Writing media history

Peter Putnis, University of Canberra

Andrew Pettegree The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2015 (445 pp). ISBN 978-0-300-21276-1 (paperback) RRP $41.95.

Discussing the problem of anachronism in the writing of media history, Joad Raymond, an eminent historian of 16th and 17th century print culture, worries about his use of the word ‘propaganda’—the word ‘slips easily’ from his pen, he says, ‘yet immediately stimulates anxieties about misrepresentation’ (2005, p. 7). The problem is that, in early modern Britain, there was ‘no notion directly equivalent to the modern concept of propaganda’. The word only entered the English language in the early 19th century. Before then, ‘propaganda’ mostly appeared in Latin. When it appeared in English texts it referred specifically to the propagation of Roman Catholic teachings and was commonly italicised to indicate that it was a foreign term. When applying it to 16th and 17th century communication practices more generally, authors needed to recognise that they were using a word that was not available to contemporaries and so could fit only imperfectly the categories (for example, ‘polemic’, ‘news’, ‘intelligence’, ‘opinion’) that were then available. Raymond does not rule out using the term. ‘It is worth considering’, he writes, ‘the ways in which propaganda might be a useful term in characterizing aspects of seventeenth-century political culture’ (2005, pp. 4–5). But he proceeds with great care, conscious that the usefulness of the term has to be critically assessed rather than assumed.

The entry of the word propaganda into the English language did not entirely resolve problems associated with its use in historical writing. While investigating the role of the London-based international news-agency, Reuters, in Britain’s propaganda effort during the First World War, I came across, in the Reuters Company Archive in London, a 1916 letter from the Company’s General Manager, Roderick Jones, to the British Foreign Office in which he referred to Reuters’ ‘propaganda work’. Initially I thought of this as a kind of ‘gotcha’ moment—I’d found a secret admission. But while noteworthy, the moral import of Jones’ comment diminishes significantly when one realises that, at this time, the term (and the practices employed) had not yet developed their later binding association with lies and manipulation (Taylor 1999, p. 66).

Media historians who aim to reach a non-specialist audience usually have fewer qualms about anachronism than Joad Raymond. Indeed, some revel in their use of present-day communication practices and terminologies to re-interpret the past. Most famously, Tom Standage titled his 1998 history of the development of the electric telegraph during the first half of the 19th century The Victorian Internet. The device effectively dramatised the revolutionary impact of telegraphy and brought its significance home to late 20th century readers. At the same time, the construction blurred important distinctions: 19th century telegraphy was primarily a tool of business, government and the military and remained largely inaccessible to the broader population because of cost. While telegraphy created a new form of news—the ‘cable’—it served rather than threatened press interests.

The current pre-occupation with social media—usually understood as an internet-based form of networked communication—has spawned a further wave of enthusiasm for re-framing communication history is ‘presentist’ terms. Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years (2013) shows, according to his publishers, that ‘Papyrus rolls and Twitter have much in common as each of their generation’s signature means of “instant” communication … social media is anything but a new phenomenon’. Of course all forms of human communication are social in some sense, but re-locating ‘social media’ to ancient Egypt adds little to our understanding of past communications practices.

Andrew Pettegree’s much-acclaimed The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself is another history of communication across several centuries. The book takes us on a whistle-stop tour across European (and to a limited extent American) history over four centuries. In Chapter 1, the journey begins with Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor between 1493 and 1519, and his attempts to establish an imperial postal service; it loops back to the 12th century and the ‘emerging news networks’ developed by medieval monasteries; then visits medieval chroniclers who, Pettegree claims, had ‘a precocious instinct for the ethics of news reporting’; sections follow on the crusades and the medieval ‘rage for pilgrimage’, papal and university postal services, royal decrees, the development of diplomacy in Italy, ‘news management’ in England during the Wars of the Roses and, finally, the extension of the European postal service after the succession of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. All this (and more) is meant to lead to the conclusion that the period surveyed ‘had seen enormous strides in the development of the concept of news’ (p. 38).

The book takes us on a whistle-stop tour across European history over four centuries.

