By Atina Dimitrova
~ Happy World Book and Copyright Day! We must appreciate all the writers who inspire us and all the people respecting copyright law.
And now more about the press' liberty...
It is difficult to accept the idea that the end of the “taxes on knowledge” is directly linked to the British press’ freedom. A complete free expression means a framework of values which stimulate fact-based communication and distinct democracy without any government interference.
After the repeal of taxes, journalists’ accuracy, independence and impartiality cannot be observed entirely. Political subsidies were still crucial for the financing of the press so the complete freedom is not an instantaneous outcome. Furthermore, after the abolition, there is a new licensing system – the advertising. As Ivon Asquith highlights (cited in Curran, 2010: 3): “… the growth of advertising revenue was the most important single factor in enabling the press to emerge as the Fourth Estate of the realm.”
However, the end of press taxations is a highly important contribution for more powerful newspapers. This influence is directly linked to more transparency, freedom and accountability of the press. Moreover, securing revenues from sales and advertisements gradually leads to independence of party funds.
There can be no doubt that the heavy taxes were established so as to restrict the circulation of some dangerous for the government facts and keep the editors under pressure. The arrival of the illegal unstamped highly profitable radical newspapers is as a reaction of this. Neither press taxations nor prosecutions for seditious libel managed to prevent the success of the radical press. The unwillingness to let the lower ranks read newspapers led to this unifying working community’s press. It is logical for proletariats to long for reforms. That is why later on, after the arrival of advertising, left-wing journalism develops – the economic and political discrimination is widely believed to be negative. The press’ development indicates that the reduction in stamp duty is the most successful way to encourage the legal journalism. As history itself shows, the words “legality” and “freedom” are usually linked.
The following step was fighting for rights which is desired to end in free market and competition. David Chaney states (in Curran, 2010: 3): “The British press is generally agreed to have attained its freedom around the middle of the 19th century.” What are the characterizations which support this assertion; what has changed after 1855? Conboy (2011: 16) recapitulates the main differences: now the press is targeting a wider readership and the new elements are advertising, the trend to sensationalism (reporting crimes, dramas as a method to stimulate public safety), reduction of political coverage, a lighter style and more human interest. This doubtlessly contributes to more freedom.
Furthermore, the erosion of the tradition of anonymous authorship is observed – this means that self-confidence increases in a similar vein. The extension of the franchise is also an inevitable part of the upheaval which leads to more powerful newspapers and less influential politicians. As a result of this larger audience the increasing returns on the investment through wider distribution is observed.
The Irish politician Maguire (cited in Curran, 2010: 19) draws the conclusion that while repealing the taxes on knowledge ”you render the people better citizens, more obedient to the laws, more faithful and loyal subjects, and more determined to stand up for the honour of the country”. So this change is widely believed to be revolutionary.
Unquestionably, the end of the press taxations itself does not trigger the whole upheaval.
The urgent need to increase printing capacity is another element for the press barons to think about. Engel (1997) summarizes the other factors – spread of railways, arrival of cheaper paper, efficient exploitation of the rotary press, the telegraph and the Pitman’s shorthand system. Faster presses and quick-drying ink were introduced.
The newspapers’ independence is a long and tough process. It is true that the cost of launching and running a London daily newspaper increased from £25,000 in 1850 to £100,000 in 1870, but it did not stop the arrival of classless and ageless newspapers. Several eminent figures used these inventions and changed completely the modern English journalism. Their newspapers prove and represent the success of the new era without press taxations. For example, Alfred Harmsworth established the Daily Mail in 1896 which was immediate commercial success – it was Britain’s best-selling paper as soon as it was founded. It included shorter illustrated feature articles with provocative headlines summarizing the main points.
Another example of the Harmsworth’s foresight is Daily Mirror, founded in 1903. This first illustrated paper in the history was designed to appeal exclusively to women. It was of great importance for providing an impetus to the development of photojournalism. Brendon (1982: 124) explains that Harmsworth was described as “The Napoleon of Fleet Street”; as the greatest single human force in the world of journalism. This largest publishing business in the world was successful primarily because of the condensation, simplification and topicality, as Brendon (1982) affirms. Northoleon surpasses Pulitzer, as Don Seitz implies (in Brendon, 1982: 109): “Nothing for years has attracted so much attention in the newspapers of the country as your Harmsworth edition.”
The confirmation whether a certain revolution in the history is beneficial can be illustrated by the outcome of the events. Tracing the development of these two newspapers shows that actually the modern journalism was extremely successful. They changed the business beyond recognition – in 1914 they were the two largest-selling newspapers. Northcliffe also managed to buy The Times, which was thought to be “the most influential of the elite papers” (Engel, 1997: 70).
Another example is The Daily Telegraph – it was not considered to be a success but still managed to surpass with its circulation The Times. The latter dominated the industry prior to the taxes’ demise – as Brown (1992) explains, it was a technologically advanced paper which had a return on labour-saving investment. The Times was prohibitively expensive – as Engel (1997: 25) illustrated – it costed “seven old pence in 1820s when that might be a third of a farm labourer’s daily pay”. The price reduction is directly linked to sales increase.
The Daily Express launched by Arthur Pearson overwhelmed the Daily Mail and it led to welcoming changes in the process of publishing because of the rivalry. Other successful newspapers were Lloyd’s Weekly News, reaching a million sales in 1896, and Reynolds News catering for the coalition between classes successfully after 1855. A further point is the expansion in the number as a whole for the local weekly, the national daily and the Sunday papers by 1920 during the Victorian era, described as the “golden age” by Alan Lee (cited in Curran, 2010: 4).
Moreover, the telegraph reduced the dependency of provincial newspapers on the London press. Williams (2010: 101) shows which were the five key elements identified by Hoyer and Pottker for the new journalism – 24-hour news cycle, focus of news values, “inverted pyramid” style of writing, introduction of news interview and rise of objectivity. These novelties resulted in competition among the press barons which led to improvements. As Williams (2010) highlights, the priorities now are nature of news, presentation, layout, clarity and brevity.
Despite the limited sovereign editorship and the existence of the ownership’s concentration after the repeal, the data shows that 4,000 newspaper companies were founded in the next 50 years. Furthermore, mass readership provides mass market for advertisements.
To conclude briefly, the more broadly accessible the press is, the more profitable it will be. The modern journalism with its greater technological advance, represented the right balance between a commercialized business industry and the readers’ interests; the correlation between less political influence and greater cultural reputation. As Williams (1957: 124) concludes, the journalism from a trade became an industry, a real profession. Although it is debatable whether the press was free to the greatest possible extent, it is valid that after 1855 the combination between educational agenda and consumerist emphasis within journalism results in more liberty and independence.
Brendon, P. (1982) The life and death of the press barons. London: Secker and Warburg
Brown, Lucy, (1992) "The British press, 1800-1860" from Griffiths, Dennis (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the British Press 1422-1992 pp. 24-32
Conboy, M. (2011) Journalism in Britain: A historical introduction. London: Sage
Curran, J., Seaton, J. (2010) Power without responsibility. 7th edition. Abingdon: Routledge
Engel, M. (1997) Tickle the public. Indigo edition. London: Cassell Group Wellington
House Williams, F. (1957) Dangerous Estate. London: Longman
Williams, K. (2010) Read all about it! A history of the British newspaper. Abingdon: Routledge
Author of two novels published in Bulgarian. Photography lover. Journalism student at City University London