Reviewed by Elli Papanikolaou (West Bohemia University)
Published on Jhistory (January, 2020)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe
A number of scholars, such as Martin Conboy (Journalism in Britain: A Historical Introduction ), have written books on the history of the English press, generally following a linear historical narrative of the development of specific well-known newspapers or biographical studies of prominent media personalities. In contrast, The English Press: A History focuses on how the politico-economic and social situations, in different periods in England, have influenced and have been influenced by the development of the press. Jeremy Black employs a circular narrative in drafting a successful history of the English press. That means that in the preface and introduction, he poses a question about how the internet and electronic media will affect the future of the press. After outlining this starting query, he presents his history of the English press and then circles back to his original question. Black offers an optimistic answer by pointing out that the press is being affected by electronic media and it will undoubtedly change, but that does not mean that it will cease to exist; it will just change form.
The English Press has eight chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. The introduction is where he puts forward his question of how electronic media will affect the press, and here he also describes some of the different methods by which the history of the press can be studied. Specifically, Black explains that some historians study the history of the press by examining the press and society, the press and politics, or the press as an information system. The author shows that “the variety of ways in which the press can be considered also reflects the possible contexts in which both individual newspapers, and the press as a whole, can be approached, and, therefore, the need to consider how best to prioritise between them” (p. 2).
Chapter 1 describes the creation of printing in the early sixteenth century, describing how the religious and political situation in England influenced and was influenced by its development. For example, Black mentions that Protestant literature was produced in large quantities, which reinforced the image of Catholic cruelty and Protestant bravery and supported the Protestant government of Elizabeth I. He emphasizes that “the culture of print brought new authorities and new processes of authorisation” (p. 13). It is interesting that Black points out the rapid development of the press in China and compares it with England’s slower development, while the speed of printing with a European handpress did not have much advantage over Chinese printing. Through this comparison, the author investigates the different technologies and characteristics of the first newspapers (for example, the different quality of the paper they used), and he explains why this different development process led to differences in the politics and culture of the era.
Chapter 2 describes the evolution of the press in the seventeenth century. More specifically, through examples of provincial poetry, specific product ads, statistics, single testimonies, political speeches, and comparisons between newspapers, the author shows that variations in content led to the existence of different types of newspapers, each designed to suit its own readership. The press became a rapidly growing industry and influenced the politics and economy of the country.
Chapter 3 expands on the development of the press in the eighteenth century by examining the positive and negative impacts of newspapers on both politics and society. The press at this time can be seen as both cause and effect of heightened public political consciousness. Newspapers shaped society by setting and prompting a specific model of how people should live and behave to be members of “polite” society. Thus, newspapers defined what was acceptable and moral. Black writes, “the press offered a socially specific moral resonance, appropriate for a medium with restricted circulation” (p. 53). As a result, he illustrates that many citizens had developed a social conscience and felt that they could directly control the authorities. However, the author also points out that politicians exercised power over civilians by influencing the content of newspapers. Furthermore, political leaders exerted power over newspapers themselves. The government could influence newspaper businesses through legislation, such as the change of tax policy that disadvantaged smaller four-page format newspapers and made it harder for them to compete against larger rivals. This mechanism for control remained effective until around the 1790s, when newspapers began to raise more revenue through sale of advertisements and became more financially sound.
Chapter 4 is an excellent study of how the use of innovative technology, especially the steam-powered flatbed press, influenced the rapid printing and distribution of newspapers. Black points to the positive impact of new technologies on the success of the press, an important part of his study since he wants to investigate more generally the relationship between the press and electronic media. New technology, he shows, is not inherently bad for print media.
Following this line of inquiry, in chapters 5 and 6, Black explains that in the middle of the nineteenth century technological achievements, such as the telephone, telegraph, and cinema, initially threatened the press but later proved beneficial. Some of these new technologies assisted in the reporting of news and others were themselves popular subject matter for news articles sought out by eager consumers. Consequently, more and more people bought newspapers to be informed about them. In chapter 6, Black writes about how the Second World War was reported by the press and simultaneously discusses the problems that the press suffered because of the war. In the common view, the press should boost morale and not help the enemy. But when Britain faced repeated defeats, the press was in a difficult situation when it attempted accurate coverage. Also, a number of newspaper offices and printing shops were damaged by German bombs. Despite these problems, the press continued to keep readers informed and boost the morale of people and soldiers.
The last two chapters provide a brief account of the rapid development of the press in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and highlight how newspapers have managed to cope with the problems of the time, the most significant of which is the appearance of the internet. Black uses this discussion as context and evidence to answer his original query about how the internet and electronic media will influence the future of the development of the press. In the conclusion, he offers an optimistic outlook by describing that the press is not in danger but that it is evolving into a new form, as it has done many times in the past. The internet will change the form of the typical newspaper into an electronic publication, a transformation many newspapers have already undergone.
The English Press is replete with newspaper clippings that contain political speeches, literary texts, and similar documents, first-hand examples from the English press that allow readers to better understand how the press influenced English society over these centuries. The significance of the book lies in the fact that each chapter works to help the reader to understand the importance of the press in a structured society. The only disadvantage of the book is that it gives too little attention to the question of how the press has influenced social change in Britain. The book fully examines the press’s interaction with the political and economic realm, both as a causal agent and as an institution acted upon. Social issues could have been covered more thoroughly. For example, in chapter 6, Black makes the point that “female sexuality thus was a matter not just of women’s magazines and fiction” but does not elaborate further (p. 125).
All in all, Black skillfully outlines the history of the English press over six centuries in a relatively short book, and he offers a well-informed vision of what the future has in store as new technology continues to disrupt news businesses and practices. Through the wonderful technique of circular narrative, he analyzes the development of the press and makes the reading of the book enjoyable and interesting for the reader.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/jhistory.
Elli Papanikolaou. Review of Black, Jeremy, The English Press: A History.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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