In Spring 2021 the British Library will be hosting a major exhibition on the history of news in Britain.
The aim of the exhibition is to explore the history, present and future of news in Britain over 400 years since the first newspaper was published in this country, asking what makes the news what it is, and what this means for us.
The exhibition will trace how news for the diverse audiences of this country has been produced, distributed and read over four centuries, through news sheets, news books, broadsides, newspapers, newsreels, radio, television, the internet and social media. The exhibition will encourage questions about the role of news in society. It will look at the ways in which news is changing as we ourselves change. It will invite to us to consider vital issues of choice, interpretation, truth and trust.
Planning for the exhibition, provisionally entitled Making the News, has got underway. To help us put it together, we are advertising for a two-year exhibition project curator.
Working with a curatorial team and the Library’s exhibition team, the post-holder will contribute to the development and delivery of the exhibition. They will contribute to the administration of the curatorial content of the exhibition; will prepare external visits and show-and-tells; will promote the exhibition on social media and to visitors; and will apply research expertise in one or more areas of British news history in support of the selection and curation of content for the exhibition.
Writing in the Guardian earlier this month, Roy Greenslade queried what it is about ‘fake news’ that draws such widespread public attention: is it ‘a wilful desire to reject “boring” reality and choose its “exciting” opposite?’ he asks. The question of how to picture the news in a compelling way – so that it remains accurate as to the facts, while imaginatively transporting newspaper readers to the scenes and events described – goes back to the emergence of the first special correspondents and special artists who worked for the metropolitan press in the second half of the nineteenth century. Who were these newspaper pioneers and how can they help us to understand continuing debates about the media today?
William Howard Russell is probably the only one of the first generation of special correspondents who is now widely remembered, largely as a result of his famous reports from the Crimean War for the Times. Russell’s despatches from the front were gripping, eye-witness accounts that brought the war home to British readers and galvanized public opposition to the Government’s mishandling of the campaign. His narratives of spectacle, heroism and suffering established him as the Times’s leading ‘special’.
Reporting from the seat of war was undoubtedly the assignment that most tested the special correspondent’s mettle. However, when no war was afoot, they had to turn their hand to cover all manner of events in any location at home or abroad as required by their newspaper. Their versatility was key; and at least equal in fame to Russell on this score from the 1860s onwards was George Augustus Sala: ‘the chief of travelled specials’, as he was later described. Sala’s potential as a ‘travelling correspondent’ was first demonstrated in 1856-7 when Dickens sent him to St Petersburg to obtain material for a series of papers on Russian life and manners for his weekly periodical, Household Words. Sala’s colourful, descriptive style, cultivated as a contributor to Dickens’s journal, flourished when he began work as a special for the fledgling Daily Telegraph in 1857. Although he reported on a number of wars, including the American Civil, Austro-Italian and Franco-Prussian wars, special correspondents were also required, as he wrote in 1871, to ‘be Jack of all trades, and master of all – that are journalistic’: ‘to “do” funerals as well as weddings, state-banquets, Volunteer reviews, Great Exhibitions, remarkable trials, christenings, coronations, ship-launches, agricultural shows, royal progresses, picture-shows, first-stone layings, horse-races and hangings’.
While not all of the journalists who worked as specials became so famous in their own day as Russell and Sala, what distinguished their correspondence was its mobility, versatility and descriptive power: an ability to observe and seize upon events wherever they happened, rendering them for the press in sufficiently graphic prose so as to transport readers through vivid eye-witness accounts. These qualities were also features of the New Journalism – a development famously criticised by Matthew Arnold in 1887 as part of a commercially driven press deploying sensational reportage to sell newspapers (a debate that remains familiar today).
But for its proponents, special correspondence was a new technology – like the railroad or the telegraph, with both of which it was closely associated – that brought the world closer, shrinking space and time and conveying readers to distant places. In fulfilling the often arduous demands of their role, these journalists sometimes became newsworthy in their own right. Indeed, speaking at an anniversary dinner of the Newspaper Press Fund in 1878, Lord Salisbury described the special correspondent as one who ‘seems to be forced to combine in himself the power of a first-class steeple-chaser with the power of the most brilliant writer – the most wonderful physical endurance with the most remarkable mental vigour’.
Some of the remarkable achievements of this forgotten breed of journalists will be rediscovered as part of Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities on Thursday 23 November from 6-8 pm when Dr Ruth Brimacombe and I discuss our online exhibition, Picturing the News, in the Foyle Room of the British Library.
Welcome to the latest edition of the St Pancras Intelligencer, our weekly round-up of news about news - stories about news production, publications, apps, digitised resources, events and what is happening with the newspaper collection (and other news collections) at the British Library.
The Reykjavik Confessions: The creative strategies that have been applied to some recent immersive fictional web narratives have now been employed by BBC News for this visually-impressive and engrossing account of some Icleandic real-life murders, written by Simon Cox. The news is changing.
The perils of 'hashtag activism': The #bringbackourgirls campaign on the plight of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls has generated much comment. Jill Filipovic of Cosmopolitan magazine discusses the issues raised on MSNBC's The Cycle. By contrast, the Media Blog makes a strong argument in defence of #hashtag activism. Meanwhile RT (Russia Today) mischievously reports on how anti-drone campaigners have subverted Michelle Obama's much-tweeted picture holding up the hashtag.
Why Jill Abramson Was Fired: The firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has been hotly debated. Ken Auletta at The New Yorker aims to get to the bottom of why, discovering that she was being paid less than her male predecessor. Needless so say, the publisher denies that this was the reason (while not really saying why she was removed from her post so abruptly).
Comics unmasked: Closely allied to newspapers (and previously housed by the British Library alongside newspapers at Colindale), comics are the subject of the British Library's new exhibition. Those expecting Desperate Dan or Biffo the Bear are likely to be surprised...
The best and worst things about journalists: Tony Harcup, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Journalism, lists nine best ("Our default position is healthy scepticism") and nine worst ("Our scepticism can sometimes become cynicism") things about journalists.
The state journalism is in: Julian Petley, influential Professor of Screen Media at Brunel University, has written three posts for the Informm blog on the UK press treatment of the Edward Snowden story, taken from the journal Ethical Space. Part two is here, part three here. Roy Greenslade helpfully summarises the arguments made here. Broadly Petley asserts that "the overarching theme in the press campaign against The Guardian was national security."
Robot reporter: Journalism in the Age of Automation and Big Data: We have published a podcast of the excellent W.T. Stead lecture given at the British Library by Emily Bell, where she considers how new technologies will affect journalism and the role of reporters and editors. Look out for a particularly strong question and answer session at the end.