An influential critic of the English legal system, society, and government, Bentham founded the Utilitarian school of philosophy, which sought to place social theory and reform on a commonsense basis and to extend the benefits of an organized political community to all classes of society. Bentham was also a lifelong supporter of freedom of the press as a check on governmental abuse of power, and as an indispensable link between people and government. In his first published work, A Fragment on Government (1776), he wrote of the free press that through it “every man, be he of one class or the other, may make known his complaints and remonstrances to the whole community.” Bentham was also the intellectual—and formally designated—godfather of John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty (1859) included an impassioned case against stifling free expression through censorship or other means.
The full significance of Bentham’s attacks on censorship was only apparent, however, after the close of the struggle with France in 1815. Thereafter the democratic implications became manifest of Bentham’s belief that the welfare of the lowest pauper should count as much to society as the happiness of the highest prince. As a full-blown democrat, Bentham set to work out reform proposals and policies that would put into practice his view that “the more closely we are watched, the better we behave.” Bentham had already put that philosophy to practice in his plans for a new kind of prison architecture and management in which inmates could be constantly watched. In the new democratic world of democracy that he envisaged, the “watchdog” function took a new form. Since governments tend constantly to abuse their power, the democratic public must have the means to expose government’s misdeeds. That means was a free and active press, which could inform an equally active and censorious public opinion.
The ultimate sanction against a corrupt or abusive government was elections that removed wrongdoers from office. However, as Bentham suggested in his pamphlet On the Liberty of the Press (1823), a free press is an essential tool for a democratic citizenry. Press freedom is not just a question of what Bentham called “securities against misrule.” Democratic liberty exists in part when government has sufficient power to carry out the popular will; but democratic government is also to be responsive to public demands and complaints. An unfettered press is a principal means of transmitting public sentiment between elections as well as informing an...
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