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February 10, 2006

How should conservatives react to media censorship? Jeremy Black considers the case of the politicisation of the press in Hanoverian England

Posted by Jeremy Black

How should conservatives react to media censorship? Jeremy Black - Professor of History at the University of Exeter and, amongst much else, author of the soon to be published The European Question and the National Interest - argues that multifarious conservative attitudes to censorship are closely linked to the ambiguous, conflicted and varied conservative response towards capitalism. Prof. Black illustrates his point by considering the case of the politicisation of the press in Hanoverian England.

Conservatives, particularly outside the more liberal and dynamic Anglo-American tradition, have always had an ambiguous relationship with capitalism. The principal intellectual roots and route of conservatism have emphasised scepticism about the possibilities of secular improvement and, instead, a stress on historical continuity and group values, generally the values of a nation or country but sometimes those of a people or race.

The furtherance of capitalism and the concomitant defence of certain sectional interests have combined to provide an alternative modern impetus behind conservatism, but it is one that has been simultaneously far less popular, still less populist, and also less attractive, possibly even harder, for conservative intellectuals to defend or at least feel completely at ease with. The identification of conservatism and capitalism is one made more often by the opponents of both, and conservatives must always be wary about accepting the idioms of their rivals and competing on lines laid down by them.

Yet, certainly in comparison with its modern rivals, capitalism is the most attractive form of socio-economic organisation for conservatives. Capitalism has shaped the democratisation of society in a conservative direction, because, at the same time that the differing wealth and income of individuals ensures that their purchasing power varies, each is a consumer able to make his or her own purchasing decisions. This element of choice and the need to shape and cater to it have helped to lead to a major shift in political culture, so that in modern Britain, unlike during the late 1940s, there is now little confidence in central planning and limited support for state collectivism.

Capitalist pressures and possibilities have changed society, leading to a major expansion of the middle class. The percentage of the labour force composed of manual workers fell from 75 in 1900 to 47 by 1974 and 36 in 1991. A capitalist, consumerist, individualist, mobile, predominantly secular and urban, property-owning democracy developed in Britain. Their society was far more atomistic than its predecessors. The young were determined not to be younger copies of their elders, and, secondly and more specifically, to reject the opinions of their parents, willing to try different foods, to holiday in different places, to move away from parental religious preferences, to go on to higher education or to purchase property.

Many conservatives find these shifts disturbing and seek to blame those forces they hold responsible. Capitalism has drawn the blame for many aspects of the secularism and collapse of deference that so many find worrying. Thus in Britain, a major battle of opinion was fought in the late 1980s and early 1990s between those who supported shopping on Sundays and those who wished to restrict it. The latter found capitalist "greed" an easier target than libertarianism. More generally, there has been condemnation of the pressures created by advertising and, specifically, of the supposed cultural threat posed by American idioms of life purveyed through capitalist concerns such as McDonalds.

Yet, the alternative to capitalism is a controlled economy, either ostensibly socialist or socialist in its methods and assumptions, and such a situation is not in the interest of conservatives, especially if they are of a democratic bent.

The modern press, indeed the media in general, takes an important role in this debate. There is a long tradition of unease among conservatives about the liberal traditions of much of the press, one that has not been assuaged by its capitalist rationale. Partly, there is disquiet about the extent to which news and opinion are both commodities, a situation that unsettles those who like to see them in terms of immutable truths. Partly, there is grave concern about the influence of the media and the possibility that opportunities for the dissemination of news and opinion will be controlled, deliberately or otherwise, in a hostile fashion.

Yet, again, it is first necessary to look at the alternatives. A central feature of a country with a capitalist press is that newspapers have had to compete with each other; the alternative, a - formally or informally - controlled press, is far less attractive to democrats. The capitalist press is best understood in a competitive light though at present there is a worrying tendency towards monopoly positions for commercial, rather than ideological, reasons.

Newspapers have also had to compete with other means of conveying news. These means can essentially be divided into two types. First, there have been other capitalistic agencies, both those involving the culture of print, such as magazines, and, more recently, those using different technology, such as radio and television. In contrast, there are the far less readily grasped non-institutional and non-capitalist agencies for formulating and disseminating news. These can essentially be described as community agencies: families, kindred, localities, confessional and economic groups.

The relationship between the two is obviously not one of simple competition. Community agencies can serve for the assessment and transmission of news received from elsewhere through the first type of agencies. And yet, there is and was a basic tension. Though local communities can influence, through their values, the impact of the news from external agencies on the local recipients of it, they play a more limited role than in the creation and discussion of local issues - local being understood to refer to a specific group and not necessarily being a geographical term.

In contrast, external agencies mediate between localities and the outside world, in particular creating or sustaining expectations, hopes and interests that are not those of the locality. External agencies therefore offered and offer a source and means for independence, individualism and, on at least the local level, democratisation. Knowledge is not so much freedom, but rather a cause of the demand for freedoms.

Early modern England was a society that was, in its practice and ideology, by modern standards, inegalitarian, religious, hierarchical, paternalistic, patriarchal, male-dominated and both reverential of, and referential to, the past. The culture of print represented a potential threat to this cultural, social and political order; though it is necessary not to see this order as rigid and unchanging, nor to exaggerate the degree of tension between society and the culture of print, most particularly by abstracting this culture from society, and thus thinking in terms of rivalry and an opposition of mentalites or consciousnesses.