But herein there is a problem. While Pettegree confidently traverses the historical landscape of Europe in the Middle Ages and provides useful detail on matters such as postal networks, he does little to define his ‘concept of news’. What he does say seems contradictory. His title suggests that news was a specific ‘invented’ form of knowledge perhaps associated with modernism. His text, however, makes the point that ‘the desire to be informed, to be in the know, is … as old as human society itself’ (p. 2). Here, ‘news’ includes matters gleaned from talk in the medieval market square (what Pettegree calls ‘verbal news culture’) as well as news in its later commodified, saleable form. This inclusiveness makes it difficult to sustain an argument about ‘enormous strides’ in the development of the concept of news.

In subsequent chapters Pettegree moves through European history from the German Reformation to the French Revolution, moving from one newsworthy occurrence and news-related personality to another, sometimes at a rather giddy pace. It is worth pausing to review in a more leisurely way a particular moment in this book (in fact, the opening paragraphs of the introduction) when Pettegree makes use of Daniel Defoe’s writings to support his argument that a ‘rage for news’ was transforming English society in the early 18th century.

Here is the back story to Pettegree’s Defoe reference. In May 1712 Defoe, later best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, was not a happy man. As publisher of a thrice-weekly Review of current affairs, largely self-authored, he was concerned about the impending introduction of a Stamp Tax whereby single sheet newspapers would be taxed at the rate of one penny for every copy printed. He acknowledged that some steps might be desirable to moderate the nation’s factional ‘Paper-War’, which he thought was becoming a ‘National Grievance’, but worried that an indiscriminate tax on printing would greatly harm small paper manufacturers and printers, as well as the press itself (Defoe 1712a, pp. 687–688). He also thought the tax was economically unsustainable. ‘Is it possible’, he asked ‘that what is sold for a half-penny, can pay a Penny Duty?’ (Defoe 1712a, p. 707). He contemplated closing his Review. He also doubted that suppression of printed newspapers would prevent the ‘Railing at one another’ and the ‘Flux of Scandal and Quarrelling of Parties’ (Defoe 1712a, p. 689) in London which was at the heart of the problem. Might it not just result in a burgeoning of hand-written ‘news’ as had happened before when, in the reign of Charles II, newspapers, other than the official London Gazette, were banned? In his Review of 8 May 1712, Defoe foresaw a return of these ‘happy times’:

I remember very well to have seen before, when printing was not in use, I mean as to News-Papers, State-Tracts, Politicks, etc. Written Scandal shall revive, and the Nation shall swarm with Lampoon, Pasqinade, written Reflections, Characters, Satyrs, and an inconceivable Flood of written News-Letters.

He suggests, tongue in cheek, that he would join the throng. He would ‘hire some Hall or Great Room, in the City’ where he would employ 30 or 40 clerks to produce in numbers a new, handwritten Review. ‘News must be written if it can’t be Printed’, he declares (p. 708). In the event, Defoe was persuaded to continue publishing his printed Review after the introduction of the tax. However, to save on costs he reduced the size of its font and changed its frequency to twice a week. He also vowed to write more concisely and avoid ‘Trifling’ matters so as to ensure his readers got value for money. He advised fellow writers to do the same—to be more ‘Effectual’ and ‘Substantial’ in their writing so as to compensate readers for the increased expense they incurred because of the tax (Defoe 1712b, p. 1).

What does Pettegree make of Defoe’s position in 1712? He cites Defoe’s Review of 8 May 1712 referring to (but not quoting) Defoe’s comments on the ‘happy times’ to come. He writes:

Defoe was lucky … When, in an essay in 1712, he turned his mind to this buoyant market for news publishing, he did not hold back. The present times, wrote Defoe, had seen a media explosion. He recalled a time, even in his own lifetime, when there had been no such torrent of newspapers, state papers and political writing. The rage for news was transforming society, and Defoe was happy to be in the thick of it (p. 1).

