The newspaper is a powerful medium. It is powerful because it has the
ability to influence the way that people view the world, as well as their
opinion of what they see. In peaceful times (or in times of oppression, for
sometimes they can appear to be happening at the same moment) the press is
usually one of the instruments used by the state in order to maintain the status
quo. However, during times of political unrest it is often the press who
becomes the major antagonist in the fight against the government.
Why is this so? Why does the press get so deeply involved in, not just
the reporting of, but the instigating and propagating of political change? In
order to properly answer this question there are several other key ideas and
questions which must first be examined. To understand the nature of the press’
involvement in political change, one must initially understand the nature of
political change in its own right. In this vein, the first section of the paper
is dedicated to this investigation. An examination of the motives behind
revolution will be given in order to provide a framework for the second part of
the paper, which will look at the involvement of the press during revolutionary
times in more specific terms. The French revolution of 1789 will be used as a
backdrop for this inquiry.
There are many different types of political movements, and accordingly
there are many different reasons for these movements to occur. Value-oriented
and norm-oriented movements deal with matters of social and political concern,
but do so in the setting of the already existing political and social structures.
Revolutionary movements seek to make fundamental changes to society in order to
establish a completely new political and social order.1 The distinction being
that the first aims to make subtle changes to society from within, while the
latter’s aim is to make drastic changes to society by getting rid of the
principles that society was based on.
Usually this will involve a change in political beliefs and values, or
political ideology. In today’s world there are numerous forms of political
ideologies, but in essence they are all derived from two basic root ideologies;
socialism and liberalism. Socialism is an ideology which places power in the
hands of the state, rather than in the people who populate it. Examples of
modern socialist states include: the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba.
Other more extreme forms of socialism are fascism and authoritarianism. These
ideologies more closely resemble the monarchies that ruled much of Europe and
the new world, before the great revolutions. Monarchism is an ideology that
believes in the absolute rule of a “royal” family. The king and/or queen have
the power to make decisions without question from anyone. The series of
revolutions which included the English Reformation, the American and French
Revolutions, and to a lesser extent the revolts in Upper and Lower Canada, were
all confrontations over who should hold political ascendancy. Moreover, they
were clashes of ideology, between monarchism and liberalism.
Liberalism was developed during the Enlightenment. This was a period of
time when writers, scientists, and philosophers began to openly question certain
aspects of society and the role that they should or should not play. Attacked
were the kings and queens, the clergy and feudalist system as a whole. The
ideas of this time formed the basis of revolutionary thought. The goal of the
revolutionaries was to build a new society based on liberal values of the
Enlightenment. “Liberal politicians in Europe wanted to establish a framework
of legal equality, religious toleration and freedom of the press.”2 It was the
deprivation of these principles, by the monarchical leaders, which led to
discontent among the people of France. Above all, liberalism stresses the
primacy of individual rights. One can see that these ideals were at the
forefront of French revolutionary thought by examining the Declaration of rights,
which in 1789 stated that, “All men are equal by nature,” and brought republican
concepts such as liberty, equality and fraternity into awareness.3
When one looks at the motives behind the great revolutions of our time,
a recurring theme seems to prevail in all of them. There is a part of human
nature which makes freedom almost as much of a necessity as food and water. When
people’s freedom is somehow oppressed or taken away, discontent emerges. “As
soon as discontent is generalized a party is formed which often becomes strong
enough to struggle against the Government.”4 The conditional nature of this
statement can be attributed to the fact that discontent among a minority of
people is not enough to cause a revolution. There are other factors which are
necessary for a complete revolution to transpire. First, there must be a medium
whereby the masses are able to learn about the principles which will be fought
for. Second, there must be a means by which the masses can acquire sufficient
knowledge of the wrongs that have been perpetrated against them, in order to
foster and unite support for the cause. Third, there must be a way for the m
asses to receive information about the revolution all the time, so that support
does not wain, and so the revolutionaries can organize itself. The best and
easiest way for these factors to be satisfied is through the news media.
