Let’s talk about freedom of the press in England.
Why not in Britain? Because we’ll start before Britain became a country and because English law doesn’t apply to all of Britain. It’s enough to make a non-Briton dizzy. Don’t think about it and you’ll be fine.
We’ll start in 1403, before the printing press was brought to England. Before, in fact, it was invented. That’s when the Guild of Stationers was recognized by London, and it’s an important part of the story, so stay with me. The guild’s members were text writers, book illuminators, booksellers, bookbinders, and suppliers of parchment, pens, and paper. Just to confuse things it’s also called the Stationers’ Company.
They were called stationers because they set up stations–what we’d be more likely to call stalls–around St. Paul’s Cathedral. So there’s one mystery solved.
Then the printing press came to England and printers joined the guild.
Printing was the hot technology of the day, so what would any sensible government do but restrict it? When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English–both Henry VIII and England were still Catholic at this point–he played hide and seek with government agents in print shops all across Europe, where he’d fled. Copies of his translation were printed in Germany and smuggled into England.
In England, though, printing could be done only by English citizens, and anything that was going to be printed had to be approved by the privy council.
Eventually Mary Tudor became the queen and the Guild of Stationers got a royal charter. That gave them a monopoly on printing, so members didn’t face competition from outside the guild. They could only have seen that as a good thing. They also had to settle disagreements over who owned what works within the group, and that led to the invention of copyright.
We won’t go down that rabbithole today.
The royal charter also meant that the guild had the power–and presumably the responsibility–to search out seditious and heretical books. Or, as its preamble puts it, “seditious and heretical books rhymes and treatises [that] are daily published and printed by divers scandalous malicious schismatical and heretical persons”.
The heresy du jour was Protestantism, but after Mary died the heresy du jour was Catholicism, along with more Protestant forms of Protestantism than the approved form of Protestantism.
So the content of sedition and heresy changed but the concept itself didn’t.
Isn’t the world a strange place?
In their search for heresy etc., the stationers had to power search, seize, and destroy.
Didn’t they get to have all the fun?
This wasn’t exactly state censorship. It was censorship by a body chartered by the state but working in response to its own interests. I’m speculating here, but you might have been safe enough printing heretical pamphlets on the quiet if you kept on the good side of the guild’s more powerful members. And you might have found some surprising pamphlets stashed in a quiet corner of your workshop if you pissed off the wrong person.
We won’t slog through the period Tudor by Tudor. Let’s just acknowledge that each of them had an interest in stamping out sedition and heresy, in all its alternating forms. Freedom of the press was the next-door neighbor of sedition and would’ve been a dangerous concept to defend in public. If you had nothing to hide, you wouldn’t have any problem showing it to the privy council.
During the Civil War and under the Commonwealth–that brief period when England was a republic–religious and political thinking went in directions no one could have predicted and no one could control, and print, being the social media of the day, was what all that intellectual ferment poured itself into.
Given that this was during and just after a civil war, if you’d wanted to argue that freedom of the press and anarchy went together, you’d have found a good stack of evidence for your argument.
Then Cromwell died and Charles II took the throne, and he needed to put all that debate and argument and printing back in the box. The government passed the Licensing Act of 1662. Anything printed now had to carry the name of its printer and its author, and it had to be submitted to a licenser–that was a government official–before it could be printed.
The licenser kept a copy to check against the printed version, just in case some sly devil inserted a disparaging paragraph about the size of Charles’s wig.
If the text was approved, then it had to be registered with–they’re back again–the stationers.
The act was meant to be temporary–a placeholder until something better could be pieced together–so it came with an end date, but when nothing better appeared it was renewed. Until 1679, when everyone important got into a tizzy because of Titus Oates’ fantasies about a popish plot, and the act lapsed.
Newspapers moved into the empty space where censorship had once been.
Six years later, the act was reinstated, but the fun had gone out of it, somehow. Licensing print didn’t have the appeal it had once had. It had grown a pot belly and a chicken neck, some mornings it didn’t bother to shave, and heads didn’t turn anymore when it walked down the street.
But guess what: The government found it could still punish treason, seditious libel, and blasphemy, and it could keep the press in line pretty well that way. And it was all so much more efficient.
A Jacobite printer was executed to prove the point.
The threat of prosecution was enough to keep most publishers well back from the political edges. And those didn’t stay back? Some were fined. Some were jailed. Some fled abroad. Most played nice.
Before long, London had multiple newspapers and towns around the country had their own papers. The newspaper had become an integral part of the political landscape and that’s glorious but a lot less interesting.
English defamation law has worked at times to limit freedom of the press, since it puts the burden of proof on the defendant, not the plaintiff. In other words, if someone wants to shut you up, unless you have enough money and sheer cussed energy to defend yourself in court, you might just consider shutting up.
And there are specified limits on freedom of expression. They include making threats, harassment, glorifying terrorism, incitement to racial hatred, or–oh, hell–calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Or imagining overthrowing the monarchy.
That last one carries a life sentence, although the law hasn’t been enforced since 1879. The Guardian challenged it in court and lost on the grounds that the law was a relic of a bygone age and that any change was unnecessary.
And with that, we’ve come to the present day, so let’s check in with the Stationers’ Company and see what they’ve become now that they can’t stamp out heresy and search other people’s premises. The organization says it has almost a thousand members and sounds deeply snoozeworthy. Most members are “senior executives in the complete range of trades within the Communications and Content industries.” That’s so dull I had to copy it and paste it into place. I tried typing the words but kept passing out.
One of the group’s goals is to create a broad balance of membership. Toward what end? Why, so it can maintain balance, of course. In its membership.
Listen, don’t ask me these things. They have a hall. You can rent it if the pandemic ever ends.