Magazine article The Spectator

The Rag Trade

Magazine article The Spectator

The Rag Trade

Article excerpt

Since the rise of broadcasting, people have been asking whether newspapers have any future. It seems a rather futile question. The evidence is there for us to see: newspapers are thriving. People like to read more about what they might have already heard on the radio or seen on television, and there are, in any case, limitations of time on what can be covered on the air waves. Print journalism, it seems to me, will always be with us.

So I was fascinated by a potted history of Fleet Street, Out of Print, a three-part series on Radio Four presented by Philippa Kennedy (Wednesdays). Newspapers have now dispersed, of course; even Reuters will be going. It was once, though, an extraordinarily romantic place for a young impressionable journalist like me: the hammering of typewriters, the throbbing printing presses, the lorries, the bustle, the blazing lights of newsrooms, cafés and pubs into the small hours. I had not seen anything like it before. Technology brought newspapers to Fleet Street and technology led to their departure, helped by printers in self-destruct mode.

It was William Caxton's assistant Wynkyn de Worde who established printing there in the 16th century, and Kennedy inspected his bones, which lie in a vault below St Bride's church. There was a demand for books by the clergy of the area and soon printers, publishers and booksellers began to colonise the streets near St Paul's Cathedral. Kennedy discovered that the first British newspaper appeared in 1622 with no distinctive title and covering only foreign news; domestic news frightened monarchs and, later, parliaments, and was seen as threatening the social order. Newspapers had to be licensed, a form of censorship which some politicians even today wouldn't mind seeing in place. It meant that you couldn't print news without permission, and it had to be shown to the authorities in advance and stamped. The creation of the BBC, of course, was similarly feared by the authorities, hence its licence-fee system.

Fortunately, the licensing system lapsed when Parliament couldn't devise a way of renewing it. The first daily newspaper was the Daily Courant, which began in 1702. In time, the Post Office mail coaches, the railways and electric telegraph transformed publishing, enabling newspapers to be read and printed in the provinces as well as London. …

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