The involvement of the news media is important to any revolutionary
cause. In a democratic revolution it is especially important. When the
population revolts, in an effort to obtain democracy or a more liberal society,
it is only natural that the press become involved. The reason for this is not
as complicated as it may seem to be. In a democratic revolution, the radicals
are fighting for the rights that they believe they should have, if for no other
reason than by the fact that they are born. These rights are based on liberal
values such as the right to life, liberty and property. They also include the
right to freedom of speech and expression, and all the aspects that go with it,
like freedom of the press. In a revolution where freedom of the press is being
fought for, it is only natural that the press play a large role in the fight.
Harold Innis, when observing the development of a free press stated, “the
advantages of a new medium will become such as to lead to the emergence of a new
civilization.”5 Without a free press, the success of the great revolutions and
the societies that they helped to create, would not have been possible.
So we have seen why the press becomes involved in revolutions.
Essentially it is because the press, as we know it, is a liberal and democratic
institution which gives it strong ties to the revolutionary cause. However, the
question of the role that the press actually plays in a revolution still remains.
It is obvious that during a revolution, the newspapers do more than just report
on the facts. The facts, while still important, are not what the people want to
hear or what they need to hear. There are three essential functions that the
press perform during a revolution: education, unification and the safeguarding
of the new constitution.
For a revolution to begin, the people must know what it is they are
revolting against. For a revolution to continue, once started, the people must
have knowledge of the events that have been carried out in their name. The
Enlightenment served this first purpose somewhat, but for the most part, the
ideas of the Enlightenment were confined to the upper classes for reasons of
wealth and education.The ideas of that period did not reach the masses
because they were either unable to afford the books, or unable to read them, and
most of the time both. It was not until the censorship laws were lifted, that
the people really began to get a sense of the corrupt behavior of the
In pre revolutionary France, the press was tightly controlled by the
King and his government. It was officially forbidden to discuss the pros and
cons of government policies….The French government, increasingly willing to
allow periodicals that stimulated public discussion in every other area of life,
balked at officially permitting any honest discussion of its own doings.6
The only way for French citizens to find out about their government was
through the foreign press which was only moderately censored by the government
of France. However, towards the end of the Old Regime, even these foreign
papers were no longer sufficient to satisfy the reader’s demands for commentary
and behind the scenes stories in the news. These were necessary so that the
French could try to make sense of what was happening.7
The road to a censor free press was paved in May of 1788 when the French
government in an attempt to raise new taxes, tried to abolish the parlements,
who were opposing the tax increase. This move created great opposition to the
ministries and flooded the market with pro-parlement pamphlets. The strength of
this opposition was enough to make the government try another route. They
called the first meeting of the kingdom’s traditional representative assembly in
175 years, the Estates-General, which could undercut the authority of the
parlements and get the taxes passed. To build up support for this move, and to
counteract the anti ministerial pamphlets, censorship restrictions were lifted
and all authors were encouraged to publish their ideas about how the Estates-
General should proceed.8 In this way the press was able to begin educating the
masses on the problems caused by the absolutism of the French monarchy.
These early pamphlets provided the spark that was necessary for the
traditional periodical to take hold as the medium of the revolution. The
political pamphlet was too limited a medium to satisfy the demand for the news
and ideas that the calling of the Estates-General had created.9 The relative
advantages of daily newspapers were recognized early in the revolution. Two
men in particular, Jacques-Pierre Brissot and Honore-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de
Mirabeau, realized the power that newspapers could give to the revolutionary
cause, and they issued the first numbers of their unauthorized newspapers
shortly after the beginning of the sessions of the Estates-General. One of the
advantages that the newspaper has over the pamphlet is its extensive readership,
and the fact that it is a constant source of information. Whereas, the pamphlet
was only able to reach a limited audience and do so in a sporadic nature. As
Brissot said of the newspaper, “one can teach the same truth at the same moment
to millions of men; through the press, they can discuss it without tumult,
decide calmly and give their opinion.”10 The revolutionary press was able to
promote the ideas of the revolution in a manner that would have been impossible
for the pamphlets to carry out. The newspapers were able to unite people and
ideas from all over the country, something that mere geography would have
prevented the pamphlets from doing.
