English Roots of the Free Press

Brian Winston. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

The origins of journalism are similar across Europe. The newspaper grows out of the time-honored twin impulses to report significant political and economic events or sensational, curious (often trivial) ones. These impulses long pre-date the introduction of moveable type so the arrival of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century was not in itself a necessary cause for the development of the modern newspaper.

European Background

The printed newspaper, in the form of an unbound, sequentially issued, independently edited publication using the same title but differentially dated does not appear until about a century and a half after European printing began—in other words, around 1600. During that delay, intermittently printed prose news-books on major individual events, as well as occasional digests of news, would be produced featuring stories real or imagined (e.g., battles and royal progresses as well as miracles, disasters, crimes, and celestial phenomena). The fictional as well as the factual would all be sold as “true.” These proto-news journals—referred to as mercuries, relations, gazettes, or avisos—were of a piece with the printers’ other ephemera, such as woodcuts or ballads on contemporary topics, both serious and sensational.

The most economically and politically significant news enterprise was the regular exchange of information between kingdoms through their ambassadorial system or by merchants at periodic great fairs or in reports from their factors in distant cities. These communications, however, did not appear in print. They remained handwritten and secret as they had always been throughout the middle ages. Some were regular enough to be “newsletters” issued to limited readership (a bank’s main clients, for example) in multiple handwritten copies. They continued to be produced by hand well into the seventeenth century. The news they contained was seen as potentially damaging if published because it could be revealing of state secrets or could possibly jeopardize commercial advantage.

Making this information—known as “intelligences”—more public was a fraught enterprise. Medieval merchants had not much desire to share market intelligence at all. Authorities were also fearful but were more confused as to how to deal with the issue of press control. The problem was that, from the time of the introduction of the press, they had sought to exploit print’s potential as a means of information dissemination for their own purposes. Yet they felt threatened by private presses. In response, states and the church licensed the physical machines and organized printers into monopolistic guilds. They proscribed works and authors, vetted proposals, registered titles and, as a last resort, banned any work that got through the net; but printing itself remained a necessity. The result was a censorship regime less effective than it might have been. Policing was rudimentary. Authorities were willing to license publications (inflammatory blasphemous pamphlets, for example) for export which they would not countenance for domestic distribution. Ownership and operation of presses was difficult to control because they were small enough to be loaded on a handcart or concealed in any room.

Despite this somewhat confused official approach, what emerged in the sixteenth century was an ever-increasing need to distribute commercial intelligence. During the long period of print media incubation, feudalism was collapsing and mercantile capitalism was emerging as the basis of economic organization. To work, the new system needed not secrecy but informed participation. It is this realization that finally “caused” independent printed news in its modern form to emerge, despite its destabilizing potential as far as the authorities were concerned. By the start of the seventeenth century, the pressure mercantilists brought to bear—because they needed a constant flow of information to conduct their businesses—had transformed the role of the press. No longer was knowledge deemed to be only of value to princes or banking houses. Couple this development to the established popular taste for the sensational and the foundation of modern journalism was laid. As the towns of Europe grew, so did the merchant class and the numbers of those who wrote, printed, and published news-books and a range of news-sheets.

Especially in the German-speaking cities, printers (mercurists rather than journalists at this stage) were licensed to produce regular corantos, instead of occasional news-books and mercuries. In 1605, Abraham Verhoeven started a coranto, Nieuwe Tydinghe, in the Netherlands. By 1617 he was publishing weekly and eventually, in the 1620s, these New Tidings came out as often as three times a week. By then journalism had one very big, and long running, story to cover. What was to become the Thirty Years’ War—a paroxysm more than a century in the making as the tensions produced by the Protestant Reformation were transformed into a bloody and interminable conflict—had begun in 1618. Nearly a third of the population of the German-speaking lands was to die in these decades mainly by disease and famine as the Catholic Church fought Protestant princes.

Censorship in the Netherlands, a republic established in provinces recently independent of Spain, was less draconian than elsewhere. Dutch printers, taking advantage of this, published in many languages including English.

