The Fight for Press Freedom

November 29, 2012
by matthewgreen

With Lord Justice Leveson poised to publish his report on the future of the press, Dr Matthew Green looks back at 317 years of press freedom.  

‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’, Milton cried during the political and religious Armageddon of the 1640s. But his dreams weren’t realised within his lifetime.

A strict regime of pre-publication censorship was established in 1662 by Charles II’s vengeful Parliament. No book, pamphlet or periodical could be published without an official stamp that nothing inside was ‘contrary to the Christian faith…or against the state or government of this realm or contrary to good life or manners.’ The country’s sole newspaper, The London Gazette (which still exists) was an anodyne, state-controlled organ crammed with foreign news, royal proclamations, and runaway servant notices.

Punishments were severe. In 1663, the government’s Surveyor of the Press, a fearsome man called Sir Roger l’Estrange, caught maverick printer John Twyn correcting proofs of a pamphlet called A Treatise on the Execution of Justice which he’d been surreptitiously printing throughout the night. Referring to Charles II as the antichrist, it urged the people of England to rise up and seize the reins of government from the ‘bloody and oppressive House of Stuart’. For this he was hanged, drawn, and quartered; his four limbs were tied above four City gates and his head was placed on a spike at Ludgate, a warning to the printers and pamphleteers of Fleet Street.      

But in spite of this draconian censorship regime, no more than half the publications that appeared in Restoration London were licensed. It was plain for all to see: England’s machinery of pre-publication censorship wasn’t working. And then in 1695, it grinded to an earth-shattering halt. This had far-reaching consequences that would transform the face of Fleet Street forever, ushering England from the gorge of ignorance into an age of enlightenment (early newspaper titles included the Comet, Lantern, Sun, and Star, all purporting to illuminate the public).

The Victorians liked to portray 1695 as an ideological watershed. But in truth, the lapsing of censorship didn’t flow from any moral or philosophical epiphanies; it was an accidental revolution, a recognition that existing censorship was unfair, ineffective, excessive, unworkable, and a brake upon free enterprise. As Macaulay puts it, the MPs ‘knew not what they were doing, what a revolution they were making, what a power they were calling into existence’. By unshackling the press, they were the midwives who delivered a vicious puppy that would eventually grow into a “feral beast” that would make politicians quake in their boots.

Within months, a sprightly and prolific newspaper press had sprung into life. In 1702, England’s first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, began operating from a house on the eastern bank of the fetid river Fleet with its dead dogs, suicide victims, and filth. This was the primordial ooze from which scores of other newspapers would arise in subsequent years.

By 1712, there were twelve different newspapers published on the streets of London each week; by the 1740s this had risen to 18, and by 1790, 23. Whereas the total weekly circulation in 1712 was 66,000 by the 1780s this had leaped to 300,000 although contemporaries noted around 20 people read or sung each copy aloud in taverns and coffeehouses. Illiteracy was no barrier to media consumption.

The press boom triggered what journalist Joseph Addison called ‘news frenzy’ in 1712.  For foreign visitors, visiting London was like visiting Mars. In the 1720s Swiss tourist César de Saussure observed how London workmen “habitually begin the day by going to coffee-rooms in order to read the latest news”; in the 1790s a Prussian visitor found it surreal that even fish-mongers devoured newspapers and cultivated pious opinions on matters of high state.

Newspapers nurtured and articulated public opinion. This made members of the political elite uneasy: ‘Shall every cobbler in his stall pretend a knowledge of political affairs?’ blasted Lord Perceval in 1743. If the newspapers themselves liked to portray themselves as vessels of enlightenment, its opponents maintained it was sinister and manipulative. ‘I never saw a man with a newspaper in his hand, without regarding him with the sensation he was taking poison’ recalled the MP William Wyndham in 1799.

Unsurprisingly, Parliament debated re-introducing pre-publication censorship at several points after 1695. But consensus in a parliament bitterly divided between tories, Court whigs, Country whigs, and Jacobites remained as elusive as ever. The initiatives never got anywhere. As the tsunami of print swept through England, the government came to realise, grudgingly, that printed refutation not repression was a better way of facing down criticism. As Roger l’Estrange, the Bloodhound of the Press, eventually came to realise: ‘tis the press that has made ‘em Mad, and the Press must set ‘um Right again.’ Accordingly, Robert Walpole spent the colossal sum of £50,000 subsidising pro-ministerial press over a ten-year period.

Becoming infused with a sense of its own power, eighteenth-century Fleet Street was unprincipled, devious and corrupt. Editors cared little for the moral consequences of their campaigns. In outraged weekly doses in 1757, the Monitor bayed for the blood of Admiral Byng, a competent naval commander who had retreated from a vastly stronger and better-equipped French fleet in 1756, losing British Minorca as a result. He was unequivocally not to blame yet the Monitor relentlessly portrayed him as a despicable coward and traitor who ought to be executed immediately, helpfully reminding readers how the Romans had dealt with traitors.

One Londoner was so horrified by this media witch hunt that he was compelled to write a poem in his diary castigating the Monitor as a “merciless moulder of judgement and death.” He wrote: “Byng must be dispatched; and it does mighty well, for the mob to be pleased and the paper to sell”. The media got their scalp: Byng was executed by firing squad two days after the Monitor’s latest tirade; a ‘lullaby’, as another reader put it, to quell the wrath of the news media and its frenzied readers.

Eighteenth-century England didn’t have a completely free press, of course – what society ever has? It was still subject to the seditious libel laws, which were applied unevenly but sometimes in a heavy-handed fashion, as Daniel Defoe found to his cost when he ended up in the stocks after impersonating a bigoted tory in his The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), which recommended dissenters should be rounded up and roasted in an oven or exported to hard labour camps. Evidently the whigs, who prosecuted him, didn’t get irony – Defoe, after all, was a dissenter himself.

It wasn’t until the 1770s that both Houses of Parliament finally consented to the publication of parliamentary debates and successive governments tried to restrict newspaper readership to the ‘respectable classes’ by imposing stamp duties on newspapers, advertisements, and paper. These were only lifted in 1855, bringing the respectable press within reach of the working classes.

Around this time, the idea of a free press came to be embraced, cautiously. It had, after all, proved loyal to the Hanoverian regime during its darkest hour: the Jacobite invasion of 1745-6. ‘The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Britain, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country’, wrote radical MP John Wilkes in 1762. Other defenders described the freedom of the press as a ‘privilege’, ‘inheritance’, ‘benefit’ and, in one instance, ‘the embryo, which in its maturity and vigour is destined to annihilate the slavery of the human race’. The Scottish philosopher James Mill argued that the press was a surrogate for popular protest, absorbing revolutionary impulses that might otherwise lead to unrest.

Today, a dark cloud looms over the future of the free press as Lord Justice Leveson publishes his report. For the editor of the Independent Chris Blackhurst Leveson is ‘loading a gun’ for the newspaper industry; for Michael Gove, the Enquiry has fostered a ‘chilling atmosphere’ towards the freedom of the press. But the history of the press shows that as long as there’s a high demand for news, state regulation doesn’t really work. And after all, everything the News of the World is alleged to have done was illegal in the first place. Are new laws really the answer? Why don’t we just put Rebekah, Rupert and Andy in the stocks instead?

For a chance to meet John Twyn and Sir Roger l’Estrange – and to witness the 18th-century media revolution unfurling before your eyes – book a place on Unreal City Audio’s immersive, critically acclaimed Ghosts of Fleet Street live tour. 


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