The publication of news and information to the public at large has a long history at least going back to the Romans.
Graffiti and public information was inscribed on walls during roman times around the 1st century AD. But well before that humans cut symbols into stones and
tablets, and later onto papyri and scrolls, monks onto parchment and obviously print culture turns up through the invention of the printing press by Gutenburg in
Germany and Caxton in England in the 15th century.
Pamphlets, news-sheets, magazines of all different shapes and sizes have been published with the aim of disseminating ideas, views, values, gossip for centuries.
From the 18th century onward it was perhaps Britain that nurtured a voracious appetite for newspapers and their content. This obviously reflects upon an increasingly literate population.
Those who could not read would be read to in the pubs and streets.
Political attitudes towards ‘liberty of the press’ was divided right through to the mid-19th century. Tories tending to be anti and Whigs tending to be pro.
Not until 1824 were reporters allowed to take notes of what was said in Parliament.
Examples of the anti-argument can be seen below:
"newspapers poyson the minds of the common
people against his Majesty...vilify his Ministers, & disturb the public
peace to the scandal of all good Government."
Sir William Wyndham (1744):
"the press gave the people an opportunity of sitting in judgement every day
on the measures under discussion...tumultuously to express its
disapprobation or approbation - and favoured the propensity of all vulgar
minds...to form premature or intemperate decisions upon the whole matter"
Lord Castlereagh (1819):
"that a conspiracy existed for the subversion of the constitution and of the
rights of property; and that it was intended to subvert the fabric of the
constitution of the church and state...[and] of the means adopted for the
accomplishment of this end...the press was one of the principal. It has
produced the danger against which their Lordships have to guard"
Thus the popular idea that it is one of the great English Liberties as part of our Ancient Constitution to have liberty of expression and more particularly the Press, is a sentimental idea and rhetorical device that is not born out by the evidence.
Control of the press: prior to 1695 they could be prosecuted for treason, sedition, anti-religious views and so forth, eg. 1662 ‘Act for preventing the frequent abuses in printing seditious, treasonable, and unlicensed Books and Pamphlets, and for regulating Printing and Printing Presses.’
Monarchs happy to use such controls to damp down criticism especially in the turbulent period of the late 17th century in the aftermath of the English Civil War.
Jeremy Black (historian) puts it: [The Act was] “based on the theory tht the freedom to print was hazardous to the community and dangerous to its ruler, a threat to faith, loyalty, and morality…”
(Black, 1987, English Press in the 18th century, Croom Helm, p. 2)
The Act in force lapsed by 1695 NOT because the government wanted to free up control of the press but because there was so much political turbulence that Ministers did not get a new bill up and running in time and because of varying opinion as to how to regulate the press
Important date: 1712 the first Stamp Act.
Imposed by a Robert Harley’s Tory administration under Queen Anne.
This would impose taxes rather than pre-publication censorship (as had previously been the case)
Taxes in the form of a duty on each paper sold so that it would be deemed ‘stamped’ and thus be identified as a ‘legal’ newspaper.
Also taxes on advertisements
Those which went unstamped were illegal and liable to prosecution. The latter were often to regarded as the radical press whose cheapness (made cheaper because they went untaxed) made them available to the working class and artisans. Often anti-government, and seen as a potential source of sedition and stirring up of the proletariat, thus dangerous.
This stamped/unstamped situation went on until its repeal in 1855.
So we had in Great Britain a system of taxation on opinion (as some argued) which was the basis for the historians distinction between ‘Official’ and ‘Radical’ Press (Curran and Seaton make great use of this in their analysis)
It is a useful shorthand though.
By the mid 19th century the arguments for control of the press shifted as more influential voices and the rise of an organised working class and the decline of the radical press and the rise of more powerful printing presses….
Now it was argued that the dissemination of knowledge and information would incorporate the otherwise ‘alienated’ classes’ into the main body of the circulation of opinion and thus socialise them into the broad consensus of society.
One or two argued that an ongoing radical press would allow the radical hotheads to let off steam without any effect on the British Constitution.
Prosecution was often arbitrary and politically motivated against either the radical press which neither party liked or against official publications who had said things which displeased Ministers in power.
By the same token, Hannah Barker in her recent book, ‘Newspapers, Politics and English Society, 1695-1855’ has shown that both Whig and Tory parties sponsored newspapers so as to disseminate opinion favourable to their politics and to be critical of the political opposition. This was often done covertly.
By mid 19th century the radical press was dying and new printing technology and improved transportation systems made possible the emergence of mass sales and distribution of newspapers.
By 1880s – 1905 we get the a system of popular newspapers familiar to us today: Daily Express, Daily Mail etc.
Inter-War period – hefty competition between papers for sales . The arrival of the gimmick – offers to take advantage of if you buy this newspaper.
Age of the Press Barons
Women and Working class discovered as able to read! (Beauty tips and Whippets)
War years control/D-Notices.
Post-War – Age of Conglomerates and increased power of the Editor.
1969 Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Sun’
Wapping Dispute 1986 – a revolution in industrial relations in the print industry.