Further notes on the History of newspapers:
There are many definitions as to what a newspaper is – a sheet upon which some information is written and which circulates in a society? But this can include pamphlets, manifestos, adverts, and news as we understand it today. What a newspaper is, has been the subject of practical quarrels by the law and the courts as well as a matter of debate among historians.
If we say that newspapers are sheets of social, political, economic, cultural fact and opinion that circulate in a society, we can see a growth of this form of information distribution in the 18th century.
By the 18th century
Whig v Tory.
18th century politics can be divided into two
broad factions – whig and tory. But within and between
these can be found many quarrelsome factions who fought for political influence
over the populace, and power over, or in government. Roughly speaking, in
Georgian England, (the
reigns of George I, II, III after the death of Queen Anne in 1714) the Whigs
dominated government and enjoyed the support of the Monarch until George III’s
reign in the late 1760s. Whig in this time refers to a political faction and a
set of attitudes towards certain issues, notably things like religious
toleration, individual freedom and so forth, where whig was seen as being the
Court party who were close to the Monarch and more generally sympathetic to the
interests of the City, finance, and the importance of liberty of the
individual. Tories on the other hand, being out of Office (government) for so
long across the 18th century, felt alien from favour at Court and
saw themselves as aligned with the interests of the country. This condition of
exile nurtured resentment against government,
Extended note on 18th century constitutional politics.
Tories have always appealed to the natural order of things and of tradition. This was especially so in the areas of religion and monarchy. The English Civil War in the 1640s had destroyed this idea by causing a Catholic Monarch to be in armed dispute with Parliament and protestant religion. The very structure of the English state with all its evolved traditions were being broken, and with it the Tory sense of good government, of a King by inheritance expressing the religion of his people, and of the continuity of order in the nation. After the Civil war and the republic under Cromwell that followed, Monarchy was restored with Charles II. Being childless there was a threat that after his death, his brother James, a Catholic, would become King. Tories, being now (like the whigs) solidly Anglican Protestants, were torn between their tradition of principled support for a rightful inheritor of the throne (as James was) and the unacceptable matter of a Catholic monarch. James short reign in 1688 was fated by his promotion of Catholics to positions of power. James was quickly driven out in a bloodless coup by both whigs and tories inviting William of Orange (protestant dutch), the husband of James eldest daughter, Mary (a good protestant), to become King of England. (This episode was the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.) With this rather dodgy arrangement, tories could pretend that the protestant succession had been saved, and the order of tradition, monarchy, nation and state preserved. After William, his daughter, dully protestant Anne, came to the throne in 1702. She was supportive of the Tory administration of Robert Harley, and the mercurial Henry St John, Lord Bolingbroke. But she was childless and her successor was George, Elector of Hanover (Germany). (George was a very distant relative of Anne, whose right to the English throne had been arranged by parliament in 1701 as a pre-emptive manoevre against a future Catholic monarch.) Thus it was that in effect a monarch was appointed by parliament rather than by some tory ideal of ‘natural’ (by direct line/birth) successor ordained by God. Again the tory sense of the proper order of things was undermined. George I and II were supportive of the whig interest and ministers and thus ensured the dominance of whig politics until the 1760s.
Back to the Press and politics:
It is clear that life in Britain was very divided by politics, religion, monarchy, and sentiment. There was much to argue about and writers did their work paid for by supporters of various factions. The press then was heavily dependent upon political patronage – newspapers and journalists in the pay of these political interests. Individual newspapers circulated the ideas and opinions of individual political factions and their sometimes charismatic leaders. One could not report what was happening in Parliament, so again journalists needed good relations with Ministers and parliamentarians to tell them what was going on. Some of the very greatest English writers of the early 18th century were strongly associated with certain political factions, notably Jonathan Swift (whig, later Tory) (he wrote‘Gullivers Travels’– a political satire).
A broad generalisation is that many news-sheets of the 18thC acted as an agency of particular political opinions. However, there were of course many kinds of newspapers, and lots of papers circulating in the cities were little more than gossip sheets about the doings of local people.
The rise of advertising did much to alleviate the dependency culture of the press upon political interests. It brought in politically independent revenue and led to proper pay for journalists who gained a more professional profile as a result.
Control: Direct and Indirect.
Although the press had been in the pay of politics, politics in the form of the government of the day were always suspicious of the power of the press when it could generate hue and cry about an issue and encourage anti-governmental sympathies. On the one hand politicians subsidised the press and on the other they were motivated when in power, to create legislation which could in various ways censor and control the press. There were direct and indirect ways of control:
a) imprisoning editors for slander, libel, treason, sedition…
b) giving out heavy fines for these offences which they could not pay so closing down the paper;
c) removal of the presses for these offences
d) taxation on papers; of which there were several kinds: Stamp duty 1712 onwards, taxes on paper, ink and adverts. Failure to pay these duties meant you were an ‘illegal’ newspaper and thus liable to fines or being shut down.
