17. On Albert Camus’ rules for journalism in dark and oppressive times
Or, how working as a journalist influenced Camus’ development as an intellectual and writer
When we first meet the journalist, Rambert, in The Plague, we are told that the reason he was initially sent to Algeria from France was to write ‘an investigative piece for a large Paris paper about the lives of the Arabs in the city, and he wanted information about their sanitary conditions.’ This is a partial reference to Camus’ own series of eleven articles, which he published in Alger Républicain in 1939, about the famine in Kabylia, Algeria, caused, in part, by drought, but exacerbated by the French colonial system. Previously, we saw how Camus’ tuberculosis shaped the direction of his life at significant junctures, at certain moments closing one door, but opening another. Journalism was one such juncture. In 1938 he had planned to become a school teacher, but his illness prevented him from doing so. ‘I was definitively denied my medical certification for the aggregation,’ he wrote to Jean Grenier at the end of that year. ‘A general government commission took a long time to decide my case. The conclusion was negative. It is for this reason I accepted the editorial job at Alger Républicain.’
The first edition of Alger Républicain, a new daily newspaper in Algiers, was published on October 6 1938. Camus was notified of his denied medical certification on October 8. Two days later, on October 10, he started work at the newspaper, hired by his friend and mentor, Pascal Pia, the editor-in-chief. ‘I am doing journalism (at Alger Républicain) – articles about dogs run over and some reporting – a few literary articles as well,’ he wrote to Grenier. ‘You know better than I how disappointing this job is.’
The newspaper had an anti-colonial agenda, arguing for full civic rights to all Arabs and Berber of Algeria, and the effective end of the colonial system. It was in this context that Camus travelled to Kabylia to report on the living conditions there. Camus also excelled at general crime reporting, spending a great deal of time at police stations and court rooms, advocating in the pages of the Alger Républicain in cases of gross injustice, particularly if the defendant was poor or Arab.
In September 1939 Camus enlisted for the war – twice – and was rejected both times, because of his tuberculosis. At the same time, he became the editor-in-chief of the new evening paper, Le Soir Républicain, an offshoot of Alger Républicain – once more, because of his illness: ‘it just so happened I was one of the few editors not to be drafted,’ he wrote to Grenier, regarding his hasty promotion. The first edition of Le Soir Républicain was published on September 15 1939, with the final edition, less than five months later, being on January 10 1940, when the police came in and permanently shut it down, confiscating the remaining copies of what became the final edition.
Le Soir Républicain had already been shut down by the authorities briefly in October 1939, before being more definitively shuttered that following January. While it was being published, the newspaper suffered continuous censorship, having articles removed or blacked out, before going to print. What particularly enraged Camus was that much of the material censored by the colonial administration had already passed the censors in mainland France and was openly published there: Algeria was intentionally being starved of information which was otherwise allowed in the rest of France. ‘So I made it [Le Soir Républicain] a newspaper reflecting what I believed to be true,’ Camus wrote to Grenier. ‘Which is to say, I defended freedom of thought against censorship, and war without hate (eventually, peace through negotiation) against public unrest. I suppose I went far enough in that direction, since the newspaper was banned in January after daily struggles.’
As a result, Camus was effectively blacklisted in Algeria, which is why he went briefly to France, to find work, but soon after returned to Oran to marry Francine, and to finish his first cycle of works.
On November 25 1939, with the war building momentum, Camus wrote an editorial for the Le Soir Républicain about the practice of journalism in such oppressive times. The topic of the article was the freedom of the press. ‘Of course, all freedoms have their limits,’ Camus wrote, ‘those limits, however, must be freely acknowledged, not imposed.... The question is how a journalist, faced with the suppression of that freedom, can remain free.’ He proposed four rules for a journalist to preserve and demonstrate freedom: ‘clarity, refusal, irony, and obstinacy’.
By ‘clarity’, Camus meant writing about a situation without giving in to hate or despair, fear or hope, but mainly he meant resisting the tendency to subordinate oneself to ‘the cult of inevitability’. He explains: ‘In the world of our experience, everything can be avoided. War itself, which is a human phenomenon, can be avoided or stopped at any moment by human means.’ For Camus, journalism should always reflect this probability that any event could be otherwise, reporting on an event without succumbing to it entirely.
