The press, it is repeatedly said, performs a very essential function in our lives today, especially in the life of democratic countries. In other places, that function is performed under authoritarian direction, while in democratic countries it is supposed to say just what it likes within the limitations of the law which are - I must say - pretty wide. Now, this is a tremendous burden. The burden, ofcourse, is inevitable when power or privilege comes to a group. We won our independence and we take pride in it. But, obviously, independence or freedom is not a one-sided affair; it carries enormous responsibilities, such as that of defending that independence when it is attacked - defending it, not only from external attack but, what is even more important, from an internal weakening.
After all, the thing that a nation must beware of - more than external danger - is internal rot. Freedom carries with it the obvious responsibility, which every one realises, of defending it from external attack. But, ultimately, the other i responsibility is more important and what is to maintain the y inner strength, the morale, the self-confidence of a nation, i which can be done only by following what I roughly call the right advice and, more especially, developing the habit of dispassionate thought and the calm consideration of problems. This becomes even more important in times of crisis, when people are apt to become excited and hysterical and are inclined to believe every vague rumour.
Newspapers are, of course, of all kinds and in India there are thousands of them. There are responsible newspapers; there are newspapers which are sometimes responsible, sometimes not; there are newspapers which are more irresponsible than responsible; and there are some sheets which seem to excel only in flights of imagination and other acts of irresponsibility. Fortunately, the latter are not important. In the old days, it was or at least was thought to be the function of the Government to suppress the newspapers that had an evil tendency, in the opinion of the Government. That, of course, is an utterly wrong approach because you cannot cure the evil by trying to suppress it.
What, then, are we to do? For, sometimes, the evil may grow and become dangerous to public welfare. Obviously, the right way is for an organisation like yours to interest itself in it directly, not, of course, in the sense of punishing people - there is no question of punishing - but of forming such a strong body of opinion among those who are responsible for the newspapers that any back-slider can be pulled up; or, at any rate, it can be made known to the public that the person concerned is a back-slider and is not acting rightly. I think that is very important, because while on the one hand the main organs of the Indian press have shown a fairly high standard of responsibility in dealing with news or situations generally, on the other there are some periodicals which amaze me by their utter irresponsibility. No doubt, people read them and, no doubt, they are affected by them. How are we going to deal with this matter? It concerns the wider question of privilege and power having to bear responsibility. Mr. Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of England, once became angry with the press in England and said that the press had the harlot's privilege and power without responsibility. That was an extreme way of putting the matter but the point is that when we have power or right, inevitably an obligation follows that right. You cannot separate the two.
We, who have been fighting for our rights and have finally achieved them, are apt to forget that a right by itself is incomplete and, in fact, cannot last long if the obligations which accompany that right are forgotten by the nation or by a greater part of it. Whether as individuals or citizens or groups, we still think too much in terms of rights and privileges and too little in terms of obligations. That weakens a nation and we become then merely critics and complain without anything constructive to contribute. That applies to the nation as a whole but much more so to the press. That is to say, the press fought for its own freedom from governmental interference in the old days and, gradually, step by step it has achieved wider freedom. I think I can say that whatever our other failings might be – by 'our' I mean the Government's - at the present moment the amount of freedom of expression that is allowed to or indulged in by the press can hardly be exceeded in any country in the world. I shall be quite frank with you. Much that appears because of that freedom seems to me exceedingly dangerous. To my mind, the freedom of the press is not just a slogan from the larger point of view but it is an essential attribute of the democratic process. I have no doubt that even if the Government dislikes the liberties taken by the press and considers them dangerous, it is wrong to interfere with the freedom of the press. By imposing restriction you do not change anything; you merely suppress the public manifestation of certain things, thereby causing the idea and thought underlying them to spread further. Therefore, I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.
Without responsibility, freedom gradually becomes something very near licence. Licence is a vague word and I do not like it; but it is being used in this connection and I can think of no better Word at the moment. Licence ultimately means mental disintegration; and if there is mental disintegration in the body politic, obviously it affects every limb of it. That applies to the newspapers also. If, with the freedom they have, the element of licence and utter irresponsibility increases then not only will it endanger their freedom but injure their reputation. We should have freedom by all means but we should try to maintain a certain integrity of approach in public activities, including the press. Of course, we know that newspapermen and journalists of the past and in the present have laid down in high terms what the press should be and l have no doubt that responsible newspapermen, at any rate, are always trying to reach that standard. Anyhow, it seems to me that the only right approach to it is for newspapermen and their organisation to tackle the problem and it is not within the competence of an external agency to do so, even though that is the Government. They should raise their standards themselves, not by punishment - because they are not an executive branch of the Government-but by making it clear to their erring brethren that what they do is bad. I have noticed that when certain periodicals behave in an irresponsible way, I seldom find any criticism of their conduct in the other periodicals. I know it is a bad thing for newspapers to call one another names; nor do I wish to encourage controversy between newspapermen. What I mean is that a responsible body has the right to pull up any member of that profession, if he is flagrantly wrong. Of course, every person has the right to express his views and I am not denying that; I am censuring only the utter irresponsibility and the vulgarity that newspapers of no great repute may descend to. I think such a body should firmly - politely if you like but firmly - make it clear that they do not approve of this kind of thing . Thus they will be giving a lead to the public in this respect.
Speech at the All-India Newspaper Editors' Conference, New Delhi, December 3, 1950