Essay on the History of Journalism in British


The Beginnings

It was under Charles in Britain that a new era of journalism was ushered in with the publication of the .Oxford Gazette in 1665. Edited by Muddiman while the royal court was fleeing from the London plague, it was, strictly speaking, the first periodical to meet all the qualifications of a true newspaper.

It was printed twice a week by royal authority. After 24 issues, the publication became the London Gazette when the court moved back to the capital. It continued to be published right on up through the twentieth century as the official court organ.


The old licensing powers appeared to be crumbling as the Restoration period drew to a close. This was through no choice of the authorities, but more likely because of the growing tendency for class and political alignments. In 1679 Parliament allowed the Licen- ing Act of 1962 to lapse.

It was revived from time to time, but with the increasing tension between Crown and Parliament, each side sought to protect its own spokesmen. The so-^lied Regulation of Printing, or Licensing, Act expired in 1694, not because authorities were convinced as to the injustice of licensing, bui because it was politically unsound.

From 1694 to the passage of the first Stamp Act of 1712, the only controls were the laws of treason and seditious libel, and regulations against reporting proceedings of Parliament. In vain did Charles try to restore his old prerogatives during his reign. Journalists more and more tended to ignore his authority. A few were punished, however.

Benjamin Harris


One such victim was Benjamin Harris, a brash and somewhat reckless journalist. Harris was convicted of violating the King’s laws. He was fined and pilloried. Unable to pay the fine, he spent two years in prison. When his office was again raided in 1686, Harris fled to Bristol with his family and took passage for America where he became the publisher of one of the first newspapers in America.

After the Revolution of 1688, which brought a changeSn the. monarchical institution, journalists were accorded considerable freedom

William and Mary were ruler by right of public opinion and they had the common sense not to antagonize printers and publishers, who were factors in the development of public opinion. There were no serious persecutions in their reign.

By 1694 the old Licensing Act died of senility and neglect. With the rise of the two-party system during the reign of William and Mary, it was difficult to maintain licensing. Without the decisive action of the old monarchs, it was impossible to continue such an archaic system.


The attack on the Bet in Commons centered around the commercial unfairness of the monopoly system, the restrictions on the printing industry, the tendency of suspected violators to use bribery, and the inadequacy of censorship.

Parliament Vs, Monarchs

Members of Parliament who were most jealous of their own prerogatives often were the severest critics of a free press. Many of these were men ef goodwill, and were willing to see the press rest­ricted not out of malice, but out of due consideration of the issues.

Thus, they stood for free expression in Parliament, where a false statement or a dangerous sentiment,could be corrected or refuted at once. But they might object to free expression in the press because a false or dangerous statement could not be answered before damage was done.


The law of seditious libel therefore was invoked against printers and writers who affronted those in office, both in England and America, until the close of the eighteenth century. But still, there was progress made in winning more freedom of expression on issues and ideas.

This progress was speeded up by the development of the party system of government. It is significant that parties emerged at the very time that the newspaper began to be a force in the political and social affairs of a people interested more and more in government.

The crantous were printed during the death throes of an outworn social system. England was moving steadily from feudalism, whose economic manifestation was production for use, to capitalism, translated economically into production for profit. The change brought social strains as power was grasped by one class at the expense of another.

A new type of citizen began to assert himself. He was the commercial man-the trader, merchant, and (later) the manufacturer. A great middle class was arising. Standing between the producer and the consumer, it profited from the processing and distribution of goods. In doing so, it helped to raise living standards to the highest level.


The Tudor control of the press was maintained in the interest of public safety. From Henry VIII to Elizabeth, the Crown acted on the principle that peace demanded the suppression of unwarranted dissent.

The Tudors were able, and even brilliant, administrators on the whole. Sensitive to public opinion, they understood their people so well that they knew just how far to push their arbitrary rule. Ruthless and erratic as they were at times, their subjects admirped them, with some exceptions.

Under the Tudors the country developed great national pride. The Tudors “had the feel” of the country and more often than not were interested in the general welfare. Resistance to them was negligible, therefore, at least from the journalistic stand­point.

