Books: The High Price of Sniggering at the Prince Regent ; the Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for a Free Press by Ben Wilson FABER Pounds 16.99 Pounds 15.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

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Anyone who thinks that the battle of Waterloo marked the triumph of liberty over tyranny, and the defeat of an ogre by a free people, should read this splendid biography and think again. William Hone (1780- 1842) is little known except to specialists, but he deserves a place in the historical pantheon way above the sordid trio of Lord Liverpool, Castlereagh and the Prince Regent, his opponents and persecutors. The years 1793-1815 were an epoch of brutal authoritarianism in Britain, initiated by that great 'hero' Pitt the Younger and carried on after 1806 by an unsavoury assortment of despotic epigones. Criticism of the government " any criticism " could be construed as criminal libel by the prevailing laws. Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, the scourge of a free press, defined libel as 'anything which tends to excite the discontent of the people or, either by calumny or design, to bring the established authorities of the government into disesteem'. This meant, in effect, that criminality was what the government of the day said it was. To clothe this rank tyranny in the figleaf of the 'rule of law', all libel trials were held before Special Juries, individuals handpicked as government yes-men. Yet the Prinnie-Liverpool- Castlereagh nexus, and toadies such as Ellenborough, added further refinements to their basic cruelty. Instead of swift justice they opted for a war of attrition: criminals under the libel law (i.e. their critics) were often held in jail for years, awaiting a trial that was constantly (and deliberately) deferred for one legal nitpicking reason or another. The objective was both to wear down those who had had the impudence to speak out and to ruin them, for few journalists had the financial resources to sustain a livelihood when deprived of all the tools of their trade. Using these Kafkaesque methods, in the years 1810-15, the ruling elite struck down, imprisoned or otherwise silenced some of the great dissident names of the day: Sir Francis Burdett, Thomas Lord Cochrane, William Cobbett, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, his brother John, and many others.

In 1817 it was William Hone's turn. Of humble origins but a brilliant autodidact, Hone had married enough money to set himself up as a bookseller. Thence he progressed to become editor of the Critical Review in 1814, turning it into a kind of radical News of the World, reporting sensational court cases but always supporting the underdog. After a year of that, he began editing a weekly newspaper, the Reformists' Register, particularly targeting the ludicrous figure of the Prince Regent. He and the artist George Cruikshank collaborated on illustrated satirical pamphlets, and the Reformist's Register published some lethal special editions, in effect anti-government pamphlets in the form of religious parodies, especially of the catechism. The ruling elite earmarked Hone as a man of whom a terrible example should be made. He was indicted on three separate charges of criminal libel, to be defended in three distinct trials, for the publication of the following parodies: 'The Late John Wilkes's Catechism of a Ministerial Member'; 'The Political Litany, Diligently Revised'; 'The Sinecurists' Creed or Belief'. …