04 May 2022
Encountering the news
One of the special features of the British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition is a large-scale panorama, created by designers Northover&Brown. Objects and graphics have been placed into flowing pictures of networks, places and people, tracing the changing ways in which we have discovered the news over five centuries, from town squares to what Elon Musk calls ‘the digital town square’. This post complements the panorama.
Interior of a London coffee-house (c.1690), British Museum
Thence to the Coffee-house … where all the newes is of the Dutch being gone out, and of the plague growing upon us in this towne; and of remedies against it: some saying one thing, some another.
On 24 May 1665 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of his quest for news. Pepys visited one of London coffee houses two or three times a week over 1663-1664, the habit falling away in 1665 as plague took its grip on the city. He seems not to have cared that much for coffee, but yearned for the companionship, good business contacts and information to be found at a coffee house. Here one discovered the world.
The news one gleaned from a 1660s London coffee house came as much from discussion and talks as it did from printed news. Coffee houses had long tables on which the latest newsbooks and newsletters would be laid out. In 1665 there were only two print newsbooks available (from one publisher), both mostly restricted to overseas news: The Intelligencer and The Newes. The news Pepys discovered was an amalgam of publication, rumour and opinion. Such it was then; such it has remained.
The news has to seek us out. Just as much as it is shaped by those who are able to publish it and those who choose to consume it, news is shaped by where it is found. News publications in Britain in the seventeenth-century were found in print shops, coffee houses, taverns, and in the homes of those in business, officialdom and the church served by private news services that provided handwritten newsletters. Tight publication regulations prevented coverage of anything except overseas events, but the Civil War (1642-1651) created an audience hungry for information and opinion. Mostly confined to London, it was circulated, at some risk to publishers and sellers, as newsbooks, newsletters and proto-newspapers, news from the streets that was sold on the streets.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries newspapers gradually grew in numbers, geographical range, and habit. News was carried across the country by mail coaches along ever-improving roads to homes and public spaces such as taverns and workplaces. Copies passed from hand to many other hands. Such news could be shared verbally, reaching out to the illiterate or those priced out of purchasing a newspaper by taxes designed to suppress radical thought. Working class memoirist Thomas Carter recalled passing on the news in 1815:
I every morning gave them an account of what I had just been reading in the yesterday's newspaper ... My shopmates were much pleased at the extent and variety of the intelligence which I was able to give them about public affairs, and they were the more pleased because I often told them about the contents of Mr. Cobbett's "Political Register", as they were warm admirers of that clever and very intelligible writer. (T. Carter, Memoirs of a Working Man, London, 1845)
In the nineteenth century the newspaper flourished, aided by rapid growth in readers and advertising money that freed newspapers from political control. Coffee houses remained a popular location, but from the 1830s newspaper reading rooms emerged, followed later by newspaper sections of public libraries, greatly widening access to local and international affairs to those who had previously been priced out of such knowledge. The rapid spread of a rail network not only boosted the distribution of newspapers but created a new kind of space for news, the commuting space, private consumption in a public environment. Newspapers could be organised to last for the duration of a rail journey. Truly national newspaper titles came to the fore – The Times, The Morning Chronicle, The Daily Telegraph (few other countries have so dominant a national newspaper culture as the UK). Sunday titles such as The Observer and The Sunday Times fitted into the weekend pattern of lives with greater leisure time. All culminated in the great game-changer, The Daily Mail, launched in 1896, a million-seller by 1901.
In the twentieth century different news forms arose to compete for public attention in both private and public spaces. From the 1910s through to the 1960s cinemas usually featured news in their programmes, in the shape of short newsreels, with dedicated news cinemas proliferating across cities from the 1930s. Radio news started in December 1922, delivering its messages exclusively for domestic consumption, building up its reputation so that for the Second World War it was the essential means by which the general public anchored itself to the daily progression of the conflict. BBC television in the 1930s showed only cinema newsreels, introducing its own newsreel in January 1948. It introduced newsreaders in the format that endures to this day in 1955, just ahead of its new commercial rival, ITV. It proved to be the perfect domestic, communal medium, gradually supplanting radio, pressurising the newspapers and crushing cinema newsreels, which could not compete with so frequent a service.
Newspapers were still read on trains and in libraries, but the contest for news supremacy lay in the domestic space. News was something that came to us, that occupied our homes. It tied us constantly to the turn of events happening outside our protective four walls. Local radio and television arose, following newspapers in serving audiences who understood themselves as much regionally as nationally.
The multi-format, domestic model began to be overturned at the turn of the century. The Internet has become a platform for all established news media (press, television, radio) and has led to the creation of new news media forms. Social media combines personal and general information, serves as a distribution platform for stories from the other news media while delivering original content as well, and supplies content on which all news media now depend.
The Internet has not only broken up traditional news forms, but has changed the relationship between news and space. The news no longer needs to seek us out: it is everywhere. Amy, aged 25-30, in a 2019 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report on news habits of the young, describes how she occupies this world:
I’m on Instagram, for example, and there are videos on there, that could send me to a link to somewhere else… It depends what I’m looking for, but if I’m scrolling that could be anything from a post on Facebook to a video on Instagram to an article on BBC News or something. So, it sort of depends where I am and what I’m looking for.
Part of the ‘Where do we find the news?’ panorama, Breaking the News exhibition, British Library
For 400 years, since the publication of the first newspaper in Britain, the established news media have been defined by regularity. As C. John Sommerville argues, they built an economic model around news as something shaped in a particular form, forever replaced by new content, an idea of news that fed off assured spaces and a regularity of habit. Pepys went to the coffee house when his morning’s office work was done. Newspapers arrived when the mail coach was due, or were read on the daily train commute, or were delivered to the doorstep each day. They called themselves dailies or weeklies, naming themselves after their dependability. News reading rooms were open for when workers had leisure time, a weekly luxury. Newsreels were released twice a week because, in its heyday, that was how often the average person went to the cinema. Radio news established itself around daily bulletins – the six o’clock news, the nine o’clock news. Television followed the same model until it devised 24-hour news, though even that was built around regularity, with headlines on the hour. News has been defined by, indeed has helped shape, the daily round.
The Internet knows no regularity and demands no physical space. It ignores all confines (at least in those societies that permit such freedoms). The Internet is therefore changing the news. We still measure our time in days, but the network through which we communicate across the globe does not. Many, of course, still cling to the daily newspaper, or to the early evening TV news, or a radio report at midnight, signing things off for another day – but these are habits, no longer certainties. What once could be defined by a physical space must now be defined by its absence. The news today is determined not by where we are but by who we are, or who we want to be. This is the unsettling, but exciting, world of news that the twenty-first century is now delivering to us.
