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History of British News

The news in Britain endured a difficult childhood, an awkward adolescence, and is grudgingly adjusting to an adulthood of uncertainty. But it can always count on the love of the people. As The Spectator noted in 1711: "There is no humour in my countrymen which I am more inclined to wonder at than in their general thirst after news." 300 years later: nothing's changed.

Historically, the news was a simple affair. Few could read, so it was better to shout at them. And so Royal edicts, hangings, and the ambrosial arrival of sugar were heralded by the the town crier. How times have changed. Nowadays: nobody is led to the gallows, the Royal family are happy to stay out of the news, and seemingly everyone is trying to cut down on sugar.

The news also came from sailors, soldiers and merchants - with tongues loosened by gin, they would tell tales that took seed on dry land. Gossip from the courts was relayed to the rich by personal newswriters, while balladeers would immortalize stories in verse. But it was on the fetid cobbles of Grub Street, London, that Britain's embryonic press coalesced. This battery of struggling writers were the frontiersmen of journalism, leading a fraught existence, battling poverty and censorship. Shortly after the arrival of William Caxton's printing press to Westminster, in 1476, printing was subject to strict control. Permission to print was needed from Henry VIII's Privy Council. Granting the Company Of Stationers the Royal Charter meant only members of the company could own a printing press, and by 1581, the penalty for printing seditious material was death. The only publications delivering the news under such conditions were primitive news-sheets called ‘relations'. Big stories still went unreported, but this was beginning to change. Richard Faque's 1513 account of the Battle Of Flodden Field was a rare instance of hard news hitting the press.War proved to be an irresistible catalyst for the British press.

The arrival of corantos from mainland Europe captivated the middle and upper classes as the Thirty Years War tore through the continent. There was no domestic news, but their pages would bring news of a war that resonated with religious reform. It was on the 2nd of December, 1620, that a Dutchman by the name of Joris ‘George' Veseler published the first coranto for the English market. His untitled debut inspired Thomas Archer and Nicholas Bourne to print the first weekly coranto - in serialising their publications, they placed the news in context, making it vital and contemporary. Even if the title, Weekely Newes from Italy, Germanie, Hungaria, Bohemia, the Palatinate, France and the Low Countries, was a mouthful.

Over the next twenty years, an estimated 1,000 corantos were in circulation. The public craved domestic news. With the English Civil War dismantling the Star Chamber and the Court Of High Commissioners, they got it.

The first to break the embargo was John Thomas with a weekly parliamentary digest. Not that the title was digestible: The Heads Of Several Proceedings In This Present Parliament. Out of the 64 newsbooks in circulation in 1642, over half would disappear in the next three years - infant mortality was high for newsbooks.

While the partisan Civil War newsbooks avoided comment, the Mercuries were real muckslingers. These second generation newsbooks introduced the British public to innuendo and scandal in print - a love affair that lasts to this day, championed by a morass of tabloid Red Tops: The Sun (1964, formerly the Morning Herald), The Mirror (1903), the Daily Star (1978) and Scotland's The Daily Record (1895) all take delight in scandal. The Mercurius Aulicus, created by the Royalist Sir John Birkenhead, pioneered the smear campaign. Parliamentarians would have their own tub-thumper: the Mercurius Britanicus, edited by Marchamont Needham. Birkenhead had a bźte noire to stick his pen into, and so a two-year war of words with Needham ensued, enthralling the public until the Restoration brought the party to an end, sending the press into retreat.

The Printing And Printers Act in 1653 bullied the press - government publications excepted. In 1662, printing was again restricted to the Company Of Stationers, and 1663 saw pantomime villain Roger L'Estrange appointed as Surveyor Of The Press. The King returned to a plague-free London and employed Henry Muddiman to write the London Gazette, a publication born to silence dissent. The press were driven underground until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 breezed in and changed everything. After failing to renew the Printing Act in 1695, anyone was allowed to print, and in 1702, The Daily Courant became the first daily newspaper in England.

London's newspaper market quickly became congested. Ambitious young publishers looked to the Klondike pastures of provincial Britain for opportunities. The Norwich Post duly became the first provincial title in 1701. Closely followed by: the Bristol Post (1704); Britain's oldest surviving newspaper, Berrow's Worcester Journal (1709, formerly the Worcester Post-man 1690); the Newcastle Courant (1711); and many more. But these papers merely recycled the news from London's dailies - local news didn't make the early provincial papers.

Since nobody in Birmingham, Leeds, or Manchester, could afford to subscribe to the London papers thanks to the Stamp Act of 1712 - and the provincial newspaper flourished. Scotland's oldest newspaper, The Aberdeen Journal (1748, latterly, The Press And Journal), is a true survivor of the provincial news movement. In a pleasing historical symmetry, contemporary local papers' stories are now syndicated to the national dailies, reversing the trend of the 18th Century.

