Observations upon an inquiry

by Nick

Some scattered thoughts about the section of the Leveson Inquiry report titled “A brief history of press freedom in the United Kingdom”. You can find this at part B2 of volume 1, starting at page 58.

  • The chapter’s sub-title is “A brief history of press freedom in the United Kingdom”. Not “A brief history of the relationship between the press and the state in the United Kingdom”, or even “the newspaper industry and the state in England” (which is what the report is really about). Much of the legislation the report cites was targeted at all printed materials, and indeed before the early seventeenth century the concept of printed news or a printed news industry is a bit problematic. This is an important distinction, given the extent to which the various Licensing Acts of the seventeenth century are being referenced by media commentators arguing against statutory regulation. They are not particularly apt historical parallels with Leveson’s idea of a statutory backstop for the Press Complaints Commission.
  • The report presumes that the pre-modern state was able, if it wished, to control or suppress the content and output of printed publications. While there are certainly examples of early modern states preventing publication, altering content, and taking books out of circulation once printed, there are many more of states failing to do so. And there are lots of examples, too, of authors falling into line with licensing when it suited them (not least John Milton, of whom more below). The story of press and state interaction is much messier than a simple narrative of bureaucratic, censoring governments seeking to crack down on radical libertarian journalists who might otherwise have let daylight in on the workings of government.
  • The report doesn’t distinguish between political regulation of printed texts and mechanisms to regulate economic ownership and exploitation of the same texts. The 1538 proclamation by Henry VIII that the report cites was linked to the break with Rome and required those writing, printing or selling religious texts to have them examined by a representative of the king or the church. The report claims the proclamation was linked to the Stationers’ Company, but this wasn’t actually incorporated until 1557 – the point at which its charter began the procedure of stationers registering their rights to a text by entering their name and the book’s title in the Company’s Register. For the Stationers’ Company, cracking down on ‘rogue’ printers and booksellers was cementing it and its members’ economic position. Considerations of profit like this are largely missing from the report’s narrative, despite the fact that profit has, since the beginning of the English news industry been at the heart of the trade’s relations with the state.

It’s interesting that the report focuses – like many broadsheet and tabloid editorials of the last few weeks – on John Milton as a crusader for press liberty. But Milton is much more complicated a historical figure than this. Despite writing Areopagitica in the 1640s he went on to play an important role in the Commonwealth’s system for licensing printed newsbooks during the 1650s. Milton’s life was full of so many ambiguities like this that he is actually a fairly apt metaphor for how complicated the relationship between press and state is.

Of course the section in the Leveson report that deals with the news trade’s history is only a few pages out of hundreds, and so it has to simplify things by default. But it does make me wonder if, in creating black-and-white narratives about how modern problems have arisen, we are pushed – consciously or sub-consciously – towards black-and-white answers. The report’s bibliography doesn’t, as far as I can tell, cite any works by academic historians. Would the inquiry have benefited from calling historians as expert witnesses, or by setting out a longer, messier analysis of the development of the news trade?