceedings, but the question is, how much? Is it necessary to put every casual reader as nearly as possible in the position of a juror, at the expense of polluting many thousands of minds with a vast mass of that very class of details which has given an infamous notoriety to a considerable number of French novels? If, in Mrs. Codrington's case, the object of the Times had been the legitimate one of informing the public in a general way of the working of the new Court and the new Act, the whole of the material facts might have been compressed into a single column of dry statement, which would have attracted no one whatever. For instance, what useful purpose was served by giving at full length all Mrs. Watson's evidence as to Mrs. Codrington's conversations, or by giving verbatim, in question and answer, the evidence of Miss Faithfull, or by printing at full length that most filthy letter signed “Lilian”?  All these facts, and many others on which we have no wish to dwell, could serve no other purpose than that of stimulating and gratifying prurience. They were of absolutely no public importance whatever. They were, no doubt, more or less relevant to the particular questions which the jury had to decide, and were properly submitted to their consideration; but they illustrated no general principle, and threw light on no subject on which it is well for the public at large to be warned or instructed. If their publication is to be justified on the ground that they give to mankind at large information as to a side of human nature which usually remains concealed, precisely the same may be said of the nastiest parts of Rousseau's Confessions, or the foulest productions of the author of Madame Bovary or Fanny. It would be quite as justifiable, and much less pernicious, to publish detailed accounts of the diseases of the patients in the foul ward of a London hospital, as to seduce boys and girls all over England into familiarity with the impure secrets of such a household as that of the Codringtons. Probably half the boys at the public schools, all the students at the Universities, and a large proportion of young ladies in gentlemen's families, owe to the filthy cases published in the Times an acquaintance equally precocious, needless, and vivid with all the details of adultery. They know what sort of acquaintances may lead to it, what sort of letters people write about it, when, where, by what devices, under what opportunities it is committed, how it may be concealed, how it may be found out, how it has to be proved in courts of law. In fact, they get from the Divorce Court a natural history of the offence. The reports of this tribunal might be headed “Adultery-teaching by example.” All this they find in a journal which, in its own way, is moral in a high degree, and which, when it has occasion to refer to the filthy reports which it publishes, always regrets that the call of public duty is imperative.

This last excuse might perhaps be believed if the call of public duty was ever obeyed in dull cases, but it is not. Nasty cases are tried by scores at the assizes, and are generally described by the reporters as “unfit for publication.” Nay, when the offenders in the Divorce Court are obscure, uninteresting people, their wretched doings are described in a manner suitable to their obscurity. It is only when gentlemen and ladies of sufficient position to excite curiosity as to their misdeeds misconduct themselves, that public duty inexorably demands the pollution of man thousands of minds. The flimsiness of this plea of public duty is well illustrated by the fact that, when the question of establishing the Divorce Court was under consideration, the Times used constantly to argue in favour of it on the ground that a single case would be tried once for all and disposed of, and that thus public duty would not force them to tell the same nasty story three times over. It would seem, from the length at which they now report single trials, that public duty is a hard mistress. If she must not publish the same dirty story three separate times, she insists upon having three times as much dirt as there used to be in each separate story.

Every one knows his own business best, but we would respectfully submit to our contemporary that decency would be the best policy. We can understand the importance of popularity with the debauched classes, but the Times ought to recollect that it has a large respectable circulation, and it ought to know that, if an alteration is not made in its system of reporting, it will come to stink in the nostrils of every master of a household which contains, members likely to be polluted by such stories as the one which has occasioned these remarks.

Saturday Review, December 3, 1864.

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