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Robert KnightReforming Editor in Victorian India$

Edwin Hirschmann

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195696226

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195696226.001.0001

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(p.245) Appendix A The Role of the Press Under Imperial Rule

(p.245) Appendix A The Role of the Press Under Imperial Rule

Robert Knight
Oxford University Press

The most widely-quoted essay by Robert Knight is one which he wrote, not for publication, but in a letter to Major Owen Tudor Burne, Private Secretary to the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, on 31 July 1876, on the need for an independent press and ways in which the imperial government might fruitfully work with such a press. The original letter may be found in the Burne Papers in the British Library, MSS Eur. D951, vol. 27. Brief excerpts have been quoted in journalism histories (without the full citation). Parts were used above (see pp. 147–8). It was one of Knight's favourite subjects, and this was its fullest exposition

…The Government of India is necessarily a despotism, tempered only by the character of the men who administer it, their accountability to the House of Commons, and by the right of complete freedom of speech which has been accorded to the people. The State has conferred upon the people all the privileges of free men and, in the conscious integrity of its purpose, has conceded the right of free speech in every part of the empire. In doing this, the State seems to me to have placed in the hands of the newspaper Press a very responsible trust. It is not the place of the newspapers, I think, to be courtiers of the Government, but to represent the interests of all classes. And there is no country in the world, perhaps, in which it is more important that the Press should discharge this duty. But there has been a tendency of late years to less cordiality between Government and the Press than ever existed, and I do not think it has been the fault of the latter….the Government, as a whole, has come to look with less magnanimity upon the Press, especially upon the communication of its servants therewith, and in particular any criticisms of its proceedings or measures thereby. The change is for the worse altogether. To expect the Indian Press to be ‘official’ is, I think, to mistake its trust; while if we exclude loyal and well-informed criticism from its columns, we must not complain if they are filled with what is not loyal and is ill-informed….

(p.246) It seems to me that under the system of administration we have established in India, the only right conception of the office of the Press is that of Her Gracious Majesty's Opposition, and whether that opposition shall be well-informed and loyal or the reverse, depends wholly on the relations established therewith by the Government. If it shows sympathy therewith, admits it as far as possible to its councils, places all the information it properly can at its disposal, shows a readiness to defer to public opinion and wishes when they are reasonable, and instead of regarding the newspapers as a natural enemy, treats the Press as an ally actuated by the same desire as itself for the public welfare, …the country may patiently endure the want of those representative rights that are so prized and cherished wherever they exist, but that at present are admitted to be out of our reach in India. If, on the other hand, the Government shows no sympathy, is jealous of all appearance of consulting it, shows no deference to public wishes, however reasonable, looks upon the Press as factious and inspired by no real desire for the public good, and gives neither the support nor the encouragement it might reasonably expect—then the want of representative institutions becomes unendurable, and the whole Press guides insensibly into an attitude of hostility to the Government….