History of journalism in the United Kingdom

The history of journalism in the United Kingdom includes the gathering and transmitting of news, spans the growth of technology and trade, marked by the advent of specialized techniques for gathering and disseminating information on a regular basis. In the analysis of historians, it involves the steady increase of:

the scope of news available to us and the speed with which it is transmitted. Before the printing press was invented, word of mouth was the primary source of news. Returning merchants, sailors and travelers brought news back to the mainland, and this was then picked up by peddlers and travelling players and spread from town to town. This transmission of news was highly unreliable, and died out with the invention of the printing press. Newspapers have always been the primary medium of journalists since 1700, with magazines added in the 18th century, radio and television in the 20th century, and the Internet in the 21st century.[1] London has always been the main center of British journalism, followed at a distance by Edinburgh, Glascow, Belfast, Dublin, and regional cities.


Across western Europe after 1500 news circulated through newsletters through well-established channels. Antwerp was the hub of two networks, one linking France, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands; the other linking Italy Spain and Portugal. Favorite topics included wars, military affairs, diplomacy, and court business and gossip.[2]

After 1600 the national governments in France and England began printing official newsletters.[3] In 1622 the first English-language weekly magazine, "A current of General News" was published and distributed in England[4] in an 8- to 24-page quarto format.

16th Century

By the 1500s, printing was firmly in the royal jurisdiction, and printing was restricted only to English subjects. The Crown imposed strict controls on the distribution of religious or political printed materials. In 1538, Henry VIII of England decreed that all printed matter had to be approved by the Privy Council before publication. By 1581, the publication of seditious material had become a capital offence.

Queen Mary used the trade itself to control it. She granted a Royal Charter to the Company of Stationers in 1557. The Company became a partner with the state under Queen Elizabeth. They advantaged greatly from this partnership as this restricted the number of presses, allowing them to keep their profitable business without much competition. This also worked in the favour of the Crown as the Company were less likely to publish material that would disturb their relationship because their privileges were directly derived from them.

Restrictions only became tighter in the printing industry as time went on. Edward VI prohibited 'spoken news or rumour' in his proclamations of 1547 to 1549. Royal permission had to be obtained before any news could be published, and all printed news was regarded as the royal prerogative.

The only form of printed news that was permitted to be circulated was the 'relation'. This was a narrative of a single event, domestic or foreign. These were printed and circulated for hundreds of years, often sold at the north door of St Paul's Cathedral. There were two categories of news being circulated here: items of 'Wonderful and Strange Newes' and government propaganda. The first category of news was often given eye catching titles to grab the reader with its sensational content.

17th Century

The London Gazette, facsimile front page from 3–10 September 1666, reporting on the Great Fire of London.

The 17th century saw the rise of political pamphleteering fuelled by the politically contentious times[5] of bloody civil war. Each party sought to mobilize its supporters by the widespread distribution of pamphlets, as in the coffeehouses where one copy would be passed around and read aloud. Holland already had a regular weekly news service, knows as corantos. Holland began supplying a thousand or so copies of corantos to the English market in 1620. The first coranto printed in England was likely printed by Thomas Archer of Pope's Head Alley in early 1621. He was sent to prison later that year for printing a coranto without a license. They were expensive and had low sales because people were more interested in issues in England rather than in Europe.[6]

The Court of High Commission and the Star Chamber were abolished in 1641, and copyright laws were not enforced. The press was now free. Many people began to print their own newsbooks, free of any worry of prosecution, but only a few publications continued past the first few issues. Civil War era newsbooks contained information that affected everybody. They were available for a penny or twopence a copy. Some titles sold as much as 1,500 copies.[7]

A milestone was reached in 1694; the final lapse of the Licensing Order of 1643 that had been put in place by the Stuart kings put an end to heavy-handed censorship that had previously tried to suppress the flow of free speech and ideas across society, and allowed writers to criticize the government freely. From 1694 to the Stamp Act of 1712 the only censure laws forbade treason, seditious libel and the reporting of Parliamentary proceedings.[4]

