Hannah Barker, Simon Burrows, eds. Press, Politics and the Public Sphere in Europe and North America, 1760-1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ix + 263 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-66207-9.
Reviewed by Jeremy Black (Department of History, University of Exeter)
Published on H-Albion (December, 2002)
This book is welcome for three reasons, but has two limitations for readers of this network. It is welcome, first, because it ignores the customary divide at the French Revolution and bridges the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. This is fruitful, specifically for those interested in newspaper history, although it is important not to overlook the discontinuities arising from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and, more generally, for work on political culture and structure. Indeed the scope of this book, which follows that of a number of scholars including Jonathan Clark and Jim Sack, invites reconsideration of established chronological divisions.
Secondly, the collection offers readers on British history up-to-date treatments of the subject in a number of other countries with which they are not generally familiar. France and Britain have already been fruitfully compared by Bob Harris, but this collection adds the Netherlands, Germany, America, Italy, and Russia, as well as a thoughtful and well-researched piece by Simon Burrows on the "cosmopolitan press" which is based on his valuable work on French-language newspapers published outside France. Thirdly, these essays offer a comparative context within which British developments can be considered, and this context is helpfully advanced by the wideranging and interesting introduction by the two editors.
The two major limitations are a failure to include Scotland, on which Bob Harris is currently working, and Hannah Barker's decision in her chapter on England essentially to summarize the literature rather than to engage in new research. This is a major disappointment, not least because it follows the pattern of her Newspapers, Politics and English Society, 1695-1855 (Harlow, 2000). There is indeed need for a thorough analysis of the English press, especially in the 1800s, a decade in which they have not been recently considered. Furthermore, Barker repeats the teleological progressivism so often seen in newspaper history, the limitations of which I tried to indicate in my English Press, 1621-1861 (Stroud, 2001), a work that presumably appeared too late for discussion in this book.
Barker argues that public opinion, rather than political manipulation, was the driving force behind newspaper politics, that "by and large" (p. 100) subsidy was not the controlling force in newspaper partisanship, that politicians were constrained by the impact of a widespread belief in the sanctity of the liberty of the press, and that high prices did not necessarily mean low or socially restricted readerships. Instead, an extensive broadening of the newspaper-reading public is discerned and the press is presented as "certainly populist" (p. 108).
This account downplays the extent to which newspapers favored a program of social improvement and propounded a social politics based on moral politeness. This morality drew on the major cultural themes of the middling orders in this period, especially Christian conduct, polite behavior, and moral improvement. Moreover, it was important to the shaping of that body of society and, by admonition or exclusion, to the positioning of the rest. A sense of what was appropriate, and thus respectable, was inculcated through print.
In part, this reflected the success of creating a common code of behavior for what was termed "polite" society, one that spanned town and countryside. The frequent attacks on popular superstitions, drunkenness, and a range of activities that were held to characterize a distressingly wide section of the population, such as profanity and cruelty to animals, do not suggest that the press was asserting values shared by all.
Instead, this was a socially specific moral resonance, appropriate for a medium with restricted circulation. This would not have disturbed writers calling for the moralizing of a supposedly dissolute population, subscribers to good causes wishing to see their names, causes and prejudices recorded for posterity, or advertisers offering high-value goods and services that required advertising in a world where most were not advertised other than orally.
The press reflected the interests and views of the middling orders. Thus, Jackson's Oxford Journal of 3 July 1790 reported:
"The riots so usual at contested elections have been uncommonly violent in many of the county boroughs, but none perhaps have been so dangerous as those at Leicester and Nottingham.
"The four candidates at the former town, imitating the example of greater men, on Wednesday last entered into a coalition to return one Member for each party. This junction was no sooner made public, than it became the signal for one of the most mischievous riots we ever heard of. The mob were so exasperated at being bilked of further extortion on the several candidates, that they broke open the town-hall, and completely gutted it. They made a bonfire of the Quarter Sessions Books, and the records of the town, burnt the public library, and would have murdered the Coalitionists, could they have got at them. Several persons have been most severely wounded, and one man is killed. It was not till after the military were called in, and the Riot Act read, that the mob was dispersed."
Criticism in this case, therefore, was directed not at the agreement among the elite to prevent a contest, but rather at the popular response. This was an aspect of a political, social, economic and moral paternalism that was, for example, opposed to worker activism. The frequent stress in the press on charitable acts by the fortunate was symptomatic of this "top-down" approach. Paternalism grounded in moral behavior and religious attitudes, rather than economic dominance, was the justification of the social policy required for the well-ordered society that was presented by the press as a necessary moral goal. Public opinion was not treated as an essentially democratic political phenomenon. The contents of newspapers was part of a polite sociable sphere that was not totally separate from its popular counterpart, but that was recognizably different in tone. This helps explain the contrast that can be readily noted with late-nineteenth-century popular newspapers.
In a useful chapter on the situation in Ireland, Douglas Simes argues that "the Irish public political sphere was apparently polarized by religion rather than fragmented by class, and the press both reflected and facilitated this process" (p. 134). Simes considers a range of subjects including sales and subsidies, and indicates that commercial viability was a real problem in the 1820s, not least because the end of the Napoleonic Wars lessened the need for government support. He also valuably points out lacunae in the scholarship. Overall, there is still room for much work in the field. I have highlighted some of the issues in "The Press and Politics in the Eighteenth Century," Media History 8 (2002).
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Jeremy Black. Review of Barker, Hannah; Burrows, Simon, eds., Press, Politics and the Public Sphere in Europe and North America, 1760-1820.
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