a Silver Axe|
(Peroutka reacts to draft press law, October 1946)
Journalism, like most other institutions, can swing the pendulum wide: from the best to the worst. It seems that the press reform could hit hard against, and probably eliminate completely, the worst kind of failed journalist practice. But how is it supposed to help advance the best type of journalism?
No longer do we harbour any illusions about the press that were harboured once by old democrats who believed to the bottom of their heart that the press, this most powerful instrument of truth, may in all circumstances only serve the truth, there existing a kind of mythical, indestructible bond between newspaper and truth. To continue to believe this to this day is to defy the repeated experience that printing machines and presses are obedient servants of those who get hold of them - a refined individual as well as a bad boy, a thinker and a dumb-head alike. Every movement, including the most dismal of them, has learned to use the press. It even came to pass that some of the most dismal movements proved virtuoso players inasmuch they never shied away from any means, because a shameless individual using modern means may always lead a great number of others astray. Nobody is as naive today as to believe that the press is solely a spring well of truth: we all know how often it has been the well of lie.
If it is possible to eradicate, by means of legal regulations, this type of journalism, to incapacitate this bedfellow of saboteurs, greedy characters, usurpers of power and stock market Mafiosi, then the prospect is bright and let us rejoice greatly. Yet, all we do is building a fence around an orchard. What are we going to grow there? Trees that grow tall or crooked shrubbery? How are we going to support the supreme kind of journalism that we affectionately and lovingly have come to know for nigh on a century now as the Havlicek type?
Thus far we have heard of two reforms that are supposed to help raise the level of journalism: a journalism university has been opened, and reporters are to be trained for better quality and speed. As far as the former is concerned, however, no school will ever be able to ignite and develop journalist and writer talent the way life alone does, and much less so if this school largely follows the principle long formulated by the old satyr Bernard Shaw: those who can do things will do them, and those who cannot, become teachers. Find an individual with a talent and a character and make him face a difficult situation: life will quickly shape a good journalist.
And as for the latter, cultivating the reporter prowess of journalists is laudable, but it should be more than teaching new tricks to a hunting dog. Thought should also be spared of the environment in which a reporter is transplanted. We will serve him best if he is placed in an environment in which truth can be spread unhindered. We shall spoil him in no time if we tell him to shove a true story as it would rub people the wrong way and would do disservice to a particular good intention. He will not know how to put a foot right. Before long, he will grow indifferent to all news and all information. a safe, welcome truth is the first condition of good news coverage. Breakthrough inventions such as telephone, radio and Teletype, will not expedite news dispatching in any dramatic way if political hurdles block the release of news about things that happen before your eyes, out there on the street. It is possible today in many European countries to break stories from America within an hour of them happening. Yet it is often necessary to spend a whole year fighting for the release of a story from the reporter's hometown.
Under the new press law, only political parties or corporations are to be allowed to publish newspapers and magazines. This is supposed to most effectively prevent the emergence of irresponsible press. Certainly, this may be a way of curbing may an irresponsible individual. But, aren't we using one and the same whip to lash hard at good and bad characters? There are medicines that kill microbes and blood cells without making distinction. Is it not possible to compare the moral capability and self-discipline of an individual to the blood cells of public life? History provides countless examples of individuals asserting a good thing against an indifferently reluctant majority. Or is it inevitable for some good purpose to reduce history to the psychology of a crowd?
The press law in the making is based on the assumption that a political party is always, in all circumstances, more prudent, more responsible and refined than an individual, and that, simply put, an individual is a dismal creature. Yet it seems that our experience does not appear to fit in such construction. We have often seen journalists act more responsibly than the political parties that issued orders to them, and defy or only very reluctantly obeyed less-than-prudent orders issued by political secretariats. We have often seen them refuse to sling mud at the people the party ordered dragged through slime. Driven by a conscience, which no corporation supported, they chose rather to quit their jobs or seek better conditions where no such revolting orders would be given. The Machiavellian behaviour of political parties and their crusades that will not stop before anything, are all too well known thoughtlessly to embrace the construction of the draft new press law, which would have a political party act like a morally impeccable guardian of the journalists. This custody often has demoralising effects, awakening as it does all the bad traits of a journalist; it is the party that sounds the first signal to a dishonest offensive, and which subordinates moral imperatives to political tendentiousness. The truth is that a party sometimes has less, and sometimes more conscience than an individual, and that life should be an interplay of both these phenomena. Politics, as it has evolved, is not an activity of the kind that would make individuals embrace without reluctance all political laws of behaviour and perception. Not even in the twentieth century, which has invented numerous surrogates has one's own conscience become redundant.
Yet, all our life and fate seem to be revolving around Jiri Stribrny, as though it was he who has made indelible marks on our life, as though he alone were the only figure in the history of Czech journalism to learn a lesson from. In the atmosphere in which the press law is being hatched, the fact that Jiri Stribrny has lived is relevant, while the fact that Karel Havlicek has lived, is not. It goes without saying that the newspaper published by Jiri Stribrny was too disgusting to ever wish the return of anything of this sort. But it is excessive to see the debate on press freedom reduced to the one recurrent argument that again, Stribrny could be free to publish papers! This is a pet and pretty effective excuse. It is a silver axe with which to kill many a well-meant endeavour. How well loaded for bear, this principle! No more Jiri Stribrny! Czech journalism could well be mangled by such a bear hug!
Strange how gladly some journalists would throw away the freedom that could have been. In some cases one would understand - they do not know what to do with freedom. Others may not be seeking free competition in journalism for the same reason that the homely and the ugly do not seek public contest in eroticism.
Yet the bear hug on principles is strong. One man, a journalist himself, wrote that no journalist must be allowed to publish a newspaper on his own (not even a small magazine) inasmuch neither a nation nor the law can distinguish between Jiri Stribrny and someone else. However, if a nation or the law really had no discerning powers, then not only this, but much else, too, would be lost. If the nation's power of distinction is so negligible, if the law displays so little responsibility, then our public life is a dangerous place. Then not only journalism but other fields as well will have wiped out the difference between the guilty and the innocent - the crucial difference on which everything else hinges. We have heard, and it was not so long ago, that the nation has little time to weigh the guilt of the guilty and the innocence of the innocent, and let bygones be bygones. This is the rule of simplicity, yet it is beyond the limits of this rule that the culture of human relations begins.
Good examples are good for nothing, let us learn from bad examples. Because somebody once engaged in bad independent journalism, nobody may be allowed to attempt good independent journalism. Because somebody once wrote a poor drama, no one shall be allowed to try and write a good play. Are we so primitive, so feeble-minded, so unable to use our brains, are we so deserving of a life in peace and so eager to go for someone else's neck that we cannot distinguish between Jiri Stribrny, who indulged in large-scale fabrication of lies and demagogy, and other Czech journalists? Are we so cold as to never get offended?
What, then, is the nation doing, what is its intellectual life if it cannot differentiate? This just cannot be true. Only a dumb, cloistered nation would not differentiate. Every day, a nation must differentiate its leaders and choose among different options. All criticism is differentiation, a nation incapable of criticising would be a blind nation. Laws are formulated for the purpose of differentiating between good and evil. Why, for what kind of intrigue, has all talk to be so senseless?
Note: "Stribrny" is the Czech for "Silver"