Lead Curator, News & Moving Image
Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1957)
Markman Ellis, The Coffee House: A Cultural History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)
Matthew Engel, Tickle the Public: One Hundred Years of the Popular Press (London: Victor Gollancz, 1996)
Andrew Hobbs, A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900 (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2018)
Anthony Smith, The Newspaper: An International History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979)
John Sommerville, The News Revolution in England: Cultural Dynamics of Daily Information (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
08 December 2021
Breaking news on Breaking the News
Opening next April, Breaking the News, supported by Newsworks, is a major exhibition from the British Library, spotlighting the role news plays in our society, exploring issues of choice, interpretation, truth and trust in the news.
Smashed hard drives used by The Guardian to store Edward Snowden’s files © Guardian News & Media Ltd 2021
From the earliest surviving printed news report in Britain on the Battle of Flodden in 1513, to smashed hard drives used by The Guardian to store Edward Snowden’s files and an original BBC radio script announcing the D-Day landings, Breaking the News will go beyond physical newspapers to examine the role news in its many forms plays in our lives. Presenting historical and contemporary reports on war, natural disasters, crime, politics and celebrity scandals, the exhibition will reveal that while the themes that interest us generally do not change, the form and ownership of news does.
Breaking the News will interrogate what makes an event news, what a free press means, the ethics involved in making the news, what objective news is and how the way we encounter news has evolved. Delving into the biggest collection of news heritage in the UK, housed by the British Library, these pressing issues will be set against the backdrop of over five centuries of news publication in Britain through newspapers, newsreels, radio, television, the internet and social media.
Ahead of, and then in tandem with the Breaking the News exhibition, pop-up displays will open at over 30 public libraries across the UK, via the Living Knowledge Network. The displays will draw upon each library’s individual collection and regional connections to celebrate the value of regional news in communities across the UK.
Breaking the News will run 22 April-21 August 2022.
The touring exhibition will run 24 February to August 2022.
05 May 2021
The US 2020 election broadcast archive
As Joe Biden has now passed his first 100 days as the 46th President of the United States of America, it is time to reflect on the broadcasts of the US presidential election archived by the British Library. 2020 thrust upon us a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the final months before the UK left the European Union, plus a Presidential election in America like no other. In 2016, the Library’s Broadcast News service archived the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President, continuing to collect broadcasts dealing with his presidency over the following four years. The 2020 US Presidential election was certain to be an interesting one, with an incumbent President with a background outside of politics versus a career politician who was a former Vice President.
CNN Final Presidential Debate, 23 October 2020
The Democratic nomination debates were recorded for the Library’s Broadcast News service with extensive coverage by CNN and the debates covered by many of the world’s broadcasters in their news programmes. All was going as expected … and then the Coronavirus pandemic hit the world.
This meant that Broadcast News was now being run from a curator’s spare bedroom, rather than from the British Library’s News, Radio and Moving Image area at our St Pancras site. The Coronavirus not only made adapting to new working conditions tricky for Broadcast News, but it also made politicians across the globe develop strategies and legislature to deal with a pandemic.
In the US, President Trump’s handling of the pandemic had attracted much news coverage throughout the year. His press briefings as part of the White House Task Force we captured from CNN coverage, albeit with the problem of no regularly scheduled time and sometimes patchy coverage. A trawl around other news organisations covered by Broadcast News resulted in finding fuller broadcasts of the briefings on Turkey’s TRT World, Sky News and the BBC. On many occasions CNN sometimes only broadcast the questions taken after the speeches were made, whereas TRT World and Russia’s RT would only show the speech itself. Plenty of documentaries were broadcast covering Donald Trump’s four years as President. These were also archived for Broadcast News, originating from stations across the world that that are licensed to broadcast in the UK.
This was all good preparation for the run up to the election itself. First there would be three Presidential debates. The initial one, on 29 September 2020, was a strange one, to put it mildly. CNN had full coverage, so their programming was duly archived. However, the combative manner of the debate, with Trump’s interruptions and responses in particular, triggered worldwide interest in how the debate was conducted. Breakfast news programming from Britain’s main news networks, the BBC, ITV, and Sky were recorded to show the post-debate analysis for each channel, to avoid bias. The major news programmes from China’s CGTN, RT, Al Jazeera, Japan’s NHK World, France 24 and TRT World, also gave their judgement, and that was also recorded.
Then the President caught COVID-19. His rallies had been noticeable for both himself, his aides and most of the crowds not wearing masks and not practicing social distancing. In contrast, his rival, Joe Biden, always wore a mask at his events and reporters and attendees were segregated. The Democratic Party’s convention was held virtually, compared to the Republican Party’s convention being held in large rallies. Both conventions’ highlights were recorded, and the key speeches were captured from live footage.
TV coverage criticized how the President was holding ‘super spreader’ events with his rallies, especially the gathering announcing the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court.
It was announced that the second presidential debate would be a virtual one, owing to the President’s diagnosis. Donald Trump rejected this idea, however, the two candidates instead taking part in separate ‘Town Hall’ events. It was impossible for CNN to show both Town Halls live, so highlights were broadcast and, again, the news broadcasts of the BBC, ITV, Sky News, Al Jazeera, CGTN and TRT World would also show clips and give their comments.
The final TV debate was held on 22 October. Both candidates attended, and this ended up as a stark contrast to the first one, resembling the civilized debate held prior to this in the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and the Democratic Party’s VP choice, Kamala Harris. Both were archived from CNN’s coverage and a balance of views was also obtained from coverage by the other news organizations.
A mixture of CNN’s coverage and that of TRT World, Sky and the BBC was captured to gain a flavour of the rallies then held in the run up to the election itself.
TRT World, America Decides, 3 November 2020
And then election day itself came. An election like no other, with all sorts of protestations that mail-in votes would lead to a fraudulent result, and a vicious second wave of the Coronavirus in America leading to many wanting to vote without attending the polling stations on the day.
The views of both President Trump and Joe Biden about voting were made clear in the run up to the election. Late night programmes from CNN were taken in addition to CNN Newsroom (which is recorded daily) to reflect the nature of voting intentions and the candidates’ views on this. CNN had many interviews with local officials in areas that had wildly different views on voting procedures, so this was an important set of programmes to archive in order to provide researchers into this election a chance to see how America was split on this issue. Most Trump supporters would turn up to vote on the day, many rejecting wearing a mask. Most Biden supporters suggested that they would largely vote by mail, also worried that voting on the day might bring intimidatory tactics from right-wing extremist supporters.
Early voting in some states also took place and scenes of day long queueing, and interviews given whilst waiting in line, were also recorded from CNN sources and other broadcasters.
It was decided to take all night coverage of election day itself from several stations to reflect balance in the views of the presenters. CNN, BBC, ITV, and Sky were chosen, and CGTN, Al Jazeera and TRT World were also recorded after polls closed giving their initial reactions to the results. However, there was no clear result and the election coverage continued over the next week.
