The beginning of the end? Press freedom in 1857

by Instant Noodle

ith the suppression merely of the names, we quote verbatim this interesting paragraph from the Paris correspondence of a fashionable contemporary :

” The rising belles of the day are the MDLLS. _______, the daughters of _______ _______. The elder, a striking brunette of sixteen, has made her début with considerable éclat at the Tuileries: the second, a charming blonde, a year younger, has only as yet appeared at the Italian opera, but has already attracted much admiration by her delicate and somewhat pensive beauty.”

We’re so used to the press ogling at young women that we have become rather desensitised to it. I mean, look at the front page of the mail a couple of days ago.

Today, we think nothing of papparazzi snapping photos of girls as they get out of limos to get into a club – as well as the obligatory leering captions that go with it.

But for Punch in 1857, it is something of a novelty, and Punch is very clear what he thinks about these “journalists”, commenting on two girls getting out of their cab to enter an opera. (Emphasis is mine throughout:)

We have heard some writers praised for their originality of subject, and we have known others lauded for the freedom of their style; but although there is undoubted novelty in thus dragging private ladies out in public print, and describing their “good points” with much the manner of a slave-dealer, we think the writer deserves rather to be kicked than commended for his freedom.

How did we get from Punch’s strong feelings in 1857 to this?

Some of the most shameful behaviour of the press was the downright lecherous approach to the Pippa Middleton at the Royal wedding. She was not even the “main exhibit” so to speak – not that that would excuse it, of course – but she was simply an attendee.

Of course, when an actress makes her debut, she must expect to see some comments on her person in the papers; but it is a new idea to us to find the audience thus criticised as well as the performers, and we should certainly give up our box at HER MAJESTY’S were we to discover that our daughters could not go there without being admired by the penny-a-liners.

(I like this term “penny-a-liners”. It’s a good way of putting it. It is simply a rather cheap and easy way of getting column inches, and that is partly responsible for its ubiquity.)

Punch makes an important point. It is only natural that actors and actresses may have comments made about their appearance in plays and in films. Because it is integral to whether you would want to see the performance or not.

But it’s here that our prying should end, really. Though their private lives may be “of interest to the public”, it is certainly not “in the public interest”, to borrow an oft used phrase, to have journalists exposing the privacy of people whose job puts them in the private eye.

Indeed, when one reads of a young lady having “appeared” at the Opera, one naturally infers that it was on the stage she did so: and if one were to judge from such appearances as these, a man could never go to ALMACK’S without suspecting half his partners had been behind the scenes perhaps the evening previous. We confess, too, when we hear of the “considerable éclat” which has recently attended a débutante at Court, we feel almost tempted to forego our wishes to obtain the presentation of our darling JUDYLETTA; for that young person, we opine, would be very little benefited by finding she had made such a noise in the fashionable world as to have reached the lengthened ears of an “own correspondent.”

Here lies the line that we have crossed.

In Punch’s time, the fame of being mentioned in a newspaper was something rather different. It was infamy. Reserved for politicians and criminals; the only people in the public eye. Actors and actresses were rather localised, and didn’t much benefit from widespread coverage. Indeed, the first person to receive such prominent promotion was Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War – suffice to say, it wasn’t particularly welcome.

Today, a little fame is seen as a good thing, and it is partly the credence that is offered by fame that has justified the rather uncompromising hounding, in the tabloid press’ eyes.

But we need not be too heavy handed. Today, we have the Press Complaints Commission. Punch has a rather simple, albeit draconian, solution.

We have small wish to curtail the freedom of the press, and we have harshly noticed the above offence mainly to deter another from committing it. On second thoughts, however, (we add this after dinner,) our benevolence inclines us to prescribe a milder treatment for the offence: he should have his ears boxed by that, “striking” young brunette, by whom he appears to have been already smitten.

Finally, we needn’t tar all the press with the same brush. It’s easy to forget, with the Leveson Inquiry in its press chastising phase, the importance of good quality, investigative journalism, and of political journalism.

This article is from July 11th, 1857, before the press were allowed into the House of Lords.

THE falling of a bombshell into the House of Lords, could have hardly caused more consternation among several of their number, than was occasioned lately by the motion of the EARL or DONOUGHMORE, that the printer of a Newspaper should be brought into their presence. The EARL OF DERBY shuddered through at least five sentences at the bare idea of having such a creature face to face with him; and poor LORD MALMESBURY has scarcely yet recovered from the fright it gave him, to hear it was proposed to confer upon the “person” the “distinction” of calling him to the bar of the House. In the most pathetic of ducts they both sighed forth their protest against such contamination, and were loudly echoed by a chorus of “hear ! hear !”.

Something else that we are rather desensitised to is the freedom that we have to know exactly what the government gets up to in the Houses of Parliament. It’s a right that seems so fundamental yet we are so lucky to have it.

Safe to say that the Lords are not best pleased at the motion.

As well introduce a sweep into a drawing room, or allow a Casino gent admission into ALMACK’S, as let a common newsprinter be brought into the Peers’ chamber. No amount of fumigation would be able to exterminate the smell of the wet broadsheet which it was not to be doubted the animal would bring with him and all the laundresses in London would fail in effecting the removal of the stain which the printing ink would leave upon the ermine of their lordships.

Yet one would think it could have hardly been the simple fear of contact with a creature of such low organisation as a printer, by which alone their lordships’ nerves were so much shattered. As the voice of the people – to whom now even Peers have to render their account – the press is to be dreaded, even by a DERBY; and the appearance of a newspaper in the person of its publisher would have much the same effect upon the mind of a MALMESBURY, as the shadow of a cat upon the instinct of a mouse. Even as the owl delights to sit in darkness so would certain of the Peers perhaps be not a little pleased if the light of Press-publicity were never thrown upon the sittings. Obscurum pro magnifico – of what splendid bursts of oratory the nation might account them capable, were there no reporters to destroy the fond delusion!

The emphasis is mine. It is a fundamental part of a functioning democracy that the Press can pry into the dealings of those with authority – and without it, how dull would political journalism be? You can see Punch’s frustration with the status quo and his anticipation at this motion.

I’ll leave you with the rest of the article.

No doubt, many of their lordships agree perfectly in thinking that Newspapers are of the things which in France, it has been said, are under better management. And doubtless many sighs are breathed upon the night air of St. Stephens’, for a champion to rise in the defence of dull debaters, and annihilate their enemies the penmen of the Press. Still Punch sleeps in quiet, and has not the least idea of finding his shop shutters up. Yet, were a massacre of Editors decreed, who but he of all would be attacked the soonest? Nevertheless, Mr. Punch continues easy in his mind, even with this thought upon it. For he concurs with HENRY BROUGHAM in thinking it were “useless contending with the Press.” JOHN BULL may submit to many Paris fashions, but it is quite certain that he never will to gagging.