The 1640s and 1650s were a fast paced time in the history of British journalism. Because of the abolition of copyright laws, over 300 titles quickly came into existence. Many did not last, with only thirty three lasting a full year. This was also a time filled with war and fragmentation of opinion. The Royalists main title was Mercurius Aulicus, Mercurius Melancholicus ('The King shall enjoy his owne againe and the Royall throne shall be arraied with the glorious presence of that mortall Deity'), Mercurius Electicus ('Communicating the Unparallell'd Proceedings of the Revels at West-minster, The Headquarters and other Places, Discovering their Designs, Reproving their Crimes, and Advising the Kingdome') and Mercurius Rusticus, among others. Most newsbooks in London supported the Parliament, and titles included Spie, The Parliament Scout and The Kingdomes Weekly Scout. These publication compelled the reader to take sides, depending on whose bias and propaganda they were reading.

There was also a series of semi-pornagraphic newsbooks produced by John Crouch: The Man in the Moon, Mercurius Democritus and Mercurius Fumigosus. These publications contained a mixture of news and dirty jokes disguised as news.

The huge and absolute freedom of the press came to an end with the Restoration (England). King Charles introduced the Printing Act of 1662, which restricted printing to the University of Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge and to the master printers of the Stationer's Company in London. It also required that only twenty were allowed to work in the master printers. This act provided the highly regulated and restricted environment that had previously been abolished.

The Oxford Gazette was printed in 1665 by Muddiman in the middle of the turmoil of the Great Plague of London and was, strictly speaking, the first periodical to meet all the qualifications of a true newspaper. It was printed twice a week by royal authority and was soon renamed the London Gazette. Magazines were also moral tracts inveighing against moral decadence, notably the Mercurius Britannicus.[8] The Gazette is generally considered by most historians to be the first English newspaper.

Prior to the Glorious Revolution journalism had been a risky line of work. One such victim was the reckless Benjamin Harris, who was convicted for defaming the King's authority. Unable to pay the large fine that was imposed on him he was put in prison. He eventually made his way to America where he founded one of the first newspapers there. After the Revolution, the new monarch William III, who had been installed by Parliament, was wary of public opinion and did not try to interfere with the burgeoning press. The growth in journalism and the increasing freedom the press enjoyed was a symptom of a more general phenomenon - the development of the party system of government. As the concept of a parliamentary opposition became an acceptable (rather than treasonable) norm, newspapers and editors began to adopt critical and partisan stances and they soon became an important force in the political and social affairs of the country.[9]

18th Century

Front page of The Gentleman's Magazine, May 1759

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Britain was an increasingly stable and prosperous country with an expanding empire, technological progress in industry and agriculture and burgeoning trade and commerce. A new upper middle class consisting of merchants, traders, entrepreneurs and bankers was rapidly emerging - educated, literate and increasingly willing to enter the political discussion and participate in the governance of the country. The result was a boom in journalism, in newspapers and magazines. Writers who had been dependent on a rich patron in the past were now able to become self-employed by hiring out their services to the newspapers. The values expressed in this new press were overwhelmingly consistent with the bourgeois middle class - an emphasis on the importance of property rights, religious toleration and intellectual freedom in contrast to the restrictions prevalent in France and other nations.[4]

London's The Gentleman's Magazine, first published in 1731, was the first general-interest magazine. Edward Cave, who edited it under the pen name "Sylvanus Urban", was the first to use the term "magazine", on the analogy of a military storehouse.[10][11] The oldest consumer magazine still in print is The Scots Magazine, which was first published in 1739, though multiple changes in ownership and gaps in publication totaling over 90 years weaken its claim.[12] Lloyd's List was founded in Edward Lloyd’s England coffee shop in 1734; it is still published as a daily business newspaper.[13]

Journalism in the first half of the 18th century produced many great writers such as Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Johnson. Men such as these edited newspapers, or wrote essays for the popular press on topical issues. Their material was entertaining and informative and was met with an insatiable demand from ordinary citizens of the middle class, who were beginning to participate in the flow of ideas and news.[9]

The newspaper was becoming so popular that publishers began to print daily issues. The first daily newspaper in the world was the Daily Courant, established by Samuel Buckley in 1702 on the streets of London. The newspaper strictly restricted itself to the publication of news and facts without opinion pieces, and was able to avoid political interference through raising revenue by selling advertising space in its columns.[14]

Daniel Defoe's The Storm, a report of the Great Storm of 1703 and regarded as one of the first pieces of modern journalism.