Curran and Seaton have especially drawn our attention to the effectiveness of the latter against the ‘radical press’ (supporting the agricultural workers and the artisans (craftsmen) in the small towns). Because life was so hard in the country and bad weather could cause harvests to fail that led swiftly to poverty and starvation, the tone of the radical press was usually anti-government and campaigning for improvements for farm workers. The radical press was often little more than political rabble-rousing and government sought to rein in such causes of social and political dissent.
Thus in London and in Government in general, there was a clear equation made between the press and threats to good government and the maintenance of social order.
The populist cry of ‘Liberty of the Press’ emerged in the struggles between government and the press in the early 18th century. Whigs were more sympathetic than Tories to such claims of press freedom, but when in government neither faction liked criticism by meddling journalists who stirred up the vulgar public.
By the end of the 18th century (1789) the French Revolution, though it signified the ending of the Ancien Regime of monarchy in France and thus the defeat of England’s historic enemy (which was largely Catholic), nonetheless worried government. This was because it showed how bad things could get when the masses went on the rampage; namely a monarchy deposed in favour of a republic. Britain, now a settled constitutional monarchy, did not like the smell of the French Revolution and was uneasy about the level of support that it attracted in Britain from even highly educated voices and pens.
(It may be noted that just before all this, the press had created a popular campaign to end the slave trade, which to wealthy slave owners in the west Indian plantations was a threat to their life and business, and was of course, more generally, an attack on some people in the higher socio-economic classes.)
Many newspapers of this time portrayed the French revolution as a good example of why Britain should become more democratic and not be a country where the very few rule the many. Equally newspapers developed republican sympathies a la France. It was the shocking regicide of the French royal family in 1793 which turned the press against the ideals of the French revolution. Furthermore, Britain was drawn into a war (for the next 20 years) between France and her neighbours and this gave rise to a patriotic backlash in the press. It rallied the public to King, Country and Anglican Protestantism. Non-conformist or dissenting protestantism now being condemned in Britain for its support of the revolutionary republican ideals. How fickle is the press!!! Out of this period emerged the Napoleonic wars which were to end in Britain’s most famous victories such as Trafalgar and Waterloo under some new heroes: Nelson and Wellington. The emergence of these celebrities only furthered the patriotism of public and press. BUT at the same time…
In the early years of the 19th century while these wars were grinding on and the press and people exuded patriotic sentiment, there was also extensive popular protest at home in agriculture and in the manufacturing industries that were growing up. Desperation borne of poverty at this time; the fear of unemployment as a result of the introduction of machines in the factories (Luddism) and the re-emergence of calls for political reform due to scandal and corruption in high places (ie. Govt, Ministers, Royalty) all converged to create radical causes which the radical press were happy to report. Government and Minsters as usual sought to suppress this by the usual means of prosecution of editors and fining illegal ‘unstamped’ newspapers. (nb. ‘reform’ means making changes to improve matters, but this often involves criticising those in authority and changing the ways things are done – a challenge to tradition; this never goes down well with those running things! ‘Reformers’ are seen as great people and as troublemakers in equal measure)
As with today’s newspapers, the press of the 18th century supported one cause one day, and a wholly opposite cause the next. They also banged the patriotic drum of King and Country whilst giving support to popular issues which were clearly against the interests of those in power. And there were those papers which consistently maintained their conservative/tory or radical stance irrespective of events.
There is no question that hundreds of thousands of cheap unstamped radical newspapers were sold across this period. In this sense the government was fighting a losing battle against troublesome newspapers. Radical press success was most apparent in the period 1815 – 1850 when a series of radical causes were taken up by the press which led to legislative reform in regard of taxes, widening of the electorate (Reform Act 1832), and Catholic Emancipation and Religious tolerance(getting rid of religious discrimination in favour of Anglican Protestantism). There were also other radical causes which attracted press support such as the Chartist Movement in the 1830s calling for extensive political reform, and the campaign for reducing the working hours of women and children in the factories. These issues brought forth a myriad of small publications. Some like the Northern Star grew to be immensely successful (50,000 copies sold of each issue). In some ways the radical press was at its height in the 1830 and 1840s and even The Times, by then the leading paper read by the middle and upper classes in the cities (London), were sympathetic to some of the reform measures being widely debated.