The Era of Rapid Development

Under the Stuarts, beginning with James, the opposing factions formed battle lines. And since the press thrives in such a climate, if restraints breakdown; perhaps this partially explains the rapid development of journalism during the seventeenth century.

The eighteenth century of British journalism overlaps the infant years of the American press, but because colonial editors were influenced by their British contemporaries, it is pertinent to mention some of the later press developments abroad.

The first half of the eighteenth century produced some great journalists in England. Defoe, Swift, Addison, Steele, Fielding, and Samuel Johnson edited news­papers, or wrote essays and other pieces for the popular prints at one time or another. The standard set by them was widely imitated in the American colonies. While this material cannot be classed as news, it served to entertain and elevate the reader. And it did meet the craving for more popular literary fare.

The newspapers were the medium for such expression, just as in modern times the popular press offers non-news material in great quantities to meet a demand. The ordinary citizen was also beginning to participate in journalism. Much of the newspaper content was contributed by readers during the eighteenth century.

The popularity of the newspaper was so great that publishers were encouraged to print daily issues. On March 11. 1702, the Daily Courant appeared on the streets of London. It was the first daily newspaper printed in the English language.

Apparently established by Elizabeth Mallet, the real hero of the Daily Courant was Samuel Buckley, who revived the daily. He decided upon reporting factual news, rather than opinion. He used his advertising revenue to free him from political control. Thus, he made a successful enterprise of the first English newspaper to bring news to its readers six days a week.

Great English journalist of the period was Daniel Defoe, who edited Mist’s Journal from 1717 through 1720. Steele probably got the idea of his Tatler series from reading Defoe’s brilliant offerings in earlier papers. Some authorities go so far as to hold that Defoe was the father of the modern editorial. He discussed all manner of topics in a most charming and persuasive style. He, too, was widely copied by American journalists.

Tories Vs. Whigs

In the great controversy between Tories and Whigs, Dean Swift wrote some of his greatest satires. That was while he was editing the Examiner (1710). The conflict brough out other great writers, whose ideas were conveyed to the masses mostly through the newspapers. Iufluential both in England and America were the so-called “Cato Letters,” written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon under the pen name, “Cato”, The series appeared between 1720 and 1723 in the London Journal, later called the British Journal. In convincing, readable form, they discussed theories of liberty, representative government, and freedom of expression.

In 1724 this series was collected and published in four volumes. Copies were in great demand in the colonies, where the first stirrings of revolution were beginning to be felt. Through American newspapers and pamphlets the influence of “Cato” can be seen right upto the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Glorious Revolution And After

As England moved from the absolute rule of the Tudors to the more limited administration of the Stuarts and on to the still more representative government after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the restrictions on the press were withdrawn accordingly. There were setbacks along the way. Men had to suffer and die to bring greater liberty to the press. But the progress was nevertheless apparent. As absolute rule waned and other groups began to challenge authority, the press began to function as the critic, the loyal opposition, and the watchdog of public affairs.

18th Century Developments

While the first London daily newspaper was published in 1702, it was not until one hundred and fifty years later that a daily news­paper was issued from any part of England outside the capital city. There were many reasons for this. Communications and transport were poor. There were heavy taxes which severely hit the news­papers. There was the stamp duty which had to be paid on every copy of newspaper that was sold.

There was a tax ona dvertisement, and there was a duty on paper. These handicaps were not entirely disposed of until the period between 1855 to 1861, and then began the great development of the daily newspaper. The years between 1870 and 1914 may fairly be described as the golden age of journal­ism at any rate from the viewpoint of the owners if not of the staffs.

The outbreak of the First World War caused a setback and the newspapers had not really had time to recover when the coming of the Second World War hit them again. But since 1945 there has been a steady improvement and there seems to be no reason why the golden age should not return in spite of the competition of other means of news communication such as broadcasting and television. Increased prosperity must mean larger-sized newspapers and larger staffs.

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