Defoe in particular is regarded as a pioneer of modern journalism with his publication The Storm in 1704,[15] which has been called the first substantial work of modern journalism, as well as the first account of a hurricane in Britain.[15] It details the events of a terrible week-long storm that hit London starting Nov 24, 1703, known as the Great Storm of 1703, described by Defoe as "The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time."[15]

Defoe used eyewitness accounts by placing newspaper ads asking readers to submit personal accounts, of which about 60 were selected and edited by Defoe for the book.[15] This was an innovative method for the time before journalism that relied on first-hand reports was commonplace.[15]

Richard Steele, influenced by Defoe, set up The Tatler in 1709 as a publication of the news and gossip heard in London coffeehouses, hence the title. It presented Whiggish views and created guidelines for middle-class manners, while instructing "these Gentlemen, for the most part being Persons of strong Zeal, and weak Intellects...what to think."[16]

Jonathan Swift wrote his greatest satires for The Examiner, often in allegorical form, lampooning the controversies between the Tories and Whigs. The so-called "Cato Letters," written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon under the pseudonym, "Cato", were published in the London Journal in the 1720s and discussed the theories of the Commonwealth men such as ideas about liberty, representative government, and freedom of expression. These letters had a great impact in colonial America and the nascent republican movement all the way up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.[9]

The increasing popularity and influence of newspapers was unappealing to the government of the day. The first bill in parliament advocating a tax on newspapers was proposed in 1711. The duty eventually imposed in 1712 was a halfpenny on papers of half a sheet or less and a penny on newspapers that ranged from half a sheet to a single sheet in size. Jonathan Swift expressed in his Journal to Stella in August 7, 1712, doubt in the ability of The Spectator to hold out against the tax. This doubt was proved justified in December 1712 by its discontinuance. However, some of the existing journals continued production and their numbers soon increased. Part of this increase was attributed to corruption and political connections of its owners. Later, toward the middle of the same century, the provisions and the penalties of the Stamp Act were made more stringent, yet the number of newspapers continued to rise. In 1753 the total number of copies of newspapers sold yearly in Britain amounted to 7,411,757. In 1760 it had risen to 9,464,790 and in 1767 to 11,300,980. In 1776 the number of newspapers published in London alone had increased to 53.[17]

An important figure in the fight for increased freedom of the press was John Wilkes. When the Scottish John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, came to head the government in 1762, Wilkes started a radical weekly publication, The North Briton, to attack him, using an anti-Scots tone. He was charged with seditious libel over attacks on George III's speech endorsing the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763 at the opening of Parliament on 23 April 1763. Forty-nine people, including Wilkes, were arrested under the warrants. Wilkes, however, gained considerable popular support as he asserted the unconstitutionality of general warrants. At his court hearing the Lord Chief Justice ruled that as an MP, Wilkes was protected by privilege from arrest on a charge of libel. He was soon restored to his seat and he sued his arresters for trespass.[18]

As a result of this episode, his popular support surged, with people chanting, "Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45", referring to the newspaper. However, he was soon found guilty of libel again and he was sentenced to 22 months imprisonment and a fine of £1,000. Although he was subsequently elected 3 times in a row for Middlesex, the decision was overturned by Parliament. When he was finally released from prison in 1770 he campaigned for increased freedom of the press; specifically he defended the right of publishers to print reports of Parliamentary debates. Due to large and growing support, the government was forced to back down and abandoned its attempts at censorship.

