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A history of news

The British Library is currently running an exhibition looking at 500 years of news reporting in Britain. Much has changed but much has stayed the same, says Professor Jackie Harrison.

By Jackie Harrison

A history of news
The breakthrough that made it all possible? An engraving showing William Caxton reading the first proof from his printing press.

The point about exhibitions is that they should succeed in both revealing and affirming something. The 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York revealed and affirmed the value of the work of European Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists to modern America whilst the 1972 exhibition, The Treasure of Tutankhamen revealed and affirmed Egypt’s contemporary cultural and historical significance (as well as inspiring a regeneration of Egyptology). Both exhibitions were exceptional in the scope of their impact but nevertheless it is the interplay between revelation and affirmation that drives curators onward when assembling an exhibition.

And so what of the current British Library’s exhibition, Breaking The News: 500 years of News in Britain?

The exhibition is both visually attractive and stimulating. It comprehensively highlights the diversity of issues that affect news publication and reporting and to this end, the British Library is to be congratulated. It utilises its wonderful resources in a powerfully engaging manner. The exhibition effortlessly covers matters of war and conflict, crime and disasters, publishers’ relationships to power, the use of satire, the fascination for the bizarre and exotic, the perpetual interest in celebrity and even questions of objectivity, balance and trust. All are dealt with in a historically sensitive way that in all cases displays contemporary relevance and pointedness: Milton’s Areopagitica: A speech for the liberty of printing (1644) along with the remains of computer hard drives which were smashed by Guardian staff while being watched by technicians from GCHQ in 2013.

Perennial truths

So what does 500 years of news reveal and affirm about breaking and reporting the news for today’s publishers?

Well three things. First, the difficulties publishers (and early printers) and editors faced and continue to face when having to confront hostile political realities and accompanying that, their consistent defence and attachment to the dangerously abstract ideal of a free and unfettered press. What is clearly shown is the extent to which a hostile state goes to when it wants to attack the press. It utilises its regulatory powers of taxation, censorship and its coercive powers of detention and arrests. All of which have been and still are actively (and bravely) resisted. And it this civil resistance which somehow comes out without being couched in some form of triumphalism about the successes of the modern age and how much freer the press and publishing is today. It shows we cannot be complacent; some things have not got better and freedoms are often more easily lost than gained.

Second, it is still notable just how wide the scope of news is and how unassuageable public demand for news remains. What the exhibition shows quite clearly is that the demand from publics is twofold. First that publics hold something called a ‘right to know’ and second (and more concretely) they also have a ‘desire to know’. Publics are thankfully not presented as simply consisting of high minded citizens but have interests that range from high politics to the salacious and, yes, the downright distasteful. When it comes to the public’s ‘right to know’, publishers and editors regard this as a moral absolute, one that is only trumped by a convincing case for national security, though not necessarily for cases of privacy. When it comes to the desire to know – publishers push the boundaries and take risks. Combined, we are left with the fact that news journalism operates with a definition of itself as a basic social good – and this applies to all forms of news.

Third, there has always been (well at least for 500 years of news) an attachment to versions of truth telling, objectivity and the right to undertake investigative reporting. And this attachment forms the ideals of how publishers and news journalists should go about doing their job. These are the vocational values news publishers, news reporters and news reports are supposed to exemplify. Interestingly though, the most historically consistent of these values is a fundamental belief in truth telling, that there are truths (small and large) that can be discovered through investigation. Points of views can be compared and contrasted, factual assertions checked and claims as to effects can be analysed. Built on top of this ‘truth telling’ foundation are all the subsequent problems of accuracy and bias, sincerity and dishonesty and, of course, subjectivity and objectivity. These too are perennial.

Overall, the exhibition leaves us with a simple truism that we cannot and should not be required to live without an independent news media of some form and configuration. Simply because in and of itself, the news is an important phenomenon – since it is the only way many of us will have any idea of what is going on around us and in our name. The cultural critic Fred Inglis put it this way, “The journalist discovers what we could not possibly discover for ourselves and tells us what it is. He or she is faithful to their science, which is the history of the present.” The typical justifications for news (increasing public deliberation, redressing democratic deficits, ensuring a plurality of views and so on) can, in the exhibition’s case, also be temporally suspended and replaced with the brutally simple social fact that the news really is about ‘us’ knowing what is going on. Whether this is a right of some kind or a political necessity is not relevant from this perspective, but what we can say is this it is a sociological and psychological necessity when it comes to being competently informed about the world. As such and at all times, the news exists under this stricture: that it must be faithfully homologous to the world if it is to gain a public warrant of trust.

Lessons for today’s publishers

Given the exhibits, biographies and commentaries on display and the book that accompanies the exhibition, I gleaned two key themes and lessons for contemporary publishers, printers and editors to take away.

First, a technological point. With regard to advances in communication technology over the last 500 years, things have obviously changed. But what is the nature of that change? At the technical level, it is of course changes in news gathering and breaking the news in response to a 24/7 news cycle, multi-platform dissemination, styles of writing and presentation and the addition of social media as the means through which public sentiment can express itself and decide to interact with the news cycle (or more likely not). But what of the revolutionary level. The case of Twitter is important when it declared itself to be the tool that would revolutionise news journalism by bringing the networked and engaged audience to news journalism, thereby heralding the age of co-produced and rapid reaction news, new forms of digital town squares and public assemblies, virtual town halls, a perfect facilitator of deliberative public discourse and the consciousness of the world. Well, it isn’t clear that editors and news journalists believe that Twitter has made a difference with regard to the core values of news journalism, nor has it shattered the norms and mores of institutionalised news journalism and news organisations have not reconfigured themselves to the extent that they are Twitter centred. In the meantime, things went toxic and Twitter and others are struggling with how they should deal with what passes for news on their platforms.

The second key theme or lesson is an intellectual one. We are still after 500 years talking about state and legal restrictions and still debating them with more or less the same ideas: versions of rights, pluralism, liberalism, democracy, economic priorities of efficiency and wealth generation as well as asking who or what ‘our’ audience is: variously citizens, consumers and in some cases partisans. In essence, it remains the case that how a news provider articulates and prioritises its role and responsibilities, how editors and news journalists choose to go about their profession and in what capacity the public engages with the news is all that matters. Accordingly, and depending on your tastes, good and bad news journalism still coexists, as do good and bad regulatory regimes. The key to this lack of fundamental change is the enduring persistence of self-interest, narrowly conceived of, and opposing that, editorial and journalistic integrity and the preservation of a civil-minded journalistic culture of truth telling. The appalling is still recognisably appalling and what we face today in terms of nativism, xenophobia, ‘fake’ news, viral hoaxes and the need for fact checking has its equivalences, as the exhibition shows, in the past.

Intellectual sameness and technological shifts are the sum total of the historical record if we want to understand the evolution of news journalism. And what current anxieties we hold about technological shifts are typically dealt with by an extant intellectual repertoire. In that sense alone, the exhibition is powerfully instructive.

Ultimately the exhibition can be said to have both a balanced perspective and a form of historical realism. It shows today’s publishers that civil and anti-civil sentiments still co-exist in the news, that claims and counter claims about the value of news are perennial, that what is news is a complex issue and that thoughts on how balanced the news can be – that is how independent is news from individually held or socially held points of view – are constant.

Sadly, what is not dealt with in the exhibition or the book that supports it, is why the name Wynkin de Worde (a colleague of Caxton who set up the first printing press in Fleet Street in 1500) has failed to become an eponym for what it is that publishers, editors and news journalists actually do for a living.

The ‘Breaking the News’ exhibition, which is supported by Newsworks, runs at the British Library until 21 August.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.