This position may also broaden our understanding of Tarrou, in The Plague, when he states: “I understood that all human sorrow came from not keeping language clear.” This idea of reflects Camus’ idea of writing with ‘clarity’. ‘A free journalist in 1939 doesn’t despair,’ he wrote, which we can also read Tarrou saying of a free individual in the 1940s, ‘he struggles for what he believes is true as if his actions could influence the course of events. He publishes nothing that may excite hate or provoke desperation. All this is in his power.’
Along with clarity in what one says and writes, Camus offers a counter in the practice of refusal. ‘That’s the task to which a free journalist must devote his entire attention,’ Camus writes, ‘for though he may not be able to say all he thinks, it’s still possible for him not to say what he doesn’t think or what he believes to be false.’ For Camus, refusal is an example of negative freedom. ‘This completely negative freedom, if it can be maintained, is by far the most important of all, for it prepares the way for the arrival of true freedom.’
Added to clarity and refusal, Camus introduces the importance of irony: ‘We can postulate that, as a rule, a mind with a taste for applying constraints and possessed of the means to impose them is a mind impervious to irony. We don’t see Hitler – to take only one example out of several – employing Socratic irony.’ Irony becomes more important under conditions of overt oppression, when a direct statement is more likely to be targeted and censored. ‘It [irony] completes refusal in the sense that it often allows its users not only to reject the false but also to say what is true.’ But irony also allows the journalist to avoid slipping into their own variation of dogmatism, irony being directed as much at the journalist themselves as it is directed toward the world being reported on.
This leads to Camus’ final rule. To withstand all the obstacles placed in ones way, to be able to maintain the right relation between clarity, refusal, and irony, a journalist requires obstinacy. ‘By an odd but obvious paradox,’ Camus writes, ‘obstinacy in this case places itself at the service of objectivity and tolerance.’
Camus was 26 years old when he wrote this article on the freedom of the press in Algeria. The article never made it to print, however, as it was censored by the colonial administration. Following the final shuttering of Le Soir Républicain in January 1940 – and not counting the ten months he was layout editor for Paris-Soir in France, which was not a writing role – Camus didn’t work as a journalist or newspaper editor until he started at Combat in 1944. Over the subsequent four years that he was at Combat – during the period in which he was also working on the final version of The Plague – Camus took many opportunities to reflect in his editorials on the condition of the press, elaborating and expanding on the arguments he initially made whilst a journalist and editor in Algeria. Significantly, the first editorial he signed with his own name in Combat, after it began publishing openly during the period of liberation, was, on August 31 1944, an editorial critical of the press.
By 1944 Camus had already discovered the works of Brice Parain, and so it is not surprising that in expanding his own earlier notion of ‘clarity’, Camus would do so in terms of the operation of language itself. He argued in Combat that the press ought to ‘raise the country’s stature by ennobling its language’, and to do so by ensuring that its newspapers were ‘written in a decent style’. In late 1945, after failing to bring about the desired dialogue with Christian and Communist newspapers, during the reconstruction of France, Camus chose not to place the fault completely on the intransigence of his interlocutors, but rather on the vagaries of the shared political language at their joint disposal. ‘We did not conclude from these experiences that others were making dialogue impossible,’ he wrote. ‘We concluded, rather, that we had yet to find the words needed to bring us together, words that would have united us without requiring us to renounce our differences.’ He continued:
Despite our provisional failure, we remain convinced that this country and this world cannot be saved until they find the right words, the right vocabulary. We are still shading our meaning, or at any rate hurling back and forth words that each of us interprets differently. People sometimes tell us that the world needs to be made over. That may be true, but we cannot make the world new until we have given it a new lexicon.
Previously, Camus had defined ‘clarity’ to mean, in part, to be free from hatred. At Combat, and after surveying his press contemporaries, Camus saw that not only was such clarity lacking, but that it extended also to include hatred of their own readers. Articles that ‘flatter’ the public, he argued, simply by reflecting back their self-interest, their tastes, and partisan sentimentalities – in other words, their hopes and fears – was a form of journalism that holds ‘their readers in contempt’. Against the reflex posture from the press that “We give the public what it wants”, Camus replied: ‘It’s what the public has been taught to want for twenty years, which isn’t the same thing.’ He continued: ‘But if, day in and day out, twenty newspapers fill the air with mediocrity and fabrications, the public will breathe that air and become dependent on it.’ This creates an atmosphere that is not conducive to clarity. ‘The first condition for becoming a good independent journalist,’ Camus stated later, in October 1944, ‘is to learn not to be automatically contemptuous of one’s reader.’
