June 26, 2012

The long history of corruption and bloodlust in the British press


It’s almost a year since Lord Justice Leveson started investigating the culture, practice and ethics of the British press. As journalists, media moguls and politicians have trotted in and out of questioning, revealing ever more stunning and embarrassing details of malpractice and inappropriate influence, it’s been tempting to see the whole circus as peculiarly modern. It’s so intuitively a part of an era in which overweening corporations hold governments to ransom and the ruling class believes itself to be above the law.

Dr Matthew Green‘s article in Friday’s Telegraph, though, shows the long history of spin and unethical behaviour on Fleet Street. Press freedoms came about ‘almost by accident’, he says, at the end of the 17th century, because the rival Tory and Whig parties couldn’t trust one another to censor the press in a non-partisan way, leaving ‘journalists were free to criticise government policy or satirise the Church without ending up pilloried, gaoled, or having various body parts chopped off (as was the case before, and still was the case in France)’. Then as now, the freedom was abused:

For Fleet Street editors, the best way of building up and sustaining a loyal readership was to make their coverage as partisan as possible. By the time the tri-weekly or even daily newspapers were published, most people were already familiar with big stories – like the strange death of the lions in the Tower (Post Boy, January 1712), the appearance of a glowing comet above Lincoln’s Inn Fields (Robin’s Last Shift, March 1716), or the mutilation of British merchants by Spanish pirates in the Atlantic (London Evening Post, October 1737) – via word-of-mouth. To stay relevant, editors had to give their readers something new: spin. Londoners dismissed ‘balanced’ papers as phoney and bland, slants needed to be bold and vivid.

Partisan approaches were rarely adopted out of genuine political conviction. In spite of posthumous attempts to glorify newspapers as vessels of truth and enlightenment (the titles Sun, Star, Mirror, Guardiancapture something of this), 18th-century Fleet Street was unprincipled, devious and corrupt. Plagiarism was rife, taking bribes from ministers was common and early hacks like Daniel Defoe sold their pen to the highest bidder.

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.

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.

The media wouldn’t literally get their scalp today, because of course capital punishment has been abolished in the intervening 250-odd years. What the Leveson inquiry has demonstrated beyond doubt, though, is that sectors of the press have remained just as corrupt, sensationalist, and bloodthirsty — albeit metaphorically — as they were in 1757.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.