It was decided to take all of CNN’s coverage throughout each day until a winner was declared. CNN had received good press reviews for their coverage (known on social media as ‘The Map Programme’), and this was complemented by coverage of key state declarations and updates from the BBC, Sky, ITV and Broadcast News’ overseas stations in Turkey, China, Japan, the Middle East, France, Nigeria and Russia. There were many documentaries about both President Trump and Joe Biden broadcast across many channels in the run up to, and during, the election. These were also archived.
Our broadcast archive of election day featured radio as well. The coverage from BBC Radio 4, BBC 5 Live, BBC World Service, LBC, TalkRADIO and Monocle 24 was all archived for our National Radio Archive pilot. This also included Siren Radio, a small community station set up in Lincoln University. They apologised for not having live coverage due to the station being closed due to the lockdown. Yet, they were able to record 20-minute interviews with professors in the US, political commentators in Washington and talk to American Studies students, who were watching the election. They returned to get their thoughts in the aftermath of the election one week on.
Bradford Community Broadcasting schedules the current affairs programme ‘Democracy Now!’ each day. This is a syndicated programme based in New York and has proved to be invaluable in covering the pandemic and the lead up to the election. Its coverage of voting and the aftermath of the election is helped by access to big names linked to social commentary and research, and the hour-long programme is a valuable resource into what life is like in America using first-hand accounts.
ITV News, 6 January 2021, with reporter Robert Moore at the Capitol
Finally, on November 7, Joe Biden was declared the winner. Again, TV coverage of the result was archived from the same sources. At this point the 24-hour coverage from CNN was halted and regular recordings of CNN Newsroom would report on the situation from then on.
Of course, that was not the end of the matter. President Trump issued lawsuits to recount or reject votes where he claimed that the voting had been illegal and refused to concede. His chief lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, held a bizarre press conference at the parking lot of the ‘Four Seasons Total Landscaping’ store in Philadelphia, a business located near a sex shop and a crematorium. Coverage of that was not covered live by CNN, but was by Sky News, with an amused Adam Boulton puzzling over the peculiar location.
With President Trump still refusing to accept his defeat, continually claiming that it was a fraudulent election, Georgia had its state runoff in early January. A run-off election was called because no candidate in the Senate election had enough votes to clear the state mandated percentage for a clear win. This meant that with two Senate seats at stake, and the US Senate majority for the Republican Party at risk, more campaigning by the two parties began again. All major rallies and speeches were again captured from CNN, TRT World, BBC, ITV and Sky. The election day itself was captured in full via CNN. With the lead changing hands throughout the night, it was a tense affair. Finally, both seats were won by the Democrats, meaning that they would now hold the majority in the Senate.
But this was not the end of the matter. One month later, America was rocked by an event that shook its democracy to its foundations. With the College Electoral Vote due to be ratified by Congress on the 6 January 2021, President Trump held a rally in Washington, where he and several key speakers once more condemned the validity of the election and its outcome and incited his followers to take action. The speech by President Trump and coverage of the rally was again archived from CNN broadcasts and other news outlets around the world.
What followed next was unprecedented in American history. A large group of Trump supporters forced their way into the Capitol building in Washington DC as the Senate was in session. CNN was covering the Electoral Vote session and this coverage continued as the rioters entered the building. The world’s news networks soon started following the events live. Broadcast News has the coverage of CNN, BBC News, Sky, TRT World and Al Jazeera. ITV’s coverage was particularly enlightening, as their reporter, Robert Moore was able to talk to the protesters as they entered the building and even within it. Euronews covered the event from their studio, but their coverage included up to the minute reaction on social media from world leaders and senior politicians. The subsequent Impeachment of President Trump for a second time was also captured by CNN and all major news stations also covered the session in the Senate in depth.
The Inauguration of the new president happened without the out-going President in attendance. His final message as President was recorded for the archives, and full coverage of the Inauguration of Joe Biden taken from the coverage of CNN, BBC, ITV, Sky, TRT World and Al Jazeera. Kamela Harris becoming the first woman to become Vice President, and the first black person to achieve that office, also allowed some of the stations to reflect on the historic aspect of the day. Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet to perform at a presidential inauguration, reading her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’. The British Library has a direct connection with Amanda as she is a 2020 Eccles Fellow (one of the awards offered by the Eccles Centre for American Studies).
A huge amount of coverage of this historic chapter in American history is now archived as TV and radio coverage. With 2020 and 2021 being significant for a global pandemic, the US election could have been a sideshow. The material archived by Broadcast News and the National Radio Archive will show researchers in the future, just how extraordinary this moment in history was.
Neil McCowlen, Broadcast Recordings Curator
Broadcast News is available in all British Library reading rooms
06 May 2020
Ten years of Broadcast News
Ten years ago, at 22:00 on 6 May 2010, the polls closed. Five minutes earlier, because that is when the all-night news programmes began, we officially threw open the switches on the British Library’s Broadcast News service. The UK General Election felt like an appropriate start for what was an exciting new venture for the Library. We were going to create an archive of UK television and radio news broadcasts, recorded live.
ITV's election night coverage, 6-7 May 2010
The reasons for setting up Broadcast News (for that was what we ended up calling the service) were two-fold. Firstly, the British Library wanted to establish a distinctive moving image archive that would fill a gap in existing provision for researchers. News was an ideal choice. Although there were television news collections available to academic researchers, they were limited to selected programmes from the main terrestrial channels, and our goal was to preserve and provide access to a far wider range of news broadcasts.
Secondly, the Library needed to respond to a changing news world. Its vast newspaper collection was a bedrock of British research, but in a digital age the form of news was changing. A more inclusive approach was required, once which encompassed print and web, TV and radio.
We started cautiously. On that first day we recorded four programmes: the BBC One and ITV all-night-election broadcasts, Channel 4’s Alternative Election, and BBC Radio 4’s all-night coverage (radio being part of the Broadcast News plans as well). The following day we recorded 15 programmes, widening coverage to include CNN, Al Jazeera English and BBC World Service.
The Green Party's 'boy band' party election broadcast from 2015
Ten years on, and we now record from twenty-two channels, taking in around 30 hours of TV and 50 hours of radio each day. The total collection is just over 160,000 recordings, of which 102,000 are TV. We are recording television on a daily basis from Al Jazeera English, BBC One, BBC Scotland, BBC Two, BBC Four, BBC News, BBC Parliament, Channel 4, Channels 24 (Nigeria), CGTN (China), CNN (USA), Euronews (European Union), France 24, ITV1, NHK World (Japan), RT (Russia), Sky News, and our most recent addition, TRT World (Turkey). We record news programmes, documentaries, party political broadcasts, satirical news programmes, interviews, debates, news specials – anything that reflects the news in its broadest sense.
