Book review: Print Culture, Crime and Justice in C18th London

 “I have long said, that if a paragraph in a newspaper contains a word of truth, it is sure to be accompanied with two or three blunders; yet, who will believe that papers published in the face of the whole town should be noting but magazines of lies, every one of which fifty persons could contradict and disprove? Yet so it certainly is, and future history will probably be ten times falser than all preceding.” – Horace Walpole, 1782 [1]

image1Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, 2014) is the first book by Richard Ward, formerly a research associate on the Leicester University project Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse, and now working on the Digital Panopticon project run by the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield.

I was eager to read this book, having done some research myself into 18th century print culture; I have previously given a paper on the coverage of domestic violence cases in 18th century newspapers and periodicals, and am currently working on a paper looking at a different aspect of crime reporting.

I have long recognised the similarities between parts of 18th century news reporting and the excesses of 20th and early 21st century tabloid journalism.

Stories are stretched, exaggerated, or given undue prominence, to sneer at individuals or competitors, or to stir up public feeling.

Reading the Daily Mail and its seemingly endless stories about immigration and terrorism sometimes feels little different to reading certain stories in the 18th century press, which whipped the public up into ‘moral panics’ about the state of England and the crime rate in their local area.

Ward recognises this early on, pointing out:

“the significant impact of media in creating and shaping panics through increased reporting of crimes, exaggeration, the distortion of events to fit a particular theme, the portrayal of rumours as fact and the creation of negative and fearful stereotypes.” [2]

The main focus of Ward’s book is on the trial reports of the Old Bailey, where he is able to utilise the fantastic online resource The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

But he also looks at other forms of print culture, from books to newspapers, to analyse the links between the printed word and 18th century forms of prosecution and punishment.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Ward’s exploration of how the press covered crimes. He finds that different sections of the press responded differently, some by critiquing the criminal justice system, while others backed it.

This reflected both the timescales of newspaper production and the ways in which papers got their stories, with agents appearing to be based at particular places of justice and getting the bulk of their stories from that single location.

The book also shows that differences in patterns of reporting crime across different newspaper titles was a result of how publications chose to focus on different kinds of offences, with some papers concentrating on street and highway robberies, which were more likely to remain unsolved and thus present negative connotations of justice to the reader.

Ward offers an ‘alternative’ view on how the press covered crime compared to Esther Snell‘s previous analysis of the 18th century press, which focused on The Kentish Post. [3] He shows that although the press did publicise the failings of the judicial system, it also covered policing in a more positive manner.

He emphasises Shoemaker’s point that although the proceedings of the Old Bailey did not misreport events, by omitting details, such trial reports ‘were constructed to present a positive image of justice’. [4]

Ward concentrates on a tight period of history – the mid 18th century, a fascinating time that saw a growth in crime reporting, subsequent moral panics about crime, and the impact of the end of the War of Austrian Succession, which saw rapid demobilisation cause unemployment and an increase in crime in some areas.

By concentrating on a limited time span, he is able to study changes in reporting in depth, and offers some food for thought about the operation of the 18th century press and its effect on public perceptions of law and order.

References

1: Letter to the Rev Mr Cole (21 June 1782) in The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, Volume 6 (Richard Bentley, London, 1840), page 176

2: Richard M Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), p.14

3: Esther Snell, “Discourses of criminality in the eighteenth-century press: the presentation of crime in the Kentish Post, 1717-1768”, Continuity & Change, 22:1 (2007), pp.13-47

4: Richard M Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), p.142

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