This seems to me a misreading. In May 1712 Defoe turned his mind, not to a ‘buoyant market’, but to the major threat to the market for news publishing posed by the impending Stamp Tax. Thus he wrote, ‘Is it possible that what is sold for a half-penny, can pay a Penny Duty?’ He certainly alludes to a kind of ‘media explosion’. But the context makes clear that he is primarily referring to the circulation of written materials which, he believes, will burgeon if printing is suppressed. He goes on to say that these often scandalous and treasonable handwritten news-letters and lampoons are a much greater danger to the State than printed materials because of the difficulty of tracing their source. What can one say about this? At the least, that Defoe’s thoughts on news are more interesting and subtle than Pettegree, in his rush across history, had time to appreciate.

There is some use in comparing the ‘multi-media’ worlds of the present with those of the past.

The major strength of Pettegree’s book is its thorough demonstration of the importance of news and news networks in Europe’s historical development. Its major weakness, judged as media history, is its persistent ‘presentism’. This is not always a problem. For example, Pettegree makes the point that, from the perspective of our current multi-media world, we are able to see more clearly than earlier historians that the age of the newspaper as the predominant instrument of news distribution was a relatively short one—around a century and a half. There is some use in comparing the ‘multi-media’ worlds of the present with those of the past, though it is something of a stretch to assert that news media in the period 1400–1800 ‘presented every bit as much a multi-media phenomenon as our own’ (p. 372). The approach blurs fundamental differences between past and present media landscapes.

Pettegree writes that in the 16th century ‘the world experienced its first major media event, the German Reformation’ (p. 59). For students of Media Studies, the term ‘media event’ refers to large-scale, live broadcasts of ceremonial occasions, such as the 1981 marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, which attract mass audiences. Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz note in their seminal volume, Media Events: The Live Broadcast of History, that such events function to ‘integrate societies in a collective heartbeat and evoke a renewal of loyalty to the society and its legitimate authority’ (1992, p. 9). At their centre is ‘the place where the organizer of a “historic” ceremony joins with a skilled broadcaster to produce an event’ (1992, p. 16).

Pettegree writes lucidly about the role of printing in the Reformation. It enabled the easy mass production of indulgence certificates thus facilitating their abuse. Subsequently, Luther published his denunciation of indulgences in German. Through print he was able to gain a wide audience: ‘By expanding debate beyond the closed circle of qualified theologians and engaging the wider public, Luther threw down the gauntlet to his Church critics.’ In the process he became a ‘publishing sensation’ (p. 68). Fair enough, but this is not enough to justify the contention that the ‘Reformation was Europe’s first mass-media news event’ (p. 69).

Pettegree’s contention that Europe’s Thirty Years War in the first half of the 17th century was ‘the first European conflict to be fought in the full glare of the new news media’ (p. 208) is also questionable. If such ‘firsts’ must be identified, the candidate I would back is the much later Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This was the first major conflict the progress of which was routinely reported from the seat of battle by telegraph (Brown 1985, pp. 227–228). Many commented at the time on the extent and immediacy of the coverage. Sir Robert Morier famously complained that the horrors of the war were microscopically laid out in the morning newspaper to jostle the toast and muffins on every British breakfast table (noted in Raymond 1921, p. 115). Australia’s telegraphic link to Europe was still two years away. Nevertheless, Melbourne’s Argus wrote in 1870:

never has so gigantic a duel been fought in the midst of so vast and magnificent an amphitheatre of spectators. For, by the aid of the electric telegraph, nearly the whole of civilised mankind have been enabled to watch the progress of the combat from day to day, and almost from hour to hour’ (Editorial, 26 September).

This perception certainly approximates to the contemporary idea that wars are now fought in the ‘full glare’ of the news media.

The last decades of the 18th century, when Britain’s settlement of New South Wales was in contemplation, saw a vast increase in the number and circulation of newspapers in Britain. The period saw major victories for the principle of freedom of the press. Newspapers began to play a ‘vital role not only in recording but in shaping political events’ (p. 327).

Pettegree, understandably, makes no reference to Australia in his book. After all, Australia’s European settlement comes at the very end of the period of his study. However, his work serves to remind us that the press and ‘news culture’, well developed in Britain by 1788, were factors in the early history of New South Wales.