NHK World coverage of the Japanese tsunami, 11 March 2011
With programmes recorded from channels in America, China, France Japan, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia and Turkey, we have good international coverage, but strictly speaking they are all British news, which is why we record from them. Al-Jazeera English, CGTN, CNN, NHK World and the others each have offices in the UK, and are all licensed with Ofcom. That broader sense of what comprises British news is an important part of the Broadcast News mission.
Donald Trump is elected President of the United States, Sky News, 9 November 2016
Over those ten years we have built up an archive of extraordinary news events. The UK has had four general elections and three referendums (on changing the voting system, Scottish independence and Brexit). We have seen the ‘Arab Spring’, the UK riots of 2011, the Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012 and 2016, the Japanese tsunami, the death of Nelson Mandela, the Euro crisis, the rise and fall of Isis, the Syrian conflict, the era of Donald Trump, and now the coronavirus pandemic.
The latter story, ongoing of course, has demonstrated how television still governs our world of news. Newspapers (increasingly in digital form) and social media play their part, of course, but in a crisis we turn to television. It speaks to us individually yet seemingly connects us with everyone else. It is both public and private, live and yet composed. The social experience of television news, as well as its content, is why we archive it.
The first daily government update on Coronavirus, BBC One, 16 March 2020
However, these are also remarkable times for radio. Radio, particularly community radio, has come into its own during the coronavirus pandemic, bringing together information, entertainment and a reassuring, local voice. As part of the British Library’s Save our Sounds programme we have established a pilot off-air radio archiving pilot, which greatly extends the number of radio programmes we are able to capture. There will be more news on that particular venture in due course.
Broadcast News is normally available in the British Library’s St Pancras and Boston Spa reading rooms. These are closed for the time being. There is no online access to Broadcast News, for reasons of copyright, but records of the programmes we have recorded up to the middle of 2019 can be found on the Explore catalogue. But the archive continues, hour by hour, day by day, turning live news into permanent record of our extraordinary times.
21 May 2019
Help us make the news
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.
Details of the vacancy and how to apply can be found on the British Library's careers site. The deadline for applications is 23 June 2019.
16 December 2018
In two years’ time, it will be the four hundredth anniversary of the newspaper in this country. The first known newspaper in English, Corrant out of Italy, Germany, &c. was published on 2 December 1620, in Amsterdam. A year later, on 24 September 1621, the first newspaper was published in this country, the Corante, or, Newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France.
Corante, or, Newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France (September 1621), British Library
These newspapers survive at the British Library, and, looking at them, they are remarkably close to the newspapers of today. What we see is a sheet of paper: portable, foldable, shareable. There is a masthead with the title of the news publication. There is a date – strictly speaking, a date for the first story. There are stories, arranged in columns, with a shared currency. It gives a shape to the news, with the promise of more to follow.
The newspaper has been a remarkably successful publishing model, sustained in this country, after an unsteady start, for nearly 400 years. The newspaper and its prints variants flourished, with the inhibitions of censorship, taxation or regulation failing to halt their progress. The newspaper informed, entertained and helped define the nations and regions that it served.
The newspaper went largely unchallenged as a medium of news for nearly three hundred years. Certainly there were variations on the form, from periodicals to broadsides, and changes were brought about in size, illustration, distribution patterns and so forth, but essentially the news meant the newspaper.
Title image of a 1911 edition of Pathe’s Animated Gazette, British Pathe
That changed in June 1910, when a wholly new news form was published – the newsreel. One can argue over the significant date, for newsfilms of a kind preceded newsreels just as there were news sheets and other news publications before there were newspapers. But with Pathé’s Animated Gazette, issue one of which was shown in cinemas in June 1910 and weekly, then bi-weekly thereafter, something changed. This was news on a new medium, that not only communicated the news in a different way but had to be consumed differently, by an audience sitting in a cinema, unable to control the order of stories in which they appeared nor the time they might want to spend on each one.
The newsreel did another revolutionary thing. It invited the audience to widen its understanding of the news, even to have a measure of control over it. Owing to the complexities of film processing, newsreels could not be published daily. They were published bi-weekly, matching the common pattern of cinema attendance (i.e. most people were going to the cinema twice a week), and deliberately chose news stories which had featured in the newspapers previously. You had read the story, now you could see it in motion. You the audience could combine these media together to enrich your understanding of the news, if you so wished.
Newspaper owners were swift to react to this. In the USA, William Randolph Hearst rapidly bought into the newspaper market, creating Hearst-Selig News Pictorial in 1914. In the UK, Edward Hulton, owner of The Daily Sketch newspaper, bought the Topical Budget newsreel in 1919. Lord Beaverbrook of The Daily Express became co-owner of Pathé Gazette in the 1920s. Hulton and Beaverbrook wanted to own the totality of the news.
But the news was spreading, increasing audience power while making it much harder for the news barons to control every manifestation of the phenomenon of news. The BBC introduced news bulletins on 23 December 1922, under government licence. It lay outside any possible control of the newspapers (though originally the BBC was restricted to using news agency copy only), and swiftly challenged them through daily publication and command of the public space. Radio added a new dimension: live reporting, collapsing the time difference between news event and news consumption.
Radio also offered sound, of course, which the newsreels adopted around 1930. News could now be read, or seen, or listened to, and with each innovation the newspaper lost that much more of its claim to the totality of news, while audience power grew with the increase in choice.
BBC newsreader Kenneth Kendall, 1950s, BBC
Next came television. The first BBC television news programme, in January 1948, was a newsreel in form and name – Television Newsreel, while the new medium owed much in its early years to its parent medium, radio. As with radio in the UK, it originally owed its existence to government licence, and added to the trump cards of frequency, domestic space and live reporting the particular power of the newsreader.
News now had a human face, that spoke to you the viewer as an individual as well as to the mass. It added to that sense of reassurance that news publications existed to provide. Danger and calamity were what was happening to other people. The fact that you were there to read the news, or to have it read to you, implied that you were safe.
Then came news on the web. Traditional news organisations were extraordinarily slow to grasp the implications of the Internet. Confident in their well-established models, in the audiences that were assumed to be loyal to them, and in the advertising revenue that sustained them, they were profoundly shocked – and continue to be shocked – by this mode of distribution and communication which upturned their every expectation. A fierce rearguard action is being fought, defending traditional newspaper values against the freewheeling digital behemoths Facebook and Google, but the balance of power has shifted irrevocably.
News stories now filter through a myriad of networks; the advertising money has moved to search; choice has expanded beyond any reckoning; the timetables around which had traditionally structured itself have gone; and the audience has become all powerful. The traditional news world has been disaggregated, and we are all – producers, readers, advertisers, regulators, legislators – trying to work out how to put the pieces back together again. All that is certain is that the Internet makes the news, because it has become the lifeline on which all news production and news communication now depend.
