The phrase “the press” derives its name from the printing press; the press was also an instrument of torture writes Sarah Churchwell.
The phrase “the press” derives its name from the printing press, which itself gets its name from the physical action of a machine that exerts pressure in order to leave an impression; the press was also an instrument of torture.
Exerting pressure and forming impressions remain, in a sense, the two great purposes of journalism, without which no society can hope to become or remain free, unless human nature abruptly takes a turn for the better. Until that happens, the press will also, occasionally, be used for less uplifting purposes: it is still far too often used as an instrument of torture, as well, but doing without it is like saying we should dispense with hammers because sometimes they are used as murder weapons; more often they are used to build shelter from the storm.
The first two historical examples cited by the Oxford English Dictionary of the emergence of “the press” as a term for journalism are rather enlightening. The earliest use comes from a 1661 poem: “And carefully muzled the mouth of the press, / Least the truth should peep through their jugling dress.” A century later, on the 16th of January, the Pennsylvania Evening Post reported, “Prosecutions have been commenced by the officers of the Crown, apparently for no other reason than that of silencing the Press.” That was in 1776: the Americans would declare their independence from the British Crown six months later.
These examples are instructive; the French Revolution similarly hinged upon the role of the Fourth Estate, and the Arab Spring, as we all know, has depended upon media reports from citizen journalists and the professional press, but the result is the same: individuals creating a platform from which to speak and be heard, to give voice to the people and to keep those in positions of power accountable to the people. In Britain, the women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was similarly inextricable from the women’s political press: when the laws governing the press were liberalized in the mid-19th century, a group of middle-class women started newspapers in order to “press” for legal and political enfranchisement; as well as being advocacy groups, newspapers were also businesses that enabled these women to build economic independence for themselves at the same time they fought for the vote.
Today, our galloping historical amnesia means that we continue to take for granted the social institutions that our ancestors fought for the hardest, and most dearly valued; we seem to assume — idiotically — that we can hold on to their gains without upholding the institutions that fostered and safeguarded those gains. The press is one of our primary means of continuing education for adults: books can (and should) teach us our past, but only the press can teach us our present.
Journalism is at the heart of any process of keeping power accountable: knowledge is indeed power, which is why tyrants are so dependent upon secrecy. The press doesn’t just press: it records, selects, and analyses; it helps us sift through the information bombarding us. As that information gathers in speed and scale, the work of sorting it and asking it to account for itself becomes ever more essential, not less. Freedom of expression is the foundational freedom of democracy; if our governments (should) represent our political views, we need our press to help us express them. The press is our collective voice making itself heard. In 1661, citizens were fighting to keep the press from being muzzled, to allow the truth to peep through. We need the press to exert pressure, to create impressions, to press knowledge into service. The definition of psychosis is a loss of contact with reality; the press is our contact with all the reality outside our own immediate sphere. It is not immune to the abuses and derelictions of humanity at its worst; but then neither are the powerful. A free press is a curb on power; without it, tyranny has free rein.
Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia