Monday, April 17, 2006

Worlds lost and found

The reason this blog has been dead again, I would like to pretend, is that I've been reading The History of The Times 1785-1841, and had vague things to say about it that seemed to require finishing it first, even though the system of cross-referencing in the text suggests that no one was ever meant to read it through. And it was heavy, and took up my book-carrying space, and got in the way of anything else. But now I'm free. Ha! And I can put over my crackpot theory about London in the late 18th Century as a model of our future media. Your turn to suffer now.

The first thing to say about The History of The Times 1785-1841 is that it's a monument to The Times in 1935, when it was "written, printed and published at the office of The Times, Printing House Square". It's anonymous and authoritative-sounding, handed down like the most elevated class of leading article. It's tremendously dignified in appearance, displaying the then-really-new Times New Roman to lapidary effect. At the same time, it's a gallery of show-off presswork, stuffed with tipped-in portraits and actual-size fold-out reproductions of documents leaked to the editor. Imagine the world's starchiest pop-up book. And it issues from an office that had come to see itself as eternal: scraps against long-forgotten gossip sheets (the True Sun, anyone? The World?) are covered with warm partisanship for the home side.

The second and bigger thing is that it argues, to this ignoramus convincingly, that all this imperturbable, ultraprofessional smugness, along with most of the other qualities that bloggers now denominate "mainstream media", descend from two men: John Walter II and Thomas Barnes.

Walter inherited from his father (John Walter I, oddly enough) a paper that was first meant to demonstrate a printing gimmick, and continued because it continued. The tax regime on newspapers was then, The Times argues, designed to stop you operating a mass-circulation daily, or any daily at all without accepting bribes. Paper was stamped and taxed. Advertising was stamped and taxed. Payments from political operators, and the "suppression" and "contradiction" fees journalists could extract by public blackmail, were available on relatively advantageous terms. Walter II stepped steadily out of these customary practices, and then bought the first steam-powered presses, which allowed him to produce enough papers quickly and cheaply for the bribeless office to pay.

An obviously bribe-free paper, among obviously bribed ones, is a powerful thing. It became a shockingly powerful one in the control of Thomas Barnes, its first proper editor, a crony of radical poets who became for thirty-odd years a Times-only man. He built up the reporting staff, fighting the Post Office to free his foreign correspondence, cultivating sources all over Britain, and extracting tip-offs from the great. He used all this to present a front of omniscience and infallibility. He took anonymity as far as he could. The first time his name appeared in his paper was a death notice:

On the 7th inst., at his house in Soho-square, Thomas Barnes, Esq., in the 56th year of his age.

And his paper's defensive approach to the apology makes today's Fleet Street look craven. We know the names of his Parliamentary staff because when the Irish leader Daniel O'Connell accused them of misquoting him, they published a signed letter in the paper declaring they would not report another word of his until he had apologised for the slur on their honour.

His opinion-writing was louder and ruder than today's Times would contemplate. One reform-era leader responds to a particularly outrageous suggestion (another slur on the honour of the paper) by a quarter-inch of blank space, and then:

We leave a space vacant, as the author of Tristram Shandy says, "for the reader to swear in, any oath he is accustomed to," only hoping it is an innocent one.

The leaders are composed on a principle of finding out what public opinion is - among the small middle-class then allowed to be the public - and then leading it by advocating a popular position as forcefully as possible. The readers of today's tabloids might recognise the approach, and the ruthless willingness to switch sides.

And that's the most important tradition, right there. Thomas Barnes shafted powerful sources. He would take information and even opinion steers from the likes of Henry Brougham - but when he concluded that Brougham could no longer carry the credit of his readers, he said so plainly. He had the power to get away with it.

What worries me most about the decline of the press, apart from the chance that I will have to find a proper job, is that soon we will have no journalists powerful enough to fuck over the influential; and that control of information is not going out to a more democratic world of volunteers and citizen investigators - great as they often are at mining data already in the public domain - but back to its previous owners, the great and the good and their small vindictive functionaries. Even Jeff Jarvis occasionally has such thoughts, on his way to something more uplifting.

Brougham had a press agent called Le Marchant. He doesn't make the index of The History of The Times. But until the Great Shafting, he is as much cited as a determinant of what appears in The Times as anyone apart from Barnes. His time is returning.

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