News in the UK has changed greatly over the past 100 years, in medium, range, extent and ownership. Today much of the understanding on which news has been based, the contract between publisher and reader, is being challenged. Political upheaval combined with the mushrooming of digital outlets, combined with growing audience power on what is accepted as news, has made collecting the news all the more challenging – and imperative. What is the news now, and how do we collect it?
The British Library, until recently, has not collected the news – it has collected newspapers. As part of its function as the national research library, and as an outcome of Legal Deposit legislation, the Library (or the British Museum before it) has had the power since 1869 to request one copy of every newspaper issue published in the UK or Ireland. Just the one edition is taken where there are multiple editions of a title, usually the latest edition.
Between roughly 1822 and 1869 copies of newspapers were supposed to be sent to the Stamp Office for reasons of taxation, and these copies subsequently made their way to the British Museum. Consequently the collection is comprehensive from 1869 onwards, and nearly so for 1822 to 1869, though comprehensive is, in our case, a relative term.
Prior to 1820, the Library has been dependent on acquisitions and donations, mostly notably the newspapers, news sheets and news books from the Civil War period collected by bookseller George Thomason, and the Burney Collection of newspapers 1603-1818, collected by the Reverend Charles Burney. As a result of Legal Deposit, donation and acquisition, the collection amounts to some 60 million issues, or 450 million pages, though that is a figure derived from counting the number of volumes held, and in truth no one can really say exactly how many newspapers the British Library holds.
New newspapers received under Legal Deposit awaiting processing at British Library, Boston Spa
We do know how many are coming in, however – currently we take in 1,200 titles every week – that is, a combination of dailies and weeklies received under Legal Deposit. The figure is down from the 1,400 or so we were taking in only a couple of years ago, but, for the time being at least, this is remains a country with a remarkable appetite for newspapers.
Around a third of the titles in the collection are from overseas. Relatively few foreign newspapers are now collected, owing to storage issues and the availability of electronic newspaper resources, but historically there was collecting from many countries, notably from Empire and then Commonwealth countries which were received through colonial copyright deposit.
But what of the other news media? There is no Legal Deposit for sound or moving image in the UK. The Library incorporated the National Sound Archive in 1983, but its collection has been created through acquisition, special arrangements with publishers, off-air recordings and the recording of live performances and interviews by the Library itself. News, until recently, was not part of its collecting remit, though its radio collections did include some news broadcasts.
For television, the British Library deferred to the British Film Institute (BFI), which has collected the medium selectively since the late 1950s. The Broadcasting Act of 1990 brought in statutory provision for a national television archive, paid for by the television companies, driven by off-air recordings of programmes as they were broadcast. This archive is maintained by the BFI, and since the mid-80s it has been recording on a daily basis television news programmes from the main terrestrial channels.
In 2010 the British Library re-introduced off-air recording, taking advantage of an exception in UK copyright which enabled it to record broadcast programmes for the purposes of maintaining an archive. It had previously recorded radio and TV programmes up to 2000, mostly on musical themes. Now the emphasis was on news. This was driven by a wish for the Library to build up its moving image capability, and in response to a gap in archival provision. Although the BFI was recording the main terrestrial television news programmes, most news programmes from the 24-hour news channels were not being archived by any public body. There was an opportunity to become a television news specialist, adding radio news as well to the mix, to provide a service to researchers not available elsewhere. It was also recognition that television and radio news made for a logical extension of the Library’s news collection. Newspapers were no longer enough.
In 2013 the Non-Print Legal Deposit Act was passed, permitting the British Library, in partnership with the other Legal Deposit libraries of the UK and Ireland, to collect electronic publications, including websites, the same as for print. This has been a complex and gigantic undertaking, with the number of files now archived running into the billions, dwarfing in size the Library’s physical collection.
Most of the websites on the UK Legal Deposit web archive are captured once a year. That is, a snapshot record of a website is made as it appears at one point in time, with all pages linked to a root URL. This is not suitable for news, where so much can disappear quickly, and where there is a research imperative to see the news as it was made available, at regular points in time. We need web news to be archived like print newspapers, because print newspapers have established the model. So, from 2014, we have been capturing news websites on a regular basis, usually weekly, but daily for the national daily newspaper sites and news broadcaster sites.
It has taken a while to build up, but we are currently capturing some 2,000 web news titles on a regular basis, in collaboration with the other Legal Deposit libraries. This has included perhaps the most radical shift yet in our news collecting strategy, because as well as archiving the websites of the recognised news publications, around half of what we are archiving has been hyperlocal news sites. Hyperlocalism, a local publishing movement which began in the USA and has taken off greatly in the UK in the past four years, means that anyone can be a news publisher. Anyone with a bee in their bonnet or a feeling that the news in their street is being overlooked can sign up for free to a Wordpress site, give it a newsy title, and start publishing. And, if the British Library gets to hear of them, we will start archiving them. We do not discriminate.
A Little Bit of Stone, hyperlocal news site for Stone, Staffordshire, established in 2010
There is no definitive list of hyperlocal sites in the UK (though there are two directories that list many: Local List, and Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism’s directory of hyperlocals). Nor is there any comprehensive listing available of standard UK news websites. Consequently we do not know what percentage of the UK’s news websites we are archiving, though we are confident at least that it is a good majority.
There are many problems with the archiving of web news, however. Firstly, there is the sheer vastness of the web. No one can say what the true size is of a phenomenon which is in a continual process of change, but in a recent talk web archivist Ed Summers calculates that the Internet Archive, which said in 2016 that it has saved 510 billion web captures, might by this have collected just 0.39% of the web. We can see something of the mania of trying to capture the ever-changing web in the Internet Archive’s hourly captures of the dailymail.co.uk (known as Mail Online in the UK). It is too much to comprehend, certainly too much to archive. The comprehensive archive of what is published can no longer exist.
Internet Archive captures of dailymail.co.uk, highlighting one day’s captures for 26 March 2018
Secondly, owing to purely technical reasons, the Library is not always able to capture the audio and video elements of news sites, and even if it can capture them it is not always able to play back the results. Next, there used to be a simple correlation between a printed newspaper and the website that shared its name, and often its content. Increasingly the two are diverging, not just in content, but in title and scope. Single websites increasingly represent several regional newspapers where costs need to be cut. Newspapers are also being replaced by web versions, most prominently The Independent, which exists no longer in print but continues its digital existence as a facsimile version of the print title, as well as the independent.co.uk website and the indy100 spin-off site.
A few years ago, many newspapers made a PDF of their newspaper available on the website, but now a far more complicated picture exists, with a combination of digital outputs and many newspapers turning to aggregators such as PageSuite to provide digital access for them. Collecting newspapers digitally, which the Library does not currently do but is investigating, will not be a simple case of matching like for like. Whatever future collecting model the Library may pursue is bound to include a measure of print newspapers, not least because we will want to continue to collect a core of newspapers as print out of respect for a 400-year-old medium, for as long as there continue to be print newspapers. But one thing is certain – the world of digital news is different to that of physical news, and we will have to obey the rules of digital.
