Week 79: A Brief History of Newspapers

il_fullxfull.310016341When I was about ten years old, I launched a newspaper. I was proprietor, editor, reporter-in-chief, arts critic, sports correspondent, head of marketing and sales department. The Littleways Times (it was the name of the house where we lived) lasted for two whole editions before I realised that not a lot happens when you’re ten that my target readership didn’t already know more than me about. And that insight, together with an idealistic spurning of advertising (well, alright, other members of the family were not exactly forming a queue outside HQ to negotiate terms for product placement, but in principle they could have been and I was too high-minded to notice), explains why my career in journalism withered away after two weeks. This week in Britain there has been a minor flurry brought about by the resignation of a journalist from his newspaper (a larger, longer-established and more flourishing concern than mine) on the grounds that editorial policy is being dictated by the whims and interests of the advertisers.

But, Mr Oborne, the tail has always wagged the dog. Newspapers have never been impartial and it has never been their function to dispense a clear-eyed dispassionate overview of events. Just as well, really, as the human condition – opinionated, passionate, and argumentative – precludes such a state of grace having ever been achieved in any walk of life. So why on earth would we expect newspapers to be immune from our distinguishing characteristics: partisanship, conviction that we are right and a tendency towards greed?

Financial news, and the political situation that might affect the markets, had long been circulating between merchants, who, then as now, traded across borders, formed a loosely-linked and pervasive international community, and used knowledge as advantage. Thprinter-1568-500e first printed newspapers in England (Scotland was still a separate country and had problems of its own) appeared on the streets in the early seventeenth century. The authorities in London taking a dim view of criticism and (correctly) suspicious of the ability of the written word to inform and empower the people, some of the very first news bulletins were printed in Amsterdam and smuggled into the country. By 1622, these pamphlets were being printed and circulated in London. It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on three things. First, the eager market for newspapers bears witness to the astonishing spread of literacy, in London at least, since the introduction of the printing press not very much more than a hundred years previously. Second – allied to this first thought – we need to reconstruct in our imaginations a time when journalism mattered: when those who could afford to buy the newspaper shared it with family, friends, colleagues and customers; when articles were read aloud in taverns as well as homes and discussed, debated and argued over. Newspapers such as The Corrant Out of Italy and The Weekly Newes from Italy were pinpricks of light, and like all small candles, they not only made a few things clearer but also made the surrounding darkness more obvious. When you can see something, you become more aware of all the things you can’t see. And third? Well, it would do us no harm, even – perhaps especially – in these days when so many journalists have earned themselves a reputation as sleaze-bags of the first water with the moral probity and intellectual rigour of a discarded crisp packet, to honour the sheer bloody-minded bravery of those early printers, publishers and writers. So let’s hear it for men such as Nathaniel Butter, second-generation printer, member of the Stationers’ Company, publisher of the First Quarto of King Lear as well as plays by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and Samuel Rowley, and pioneering man of the press. Publishing forthright views on the constitutional and political affairs of England and Europe got him into hot water (this is, thankfully, a metaphor and not reportage) and landed him in prison in 1622. Ah, those were the days, when journalists went to prison as heroes of free speech and democracy.

untitled (2)It is worth pointing out that censorship was largely lifted under the Commonwealth; and, depressingly predictably, re-imposed just as soon as Charles II’s feet were dry from his landing in restored glory in 1660. Since then, Britain has seen the rise of great national newspapers, each with their own distinctive voice. The presses have changed hands, power-bases have been built and lost: but it has always been the case that readers tend to choose the paper that most closely reflects what they want to hear. At present, of what were, for reasons that become more and more mysterious the more one contemplates them, thought of as the great national newspapers, one is owned as a vanity project by a deeply dodgy ex-Australian, one by an equally insalubrious pair of brothers, another by a remarkably dubious Russian … you see? There is no – what was it the crooked former MP and scion of a newspaper-owning house called it? – ah yes, ‘the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play’. Jonathan Aitken (and he is now hovering in the swampy margins of UKIP: (a) why am I not surprised and (b) I could almost believe in divine justice and retribution after all) saw himself wielding these useful allegorical weapons against a newspaper that had had the temerity to publish a nifty bit of investigative journalism that had shown him up as a thoroughly nasty bit of work and a second-rate liar. So hurray! Just occasionally, in amongst the need to flatter the hand that feeds you, and turn away from news that might upset your owner, your advertisers or your foolish, flibbertigibbet readership, the rapidly vanishing world of print journalism can still occasionally get out there and do the right thing. Whatever that means to you.


PS No 1  You might like to celebrate your freedom to read this, and mine to write it, by doing what you can to get Raif Badawi,   Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed freed.

PS No 2  On a lighter note, do pop in to the Walking Book Club page to find your invitation to the next coffee-and-cake get-together


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