19th Century

There were four major factors that radically transformed newspapers in 19th century Britain. First the government by the 1830s ended the very high taxes and lifted the severe legal restraints. Second new machine, especially the rotary press, allowed printing of tens of thousands of copies a day at lows cost. Third, the newspapers reached out to new readers in multiple ways, including features, illustrations, and advertisements that enlarged the audience. Finally The franchise was expanded from one or two percent of the men to a majority, and newspapers became the primary means of political education.[19]

By the early 19th century, there were 52 London papers and over 100 other titles. The war with France was under way and the government wanted to suppress negative rumors and damaging information, so it tighten the censorship and raise the taxes so that few men could afford to buy a copy. In 1802 and 1815 the tax on newspapers was increased to three pence and then four pence. This was more than the average daily pay of the working man. However, coffeehouses typically purchased one or two copies that were handed around. In the 1830s hundreds of illegal untaxed newspapers circulated. The political tone of most of them was fiercely revolutionary. Their publishers were prosecuted but this failed to get rid of them. It was chiefly Milner Gibson and Richard Cobden who advocated the case in parliament to first reduce in 1836 and in 1855 totally repeal of the tax on newspapers. After the reduction of the stamp tax in 1836 from four pence to one penny, the circulation of English newspapers rose from 39,000,000 to 122,000,000 by 1854;[20] a trend further exacerbated by technological improvements in transportation and communication combined with growing literacy.

The Times

Main article: The Times

The Daily Universal Register published from 1785 and become known as The Times from 1788.[21] In 1817 Thomas Barnes became general editor; he was a political radical, a sharp critic of parliamentary hypocrisy and a champion of freedom of the press.[22] Under Barnes and his successor in 1841, John Thadeus Delane, the influence of The Times rose to great heights, especially in politics and in the financial district (the City of London). It spoke for reform.[23]

Due to Barnes's influential support for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, his colleague Lord Lyndhurst described him as "the most powerful man in the country".[24] Journalists of note included Peter Fraser and Edward Sterling, who gained for The Times the pompous/satirical nickname 'The Thunderer' (from "We thundered out the other day an article on social and political reform.") The paper became the first in the world to reach mass circulation due to its early adoption of the steam-driven rotary printing press. It was also the first properly national newspaper, using the new steam trains to deliver copies to the rapidly growing concentrations of urban populations across the UK. This helped ensure the profitability of the paper and its growing influence.[25]

The Times originated the practice for newspapers to send war correspondents to cover particular conflicts. W. H. Russell, the paper's correspondent with the army in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, wrote immensely influential dispatches; for the first time the public could read about the reality of warfare. In particular, on September 20, 1854, Russell wrote a missive about one battle that highlighted the surgeons' "humane barbarity" and the lack of ambulance care for wounded troops. Shocked and outraged, the public reacted in a backlash that led to major reforms.[26]

A wounded British officer reading The Times's report of the end of the Crimean war, in John Everett Millais' painting Peace Concluded, 1856.

The Times became famous for its influential leaders (editorials). For example, Robert Lowe wrote them between 1851 and 1868 on a wide range of economic topics such as free trade (which he favored).[27]

In 1959, historian of journalism Allan Nevins analysed the importance of The Times in shaping the views of events of London's elite:

For much more than a century The Times has been an integral and important part of the political structure of Great Britain. Its news and its editorial comment have in general been carefully coordinated, and have at most times been handled with an earnest sense of responsibility. While the paper has admitted some trivia to its columns, its whole emphasis has been on important public affairs treated with an eye to the best interests of Britain. To guide this treatment, the editors have for long periods been in close touch with 10 Downing Street.[28]

Manchester Guardian

The Manchester Guardian was founded in Manchester in 1821 by a group of non-conformist businessmen. Its most famous editor, Charles Prestwich Scott, made the Guardian into a world-famous newspaper in the 1890s. The Daily Telegraph was first published on June 29, 1855 and was owned by Arthur Sleigh, who transferred it to Joseph Levy the following year. Levy produced it as the first penny newspaper in London. His son, Edward Lawson soon became editor, a post he held until 1885. The Daily Telegraph became the organ of the middle class and could claim the largest circulation in the world in 1890. It held a consistent Liberal Party allegiance until opposing Gladstone's foreign policy in 1878 when it turned Unionist.[29]

New Journalism

The New Journalism reached out not to the elite but to a popular audience.[30][31] Especially influential was William Thomas Stead, a controversial journalist and editor who pioneered the art of investigative journalism.[32] Stead's 'new journalism' paved the way for the modern tabloid.[33] He was influential in demonstrating how the press could be used to influence public opinion and government policy, and advocated "government by journalism".[34] He was also well known for his reportage on child welfare, social legislation and reformation of England's criminal codes.