For Camus, the counter to this was an attempt to awaken a reader’s ‘critical faculties’, instead of appealing simply to their ‘baser instincts’, to their hopes or fears. One way Camus suggested to do this was to publish more ‘background articles’, which he argued for over and against the complaint that this would take up far too much space and cut into space used for actual reporting. This was during a period, it must be understood, that suffered frequent paper shortages, and so column space was severely restricted. ‘One thing is clear: the news that is fed to our newspapers today – news which they print as they receive it – is useless without critical commentary.’ A large part of this, for Camus, involved bringing the reader backstage, to show them the practical limitations within which the news media was operating: to report on the technology of news reporting, how the editorial process worked, how the press agencies operated, and to show the impact of paper shortages and other production difficulties. The purpose of this was to make the reader invested in the importance and value of the form and function of their newspapers, as well as the content of the newspapers. But it was also to allow the reader to approach their daily newspaper more critically, by knowing the limitations within which it operated and reported.
This background and context to news production would extend also to the process of news reporting itself. Although Camus accepted that the journalist was an ‘historian of the moment’, he went on to explain the important differences between the two disciplines: unlike the historian, the journalist, by needing to write accurately about what had happened only one day before, operated under necessary time constraints, which led to a lack of critical distance from events, as well as a lack of necessary documents to compare and analyse, or limited access to witnesses. ‘The only thing he can do about this state of affairs is to offer an ethical corrective in the form of a concern with objectivity and prudence.’ This feeds into Camus’ concern with the rule of ‘refusal’, the ‘negative freedom’ of only printing what one knows to be true, and not being forced – by either internal or external pressures – to print what one does not know to be true: to be clear that all stories are provisional and incomplete.
Combat, for example, was not a newspaper of a party, and Camus refused partisanship in journalism, as a threat to independence, arguing instead for the press to operate ‘far from the deafening tumult of partisan voices, a forum where independent minds can still bear witness without pretentiousness or fear.’ This often required the ability to ‘swim against the tide’, but, Camus argued, this was a necessary cost. ‘In the age of lies,’ he wrote in April 1947, only months before the publication of The Plague, ‘even the clumsiest frankness is preferable to the best-orchestrated ruse.’
For Camus, all this necessitated his third rule: irony. A rhetorical tool used in order to point out the limitations of ideas or political actions of others, while being aware of one’s own (journalistic) limitations. ‘Irony is no stranger to us,’ Camus wrote, ‘and what we take seriously is not ourselves but the unspeakable ordeal that this country is going through and the bracing adventure upon which it has been obliged to embark.’ Irony was a way to activate morality, without slipping into moralism, and to avoid absolutism, while retaining a sense of the relativity of things. ‘How to avoid this danger?’ he wrote. ‘By means of irony.’
Adding: ‘Alas, these are not ironic times.’
As in 1939, in Algeria, so too in the mid-1940s, in France, Camus required obstinacy in order to affect the right relation between clarity, refusal, and irony in his journalism. But during that period, this relation had proven more difficult to achieve. These were, indeed, not ironic times. In the very first piece that Camus signed for Combat, he admitted that the paper had given into ‘sloth’. ‘During the insurrection the body was so overworked that the mind let down its guard,’ he wrote, arguing that many newspapers ‘followed the path of least resistance and reverted to formulas and ideas that threaten to undermine the morality of the press and the country.’ As he later admitted: ‘In this business, there is but one step from the presumptuous to the foolish.’
As with many of Camus’ criticisms, they are, at the same time, self-criticisms. Camus himself had lost clarity, and given in to hate, during the early period of the purge, not just slipping into moralism, but also the worst absolutism of all: the one which led to, and justified, people being killed. It was only after the Brasillach case, when Camus became a principled opponent to the death penalty, that he regained his clarity, his refusal, and his obstinacy. This stance against the legitimacy of political murder and violence – which, for Camus, extended also to a criticism of the use of polemics in writing, as a verbal form of violence – placed more weight on the importance of political language; for to stand with those ‘who are not prepared to commit murder in order to win an argument,’ as he wrote in March 1947, ‘free speech is the only thing we have left to defend what we believe to be true.’
Next week we will examine how Camus’ criticisms of journalism influenced his development as an intellectual and how this made its way into The Plague
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