History / Politics

Post #200: The liberty of the press

This being the 200th post on Lion & Unicorn, we thought we’d revisit the newspapers of 200 years ago today. The following is extracted from a piece by Mr Fell of Warrington, ‘a gentleman well known to the literary world’ (though, regrettably, not to us), that was published in the Suffolk Chronicle on 26 October 1816. It still seems relevant:

The Liberty of the Press, simply defined, is the liberty of printing and publishing whatever we please to print and to publish. This liberty exists only under a free government, and it is, therefore, possessed and maintained in this country to a greater extent than in any other. It has grown out of the liberal principles of the British Constitution, and has given a spirit and energy to the minds of the people incompatible with slavery, oppression or a degrading submission.

The liberty of the press is the parent of every other species of liberty, and also its most powerful advocate. The civil, political and religious liberty which we now enjoy originated in the liberty of the press, and by the same means – by the publication of sentiment, by the freedom given to the circulation of arguments and opinions – it has been defended and preserved.

The liberty of the press arrests the progress of tyranny, it reforms public abuses and redresses private wrongs, and it denounces conspirators against the constitution and against the rights and independence of the people.

The laws regulate the principles and preserve the benefits of civil society, and the press preserves the laws, appreciates their value and makes them understood. If tyranny seize the arm of government, and directs its influence against the laws or against public rights, the press hastens to the succour of the subject, stops the progress of power and corruption, and restores the safety of the people.

By the liberty of the press, the feelings and the opinions of the people are collected and declared, which become a criterion by which the ministers of government may know the value of their labours, or the extent of their reputation in the estimation of the public, and they will regulate their conduct accordingly. When the press is free, its efforts are effectual. If we look back to those times which were agitated by contending parties, we shall almost invariably find that the cause of justice was effectually served, and became finally triumphant, by the support it received from the liberty of the press.

The liberty of the press, by giving birth to the publication of newspapers and to political discussion, has rendered essential service to the constitution and also to the cause of freedom. By the means of the extensive circulation of newspapers, political knowledge has been generally cultivated and widely disseminated; the rights and privileges of the people have been defined, and their duty and obligation to the government understood.

Before newspapers were printed, political knowledge was confined to a few individuals, and general knowledge possessed chiefly by men of literary profession. The appearance of newspapers fixed a new era in knowledge. A spirit of inquiry was immediately excited; men became acquainted with the sentiments of the government, and the sentiments of the people, and publicity was given to every important transaction.

Doctor Moore, speaking of the freedom of the press, says, ‘I am every day more and more convinced that its unrestrained productions – the licentious newspapers themselves no excepted – have conveyed to every corner of Great Britain, along with much impertinence and scurrility, such a regard for the Constitutions, such a sense of the rights of the subject, and such a degree of general knowledge as never were so universally diffused over any other nation.’

The abuse and licentiousness of newspapers have frequently been a matter of complain, but that complaint should not be a reason for limiting the their circulation, or their liberty of publishing. The moment that a man takes a decided part in politics, his conduct becomes a fair subject for discussion, and he has the liberty of defending it in the newspapers if it be in them attacked. The people are open to conviction, and if he should still feel himself aggrieved, he will find the cause in his conduct, and the remedy in a reformation.

No danger can arise from the publication of opinions. If the opinions published are true, they ought to be adopted, and if false, they will be confuted. There is at all times sense enough in the nation to appreciate their value, and virtue enough to approve the decisions of truth.

Every attempt to limit the circulation of newspapers, and to interrupt the progress of opinion, proves that a tyrant exists, and that oppression is preparing for the people; for if the freedom of publishing were stopped, the loss of liberty and security would soon follow.


John Wilkes (1725-97): champion of press freedom

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