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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

New New Grub Street

It is possible that Brian Leveson will pull a rabbit out of the hat on Thursday, when he publishes the report of his inquiry into "the culture, practices and ethics of the press", but the widespread lobbying in advance suggests there will be few surprises, particularly as regards ownership and plurality. The battle lines have been drawn around the issue of statutory regulation. Those opposing this have adopted "no return to 1695" as their battle-cry, a reference to the date when the state licensing of newspapers ended, since when we have supposedly enjoyed a free press. It's worth delving back into the mists of time to understand what 1695 was all about, as it is relevant to the current debate, though not in the way claimed by the press freedom claque.

State licensing of the press was not abolished in 1695, it simply lapsed, which is not a pedantic point. Freedom of speech did not win a great victory, rather the state gave up a regime that had dated from the late Medieval period (largely concerned with the control of Bible printing) and adopted a new legal framework based on property rights, thereby recognising the revolutions in political theory and printing (which had become a lot cheaper) that occurred over the course of the century. It is also worth emphasising that "press" in this context meant the printing press. While the focus of the state's interest was on books and pamphlets, and what they contained, the means of production and thus control concerned the physical machinery of printing, a form of constant capital. Newspapers, in the sense of a regular publication on "matters of topical interest", did not evolve until after the end of licensing, which occurred with the expiration of the time-delimited Licensing Act of 1662, a Restoration law that replaced the earlier Licensing Order of 1643, which in turn had replaced censorship by the Crown (via the Star Chamber) with censorship by Parliament.

The lapsing of state censorship was due to a number of factors. Pre-publication control had long been an irritant in the struggle between King and Commons, particularly in relation to political and religious pamphlets, but it had also proven to be impractical and counter-productive, notably stimulating Milton's polemic in favour of free speech, Areopagitica. However, Milton's much-referenced (and little-read) work was as much a criticism of the monopoly of printing enjoyed by the Stationers' Company, who acted as sole licensors under both Crown and Parliament, as it was a plea for a fundamental right. During the late 17th century, attempts at imposing censorship, and the continuing unpopularity of the Stationers' Company among authors, led to more ill-feeling, which was exacerbated by the Bill of Rights of 1689. Though this did not establish a general right of free speech, it did insist that the debates of Parliament be free and unhindered, which set a crucial precedent.

With the end of licensing in 1695, the print market boomed. Though this was a golden period for literature, many of the leading lights of the Augustan age were motivated by an intense distaste for the hack-work it unleashed, hence Pope's Dunciad and its contempt for Grub Street, the centre of the low-end printing industry in London. Even "hacks" like Daniel Defoe were incensed by the unauthorised (and unpaid) republication of their works by unscrupulous printers. Responding to their loss of monopoly, the Stationers' Company changed tack and advocated copyright as a means of both checking unrestrained publication (and defending their members' own economic interests) and securing authors' rights in their property. This was in tune with the times, echoing the importance of property in John Locke's Second Treastise of Government. Their lobbying led to the first copyright law, the Statute of Anne of 1710. In parallel, the ability of the state to control "dangerous" material was satisfied by recourse to the law on seditious libel and by the imposition of stamp duty which further restricted the publication of newspapers to those with deep pockets. The reliance on libel also set a more general civil precedent, with the courts increasingly being used to defend the "property" of a person's reputation from damage.

Despite two centuries of change, including the huge growth of the newspaper and publishing industries following widespread literacy (described in George Gissing's New Grub Street of 1891), this framework has remained largely unchanged. While the official line has been that the British press is free, the government has always been able to prevent publication of specific items, so long as it was careful not to abuse its "advisory" privileges. Charges of seditious libel evolved into D-Notices and appeals to "national security". The rich and the famous have continued to have recourse to the libel courts, often using the mere threat of this as an effective means of pre-publication control. Meanwhile, you need even deeper pockets to publish a newspaper.

What has changed over the last decade is that the cost of a virtual printing press, in the form of electronic media, has fallen to zero. The Internet has become the New New Grub Street, where the practical absence of censorship and low barrier to entry have allowed anyone to become a hack. It has even led to the amusing sight of professional journalists indulging their bog-door-scrawling instincts as they retweet libellous rumours. While 99.999% (at least) of the material published this way will never be read by more than a handful of people, the "long tail" effect means that newspapers are losing their near-monopoly on both readers and the ears of politicians.

It's a commonplace to suggest that Hackgate is the result of the disruptive impact of technology on the print medium, but equally significant is the related calculation by Cameron and Milliband that they can now bite the hand that fed them because of this steady erosion. But that in turn may mean they believe the dilutive effects of the Internet are sufficient to avoid the need to directly confront the issue of ownership. What references to 1695 should do is remind politicians, and Brian Leveson, that the control of the press has always been a matter of property rights. A billion tiny printing presses does not fundamentally challenge the concentration of capital, any more than New Grub Street challenged Fleet Street.

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