Liberty, licentiousness and libel: the London Newspaper 1695–1742
AuthorMcBain, Jean Evelyn
AffiliationSchool of Historical and Philosophical Studies
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusThis item is embargoed and will be available on 2021-05-20.
© 2019 Dr. Jean Evelyn McBain
Press freedom is a principle that has been contested throughout its history. Western democracies hold the liberty of expression dear, and valorise the press as an essential check upon government. But, in the contemporary era, ‘free speech’ and ‘the free press’ are often co-opted in defence of extreme, and worrying, political positions. The question of when and how to limit speech, whether in the press or other mediums of publication, is hotly debated. This thesis contributes to current understandings of press freedom by challenging a widely held historical narrative of ever-increasing liberty to the betterment of the democratic system. This teleological account still dominates much of the historiography of the press. Such narratives typically focus on the longue durée, but this study instead offers a densely textured history of the liberty of the press in London periodicals in the period 1695–1742. Delimited by the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 and the fall of Walpole in 1742, this thesis spans two periods that have usually been divided in the political historiography. The broad narrative that a ‘rage of party’ during the reign of Queen Anne was followed by a period of political stability and oligarchy with Walpole’s ascendancy remains the dominant, although not unchallenged, understanding of early eighteenth-century politics. Without seeking to overturn this interpretation, this thesis points to a political arena that never lay quietly, even at the height of the Whig oligarchy. Indeed, the political press of the 1720s and 1730s was ideologically bolder than that of the 1700s and 1710s, as the press increasingly became an outlet for the venting of opposition political argument. A vigorous, vitriolic and intellectually rich debate over press liberty filled the periodical press of early eighteenth-century London. Nevertheless, the periodicals of this era have typically been excluded from the intellectual history of press freedom. In drawing these periodicals into the history of ideas, this thesis draws upon the Cambridge School methodology of linguistic contextualism along with approaches from the historiography of the law and of the book. This thesis argues that the early eighteenth-century English periodical press was the locus of an important and under-examined debate over the liberty of the press. It proposes that the more radical elements of this debate aligned with the position of political opposition, rather than with any particular party such as the Whigs, and it uncovers the contested ideas of press liberty that enlivened this intellectual contest. These contentions disrupt the historiographical narrative of expanding press freedom through: revising the timeline for the development of important ideas of press liberty; challenging the association between a radical ideology of press freedom and the liberal or Whig tradition; and presenting a more complex set of potential antecedents for contemporary thinking on the purpose of a free press.
Keywordsnewspapers; periodicals; press freedom; liberty of the press; eighteenth century; Britain; media history; libel; satire
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