IN October 1882, the brilliant conversationalist and writer, Oscar Wilde, embarked on a lecture tour of America.
On passing through customs, he is reported to have said, “I have nothing to declare except my genius”.
But while Americans may have smiled at his witticisms, his dandified appearance, with Wilde wearing knee breeches and sporting a lily in his buttonhole, provoked an unfavourable reaction.
On the same lecture circuit was Alexander Forbes, a self-assured Scot who as a journalist had covered several wars, and who proudly wore his medals while on the lecture platform.
They developed a cordial dislike for one another and Wilde suspected Forbes of sending back highly adverse comments about the reception Wilde had received. One by one the press turned their fire on their effeminate visitor.
He was to respond to press nastiness by saying, “In old days men had the rack; now they have the press.”
But let’s be fair. Pressmen have a job to do, and while they sometimes get things wrong, or fail to handle a story with the requisite impartiality, they perform a valuable role in our society.
Thomas Jefferson may have been only partly in earnest, but there is substance in his remark, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers to newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”
He added, however, “I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them”.
While the latter part of that condition is not always fulfilled in our liberal society, the blessings of a free press cannot be overestimated.
The persistence of the British press have recently brought us the truth about Parliamentary expenses abuse, and exposed the false basis on which the invasion of Iraq was postulated.
Prince Harry may now feel himself the victim of this free press, after the printing of photographs of his naked romp in Las Vegas. He ought rather to examine his own juvenile behaviour and to scrutinise more carefully those whom he admits into his inner circle. While the law currently permits ‘super-injunctions’, it is surely wrong for anyone to think that their misdemeanours should be covered up just because of who they are.
We do not wish to live in a society like Putin’s Russia where freedom of thought or action is severely monitored.
We live in a world built on moral foundations where truth will out. Thomas Hardy wrote of the death of the one of his characters, and observed that “all her little shining keys will be taken from her, and her cupboards opened, and things she did not wish anyone to see, anybody will see.”
Jesus declared that the day would come when all secrets will be revealed. “there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Matthew 10:26).
The apostle Paul warned of a day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ (Romans 2;16). And that is more to be dreaded that rack or press.