The third function that the revolutionary press performed, was to act as
the safeguard of the new society. The French Revolution was part of the series
of great modern revolutions, based on liberal democratic values. This series of
events made popular consent the only basis with which a government can claim
legitimacy.11 However, the French revolutionaries felt that all politics must
be carried on in public for it to be completely legitimate. “Publicity is the
people’s safeguard,”12 according to Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the revolutionary mayor
of Paris. To promote this theory, the revolutionary assemblies opened their
doors to the public. The only problem with this is that France happens to be a
very large country, and even then it had a very large population. In 1789 the
population of France was 28 million and the population of Paris alone was 600
000,13 which made it theoretically impossible for everyone to take part it the
new government. The newspapers were the only way that all of the citizens of
the new republic could, in a sense, participate.
In providing a link between the government and its citizens, not only
did they allow most citizens to be “active” participants, but the revolutionary
newspapers also filled the position of political watchdog. It was the absence
of a responsible press, that allowed the monarchs to rule unchallenged for so
long a period. That is why it has been said that the emergence of the press was,
“a development that was watched with unfriendly eyes by kings and Parliaments
alike.”14 The revolutionaries did not want there to be any possibility for the
new government to take advantage of their power, in the same manor that the
monarchs had used theirs. That is one of the reasons why they felt so strongly
about freedom of the press. Only a press independent of government interference
and regulation, would be able to effectively monitor the actions of the new
The press plays a large role in revolutionary times for various reasons.
The basis for this involvement is found in the very nature of the revolution
itself. Liberal revolutions fight for certain values, of which, the press and
its freedom are one. As a participant in the revolution the press also has many
specific roles. It acts as an educator, bringing knowledge of what the
revolution is fighting for and why. The press also acts as a common voice for
the revolutionary fight. It unites the revolutionaries from all over the
country and allows them to coordinate and organize. It also allows the people
to keep track of events on a daily basis because the newspaper can reach them
all the time. The third role of the press during revolutionary times is to
serve as the watchdog of the new political order. Without a free press, the new
government might be tempted to abuse the powers that have been conferred upon it.
Many historians have downplayed the importance of the press during these
periods of political upheaval, saying that the press was no more than an
observer. However, one cannot ignore the obvious influence that the press has
had in the bringing about of revolution.
Le Bon, Gustave. The Psychology of Revolution. USA: Fraser Publishing Company,
Censor, Jack Richard, Prelude to Power, The Parisian radical Press: 1789-1791,
Maryland: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976
The Influence of the Enlightenment on the French revolution, edited by William F.
Church, Canada: D.C. Heath and Company, 1974
Darton, Robert and Daniel Roche, Revolution in Print: The Press in France 1775-
1800, USA: New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations, 1989
Guy, James John, People, Politics & Government, Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan
Canada Inc., 1990.
Osler, Andrew. News, The Evolution of Journalism in Canada. Missisauga: Copp
Clark Pitman Ltd., 1993.
Popkin, Jeremy D. Revolutionary News, The Press in France 1789-1799. USA: Duke
University Press, 1990.
Footnotes 1James John Guy, People, Politics and Government, (Toronto, 1990),
p. 103. 2 Ibid., p. 81 3 Gustave Le Bon, The Psychology of revolution, (USA,
1968), pp. 162-3 4Ibid., p. 28. 5Andrew M. Osler, News, The Evolution of
Journalism in Canada, (Canada, 1993), p. 54. 6Jeremy D. Popkin, Revolutionary
News The Press in France, 1789-1799, (USA, 1990), pp. 19-20. 7Ibid., p. 22-3.
8Ibid., p.25. 9Ibid., p. 26. 10Ibid., p.28. 11Ibid., p. 2. 12Ibid., p. 3.
13Ibid., p. 3. 14Osler, p. 54.