The notion that the popular press has a crucial role to play in modern democracies, and therefore must maintain its independence from government influence, is in the air these days. With upcoming elections in the United States and an ongoing scandal in Britain, many voices are raising concerns about the vulnerability of mainstream opinion to manipulation by private or corporate interests. With that in mind, it may be worth a moment to consider the context of early modern London in which press independence first became a viable aspiration.
A public press first appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century, in printing centers like Amsterdam and London. But for most of the early modern period in England, great events, like the proclamations of kings and declarations of wars, were announced by heralds and other government officials at Whitehall or (from 1702) St. James’s Palace, at Paul’s Cross, on the steps of the Guildhall and other significant public places. If the king or Church wanted people to know something less momentous, they heard it in Sunday or holiday services, during the sermon; from 1556 London also employed bellmen and criers to give people necessary information, including notice of missing persons and the weather.
This method of informing the public of just what it needed to know, and no more, had been established for a millenium in England before anything new appeared. The arrival of the printing press in the late fifteenth century made wider dissemination of thought possible, but the Crown and the Church exercised strict control over the number of presses licensed, the importation of books, and the content of those allowed to be printed.
The classic example of how dangerous it could be for a writer to defy Elizabethan government censorship is offered by the career of John Stubbe. In 1579 he wrote a pamphlet questioning a proposed French marriage for Queen Elizabeth. After being dissuaded from her initial idea of executing him, the queen ordered the public removal of his right hand in Westminster Market. Following the necessary three blows he managed to shout “God save the Queen” before fainting. He was then deposited in the Tower until 1581 when a new law made the publication of any book deemed seditious a felony, and thus made the world even less safe for men like the unfortunately named Stubbe.
In 1586 an order of Star Chamber required presses to be licensed and restricted to London and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; anything they printed had to be approved by a bishop. In 1637, Star Chamber imposed the strictest censorship yet: New books had to be licensed and entered into the records of the Stationer’s Company of London; printers were required to enter a bond of £300 in pledge that they would print only licensed books; and the number of master printers was limited to 20.
All this changed in the crisis atmosphere of the 1640s. The abolition of the court of Star Chamber and the coercive power of the bishops in 1641 unleashed a flood of new publication flowing outward from London. This included partisan pamphlets, woodcuts and prints, and early newspapers or “intelligencers,” mostly generated from London.
Once the Civil Wars were over and an effective government settled on the nation, it took steps to curtail the unfettered dissemination of news. Thus the Cromwellian regime shut down all but pro-government newspapers in the 1650s. In the 1660s the restored Stuart monarchy attempted to control information even more tightly. It did so in two ways, one traditional, one innovative. First, it restored censorship; then in 1662 Parliament re-established print censorship via the Licensing Act, which required all publications to be approved not by the bishops but by a government censor known as the licensor of the press.
From 1663 until the expiry of the act in 1679, then again at its restoration from 1685 to the Revolution of 1688, that man was the Royalist journalist Sir Roger L’Estrange, who had no problem with the news so long as it was reported by the government; he regarded a free press as tantamount to “making the Coffee-Houses, and all the Popular Clubs, Judges of those Counsels and Deliberations which they have nothing do withal.” L’Estrange and his officers went after the whole economic web of clandestine publication in London.
The horde of London newsletter writers and private correspondents was impossible to regulate, though the secretaries of state could, and did, open the mails, especially from foreign parts. There was, too, a great deal of what has been called scribal publication during the Restoration period, that is, the circulation of manuscript poetry and prose, much of it highly critical of Charles II and his court. One-off pamphlets and woodcuts selling for a penny or two in the streets dealt with every conceivable matter: a murder in Yorkshire, a storm in London, the king’s bedfellows, political and actual.
The Licensing Act lapsed in 1679, at the outset of a series of efforts by some in Parliament to prevent the Catholic James, Duke of York from succeeding to the throne upon the death of Charles II. This led to another explosion of publications—tracts, poems and prints—debating the respective power of Crown and Parliament. Writers like John Locke and Algernon Sidney argued for Parliament’s right to bar a Catholic from the throne. Their opponents countered with propaganda of their own. When the Duke of York ascended the throne as James II in 1685, he secured from Parliament a renewal of the Licensing Act for seven years, which remained even when William of Orange evicted James from the throne during the Glorious Revolution.
The Act was renewed again for just two years in 1693, but when it lapsed in 1695 the Commons resolved, over the intentions of the Lords, not to renew. It did not do so because of any widespread conviction that the press ought to be free or that censorship per se was a bad thing. Rather, censorship was clearly inefficient and inconvenient in practice: The Commons complained that the licensor’s fees were too high; that foreign books interdicted at the Custom House lay there so long waiting for licensing that their pages mildewed in the damp riverside air; and no one liked the possibility of having his house or place of business searched by the messenger of the press. Thus did such practical concerns as commerce, convenience and privacy lead London to pioneer another hallmark of modernity, a more free press.
And so those who would decry the apparent undermining of press independence today should take comfort in the knowledge that, since the outset of the news industry in early modern London, it has been the target of those who have tried to manipulate it in an effort to manipulate public opinion. At the risk of sounding cynical, it may simply be in the nature of the business that those with the types of knowledge that come with social power would try to use one as a means of controlling the other.