Apparently the British print media is doomed. The current demise of the Indy is the first major casualty. Soon our only news sources will be the internet, whither the Indy has retreated, but which is hugely unreliable; and radio, TV and gossip. I hope I don’t live long enough to see the final disappearance of the paper-and-ink tablecloth off which I like to eat my lonely breakfast, shifting the coffee mug and cereal bowl here and there to enable me to read the items that interest me, and spilling little globules of sticky marmalade all over. A laptop is just not the same. (And is more vulnerable to being gummed up with jam.)
But newspapers have been in decline qualitatively for more than a century. Anyone who doubts that should spend a few hours – as I have spent several years as a historian – looking through some of the newspapers and journals of the turn of the twentieth century. Rupert Murdoch – or the popular demand he fed – was responsible for the most recent dip, of course; but before that there were Harmsworth (‘don’t forget you are writing for a mental age of nine’ – a banner up in the Mail’s newsroom: I think – I must check), WT Stead, Beaverbrook, Maxwell, and many others lowering the tone and quality. It started when speculative capitalists like them took the press over, and turned their newspapers from being channels of information and opinion, however biased, into profit-making enterprises dependent on the appeal, and sometimes manufacture, of glitz and sensation – scandal, war, royalty, sport – to maximize their readerships. This trend was well under way by 1900, but was by no means complete yet. You only have to look though a few fin-de-siécle newspapers to appreciate that.
All of them had far more words, for a start. This applies in equal measure to both upper- and middle-class newspapers, like The Times, and to high-circulation working-class weekly papers, like Reynolds’s Newspaper and the Northern Star. (The workers couldn’t afford a paper every day, but they were well-nourished at the weekends.) It was also true of local papers, of which there were nearly always more than one, competing with one another, in each conurbation or county. News reports and what today would be called ‘op-eds’ were long, dense, and well-informed and argued. There were far fewer pictures (the Daily Mirror was the first to go in for photo-journalism in a big way; that was originally designed for women readers: women, vain, always looking in mirrors – geddit?), and smaller advertisements. They also, whatever the dominant political line taken by each paper, ranged over a far wider range of opinion than today. You had articles by Marxian Socialists and Anarchists, for example, read and so far as one can tell taken seriously, in the mainstream press as well as in marginal ‘Leftist’ publications, of which there were also many; and in the thick middle-class fortnightly and monthly journals which were one of the literary glories of the age. In other words, the boundaries of the contemporary political debate were far wider, and the range more varied, than they are today. Almost anything was acceptable. Jeremy Corbyn would have found his ideas somewhere in the middle of this. If we are to go by the tone and content of the press at all ‘levels’ around 1900, our popular political discourse has both narrowed, and shifted quite considerably to the Right, since then.
There were vulgar trashy sheets that one could compare to today’s tabloids. The Illustrated Police News and the Police Budget, for example, sated the plebs’ taste for gore, and sometimes sexual scandals, with large engravings (and later photographs) of grisly murders, executions, and women leaping naked out of bed with their paramours when their husbands came home unexpectedly. But these weren’t, and didn’t pretend to be, newspapers. The real equivalent of the Sun was Reynolds’s, which managed to be both popular and serious, and socialist to boot. (I remember it was still going when I was a boy.) It must be the reason why the Edwardian working classes were better informed than their successors are today. Which is a depressing thought, for a twenty-first century democrat.