Chateaubriand uses a book review to remind Napoleon that when the history of a period, however bad, comes to be written, truth will always slay tyranny:
Lorsque dans le silence de l’abjection, l’on n’entend plus retentir que la chaîne de l’esclave et de la voix du délateur, lorsque tout tremble devant le tyran, et qu’il est aussi dangereux d’encourir sa faveur que de mériter sa disgrâce, l’historien paraît chargé de la vengeance des peuples. C’est en vain que Néron prospère, Tacite est déjà né dans l’Empire [When in the silence of degradation one no longer hears anything but the sounds of the chain of enslavement and the voice of the informer, when all tremble before the tyrant and it is just as dangerous to ingratiate oneself with him as it is to incur his condemnation, the historian appears, armed with the peoples’ vengeance. Nero flourishes in vain: somewhere in the empire Tacitus [the historian] has already been born.]
Francois Rene, Comte de Chateaulbriand, in Mercure de France, 4 juillet 1807
For historian, read journalist. Would Hitler, say, have been quite so successful in the early 1930s if in that period Germany had possessed aggressive TV interviewing and interviewers prepared to try and take him apart on air?
I wonder. Mussolini, an ex-journalist himself, got away with it in an era when media muscle in the Italy of the post-World War I era as comparatively weak. At the outbreak of World War II, for example, he could have been asked to confirm just how many warplanes Italy really possessed and, as his biographer the historian Denis Mack Smith has demonstrated, would not have been able to sustain his bombastic fiction that Italy had fleets of them. Marshall McLuhan pointed out that TV is a ‘cool’ medium, suitable for cold, hard interrogation; cinema is ‘hot’ and so not so suitable.
The problem is that by definition history is hindsight: we know now what we did not know before. The historian has time to judge and condemn. But he or she usually arrives late on the scene of the crime. The journalist has been there before him, and she will have been able to discover and publish the first evidence on which later charges and reforms will be made (examples of this are too numerous to list here, but recall William Howard Russell’s reporting of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War, or Woodward Bernstein on Watergate). That evidence must be sound, and legally acquired.
That puts considerable responsibility on journalists, of course, and we must not allow them to overstep the mark; by letting them tap our phones, for example. But they are an essential band of heroes in any democracy, let alone a dictatorship, and deserve the title Fourth Estate. We need them and we need them to tell us what we need to know, within the law, so that we can decide things, not just our leader.