The threat was most potent in the religious sphere. The printing of vernacular bibles had given concerned individuals an opportunity to consider God themselves and to defy traditional teachings from the zealous perspective of scriptural authority. The modern religious world in both America and Britain is in large part a product of the collapse of monopoly control over the dissemination of the Christian message and the accompanying decline in ecclesiastical authority. This can be, and is, assessed in different ways by conservatives of different beliefs - a Catholic will have a different view to a Protestant - an indication of the folly of assuming that conservatives will necessarily share similar positions.

Academic attention on the culture of print in the eighteenth century has focused on the political and social implications of print. Politics was a sphere of activity that suited the technology of print with its capability for producing new stories rapidly. The press could make politics, if not immediate, at least diurnal by publishing fresh accounts, offering new angles on current controversies and creating new issues. This encouraged political pressure, a process facilitated by the opportunities of using the legal system to harass opposition papers and by the willingness of governments to subsidize favourable papers. The former was most successful in the 1710s and early 1720s and again in the 1790s.

The government campaign against the Jacobite press in the 1710s and early 1720s was reasonably effective. Of the six Jacobite papers listed in Thursday's Journal in October 1719, only two remained three years later. Jacobite newspaper men, such as George Flint and Nathaneal Mist, fled to France to avoid fresh spells in London's Newgate prison. In 1746 the newly-launched Jacobite National Journal ended when the printer was removed to Newgate.

The French Revolutionary crisis led to renewed government activity. The Argus, a paper that had defended such radicals as Tom Paine and was content to link its fortune "to the Revolution of France", was ended - its printer Sampson Perry having been outlawed when he fled to France to avoid trial for libel. The presses were used for the True Briton, launched with government sponsorship, in 1793. The printers of the Manchester Herald and the Sheffield Register fled abroad to avoid trial in 1793 and 1794 and their papers came to an end. A threatened government prosecution led to the end of the Leicester Chronicle in 1792. James Montgomery, the conductor of the radical Sheffield Iris, was imprisoned for political libels in 1795 and 1796. In 1799 a compulsory registration of printing presses was introduced.

Government payments to the press in the eighteenth century varied, but, in the early 1730s, Sir Robert Walpole's ministry was probably spending about 20,000 annually, slightly more than the annual cost of an infantry regiment. When in retirement, Lord North, Prime Minister 1770-82, told the French Ambassador that he had never seen a British government strong enough to be able to ignore what was said in print, and that it was necessary for ministries to reply to printed criticism, failing which they would swiftly become unpopular.

Aside from money, government could also provide other inducements, some of which are familiar today. Ministerial newspapers could hope to receive advertisements from departments of government, assistance at the Post Office, and benefits to other aspects of their business. An active searcher of government patronage, John Walter of the Daily Universal Register, which later became The Times, was appointed printer to the Customs Office in 1787, having failed to obtain the profitable printing contract for the Stationery Office. News was also provided. Samuel Buckley sought to obtain for the Daily Courant:

such foreign news as is proper to be printed; this indulgence would add much to the circulation of a paper calculated and carried on entirely for public benefit.
Thomas Bradshaw, who, as Secretary of the Treasury, had played a role in ministerial propaganda, claimed in 1773 that:
a newspaper can never be supported without the insertion now and then of a secret.
The situation today is in some respects more serious, although the means by which governments can use formal legal restraints to coerce the press are far weaker in most countries in the "free world". Precisely because of regulatory devices, many of them designed to control what have been seen as the excesses of capitalism, the possibility is now stronger for close relations between parts of the media and government or political parties, most obviously in France and Italy. This situation has worsened as a result of technological developments and the efforts of media enterprises to span different media spheres, a process that encourages regulatory supervision and government interference.

The issue of closer government/media relations and its possible pernicious consequences, is but an aspect of the wider question of the desirability of modern developments in the media. There appears to be an increasingly centralized media, not least because it is financially easier to make money by arranging mergers and creating quasi-monopolies, rather than by creating and investing in new concerns. Yet, the relentless pace of new technology and the extent to which so much of it is amenable to individual use threatens to subvert any monopoly corporate structures based on current technology, while the porosity of international frontiers to foreign transmission also weakens both monopoly control and regulatory regimes.

For conservatives the situation is a challenging one but any uniform response is highly unlikely because of the ambiguous and differing approaches across the world to issues of regulation and to the ideology and practice of unrestrained capitalism.

Furthermore, the regulatory context not only differs but also affects conservatives differently because of the histories of their respective countries. American conservatives have had less experience of powerful state control than their counterparts in Europe and the threat of socialism is less of an issue in America.

Equally, many American and British conservatives find it difficult to understand the degree to which in much of Continental Europe conservatives struggle to control, not to dismantle, state concerns and regulatory institutions. In France, Italy and Germany state control is not identified with socialism. Whatever our doubts and concerns, the modern situation in America and Britain is certainly better than one in which the state simply controls the media in the name of the people.

Yet, there are also many reasons to avoid complacency. Much of the rubbish circulated in various branches of the media indicates the extent both to which there are too few standards and that those who seek to define standards are frequently obsessed with the nostrums and narcissism of political correctness.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of the soon to be published The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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Interesting, quite informative, but for me there could have been more focus on historical comparisons rather than diverse examples of modern day repercussions. Why not vary analysis with light reading for good impact. Helpful though, thanks.

Posted by: fjl at February 12, 2006 09:01 PM
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