While there has been considerable debate on the question of whether the establishment of the colony of New South Wales had some larger strategic purpose, it seems that the immediate question of relieving Britain’s overcrowded goals was the most pressing. There was a major crime problem in England, particularly in London. After prisons became overcrowded, old ships moored in coastal waters were used to house prisoners. There were complaints, publicised in the media, from the Mayor of London about escapees and the danger they posed for the spread of disease. There was a press campaign urging the government to do something about the problem. Manning Clark wrote that, by 1786, ‘the press and more irresponsible members of parliament were infusing their campaign for a decision with a shrill note of hysteria’ (1961, p. 67), thus pressuring the government to act.

Pettegree, understandably, makes no reference to Australia in
his book.

Later, in Sydney, the sense of ‘excommunication’ was deeply felt. At such a distance, the ‘communication network’, such as it was, had been stretched beyond breaking point. Watkin Tench, a Captain-Lieutenant in the corps of marines stationed in New South Wales, noted how the commencement of 1790 was marked by ‘impatience of news from Europe’ and disquiet at being ‘entirely cut off’ (Tench 1996, pp. 119–120). When a ship, the Lady Juliana, finally did arrive on 3 June, Tench memorably tells us that:

News burst upon us like meridian splendour on a blind man. We were overwhelmed with it: public, private, general, particular … We now heard for the first time of our sovereign’s illness and his happy restoration to health. The French revolution of 1789, with all the attendant circumstances of that wonderful and unexpected event, succeeded to amaze us’ (1996, pp. 127–128).

In far-flung New South Wales the desire to be part of the ‘news world’ of Britain and Europe was not blunted by distance. The quest to overcome isolation and gain timely access to news from ‘home’ became a driving force in Australia’s development throughout the 19th century.

In his 1999 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, Robert Darnton called for greater attention amongst historians to communication history. He pointed out that ‘every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that communication systems have always shaped events’. He thought that closer historical attention to the ‘problem of how societies made sense of events and transmitted information about them’ could open up a fresh perspective on the past (2000, p. 1). Pettegree’s volume demonstrates that this is indeed the case. He provides a fresh perspective on European history between 1400 and 1800 by foregrounding the role news played in shaping historical events. But in doing so, he has made the past seem too like the present. The task of historically reconstructing the news forms and networks of past societies is not aided by viewing them through a contemporary ‘multi-media’ lens.


Clark, C.M.H. 1962, A History of Australia, Volume I, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Brown, L. 1985, Victorian News and Newspapers, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Darnton, R. 2000, ‘Presidential Address. An early information society: News and the media in eighteenth-century Paris’, The American Historical Review, vol. 105, no. 1, pp. 1–35.

Dayan, D. & Katz E. 1992, Media Events: The Live Broadcast of History, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Defoe, Daniel 1712a, A Review of the State of the British Nation, vol. VIII (facsim. ed. A.W. Secord, book 21), 1938, Columbia University Press, New York.

Defoe, Daniel 1712b, Review, vol. I (facsim. ed. A.W. Secord, book 22), 1938, Columbia University Press, New York.

‘Editorial’, 1870, The Argus, 26 September, p. 4.

Raymond, D.N. 1921, British Policy and Opinion During the Franco-Prussian War, Columbia University Press, New York.

Raymond, J. 2005, ‘Introduction: Networks, communication, practice’, Media History, vol. 11, no. 112, pp. 3–19.

Standage, T. 1998, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, Berkley Books, New York.

Standage, T. 2013, Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, Bloomsbury, New York.

Taylor, P.M. 1999, British Propaganda in the 20th Century: Selling Democracy, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Tench, W. 1996, 1788 Comprising a Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and a Complete Account of the Settlement of New South Wales, ed. T. Flannery, Text Publishing Company, Melbourne. First published in 1789 and 1793.

Peter Putnis is Emeritus Professor of Communication at the University of Canberra. The focus of his research is on the history of international communication and global news networks, especially the 19th and early 20th centuries. He has also written extensively on the experience of news in colonial Australia.