Property, Power and Press Freedom: Emergence of the Fourth Estate, 1640-1789

Article excerpt


This paper employs a theoretical framework that combines political economy and cultural studies to uncover the forces driving the development of press freedom in early modern England, the British North America and France from the launch in 1640 of the English Short Parliament, which temporarily abolished censorship, to the French Revolution in 1789. The factors it found to be determinant were a transnational print technology, the public sphere, social movements and egalitarianism, not liberalism, the liberal ideologues and the nation-state highlighted in the dominant press-freedom theory. Going beyond the rights of commercial news media owners, which is a focus of the traditional press-freedom literature, it examines other manifestations of press freedom, including the use and ownership of the means of publication by formerly excluded groups (including women and tradesmen), publication in vernacular languages, new styles of expression (including ironic treatment of religious and political authorities), and a successful challenge to private monopolistic control over knowledge production, especially printing. This study offers a new theory of press freedom, undergirded by the claim that the production of rights occurs in the realm of social relations, which have cultural, economic and political dimensions.

News media bring almost daily reports from around the world of violence in the form of harassments, imprisonment, torture, "disappearances," and even attempted genocide being directed against people who dare practice or exjiress unpopular beliefs, often of a religious or political nature. Every year, an untold number of prisoners of conscience languish away in confinement, despite the determined efforts of non-governmental organizations committed to the preservation of civil liberties. In 2006 alone, 56 journalists worldwide were killed in the line of duty or were murdered because of their professional activities, while another 134 were imprisoned, including one in the United States, another held by American forces in Iraq, and a third detained at the U. S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2007). Although freedom of expression has been an area of philosophical reflection and dispuitation for centuries (e.g., Luzac, 2003; Milton, 1931; Locke, 1689; Mill, 1978), theorizing about how it might be protected and expanded in today's world remains frozen in an unproductive Cold War episteme.

In hopes of unthawing press-freedom theorizing, this study examines legal and extra-legal constraints on the press that obtained in Britain (including its North American colonies that became the United States) and France between the launch in 1640 of the English Short Parliament, which temporarily abolished censorship, to the French Revolution in 1789, which consolidated legal guarantees of press freedom in particular and human rights in general.

According to Hobsbawm (1962, pp. 18-20), these two "neighboring and rival" countries were the incubators of a "larger regional volcano" in industrial and political affairs respectively that led to domination of the globe by a few Western regimes (and especially by the British)." Occurring earlier, but, it is argued, forming an essential precondition, was the Protestant Reformation (1517-1555), in the course of which Europe went from having "truth" defined by the Catholic Church (whose authority was reinforced by the coercive power of states throughout the continent) to competing visions of the mundane and sacred realms, each rooted in an association of individuals that was "voluntary" but often shared "regional and class identities" (Bruce & Wright, 1995, pp. 110111; also Sedgwick, 1977, p. 1). Three critical ruptures occurred in the centurieslong process of transition: the English Civil War (1642-1689), the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789), all of which helped both to constitute and transform the Western legal tradition (Berman, 1983, pp. …


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