More particularly there was an ongoing campaign by the press to get rid of the duties and taxes on newspapers. It restricted circulation and sales of both radical and conservative (government friendly) papers. By 1855 when much of the radical agitation of the 1830 and 1840s had all but blown itself out, the government repealed the Stamp Duty arguing that the circulation of a wide variety of opinions, and also access of the poorer sections of society to good newspapers eg. The Times, could only have a civilising and educational effect. This would tend to encourage them to be good rather than troublesome citizens.
The campaigns to get rid of the taxes on the press were successful; the main one being the 1855 repeal. But the tax on adverts had been repealed 2 years before in 1853 and the repeal of taxes on paper was to come in 1861. The pernicious system of making editors set side £200 in case of a successful libel suit against their newspaper was repealed in 1869.
Political moderation and the decline of the radical press in the Victorian Age.
From the 1850s onwards Britain settled down to the fruits of the Victorian age and lost its radical edge. The emergence of an organised well-structured political party system from the 1830s onwards between Conservative and Liberal parties stabilised the representation of politically contentious issues within the terms of parliamentary democracy. Queen Victoria and the triumph of Britain as the leading Imperial nation was a source of pride to all classes. On the surface at least a sort of common national culture was beginning to emerge; one not so badly riven by radical versus conservative opinion.
Literacy rates rose from an estimated 69% in 1850 to 97% by 1900, and wages across this period rose markedly while, due to repeal of the press taxes, the price of newspapers fell. This enabled a mass readership and mass sales.
At the same time as this, the possibilities of mass press came with new developments in press technology. With mechanical innovations the number of copies that could be printed per hour increased by leaps and bounds. A distribution system in the form of the railways strengthened across the late 19th century enabling national newspapers.
Curran and Seaton emphasise that advertisers, whose money was a major source of income to papers from the 1860s onwards, were unwilling to place adverts with radical or left-wing newspapers that were not sympathetic to capitalism, and business more generally. They claim that this had a marked effect upon the kind of ideology and values which the press adopted. Big selling newspapers with a radical edge were obliged to soften their tone to comply with the values of the advertisers. Curran and Seaton suggest that this was an important reason why the radical press lost its radical impact, and part of the reason why the public became far less exposed to radical (government challenging) ideas.
Into the 20th C: a national mass press.
The new kinds of more powerful presses were expensive and thus required people with plenty of money to start newspapers. The old ‘on-a-shoestring’ budget press could not compete with the rise of a press that was becoming an overtly commercial big budget enterprise. In the 1820s one could start a paper for £200-£300, it was said by a newspaper proprietor in the 1850s that a paper could not be effective for under £20,000 start up cost. By the turn of the 20th century newspaper start-up costs were estimated at more than £500,000.
And as I have noted, newspaper content was shifting from highly political concerns to much more popular light mass consumption issues. Crimes and ‘orrible murders were especially enjoyed. The Whitechapel Murders (Jack the Ripper) being a real treat for the news hungry.
By the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were a thoroughly capitalist enterprise. They were mostly controlled, as a rather personal fiefdom by one man – the Press Baron. Notable ‘Press barons’ were:
Lord Northcliffe (Times, Daily Mail, Weekly Dispatch, London Evening News,
Lord Rothermere – who was Northcliffe’s brother – controlled h daily Mirror, Sunday Pictorial, Glasgow evening News, Sunday Mail.
The Berry brothers – Lord Camrose and Lord Kemsley: Daily Telegraph and a string of regional newspapers.
After the death of Northcliffe in 1922 came Lord Beaverbrook (Express)
By the inter-war period 1918-1939, there was a clear pattern of concentration of ownership within national newspapers even though this had been greater in 1910 than in 1939. Concentration of ownership has been a feature of the press in the last 40 years as well.
In the inter-war period papers competed for sales and readers viciously, making all kinds of offers of free books, gadgets, insurance, encyclopaedias and so forth if you bought a weeks worth or more of such and such a paper.
Papers realised that working class and women readers were to be appealed to. Apparently they could read too! Thus one saw the appearance of many more sports and human interest stories – stories about film stars, cosmetics, fashion. Marjorie Proops, who started on the Mirror in the 30’s, was ordered to do stories about beauty tips. She was clearly shocked as she had thought that she would be writing about affairs of State and of political or social importance.
During the war Churchill put Brendan Bracken in charge of propaganda and information. The government via Bracken among others, censored or demanded changes to news stories. It is not clear that all examples of censorship were purely for the good of the war, but after the war such controls were lifted.
After the second World war: from Press Baron to Media Mogul.
The post-war period was still a period of rationing not least on paper, so immediate post-war newspapers were thin poor quality things. But despite this the new Labour government of 1945-51 instituted in 1947 a Commission of Inquiry into the state of the Press. This was largely a response to concerns about concentration of ownership, a factor which they concluded was not a serious problem. This inquiry did show up journalistic practices which were shabby and very much part of the pre-war world of the arbitrary ideas of the Press Baron owner.