English Press Controls

English printers were less fortunate than their Dutch counterparts, and strict controls via a licensing system were exercised though the Stationers’ Company. Originally a medieval guild of those responsible for the production of manuscript editions, the Company had been given a monopoly over print as well. In sixteenth-century England, the printing of news took the same form as on the Continent with the appearance of occasional news-books. Sensation, however, sold as well as politics and was less liable to cause offense so English printers did not include the political content that the Dutch and German corantos did in the early 1600s. Nevertheless, in 1620, the first coranto written and printed in English was imported from the Netherlands without official action being taken against it. Essentially, the English authorities were permissive because the news it contained focused on the Continental war. However, in August 1621, when a London printer, Thomas Archer, started his own publication with the same Continental focus—but unlicensed by the Stationers’ Company—he was quickly imprisoned.

The authorities did allow two other printers, Nathaniel Bourne and Nathaniel Butter, to emulate Archer the next month. Butter had been a freeman (member) of the Stationers’ Company since 1604 so their Corante, or, Newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France … Out of the Hie Dutch Coppy printed at Franckford … was licensed and therefore allowed. The countries named in the title changed with each edition, functioning much like a headline. Bourne and Butter sought no news of their own but merely translated and reprinted coverage of the Continental conflict from Dutch and German corantos. They were, therefore, dependant on the flow of publications across the English Channel and their printing schedule was dictated by the arrival of the packet boats. Sometimes The Courante, which settled as a quarto publication of between 8 and 24 pages, failed to appear for more than a week; at others, three editions might be printed within a seven-day period.

Their success was emulated by other licensed publications; but all the printers knew that their situation was fraught with potential danger and by the early 1630s even reporting the European war was getting more difficult. Any coverage of domestic English events, of course, was avoided as it would bring instant sanctions. Despite this caution taken by printers, in 1632, the king’s Court of the Star Chamber banned the corantos. England and Scotland, recently united under a single crown but uninvolved in the Continental fighting, were Protestant realms fearful of Catholic intrigues and interventions. The protracted conflict had simply become too sensitive a political topic for public debate. That Bourne and Butter alone printed 500 copies of every coranto they issued was no recommendation in the eyes of the authorities. The printers did not, though, willingly forego this business and, in 1638, they successfully petitioned to have the publication licensed again, now to be sold under the learned name of Mecurius Britannicus.

English Civil War and the Press

The Mecurius continued as before with its diet of Continental news but soon a bigger story would sweep away the ban on domestic coverage. As the King and Parliament headed toward armed confrontation, the Star Chamber, the main organ of overt press suppression, was abolished by Parliament in June 1641. A new form of journal, the weekly diurnal appeared: The Diurnall: Or, The Heads of All the Proceedings in Parliament began that December. Parliament tried to maintain the old licensing system by banning unlicensed news publications but, with the distractions of the coming conflict, this had little effect, and the diur-nals proliferated. In August 1642, the first fighting in the English Civil War began. The war was to act as midwife to what was to become and remain Europe’s most outspoken press.

In the fog of war, English printers made a breakthrough that was to condition all subsequent developments. Throughout the long period of press incubation on the Continent, there had been a flood of pamphlets arguing, more often than not hysterically, either the Protestant or Catholic cause. These organs formed a tradition of propaganda and opinion quite distinct from that of news publications. However sensational and mendacious these last were on occasion, they were “true” in ways that the pamphlets were not. These two journalistic streams come together for the first time in the English news publications of the Civil War period (the 1640s).

Early News

On the one hand was the sobriety of the diurnals. Take this report of the most traumatic event of the war:

Tuesday January 30. This day the king was beheaded, over against the Banquetting house by White-Hall. The manner of Execution, and what passed before his death take thus. He was brought from Saint James about ten in the morning…. After which the King, stooping down, laid his necke upon the blocke, and after a very little pause, stretching forth his hands, the executioner at one blow severed his head from his body.

This is on page three (because it was a Tuesday and the publication began with the events of the Sunday) of Samuel Pecke’s A Perfect Diurnall of the Passages in Parliament for the first week of February 1649. Pecke, despite a refusal to sensationalize his reports, was printing 3,000 copies a week.

