Pat here, just back from South America and not quite ready to post on travels. So here’s a shorty, the promised blog on newspapers in the Regency. I’ve already told you how it took nearly half a week for news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo to reach London. What startled me was learning that the newspapers took so long to report the news because they had NO journalists anywhere—editors simply waited for official court documents before printing an edition telling the British populace that Napoleon had been defeated!
In 1815, London had 50 newspapers, if one includes the weeklies and twice-weeklies. While Napoleon escaped exile, gathered an army, and half Europe prepared for war, not one single newspaper sent a reporter to follow events. London had no idea that Wellington defeated Napoleon until nearly half a week later, and that was scarcely a factual reporting and more wild rumor until the official government reports were compiled, written, edited, and approved.
In the Regency era, objective journalism wasn’t even a concept for discussion because it did not exist. People might pay to print announcements and advertisements. Some of the less savory rags might have a gossip column. But news? That was what the government wanted them to print.
The British government did their best to keep it that way. They taxed newspapers heavily to prevent them from growing beyond small enterprises that barely made a profit. Even more egregiously—the only source of foreign news was foreign newspapers, which had to go through the London Post Office, where they were impounded until government officials and foreign diplomats read them first.
Even then, the Post Office was in no hurry to release that information. Instead, the Post Office staff picked over the papers for the interesting items, compiled them, and offered them for sale for a guinea. Desperate editors had to pay up or lose out. It also meant that all the foreign news was written by the government. How much would you trust it?
So, you say, what was to keep civilians from sending posts to the editors with any foreign news they learned? Easy. Everything arrived by ship. Yes, a form of telegraph did exist, but it was expensive to maintain and didn’t work in the dark. And operations occasionally shut down, rendering it useless—as happened before Waterloo. So with no internet or airplanes, ships were the only reliable means of transporting foreign news. And customs officials prevented any letters from being carried in without government approval.
Can we say censorship? The term did not even come to mind back then, because this was the way everything was always done. They did not have reporters. If a newspaperman heard some news while out and about, it would not even have occurred to him to write it down. He would have gone on about his usual business because reporting news was not his business!
Newspapers were no more than news aggregators. They collected official announcements from the courts, various government offices, including those foreign snippets from the Post Office, and published military dispatches, bankruptcies and other court proceedings, and if there was a battle, they’d print the official report handed down from the appropriate official. One of the main jobs of newspapers was to print debates in parliament, verbatim, from official documents. Can you imagine reading one of the debates in Congress, verbatim? It’s not as if they were any more eloquent in the Regency era than now.
The reason why anyone would bother running a newspaper? The editor got to comment on those parliamentary debates. Here was the social media of the day, the trolls of the Regency, the intellectual controversies that stirred the coffee houses! Newspaper editors were the social media kings! Editorials controlled what people thought and talked about. Sure, readers could comb through pages of boring debate to find the facts, but readers then weren’t any different than now. It’s much easier to read a rant than the facts. So one chose one’s newssheets based on one’s politics. . . just as we do today.
Really, humans were granted the greatest gift of all species—the gift of speech. And what do we do with it? Write idiot blogs like this one.
Words are powerful, which is why so many governments try to control them. I certainly understand the desire to censor. I want to smash the trolls who use my social media to do nothing more than promote themselves to my audience and clog up my comments. But that’s my page and I’m allowed to censor it. But when the owners of the media choose to censor or lie or use their power on a public forum. . . Or public schools paid by our taxes decide what books our students can read. . . The sands shift. If it's not the actual government doing the censoring, where do you think we should draw the line on who gets to read what?