Stead became assistant editor of the Liberal Pall Mall Gazette in 1880 where he set about revolutionizing a traditionally conservative newspaper "written by gentlemen for gentlemen." Over the next seven years Stead would develop what Matthew Arnold dubbed 'The New Journalism'.[35] His innovations as editor of the Gazette included incorporating maps and diagrams into a newspaper for the first time, breaking up longer articles with eye-catching subheadings and blending his own opinions with those of the people he interviewed. He made a feature of the Pall Mall extras, and his enterprise and originality exercised a potent influence on contemporary journalism and politics. Stead's first sensational campaign was based on a Nonconformist pamphlet, "The Bitter Cry of Outcast London." His lurid stories of squalid life spurred the government into clearing the slums and building low-cost housing in their place. He also introduced the interview, creating a new dimension in British journalism when he interviewed General Gordon in 1884.[36] His use of sensationalist headlines is exemplified with the death of Gordon in Khartoum in 1885, when he ran the first 24-point headline in newspaper history, "TOO LATE!", bemoaning the relief force's failure to rescue a national hero.[37] He is also credited as originating the modern journalistic technique of creating a news event rather than just reporting it, with his most famous 'investigation', the Eliza Armstrong case.[38]

Matthew Arnold, the leading critic of the day, declared in 1887 that the New Journalism, "is full of ability, novelty, variety, sensation, sympathy, generous instincts." However, he added, its "one great fault is that it is feather-brained."[39]

Alfred Harmsworth,
1st Viscount Northcliffe

A pioneer of popular journalism for the masses had been the Chartist Northern Star, first published on 26 May 1838. The same time saw the first cheap newspaper in the Daily Telegraph and Courier (1855), later to be known simply as the Daily Telegraph. The Illustrated London News, founded in 1842, was the world's first illustrated weekly newspaper.

From 1860 until around 1910 is considered a 'golden age' of newspaper publication, with technical advances in printing and communication combined with a professionalisation of journalism and the prominence of new owners.

20th Century

The turn of the century saw the rise of tabloid journalism aimed at the working class and tending to emphasize sensational topics. Alfred Harmsworth or Lord Northcliffe, was an early pioneer of this style. In 1896 he began publishing the Daily Mail in London, which was a hit, holding the world record for daily circulation until Harmsworth's death; taglines of The Daily Mail included "the busy man's daily journal" and "the penny newspaper for one halfpenny". Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, said it was "written by office boys for office boys".[40] He used his newspapers newly found influence, in 1899, to successfully make a charitable appeal for the dependents of soldiers fighting in the South African War by inviting Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Sullivan to write The Absent-Minded Beggar.[41]

Socialist and labour newspapers also proliferated and in 1912 the Daily Herald was launched as the first daily newspaper of the trade union and labour movement.

