The pen is mightier than the sword – so wrote Edward Bulwer-Lytton a British politician and author. EBL had a colourful life and managed to pen a number of quotations which we use to this day. The one I have selected for this National Press Freedom Day, is from the play Richelieu which he wrote in 1839. It is meant to indicate that the written word is more powerful than violence to communicate a message, ideology or belief.
I am not about to bore you with the eye popping events in this man’s life but to look at this English expression. Since EBL wrote those profound words the pen has evolved enormously from print to radio to television to social media and unfortunately to ‘Fake News’. A journalist today does not scurry around with a notepad but they may have a satellite phone and a portable hard drive. As the 21st century settles into its first quarter journalists are amongst the most threatened people in the workforce. According to UNESCO the past decade has seen a journalist “killed every four days, on average”, which illustrates the ongoing power of the pen over the sword. Albeit that now the pen is electronic.
On Press Freedom Day though we need to consider that there are those who find the pen to be dangerous. Napoleon came to power in post-revolutionary France and surpressed most of the publications which were available because he “…recognised the power of literature and the power of the press”. In a world filled with so many sources of information critical thinking - the analysis of information presented to enable each person to reach a conclusion – becomes a crucial skill. As the writer George R R Martin said,
Political ideology of the 18th and 19th centuries took what conservative British MP, Sir Edmund Burke derisorily called the Fourth Estate and made it a civil watchdog. The potency of this role was superably illustrated in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon was revealed through a series of articles in The Washington Post, as a conspirator in what was called ‘Watergate’. The revelation and nature of the scandal cost him his Presidency and tarnishes his two terms and political achievements to this day. Asking questions because the ‘public has a right to know’ has become confused with the desire to gossip about those in public life. For example, the press did not have the right to publish photos and stories about the British royal, Prince Harry being on active service in Afghanistan whilst he was still there. There was no action by the British government which was in breach of trust to those who elected it by putting the Prince as a serving soldier into an active field of service. The role of the press as a civil watchdog was not in effect in this situation.
In the play Cardinal Richelieu finishes the line “the pen is mightier than the sword’ by saying to his servant, “…Take away the sword; States can be saved without it!”. The actions of Napoleon, the Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia and governments since then in consolidating access to the press and seeking to control the political message and access to their activity in government illustrates that still, two hundred years later states seek to save themselves by controlling information. The Fourth Estate is an essential component, as the writer George Orwell whose book 1984 was banned by both western governments and the Soviet Union said,