By the 1960s it was clear that proprietorial control over content was giving way to editorial control. The age of the press barons was largely over and a new age of conglomerates was beginning, presided over by media moguls. That is, newspapers owned by large companies for the purposes of making profit, run by an often charismatic chief executive. But these huge companies are conglomerates; that is, they do not just own a single paper, they own a variety of companies that may be producing all kinds of goods. In Murdoch’s and Maxwell’s case they owned a variety of papers and TV stations.
Under the conglomerate approach, papers would change their political line here and there if sales started dropping. Small instance is when David Yelland, then editor of the Sun suggested there was a gay mafia running the cabinet. He clearly regretted his homophobia as it led to complaints from readers and falling sales. The Sun started to become softer on social issues as the attitudes of the public had changed.
Yes, the modern media mogul – classic case is Rupert Murdoch – will exercise his power in accordance with his political views, but not that often, and will always have an eye to the balance sheet. Murdoch may be right-wing ideologically, but he is a pragmatist when it comes to business. Don’t forget, the Sun started out supporting Labour in the late 60s, changed its support to Thatcher in the mid-70s when she became leader of the Conservative party (1975), withdrew support for John Major in the mid-nineties and supported Tony Blair (1997 to today).
Murdoch’s trick is to appoint an editor who broadly shares his political opinions. Thus his papers will tend to reflect their owners politics without him having to order his journalists to reflect his values (in the bullying way the old pre-war Press Barons used to do).
Forms of Power and Control in the Newspaper Industry.
Government’s and more generally the public are suspicious that the press and media, if they are allowed too much power without responsibility, will somehow propagandise us into accepting their view and opinions. Press power grows in the hands of one owner when that owner starts to buy up major newspaper – concentration of ownership, and it has long been held that while there are many newspaper titles circulating and publishing a wide variety of stories and views, in general they all revolve around a common liberal/conservative agenda. Left wing critics argue that pluralism of the press is an illusion beneath which is a dominant broadly right-wing agenda. In the tabloids this amounts to the usual ‘public order and hanging’ brigade issues of immigration controls and prison for lager louts etc.
Clearly there is concern that the press can become too powerful and exercise disproportionate ideological control over us, especially if one company owns too many titles and perhaps TV stations as well. But if that is one source of power in the media, historically there is another inside the print industry which Murdoch in 1986 removed: namely union power.
Print Unions (SOGAT and National graphical Association, NGA) had obliged papers to pay high wages for low output and low work hours. Print union scams were legendary in the industry and managers were terrified of the union lest they struck and lost a day’s publication. The unions had long resisted the new technologies that had been accepted in the rest of the world. They protected their rights and agreements irrespective of whether the world changed or not. This ‘luddite’ mentality was to be fatal to them in the long run.
The Wapping revolution.
The rivalry between papers in the 1980s and competition meant that the papers were looking to cut costs. 2 obvious areas to do this: use new technology to cut production costs, and cut the wages bill – the first would tend to produce the second. Both were entirely unacceptable to the unions. But circumstances were in Murdoch’s favour: 1) The PM was Thatcher, his friend, who would be delighted by the destruction of the print unions; 2) Eddy Shah had managed to introduce new technology into the production of his newly launched paper ‘Today’. 3) Robert Maxwell has in 1985 successfully negotiated with the unions the laying off of 2100 workers in his papers. 4) Most newspaper had plans to change the structure of their operations and move out of central London, ‘Fleet St’ – to cheaper areas such as the Docklands. Fleet St was on the move.
These factors paved the way for Murdoch’s move out to Wapping. He struck in January 1986 having in secret created a huge printing plant in Wapping. He told the unions that a bit of printing would probably go on at Wapping. The Unions were feuding among themselves and within themselves far too much to notice what was happening in the print industry and that they faced eventual ruin. They were taken in by Murdoch. He had developed a plant that could produce a national daily newspaper on a skeleton staff – just the management team if necessary. When he suddenly move his whole operation over to Wapping with all its new technology, the unions called a strike and picketed the plant for days, but their struggle was over once the journalists failed to support the print unions. The fact was, Murdoch’s operation no longer needed lots of print workers. Thus their striking was futile. Equally their protection of old fashioned working practices and inflated wages were widely seen as indefensible.
After this new contracts were drawn up, staff laid off and the whole structure of Murdoch’s operation was re-organised to effectively allow management to gain complete control of the business and running of a daily newspaper. This whole method of pulling a newspaper into line became something of blueprint for the rest of the newspaper industry. The ‘Wapping Revolution’ is not too strong a description to describe the overthrow of Fleet St.