The current collection comprises the following: 60 million newspapers, 2,000 websites captured a total of 400,000 times, 85,000 television news programmes and 40,000 radio news programmes. Each week we take in 3,500 UK news publications of one kind or another. The news publications are collected through a combination of Legal Deposit, copyright exception and licence.
All of this is expressed in the key principles underpinning our news content strategy:
- The Library’s news offering incorporates the full range of news media – newspapers, news websites, television news, radio news, and other media
- The Library's news content comprises primarily news most relevant to UK users, meaning news produced in the UK or which has had an impact on the UK
- The Library also collects or connects to selected overseas newspapers, now primarily on microfilm or digital, according to availability and with focus on areas of research interest
- The content strategy for news media is underpinned by Legal Deposit collecting, both print and non-print, but includes audiovisual media that lie outside Legal Deposit
The challenge for the Library will be how to bring these different news media together. That is why our news strategy focusses strongly on data. Commonalities of data – particularly date, time and place – will be essential for linking together different news stories. Other libraries are already experimenting with this, the Royal Danish Library for example, with its Mediestream service that brings together newspapers, television and radio.
To achieve such integration it will be essential to link up not only by date but keyword. We already capture subtitles for television news programmes where these are available; we are now experimenting with speech-to-text transcriptions of radio programmes. We will eventually be able to offer full text searching across each of the news media. The quality of such transcriptions will vary according to source, so an essential next step will be to extract entities, or themes, from these transcripts, using a shared set of terms.
So I will be able to aske of a future resource discovery system, show me everything you have relating to Brexit between 1st and 31st December 2018, and there will be there newspaper stories, the television news stories, the radio stories and the web stories, all of them indexed automatically, as well as books, papers or other media produced at that time which will enrich the picture of what the news was on this one topic at that particular time. All those objects must be born digital or to have been digitised, so our collecting policy must be digital.
There are other news media. The Library is looking at podcasts, which certainly fall under its sound and news collecting remits, not least because all the major newspaper titles and news broadcasters are producing podcasts. No commitment has been made as yet, but we have started capturing some sample news-based podcasts.
The area of current news that we get asked about most is social media. We are not archiving Twitter, firstly because it is an American company and so falls outside our UK web archiving remit. The Library of Congress took on the task of archiving Twitter, though a year ago it announced that the task was proving too great and that it would only be archiving Twitter selectively from now on. The British Library archives some Twitter feeds where these have a British focus, a number of which are news-related, but it is a tiny drop in a vast ocean.
Twitter highlights the challenge we now face in trying to collect the news. It is not just about the vast scale of the archives, but about their meaning. As I wrote earlier this year:
The archiving of Twitter is a logical impossibility. There is no single Twitter out there that might be consulted equally by any of us. There are over 300 million Twitters in existence. Each person signed up to the service selects who they will follow and what topics interest them. No one person sees the same Twitter as the next. It is universal and absolutely personal at the same time, which is the key to its particular power. No archive can replicate this, because it must convert the subjective into the objective.
The subjectivity or personalisation of news is going to present us with the greatest collecting challenge. If everyone sees the news differently, how do we collect it? Once it was understood that a news object such as a newspaper was read in the same way by the same set of people for whom it was intended, usually defined by geographical location or political persuasion. But does that apply in a wholly digital world?
Those who once saw themselves as newspaper publishers now view themselves as news publishers. News is gathered and composed digitally, and then transmitted through a variety of media, one of which - for the time being - remains the print newspaper. To get at the heart of news, to collect it fully, one might want to collect not the published forms but the individual digital elements and the content management systems that hold them. Then one could recreate the news in the various forms in which it was be distributed at any given point in time – as print, website, mobile and so on. Collecting news as publications has been fine for 1620 through to, maybe 2020. But what after then?
Inside the British Library’s National Newspaper Building, Boston Spa
John Carey, in his introduction to the Faber Book of Reportage, makes an intriguing argument about the nature of news. Firstly, he says:
The advent of mass communications represents the greatest change in human consciousness that has taken place in recorded history. The development, within a few decades, from a situation where most of the inhabitants of the globe would have no day-to-day knowledge of or curiosity about how most of the others were faring, to a situation where the ordinary person’s mental space is filled (and must be filled daily or hourly, unless a feeling of disorientation is to ensue) with accurate reports about the doings of complete strangers, represents a revolution in mental activity which is incalculable in its effects.
Carey considers what it was in the mindset of pre-communication age humans that reportage replaced, and he suggests that the answer is religion. He continues:
Religion was the permanent backdrop to [man’s] existence, as reportage is for his modern counterpart. Reportage supplies modern man with a constant and reassuring sense of events going on beyond his immediate horizon … Reportage provides modern man, too, with a release from his trivial routines, and a habitual daily illusion of communication with a reality greater than himself … When we view reportage as the natural successor to religion, it helps us to understand why it should be so profoundly taken up with the subject of death … Reportage, taking religion’s place, endlessly feeds it reader with accounts of the deaths of other people, and therefore places him continually in the position of a survivor … [R]eportage, like religion, gives the individual a comforting sense of his own immortality.
There is plenty to challenge in Carey’s suggestion of reportage as being the natural successor to religion. There are different religions out there, and religion did not disappear with the emergence of public news forms. He also blends mass communications, reportage and news, though they are not the same as one another. But his theory is richly suggestive. One thinks of John Donne, writing in 1611 in his poem ‘An Anatomy of the World – The First Anniversary’ of changing ideas of the universe, “'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone / All just supply, and all relation”. Ten years later the country’s first newspaper would appear.
Carey’s insight also provides an interesting mechanism for considering the nature of news today.
Published, public news has fed curiosity, helped to solidify our sense of belonging, and has provide a sense of reassurance. It has profoundly influenced our sense of time. The question is whether our new world of news will continue to do the same. News is a constant, but the forms in which it is transmitted must change, and they could be in the process of changing quite radically. The trust in the definable news publication to tell us who we are by relaying what we want to know, could be disappearing. The need for assurance will remain, however, so what will provide it? The increase in the personalisation of news, the logical extension of which is to make everyone their own news editor, hardly seems a recipe for the sort of assurance that leads to a settled society.
Or maybe we are entering a post-news era, with a changed sense of reality, an age without reassurance. My personal definition of news is that it is “information of current interest for a specific audience”. It’s a flexible construction, but what happens when I no longer feel certain to what audience I belong? Maybe an age of supreme individuality is underway, in which I no longer feel a part of any audience, or else there are so many audiences to which I could be said to belong that the concept becomes meaningless. It is a world lived in a continuous now, where the past is losing its meaning, and where everyone thinks themselves immortal, now. That could be the end logic of an entirely interconnected world.
