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Title: Londoners and the news : responses to the political press, 1695-1742
Author: Green, Matthew
Awarding Body: Oxford University
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2011
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Abstract:
Press historians argue that the press boom of 1695 transformed the way in which English men and women received news, with the newspaper becoming an influential agent in the formation of public opinion. But these claims have never been tested against the news-gathering experiences of diary-keeping men and women. When we read internal newspaper evidence in conjunction with genuine reader responses, as recorded by a range of London diarists, it emerges that print in no way monopolized the reception of news and the moulding of public opinion after 1695. Instead, diaries illustrate how print interacted with pre-existing oral, visual, and manuscript channels of information-exchange. A topographical approach reveals that middling/upper-middling male Londoners constructed elaborate networks of coffee-houses and other public spaces, strategically located all over the city. These networks capitalized upon the city's specialisation of news by topographic district and supplied male Londoners with reports and stories of particular interest to them, whether they consumed it via oral, printed, or manuscript media. If the male diarists pursued multimedia news- gathering strategies in coffee-houses and elsewhere, for their female counterparts, learning the news was more of a domestic affair, centred upon reading newspapers at home. Provincial news- gatherers, too, deprived of London's peculiarly rich landscape of news were more dependent upon papers to learn the affairs of the country and the wider world. A torrent of news flowed through London each day and the type of stories and threads that individual Londoners followed was shaped by their age, occupation, social circle, and personality. Beyond this, however, political news served a powerful social function. It initiated street-side conversations, cemented social relationships at home and in clubs, and acted as a broker between diverse topics of conversation, whether in taverns, at home, or on coach journeys. The newspaper's predictability of publication facilitated this social role. Reader responses suggest that editors tailored their content to appeal to as many readers as possible, resulting in a focus upon the high political, although the press was also understood as a conduit to reach distinct communities of readers for commercial and political purposes. When studied from an audience's perspective, we see that items on a hierarchy of news, which ranged from epic wars and rebellions at the top to punishments for \~- pickpockets and book advertisements at the bottom, could be read in highly personal and original ways. The reading experience usually transcended a straightforward absorption of information, although the press also performed this function. Many Londoners were interested in overseas developments, which dominated coverage throughout the period, on account of their political and economic significance for Britain. But many of the diarists also saw foreign news as a mirror, in which they saw the affairs of their own country in a new light - in a European perspective. Overseas developments frequently triggered a wealth of comparative reflections about the reader's own society, culture, politics, and religion. The newspaper press also inherited from earlier forms of print media a tradition of reporting news within a narrative framework. The diaries reveal how Londoners followed both foreign and domestic news as interconnected episodes in an on-going drama, not unlike chapters in prose fiction, which began to flourish in the early eighteenth century. Journalists and editors, largely out of commercial instinct, encouraged this mode of interpretation news by stressing the fluidity of events and expectations of further developments to be revealed in the next issue. It was a strategy to sustain a regular readership. The permanent lapsing of censorship in 1695 coincided with various political developments that imprinted the London political press with a visibly partisan character. Individual titles tended to pursue a consistent party-political line. When we juxtapose .partisan print - whether appearing in newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, or books - with reader responses, what emerges is a complex, symbiotic relationship between the press and political beliefs. Newspapers lacked the agency to mould new political ideologies or to reshape party-political world-views. But they were highly influential in fuelling, sharpening, and redefining readers' pre-existing political outlooks, and assimilating recent developments into a particular partisan viewpoint. The press also provided Londoners with arguments to deploy in political discussions and debates all over the city. Londoners turned to those publications whose political leanings and portrayals matched their own, and which they found congenial and entertaining. Quite at odds with the effects of partisan print upon their own political sensibilities, however, the diarists registered a profound unease about media manipulation, although they nearly always saw individuals less educated and wealthy than themselves as the victims of brainwashing. It was predominantly those with weak intellects that they considered the most vulnerable to being duped into believing half-truths, falsehoods, and rival party- political grand narratives. For the diarists, in contrast, newspapers reinforced their conviction that they were in possession of political 'truth'. The processes of collecting and interpreting news in provincial urban and rural communities was played out on a vastly different scale, ,amidst a much smaller market for news and in landscapes with far fewer opportunities for news-gathering. In provincial communities, print had a more transformative impact on the reception of news after 1695 as there were far fewer alternative channels of information-exchange available, although this varied according to the size of the community in question. In London, the functions of the press remained constant throughout the period and beyond, even if shifting party-political fault-lines altered the parameters within which ideas were formed, sustained, and debated. The news-gathering strategies amongst middling and upper-middling Londoners only began to change significantly as London's physical and social environment evolved in the early nineteenth century with the invention of the telegraph and railways, the transformation of coffee-houses into clubs, and the. gradual exodus of shopkeepers and businessmen from the City.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID: uk.bl.ethos.550533  DOI: Not available
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