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PRINT MEDIUM IN THE RISE OF
To understand the role of the print medium in the rise of democracy, we have to look at the history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – periods the historian Eric Hobsbawm calls “the Age of Revolution” and “the Age of Capital”. Beginning with the French Revolution in 1789, in which the monarchy was overthrown and the First Republic installed, democracy – at least as a concept – grew rapidly in popularity, aided by the parallel rise in the sophistication and spread of the print medium, particularly in the form of the daily newspaper. This occurred against the background of industrial capitalism – the culmination of a fusion between the Industrial Revolution and the capitalist economic system, which was centred in Britain but spread throughout most of the European continent. Eric Hobsbawm writes that the history of the nineteenth century is “primarily that of the massive advance of the world economy of industrial capitalism, of the social order it represented, of the ideas and beliefs which seemed to legitimatize and ratify it: in reason, science, progress, and liberalism.” It is important to appreciate this industrial-capitalist setting in which print and democracy developed. Industrialization – which began in the eighteenth century and continued with ever-increasing vigour into the nineteenth century – had as profound an effect on European society as the invention of agriculture eight millenia earlier. Never before had Europe undergone such sudden and radical change – as Norman Davies writes in his monumental history of Europe: “There is a dynamism about nineteenth-century Europe that far exceeds anything previously known. Europe vibrated with power as never before: with technical power, economic power, cultural power, intercontinental power. Its prime symbols were its engines – the locomotives, the gasworks, the electric dynamos.” One of the many things affected by the Industrial Revolution was the medium of print. In 1804 a German printer, Konig, figured out how to use the steam engine to power the press, allowing him to print 400 pages per hour. The London Times asked Konig to invent a double press, and by 1827 the paper was printing 4 000 sheets per hour on both sides. In 1886 Ottmar Mergenthaller perfected a linotype machine that could do the work of seven to eight hand compositors, the result being an explosion of literary and graphic material as the number of pages in newspapers rose and circulation soared. Book publishing also expanded, with fiction, biographies, technical
books and histories being published alongside educational texts and literary classics. These books not only spread new ideas of religion and classical humanist values, but also ideas about democracy and nationalism, scientific discovery, collected facts (as in dictionaries and encyclopedias) and political propaganda. Although aided by these printing technologies of the nineteenth century, the advent of the press actually began at the dawn of the eighteenth century. In London, the first daily paper, the Daily Courant, appeared in 1702. The Evening Post followed in 1706, the London Journal in 1725 and The Craftsman in 1727. Within the next forty years the Daily Advertizer, the Westminster Journal, Lloyd’s Evening Post, the St James’s Chronicle, the Middlesex Journal and the Morning Chronicle had all been launched. In 1771, the London Press won its right to publish Parliamentary proceedings and debates, and after this time the Morning Post appeared in 1780, the Times in 1785 and the Sunday Observer in 1791. In ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’, Jurgen Habermas connects the growth of the press with the development of public political dialogue. In industrializing countries, a new political order was coming to life, one in which the bourgeoisie sought to control public policy. The emergent press provided a means of articulating the bourgeoisie’s political views, resulting in the creation of ‘public opinion’ – that is, the construction of views which had legitimacy through the fact that they were held by ‘the people’. The newspaper was praised as “the great medium of communication”, and it was “on the basis of the information which it supplies that a public opinion rests.” It was during this time that newspapers took on what journalist and academic Julianne Schultz calls “a central and enduring role in public life.” It was a crucial role in the promotion of a democratic system – as Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, stated in a 1974 address: “Governments as well as citizens need a free and inquiring press. With a volatile, pluralistic electorate, and a complex bureaucracy, a free press provides an indispensable feedback system from governed to the governing.” As distributors of the product of information, the press made the political figures on which they reported accountable to the people, as well as providing the ordinary citizen with a channel through which he could express his individual opinion. As Eric Hobsbawm explains, “The individual bourgeois who felt called upon to comment on public matters knew that a