See also


  1. Shannon E. Martin and David A. Copeland, eds. "The Function of Newspapers in Society: A Global Perspective (Praeger, 2003) p. 2
  2. Paul Arblaster, Posts, Newsletters, Newspapers: England in a European system of communications," Media History (2005) 11#1-2 pp: 21-36
  3. Carmen Espejo, "European Communication Networks in the Early Modern Age: A new framework of interpretation for the birth of journalism," Media History (2011) 17#2 pp 189-202
  4. 1 2 3 "The Age of Journalism".
  5. "British Pamphlets, 17th Century".
  6. Michael Frearson, "The Distribution and Readership of London Corantos in the 1620s." Serials and their Readers 1620 (1914): 1-25.
  7. Sharon Achinstein, "Texts in conflict: the press and the Civil War." in N.H. Keeble, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Writing of the English Revolution (2001): 50-68.
  8. "The function of the new media in seventeenth-century England".
  9. 1 2 3 "Essay on the History of Journalism in British". Retrieved 2012-12-17.
  10. OED, s.v. "Magazine".
  11. Donald Bond, "Review: The Gentleman's Magazine" Modern Philology (1940) 38#1 pp. 85-100 in JSTOR.
  12. Robert C. Elliott, "The Early Scots Magazine." Modern Language Quarterly 11.2 (1950): 189-196.
  13. John J. McCusker, "The Early History of ‘Lloyd's List’." Historical Research 64#155 (1991): 427-431.
  14. Anna M Pagan. "What's The News;The Age Of Addison". Ourcivilisation.com. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 John J. Miller. "Writing Up a Storm", The Wall Street Journal. August 13, 2011.
  16. Ross Eaman (12 October 2009). The A to Z of Journalism. Scarecrow Press. pp. 271–2. ISBN 978-0-8108-7067-3. Retrieved 2 June 2013.
  17. Barker, Hannah (1999). Newspapers, Politics and English Society. p. 256.
  18. www.historyhome.co.uk
  19. Andrew Marr, My trade: a short history of British journalism (2004) p. 13
  20. Lake, Brian (1984). British Newspapers: A History and Guide. p. 213.
  21. Philip Howard, We Thundered Out: 200 Years of the 'Times,' 1785-1985 (1985)
  22. Reginald Watters, "Thomas Barnes and 'The Times' 1817-1841," History Today (1979) 29#9 pp 561-68
  23. Trowbridge H. Ford, "Political Coverage in 'The Times,' 1811-41: The Role of Barnes and Brougham," Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research (1986) 59#139, pp 91-107.
  24. Roy Jenkins, Portraits and Miniatures p. 176
  25. Lomas, Claire "The Steam Driven Rotary Press, The Times and the Empire"
  26. Alan Hankinson, Man of Wars: William Howard Russell of 'The Times' (1982)
  27. John Maloney, "Robert Lowe, The Times, and political economy," Journal of the History of Economic Thought (2005) 27#1 pp 41-58.
  28. Allan Nevins, "American Journalism and Its Historical Treatment", Journalism Quarterly (1959) 36#4 pp 411-22
  29. Franklin, Bob (2008). Pulling Newspapers Apart. p. 292.
  30. J.O. Baylen, "The 'New Journalism' in Late Victorian Britain," Australian Journal of Politics & History (1972) 18#3 pp 367-385.
  31. A. J. Lee, The origins of the popular press 1855-1914 (1976)
  32. Mooney, Bel (25 May 2012). "High morals and low life of the first tabloid hack: Muckraker: the Scandalous Life and Times of W.T. Stead by W. Sydney Robinson". Mail Online. Retrieved 4 November 2012.
  33. http://pressandpolicy.bl.uk/Press-Releases/The-newspaper-giant-who-went-down-with-the-Titanic-Conference-at-the-British-Library-to-mark-centenary-of-the-death-of-W-T-Stead-586.aspx
  34. Joseph O. Baylen, 'Stead, William Thomas (1849–1912)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 accessed 3 May 2011
  35. "Mr William Thomas Stead". Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved 7 May 2011.
  36. Roland Pearsell (1969) The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality: 369
  37. The Sunday Times (London) May 13, 2012 Sunday Edition 1; National Edition Fleet Street's crusading villain; The Victorian editor whose love of sensationalism set the tone for the tabloids for a century Scandalmonger 40-42
  38. Roland Pearsell (1969) The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality: 367-78
  39. Karen Roggenkamp (2005). Narrating the News: New Journalism and Literary Genre in Late Nineteenth-century American Newspapers and Fiction. Kent State U.p. p. 12.
  40. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 1975
  41. Cannon, John. "The Absent-Minded Beggar", Gilbert and Sullivan News, March 1987, Vol. 11, No. 8, pp. 16–17, The Gilbert and Sullivan Society, London

Further reading

International context


Online sources

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