On the other hand, Marchmont Nedham—the Parliament’s and later the republican leader Oliver Cromwell’s main apologist—and his Royalist rival, Sir John Birkenhead, inserted into their mercuries a tone which had only previously been found in pamphlets. Take one example from the Mercurius Britannicus, Communicating the affaires of Great Britaine for the better Information of the People: From Monday the 28. Of July, to Monday the 4. Of August, 1645. Nedham wrote:

Where is King Charles? What’s become of him? … If any man can bring tale or tiding of a wilfull King, which hath gone astray these foure years from his Parliament, with a guilty Conscience, bloody Hands, a Heart full of broken Vowes and Protestations…. Then give notice to Britannicus, and you shall be well paid for your paines: So God save the Parliament. (quoted in Clarke, 21)

This enthusiasm, partisanship and wit came to condition the English newspaper: a unique mix of the coranto’s sober reporting tradition and the argumentative dynamism of the pamphlet.

Journalism in England was now infected with a different spirit from that on the Continent. Dr. Théophraste Renaudot, Marchmont Nedham’s French counterpart, who started the Gazette de France for Louis XIV, wrote: “Was it for me to examine the deeds of the government? My pen was only the grafting tool.” Nedham’s position was very different: “I tooke up my pen for disabusing his Majesty, and for disbishoping and dispoping his good subjects, and for taking off vizards and vailes and disguises …” (quoted in Smith, 130). Crucially, of course, Louis’s position was very different from Charles’. He had defeated a revolt of his nobles while Charles lost his head.

In the midst of this social upheaval, the English press became a veritable engine of liberty. When in August 1643, the poet John Milton published an unlicensed anonymous pamphlet in favor of divorce, then an illegal proceeding, he was summoned before Parliament. His defense there not only provided the burgeoning news publications with a theoretical basis for the exercise of a free press but it also produced, the following year, in the (again, deliberately) unlicensed form of a pamphlet, a first, great printed public affirmation of that principle in English. He called the pamphlet Areopagitica, after the hill where the ancient Athenian high court met. It was subtitled “A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of VNLICENC’D PRINTING, to the PARLIAMENT OF ENGLAND”: “Give me the liberty to know to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties.” It was, he claimed, “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book.”

In one sense Milton was merely extending a concept that lay at the heart of Protestantism itself—liberty of conscience—to embrace the secular world of politics as well. His liberality, though, should not be overstated. He wrote the divorce pamphlet because his own marriage was in ruins and his concept of unlicensed printing did not in fact run to allowing Catholic texts, for example. In fact, for a time he was to act as Cromwell’s censor. Nevertheless, there was something new and crucial in his stand, a de facto justification of Nedham’s and Birkenhead’s feisty editorial attitudes. Libel, blasphemy, and sedition would still constrain publication but the fail-safe position, as it were, was that publication should be unlicensed; and therefore, at least in theory, free.

The Restoration Press

This move toward press freedom would have counted for little, however, if, after the Restoration of the crown in 1660, the old controls had been effectively reimposed; but, despite what was to become centuries of effort on the part of British authorities, they never quite were. In 1662, Charles II had passed a new act for the licensing of the press but the crown’s power was now so weakened that it was only a temporary measure. In 1695, this Printing Act was again up for renewal when Edward Clarke, a member of Parliament, successfully persuaded the House of Commons that the weight of existing laws “makes this or any other Act for the restraint of printing very needless” (quoted in Sutherland, 25). The act was not renewed. Clarke was influenced by his friend, the philosopher John Locke, who had argued that, contrary to the assumptions of a divine right of kings, there was a right of resistance if the crown forfeited through its actions a claim on the loyalty of its subjects. Nedham, according to Locke’s argument, had a right to write as he did. Religious reform and political theory had joined hands in arguing for a level of personal freedom which would slowly embrace, with struggle, the concept of a free press.

Yet 1695 cannot be said to mark the start of this freedom any more than did the Areopagitica. The existing laws were still vigorously applied, backed by a special police force known as the Kings’ Messengers, who had the powers of a “General Warrant”—that is, one with no persons named as was usually required—to search any premises for unlicensed presses; and soon, special taxes on newspapers (a term that had first appeared in the 1670s) were imposed. Nevertheless, as a consequence of the Civil War and English radical thinking, the English newspaper flourished.