Despite the alarmist cries from some quarters about disinformation and the undermining of the news media as we have known them, these remain fringe concerns. The vast majority of people trust the established news media. They like their local newspaper, or at least the idea of there being one. They watch the same TV news programmes in their usual slots, they listen to the familiar radio news summaries. The urge for local identity is driving our politics, so there is little evidence for saying that we no longer know who we are or where we belong. We still need the reassurance of news. The post-news era is still some way off. Perhaps it will always be some way off.
Meanwhile the British Library’s collecting policy must be to collect what it can, by the mechanisms that are available to it. It wants to collect across the different news media, through a combination of Legal Deposit, copyright exception and licence, augmenting what is still its core news collection, newspapers. Everything must be built around the newspaper, for the time being. Our revised news content strategy, currently in development, has the subtitle, “moving from a newspaper collection to a news collection”. It sounds reasonable enough. We must do what we must. But the world of news may be moving beyond us; beyond the British Library, or any of us.
This a shortened version of a talk I gave at the Media History Seminar, Senate House, on 4 December 2018. A PDF copy of the full text, with footnotes, is available here.
15 June 2015
UK General Election 2015 - the broadcast archive
The UK General Election of 2015 was decided by television. Despite the ardent advocacy of some newspapers, and for all the claims being made about it being a social media election, television dominated perceptions, debates and the presentation of policies. A Panelbase survey of the UK audience said that 62% found TV coverage had been the most influential in informing them about the general election and the policies of the political parties, far more than newspapers at 25%, websites at 17% (mostly the BBC news website), radio at 14%, speaking to family and friends at 14%, and only 11% social media (primarily Facebook). 38% of the audience said they were influenced by the broadcast debates, 23% by TV news coverage and 10% by party political broadcasts.
James Graham’s The Vote, broadcast on More4 on election night 7 May 2015, with Judi Dench, Catherine Tate, Timothy West and Mark Gatiss
It is important therefore that to have an archive of what was broadcast on television over the general election period. The British Library's Broadcast News service usually takes in around 30 hours of TV news and 18 hours of radio news each day, from 22 channels. We expanded this significantly to capture every debate, party political broadcast, manifesto launch, campaign event, press conference, interview, leader profile and documentary that we could, plus the full election night broadcasts of each of the main broadcasters (including those from BBC Scotland, BBC Northern Ireland, BBC Wales and STV), as well as coverage given to the election from CNN, France 24, Al Jazeera English and RT (Russia Today). We also recorded the relevant TV dramas (Coalition, The Vote) and comedies (Ballot Monkeys, Newzoids, Have I Got News for You etc).
From RT's general election night coverage
Overall, between 26 March (the date of the first of the TV debates) and 8 May 2015, we recorded 1,775 television and radio news programmes. Not all touched on the election, but most did, and it makes for compelling evidence for how much energy and calculation went into using television as the forum for a national debate.
All of these recordings are available via the British Library's Broadcast News service, accessible at our St Pancras (London) and Boston Spa (Yorkshire) sites. We're also making available here a spreadsheet listing every programme we recorded between 26 March and 8 May. They are listed by date, medium, channel, type of programme, title, description and duration, and the data can be sorted by anyone interested to undertake some preliminary analysis or simply to see in one list which party political broadcasts were recorded.
Download Recordings 2015_general election
The programmes are also listed on a new Special Collections page on the Broadcast News site, with links to all the main recordings. Please note that these general election recordings do not as yet appear on the British Library's main Explore catalogue (but will do eventually).
We would be interested to hear from any researchers using this archive. Do get in touch via email@example.com.
06 May 2015
Five years of Broadcast News
Five years ago to this day, at 21:55, we threw on the switches for the first official television and radio news recordings for our Broadcast news service. It was, of course, the day of the General Election, and we decided to kick off our service the moment the polls closed - or five minutes beforehand, to be precise, as that it when the all-night news programmes began.
BBC1's election night broadcast, 6 May 2010
Things were simpler then. We had only just acquired the system for recording TV and radio programmes off-air, and there were a few teething troubles. So we started cautiously, and recorded just four programmes on that first day - the BBC 1, BBc Radio 4 and ITV election broadcasts, and Channel 4's Alternative Election. the following day we boldly upped the ante to record 15 programmes, adding broadcasts from the channels BBC News, World Service, Al Jazeera English and CNN.
ITV's election night broadcast, 6 May 2010
Five years on, and things have grown. For 6 May 2015 we will be recording some fifty programmes from twenty-two channels: BBc1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, BBC 4, BBC News, BBC Parliament, Al Jazeera English, RT, CNN, Bloomberg, CCTV, Sky News, France 24, talkSport, BBc Radio 5 Live, BBC World Service, LBC, BBcCRadio 1, BBC London, BBC 1 Scotland and STV. We won't know until a day or two later how many programmes we've recorded, because we catch up on some unscheduled programmes after broadcast (such as the many General Election interviews and campaign events currently popping up on BBC Parliament), but it will amount to some 50 hours of TV and radio recorded for that day.
Channel 4's Alternative Election, 6 May 2010
Over the five years we have recorded some 45,700 television programmes and 12,100 radio programmes. We record mainly news programmes, though we interpret news quite broadly and include current affairs, interviews, documentaries, live broadcasts and so on. The top 10 most recorded channels are BBc 1 (6,410 programmes), BBC Radio 4 (6,144), ITV1 (5.604), BBC News (4,865), Sky News (3,457), Russia Today/RT (3,153), NHK world (2,995), CCTV [China] (2,918), BBC World Service (2,647) and Al Jazeera English (2,552).
All of the programmes are available on any Library terminal at our St Pancras and Boston Spa sites. For reasons of copyright we cannot make the programmes available online. You can find records of what we have on Broadcast News on the Explore catalogue, but for the most up-to-date records and the fullest service - including word-searchability of programme subtitles - it is best to go to the Broadcast News site, which you can find under the Sound and Moving Image services page on any Library terminal, or just look for http://videoserver.bl.uk (please note, this link only works if you are located at one of our sites and working from a British Library terminal).
And here's to the next five years of news.
02 October 2014
Our television and radio news recording service, Broadcast News, has been busy over the past two months recording extra programmes on the Scottish independence referendum. Usually Broadcast News takes in some 60 hours of programmes per day (40 TV, 20 radio) from across 22 channels available via Freeview or Freesat. We record the same programmes at the same times each day, to provide a consistent research service. But when there are news specials, breaking news programmes or major news stories that spill over the schedules, then we record more.
