A Farthing Newspaper by George Orwell

The following is an article written by George Orwell for G.K.’s Weekly in 1926. Here Orwell comments on an odd little newspaper in Paris, one that that aimed to bring news purely for the benefit of the public, at least in that is its intention. The small paper wanted to take on the media moguls of the time, an issue we are seeing take new forms today. This remains as relevant a commentary now as it did 90 years ago.

The Ami du Peuple is a Paris newspaper. It was established about six months ago, and it has achieved something really strange and remarkable in the world where everything is a “sensation,” by being sold at ten centimes, or rather less than a farthing the copy. It is a healthy, full-size sheet, with news, articles, and cartoons quite up to the usual standard, and with a turn for sport, murders, nationalist sentiment and anti-German propaganda. Nothing is abnormal about it except its price.

Nor is there any need to be surprised at this last phenomenon, because the proprietors of the Ami du Peuple have just explained all about it, in a huge manifesto which is pasted on the walls of Paris wherever billsticking is not defendu. On reading this manifesto one learns with pleased surprise that the Ami du Peuple is not like other newspapers, it was the purest public spirit, uncontaminated by any base thoughts of gain, which brought it to birth. The proprietors, who hide their blushes in anonymity, are emptying their pockets for the mere pleasure of doing good by stealth. Their objects, we learn, are to make war on the great trusts, to fight for a lower cost of living, and above all to combat the powerful newspapers which are strangling free speech in France. In spite of the sinister attempts of these other newspapers to put the Ami du Peuple out of action, it will fight on to the last. In short, it is all that its name implies.

One would cheer this last stand for democracy a great deal louder, of course, if one did not happen to know that the proprietor of the Ami du Peuple is M. Coty, a great industrial capitalist, and also proprietor of the Figaro and the Gaulois. One would also regard the Ami du Peuple with less suspicion if its politics were not anti-radical and anti-socialist, of the goodwill-in industry, shake-hands-and-make-it-up species. But all that is beside the point at this moment. The important questions, obviously, are these: Does the Ami du Peuple pay its way? And if so, how? The second question is the one that really matters. Since the march of progress is going in the direction of always bigger and nastier trusts, any departure is worth noticing which brings us nearer to that day when the newspaper will be simply a sheet of advertisement and propaganda, with a little well-censored news to sugar the pill. It is quite possible that the Ami du Peuple exists on its advertisements, but it is equally possible that it makes only an indirect profit, by putting across the sort of propaganda wanted by M. Coty and his associates. In the above-mentioned manifesto, it was declared that the proprietors might rise to an even dizzier height of philanthropy by giving away the Ami du Peuple free of charge. This is not so impossible as it may sound. I have seen a daily paper (in India) which was given away free for some time with apparent profit to its backers, a ring of advertisers who found a free newspaper to be a cheap and satisfactory means of blowing their own trumpet. Their paper was rather above the average Indian level, and it supplied, of course, just such news as they themselves approved, and no other. That obscure Indian paper forecast the logical goal of modern journalism; and the Ami du Peuple should be noticed, as a new step in the same direction.

But whether its profits are direct or indirect, the Ami du Peuple is certainly prospering. Its circulation is already very large, and though it started out as a mere morning paper it has now produced an afternoon and late evening edition. Its proprietors speak with perfect truth when they declare that some of the other papers have done their best to crush this new champion of free speech. These others (they, too, of course, acting from the highest altruistic motives) have made a gallant attempt to [have] it excluded from the news­agents’ shops, and have even succeeded as far as the street-corner kiosks are concerned. In some small shops, too, whose owners are socialists, one will even see the sign “Ici on ne vend pas l’Ami du Peuple” exhibited in the windows. But the Ami du Peuple is not worrying. It is sold in the streets and the cafes with great vigour, and it is sold by barbers and tobacconists and all kinds of people who have never done any newsagency before. Sometimes it is simply left out on the boulevard in great piles, together with a tin for the two-sou pieces, and with no attendant whatever. One can see that the proprietors are determined, by hook or by crook, to make it the most widely-read paper in Paris.

And supposing they succeed — what then? Obviously the Ami du Peuple is going to crowd out of existence one or more of the less prosperous papers — already several are feeling the pinch. In the end, they will presumably either be destroyed, or they will survive by imitating the tactics of the Ami du Peuple. Hence every paper of this kind, whatever its intentions, is the enemy of free speech. At present France is the home of free speech, in the Press if not elsewhere. Paris alone has daily papers by the dozen, nationalist, socialist, and communist, clerical and anti-clerical, militarist and anti-militarist, prosemitic and anti-semitic. It has the Action Française, a Royalist paper and still one of the leading dailies, and it had Humanite, the reddest daily paper outside Soviet Russia. It has La Liberia, which is written in Italian and yet may nor even be sold in Italy, much less published there. Papers are printed in Paris in French, English, Italian, Yiddish, German, Russian, Polish, and languages whose very alphabets are unrecognizable by a western European. The kiosks are stuffed with papers, all different. The Press combine, about which French journalists are already grumbling, does not really exist yet in France. But the Ami du Peuple, at least, is doing its gallant best to make it a reality.

And supposing that this kind of thing is found to pay in France, why should it not be tried elsewhere? Why should we not have our farthing, or at least our half-penny newspaper in London? While the journalist exists merely as the publicity agent of big business, a large circulation, got by fair means or foul, is a newspaper’s one and only aim. Till recently various of our newspapers achieved the desired level of “net sales” by the simple method of giving away a few thousand pounds now and again in football competition prizes. Now the football competitions have been stopped by law, and doubtless some of the circulations have come down with an ugly bump. Here, then, is a worthy example for our English Press magnates. Let them imitate the Ami du Peuple and sell their papers at a farthing. Even if it does no other good whatever, at any rate the poor devils of the public will at last feel that they are getting the correct value for their money.

Leo Stepnowsky

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