letter to the Times or the Neue Freie Presse would not merely reach a large part of his class and the decision makers, but, what was more important, that it would be printed on the strength of his standing as an individual.” There is thus a clear symbiosis between the print medium, particularly in the form of the daily newspaper, and the establishment and maintenance of democracy. It is worth citing some historical evidence of this symbiosis, ranging from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth century. To begin with, it is no coincidence that in France, the Revolution that installed the First Republic also gave rise to the press. Papers flourished in Paris and the provinces, to the extent that almost every prominent politician in France seemed to have his own journal – generally two to four pages long, appearing once or twice a week, and containing a few items of foreign news, garbled versions of Parliamentary proceedings and leading articles giving the political views of the editor. Writing during the 1848 Revolution in France, when King Louis Philippe abdicated in favour of the Second Republic, the poet Georg Weerth wrote to his mother: “Please read the newspapers very carefully – now they are worth reading…This Revolution will change the shape of the earth – and so it should and must! Long live the Republic!” One of history’s most prominent enemies of democracy, Adolf Hitler, wrote in his book Mein Kampf, “Was it not the German press which knew how to make the absurdity of ‘Western democracy’ palatable to our people?” Finally (and much more recently), in a document entitled ‘Free Press Essential To Democracy’, Ramos-Horta – a press freedom pioneer and the new foreign minister of East Timor – stated “A truly independent or democratic East Timor will be dependent on us having a truly independent and democratic media.” Clearly, the connection between the press and democracy is strong. The interdependence between the press and democracy obviously relies on a culture of newspaper reading, whereby the citizens of a democratic state actively read and take into account the information and opinions presented to them in the daily press. Such a culture began in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century coffee-houses, where newspapers were readily available to and avidly read by the bourgeoisie. When a twenty-yearold Frenchman, Cesar de Saussure, visited London in the 1720s, he said that in some of the coffee-houses “men will sit smoking and reading newspapers…talking so little you can hear a fly buzz.” Later in the century – by which time many coffee-houses were selling wine, punch or ale as well as chocolate, coffee and tea – C. P. Moritz, a German pastor also visiting London, noted “Near the Change is a shop where for a penny or even an half-penny only you may read as many newspapers as you will. There are
always a number of people about these shops, who run over the papers as they stand, pay their halfpenny and then go on.” As early as 1712 the British Mercury was saying that “About 1695 the press was again set to work, and such a furious itch of novelty has ever since been the epidemical distemper, that it has proved fatal to many families, the meanest of shopkeepers and handicrafts spending whole days in coffee houses to hear news and talk politics.” The spread of the printed word, together with growing literacy and a popular interest in political affairs, contributed to what Richard Tarnas, author of ‘The Passion of the Western Mind’, calls “a new cultural ethos marked by increasingly individual and private, non-communal forms of communication and experience, thereby encouraging the growth of individualism.” The growth of individualism was significant because, in a democracy, it is the individual who ultimately holds political power, by determining the outcomes of referendums and elections through the process of voting – a situation very different to that imposed by monarchical or totalitarian systems where there is simply the leader and the masses. Growing literacy and the spread of the printed word enabled people to think for themselves, form their own opinions and, therefore, to participate effectively in public political dialogue. At the same time, the setting of the coffee-house physically brought people together to discuss politics; in a sense, it mirrored Parliament itself in that it was a designated place for people to exchange ideas and debate their merits, according to what they knew from the books, papers and pamphlets available at the time. It was a sign, says science writer Margaret Wertheim, of “genuinely democratizing trends”. By providing a public venue for the dissemination of news and mail, coffee-houses served a similar social function to the Internet today, with its online news services and its open discussion boards. Indeed, literary scholar Brian Connery says that these venues “served as laboratories for experimentation” with many of the freedoms that would be enshrined in laws and constitutions later in the century – including freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of speech. The Constitution of the United States – a document designed to safeguard democracy and liberalism – contains the statement “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Without the vital ingredient of a free press, a genuine democracy cannot exist. In summary, there were a number of factors that led to the rise of democracy through the medium of print. The first is the technologies of the Industrial
Revolution, such as the steam-powered printing press invented by Konig. As John Street, author of ‘Mass Media, Politics And Democracy’ writes, “The move from the hand-operated press to the production-line system allowed for a greatly increased circulation, and with this the possibility of a mass readership, ‘popular’ press.” The second factor is the blooming of coffeehouse culture, tied in with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the consequent advent of public political dialogue, which the open, political nature of coffee-house culture complimented. Coffee-houses served democracy not only by giving everyone access to newspapers and encouraging open political discussion; its disregard of social divisions was also highly democratic in nature – as Margaret Wertheim writes, the coffee-house was “a place where, as one seventeenth-century polemicist put it, ‘a worthy Lawyer and an errant Pickpocket’ could meet on equal footing.” These factors, together with intellectual movements and uprisings by the lower classes, helped spread and in some cases realize democratic ideals. Ideas such as political accountability and elected Heads of State could only be realized through the daily newspaper, and as people’s literacy improved, and the circulation of daily newspapers increased (the circulation of the London Times, for example, moved between 50 000 and 60 000 in the 1850s and 1860s), so the soil of Europe became properly fertile for the seeds of democracy to grow.