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The riotous roots of the newspaper industry

The News Paper, by Thomas Rowlandson, from 1808 - Credit: The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959

A history of the radical, revolutionary, rowdy roots of the newspaper industry make for a rip-roaring read

“We are afsured from good authority that the First Consul of France – has been swallowed by a Whale!”

Give or take the odd “f” instead of “s”, this could have come on the Sunday Sport archive, next to “Aliens Turned my Son into a Fish Finger” but in fact it is from a satirical cartoon of 1800 by the great Thomas Rowlandson.  Entitled “The News Paper”, it depicts 12 readers pouring over the latest issues, with differing degrees of gullibility.  “Oh – fie for shame,” cries a high-class lady, clearly enthralled by a scandalous story,  “I wonder how they put such things in the papers!”

We can be afsured that equally astounded readers have been wondering just that in the subsequent 200 years, exactly as they had been doing in the previous two centuries. Matthew J. Shaw, the king of the back issues, is the former lead curator of the Americas Collections at the British Library and now the author of An Inky Business, an enthralling chronicle of news-gathering and presses rolling.

Many of the the virtues and vices of today’s press may be spotted in the papers of yesteryear. Fulminations against fake news, for example, predate not just our era but the main period covered by the book: in 1487 Henry VII issued an edict against “forged tidings and tales”.

One way in which Grub Street scribes were later to avoid being detained at His Majesty’s displeasure was to print copies on the continent and smuggle them over the Channel, as did the news magazine whose title, though missing from the first issue in 1620, was Corant out of Italy, Germany &c. and whose first splash was “The French ambassador hath caused the Earle of Dampier to be buried stately at Presburg”.  (Clearly that was a slow news day.)

The publication is one of several claimed as the first English newspaper but Shaw refers to it only fleetingly and not by name; instead he suggests this honour should go to the Oxford Gazette, which was – and, astonishingly, still is – the official publication listing the New Year’s Honours and changes to coats of arms.

It was launched out of town in 1665 when Hon Members fled from the capital to escape the plague and was rebranded as the London Gazette on its return. The bottom of the final page of the first Oxford edition is uncannily echoed by recent announcements of Covid-19 victims: it revealed 1,050 deaths from the bubonic epidemic.

Although not a conventional newspaper and consisting of a single sheet printed in two columns, it looked more like today’s dailies than the existing news publications, which were a single sheet folded into eight and cut so as to make a modest booklet.

Gazette de France, which was born in 1631 and gave up the ghost in 1915, was a similar official operation. It was so royalist that it boasted Louis XIII as a star writer; unpalatable events such as the storming of the Bastille didn’t even make a “news in brief”.

Dissident publications were, like their English equivalents, produced outside France, some in England, crossing the Channel in secret but going the other way. Another place where French agit-prop lurked was among the small ads of publications known as affiches because they were ‘fixed’ to walls: not so much “Exchange and Mart” as “Exchange and Spart”.

When the ancien régime was rapidly becoming more ancient, hacks from a subversive Grub Rue emerged from the shadows. The crumbling government would if particularly provoked ban the occasional title but this was not an option in the case of the most successful, yet another with “Gazette” in its title. (The word derives from 16th century Venetian newsletters, written laboriously by hand and costing one gazzetta.)

Gazette de Leyde took the precaution of operating safely over the border in Holland. The editor “eschewed spicy anecdotes”, which may not have helped with the circulation but fortunately, after the royal censorship collapsed, he managed to defy the attempted censorship of the I’m-all-right Jacobins when they clawed their way into power.

The press and the course of the French Revolution were interlinked. When 21 members of another faction were executed, their opponent, the editor and revolutionary Camille Desmoulins, is supposed to have exclaimed, “My God! It is I who kills them!” Boasting or complaining? Either way, the executioner soon got him too.

Amongst the jungle of newsprint – there were two different papers calling themselves L’Ami du Peuple – which sprang up, one of the oddest creepers was Courier de L’Europe. Produced in London, it was secretly funded by the French government, who coughed up for almost 5,000 subscriptions. It offered very little in the way of French news but was very good for coverage of another Revolution, the one in America.

By the time of the American Civil War, fighting had become a lot more civilised, in the sense that the brave news world was much more elaborate. The Battle of Bull Run was only, in the words of a poem in the Boston Herald, a “story so lacking in glory”, indecisive and confused. But it was the first battle to be so closely reported by the press that it became a skirmish in not just the war but the media war.

It was covered by the famous reporter William Howard Russell, fresh from the Crimea and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and reports were carried by the new telegraph systems on which both sides had spent, in today’s money, billions of dollars.

Printing too was speeding up. The 19th century began with flatbed presses that could produce only 200 sheets per hour and would end with rotary presses churning out 50 times that amount.

Papers in the USA were more interested in the race to the bottom than the heights of political faction, to judge by the cries of newsboys in Dickens’s 1844 Martin Chuzzlewit:  “Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s New York Keyhole Reporter!” There are papers today, British and American, which deserve those satirical titles.

If An Inky Business had been itself a newspaper, I would have sent a letter to the editor about the last paragraph of the final chapter, which refers to “the Daily Mail, edited for a period by Dickens”. What Charles Dickens edited was the Daily News, the radical paper which he founded and edited but from which he walked after 17 issues.

The paper was amalgamated later with the Daily Chronicle and then the liberal News Chronicle, which was swallowed up by the Daily Mail in 1960 and then became the highly un-Dickensian ‘Daily Dacre’. The story of editors who over the centuries jumped, or were pushed, would, of course, make up a substantial volume of its own.

An Inky Business:  A history of newspapers from the English Civil Wars to the American Civil War by Matthew J. Shaw (Reaktion, £15.95)

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