The English now caught up with the one Continental development they had ignored—the daily newspaper, which had first appeared in Leipzig in 1650. In 1702, Samuel Buckley brought out the London Daily Courant, a single sheet printed on one side but very much, as its name suggests, an echo of the old corantos; that is, a digest of translated foreign news.

The Eighteenth-Century Press

Despite the taxes and authorities being ever quick to bring offending journalists to court—even to the gallows if accused of treason and sedition—the early-eighteenth-century London press attracted “giants to write for it” including Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele. Journalism flourished during this time. The state was now, in effect, constrained by an assumption that the British people and their growing newspapers were free and therefore free to impart and receive information. The idea of a free press could not be extirpated: “Freedom of speech” wrote the London journalists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon under the pen-name “Cato” in 1720, “is the right of everyman, as far as by it he does not hurt or control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds it ought to know.” By the 1760s, this was assumed to be the Common Law. William Blackstone, the great jurist whose Commentaries on the Laws of England was in the baggage of every English lawyer emigrating to the American colonies in the late eighteenth century, held that “The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints on publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published.” The press was not to be above the law but neither could it be censored—con-trolled by prior restraint. This was not quite the positive “liberty … to utter” for which Milton and the other radicals had argued; but it was a “right to hear.”

In 1763, as Blackstone was formulating this concept of “no prior constraint.” a famous radical and rake, the member of Parliament John Wilkes, was charged with publishing, in his paper The North Briton, an “infamous and seditious libel tending to influence the minds and alienate the affections of the people from His Majesty and to excite them to traitorous insurrections against his Government.” Wilkes was just being rude about a political opponent whom he accused of prostituting the crown. He, of course, claimed Parliamentary immunity and Chief Justice Parry agreed; but what was important was that Parry also held that the General Warrant under which Wilkes had been arrested, a hangover from the seventeenth century, was now illegal under English Common Law.

All that remained of the old censorship apparatus was the unique rule that in press libel cases juries only determined the fact of “publication,” not of the libel itself, as the latter was the judge’s determination to make. In 1769, in another case involving an anonymous journalist, “Junius” (who has never been identified), the judge upheld the libel but the jury, absurdly, held it had not been “published” despite being printed and the known publishers (now named in ordinary warrants) being before the court. The law, in other words, had been made a fool of. With this precedent, it was to become increasingly difficult to prosecute newspapers. Juries would not convict, often against the background noise of public protests outside the courthouse.

Elsewhere the positive principle of “the right … to utter” (not merely the concession of “no prior constraint”) was incorporated into statute for the first time, albeit on what turned out to be a temporary basis, in Denmark (1761) and in Sweden (1776) and, for a few weeks short of three years, in revolutionary France starting in 1789. Press freedom had become one of the Enlightenment’s Droits de l’homme: “The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man.” Two years after this Article XI of the French revolutionary constitution, the first U.S. Congress caught up with the French (and the constitutions of some American states) to pass the most long-lived of these eighteenth-century statutes, the First Amendment. But in Great Britain, homeland of the concept, the slow erosion of formal state controls continued without any enactment of a free press right.

Direct attack on the press via the law, though, was no longer a possibility. To control the press, the British state had only the tools of taxation and bribery. Robert Walpole, the first man who could be said to hold the post of Prime Minister, was accused of spending 50,007 pounds of public money, some of which had been obviously raised by the taxes on print and the bribing of newswriters, printers, and publishers in the 1730s. The last recorded governmental bribe occurred in 1820.

The Stamp Act, a tax levied on all newspaper copies, persisted but also became increasingly difficult to sustain. In 1822, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel ordered that tax-dodging publishers should not be prosecuted as this too often led to public disorder; however the lowly distributors, often women, remained at some risk. A decade later the unstamped press was estimated as having a readership of 2 million, more than did the legally stamped papers. A campaign for the brilliantly branded “Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge” eventually resulted in a series of abolitions—of the duties on advertisements in 1853, on newspapers in 1855 and, finally, on newsprint itself in 1861.

The press at last was “free” but there was still no statutory “liberty … to utter.” It was not until the Human Rights Act of 1998 that the “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority” became part of British statutory law. By then, however, the time was long past when a radical newswriter could sell discombobulating journalism printed on a little flatbed press. Newspapers were big business. The British press was “free,” but it was also, perhaps more importantly, “safe.”