It wasn't long before provincial newspapers encountered financial difficulties. Unlike the London dailies, they didn't have treasury bribes buoying their accounts. The London dailies needed accurate reports from parliament to sustain their political narrative. The Morning Chronicle and the Gazetteer employed a variety of methods to report from parliament. William Woodfall, founder of the Chronicle, relied on his elephantine memory and hard-boiled eggs for sustenance during his twelve-hour sittings in parliament. Thanks to Woodfall, the Chronicle pioneered political journalism.

The press' evolution carried on at pace. Newspapers became reliant on the sale of advertising. And after the abolition of Stamp Duty in 1855, The Telegraph went daily. It was joined by The Scotsman (1817), The Liverpool Post (1855), and The Manchester Guardian (1821). Inspired by the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, the Manchester Guardian became a leading voice in the Reform movement, becoming The Guardian in 1959. The newsstand looked familiar: The Times ,(1785, known as the Daily Universal Register until 1788); The Financial Times , (1888); and The Daily Mail (1896) were all regular fixtures.

The daily news had arrived on Britain's doorstep. Titanic personalities emerged. Men like Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Mail, The Evening News (1894), and The Mirror. He would also come to the rescue of The Times and The Observer, towering over Fleet Street before succumbing to madness, dying in 1922. Max Aitken, Baron Beaverbrook, was another of publishing's sovereigns. The First Baron Of Fleet Street transformed the The Daily Express. Its breezy and persistent denials that the First World War was imminent were the journalistic equivalent of whistling past a graveyard. But it was a winner. When the Second World War ended, it was the world's highest selling newspaper.

The news had never been more colourful, more animated, more captivating. In 1903, The Mirror added a visual dimension to newspapers. But no sooner had newspapers exhibited the full bloom of evolution - pictures, typography, real news - television and radio would muscle in on the action, changing everything. In 1922, the British Broadcasting Corporation changed the way people received the news. People didn't just read about it, they listened to it; and by 1932, they could watch it. The The BBC became the world's largest news gathering broadcaster. It was joined by ITN (Independent Television News) in 1955, as the commercial television sector took its first steps. Television was invaded living rooms throughout Britain.

The news in its perishable splendour will always be cosy up to the swiftest of media. But while newspapers were being scooped by television and radio, they could provide comment and context, something that challenged the rigid regime of the broadcasting schedule - though Question Time and Newsnight are among the programmes to give in-depth analysis of the news. Magazines like The Spectator (1711), The New Statesman (1913), The Economist (1843), and Private Eye (1961), are a reflective alternative, giving the news a thorough - and in the case of Private Eye, irreverent - treatment of current affairs.

Newspapers have struggled in the last 30 years - even television's hegemony has been gazumped by the internet. Newspapers reacted slowly, failing to understand how they could manage their brand in an era of 24 hour broadcasting. They have struggled with modernisation. They've changed shape, offered more comment, offered less, launched interactive websites, updated hourly with newswires from Reuters and the Associated Press. But in recent times, newspapers have struggled to provide a consistently profitable model.

Television has also evolved. News bulletins have box office production. This year's relaunch - again - of ITN's iconic News At Ten, fronted by Sir Trevor McDonald, has invigorated the rivalry between the BBC and ITN, just one of many intriguing rivalries played out by the media behemoths. The oligarchy of the 20th Century started with Beaverbrook and Northcliffe, and ended with men like the late Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch.

The antipathy between those two peeked when Murdoch's News International acquired Sunday tabloid the News Of The World in 1968, before buying The Sun in 1969. The latter going head-to-head with Maxwell's Mirror. It was a real coup for Murdoch, whose been cementing his company's position ever since. There is so much at stake, and publishing is warfare without the safety net of diplomacy. Fought on all fronts, it's a war for ratings, circulation, advertising revenue, and the public's undivided attention.

From the internet outposts of citizen journalism, blogging and comment, the news has become an interactive commodity, accessible round the clock. It's at once high-brow comment and low celebrity tittle-tattle. It influences elections as newspapers rally behind the party of their choice - something that the neutral BBC could not do, and something that television as a whole would struggle to do. It would be unthinkable for a news station to take the credit for a general election victory as The Sun did in 1992, when John Major was on his soapbox, winning by the slenderest of margins. The news now is handed out at the train station. It's on the radio. With RSS readers it is digestible, and with podcasts it is portable. We may no longer wrap our chips in it, but in the 21st Century, the news is unavoidable.

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Brit Quote:
Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected. - Oscar Wilde
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On this day:
The Bank of England becomes Insolvent - 1797, First £1 Note Issued - 1797, First Grand National - 1839, Heroic HMS Birkenhead Sinks - 1852, Churchill Announces British Atom Bomb - 1952, Shelton Hospital Fire - 1968, Barings Bank Collapses - 1995
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