The Big, Big Debate, BBC1 tx 11 September 2014
For the Scottish referendum we added recordings from two further channels, BBC One Scotland and STV, for most of August through to the end of September. So, as well as the standard TV and radio news programmes from BBC, ITV, Sky, Channel 4, Al Jazeera, CNN, LBC and others, we recorded BBC one Scotland's Reporting Scotland and Kevin Bridges: Live at the Referendum, STV's STV News at Six and Scotland Tonight, BBC Parliament's Scotland 2014 and Reporting Scotland, special programmes such as the Salmond/Darling dates, referendum broadcasts from the Yes and No campaigns, Radio's 1's Big Conversation: Scotland Decides (16 Sep), STV's Scotland Decides - The Facebook Debate (12 Sep), BBC 1's The Big Big Debate (11 Sep), and several more.
The heaviest extra recording activity was inevitably over 18 September (the day of the referendum) and the the results and aftermath the following day. BBC TV broadcast two through-the-night programmes entitled Scotland Decides: one hosted by Hugh Edwards for BBC1 and one for BBC Scotland hosted by Glenn Campbell. Bernard Ponsonby and Aasmah Mir hosted ITV/STV's coverage, also named Scotland Decides. Sky News went with Decision Time Scotland, hosted by Adam Boulton, Kay Burley and Niall Paterson. For radio, BBC Radio 4 went through the night with Scotland Decides, hosted by James Naughtie and Rachel Burden, while BBC World Service had a special edition of its The Newsroom programme.
Not watched by so many people in the UK, but fascinating for their different perspectives, were the special programmes produced by France 24, RT (Russia Today) and CNN, the latter two broadcasting coverage throughout the night and early morning, evidence of the huge interest the referendum generated worldwide. Steering clear of value judgments, it was nevertheless most intriguing to see how international opinion ranged from disbelief that Scotland would ever consider breaking away from the United Kingdom, to incredulity that it would ever consider not doing so having been given the opportunity. They are among the most interesting programmes from referendum night, and likely to be of particular value to future researchers.
The result itself brought about a mixture of triumph, disappointment, and even a sense of anticlimax, as we know. Sally Magnusson hosted BBC One Scotland programmes which analysed the results overthe morning and afternoon of September 19th, STV had John MacKay and Andrea Brymer hosting Scotland This Morning: How the Nation Voted. And then gradually the dust settled, the story dropped from the news agenda, and we returned to the regular round of news recordings, carrying on with our BBC One Scotland and STV recordings to the end of September. Now normality reigns, until the next drama unfolds.
All of the Scottish referendum programmes that we recorded are available to view (or listen to) at the British Library's St Pancras and Boston Spa sites via the instant access Broadcast News service.
02 July 2014
Why is this lying bastard lying to me?
Jeremy Paxman, who recently hosted the BBC's Newsnight for the last time, has cited the words attributed to Times foreign correspondent Louis Heren that make up the title of this post as inspiration for his method as an interviewer. It says a great deal about the news interview as it is now understood, and the function of the news producer. News may in part be about holding those in power to account, but should its starting point be the belief that its subjects are liars? How did the news interview become so inquisitorial, and will it remain so?
Jeremy Paxman interviewing Michael Howard, Newsnight, tx. 13 May 1997
It is interesting that in the same week Paxman stood down, with many commentators discussing his contribution to the art of interviewing, some of the first ever filmed interviews were honoured with an inscription on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register. The Hepworth Cinema Interviews are a series of 36 filmed interviews with UK public figures (Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Bonar Law and others) made by film producer Cecil Hepworth in 1916. The subjects were invited to give comments on the war and what would follow after it. This was the era of silent films, so the subjects mouth their answers to the camera, with their words being reproduced through intertitles. There is no onscreen interviewer - these are just statements made to the camera. Rather than being any sort of radical development, they are interviews in the tradition of nineteenth century newspaper interviews - pronouncements from the elite, with the media serving as the willing vehicles for such pronouncements.
Lloyd George's words as intertitles from the Hepworth Cinema Interviews, courtesy of National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales
Interviews in newspapers are generally accepted to have appeared in the USA in the 1860s and in the UK in the 1880s, where they were often viewed - often with suspicion - as an American innovation. The American journalist James Gordon Bennett is credited in some quarters with having 'invented' the newspaper interview in 1836 with his verbatim transcript of a conversation he allegedly had with Rosina Townsend, a witness in the trial of the murderer of a New York prostitute Helen Jewett, which was published in the New York Herald. Other cite the interview conducted by Horace Greeley with Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon religion, and published in the New York Daily Tribune of 20 August 1859 as being the first interview as we would now recognise it.
Part of Horace Greeley's interview with Brigham Young, New York Daily Tribune, 20 August 1859, p. 5, from Chronicling America
But newspaper interviews were not 'invented' - they grew out particular changes to the medium. The process of interviewing is as old as journalism itself, so one can trace it back to the 17th century at least. Journalists find the information they require often by asking someone questions, and then using the replies they receive as the substance of their report. That is interviewing, and Daniel Defoe employed it as a news reporter for his Weekly Review much as today's journalists do 400 years later. Interviewing is integral to how news is understood - see how often news readers on TV and radio ask questions of reporters, experts and other interviewees, extracting what we need to know through that dialogue.
The interview as a formal newspaper feature emerged in the mid-19th century, as newspapers turned from being vehicles for partisan standpoints to broadly factual reporting. This included the use of direct quotation. The evidence became all the more important, and what better evidence could there be than the words spoken by the subjects themselves, in answer to the questions put by trustworthy journalists? Of course, it was also part of that process by which "news gathering turned into news making", as Daniel Boorstin writes in The Image, where he labels the interview as one of his 'pseudo-events' - events artificially created in order that they may be reported. The interview is not what happened but rather what the media has caused to happen.
Interview with Lily Langtry (in which she complains about being interviewed so often), Pall Mall Gazette, 29 October 1892 p. 3. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
However, the nineteenth century newspaper interview was a far cry from the investigative and combative interviews of today. The interviews that British journalists such as William Howard Russell (The Times), George Augustus Sala (Daily Telegraph) and W.T. Stead (Pall Mall Gazette) produced were the pronouncements of the great and the celebrated who had reason to use the press for self-promotion. Stead undoubtedly helped establish the interview as a standard newspaper device by his enthusiastic adoption of the form, part of the 'New Journalism' revolution of the 1880s which placed great emphasis on the personal, through devices such as the interview. As well as his own interviews with figures such as Tsar Alexander III and Pope Leo XIII, Stead employed Hulda Friederichs as 'chief interviewer' at the Pall Mall Gazette from 1882 (women journalists were considered to have a particular aptitude for interviewing). Unfortunately interviewers are seldom named in newspapers from this period, making it difficult to trace the work of particular reporters.
The subjects of late nineteenth century newspaper interviews give their opinion on the experience in this piece from Pall Mall Gazette, 31 December 1890, p. 3. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Interviews in newspapers in the late 19th century tended towards celebrities from the world of entertainment. Politicians were wary of the practice, and saw little advantage in indulging requests to give interviews, when what they had to say could be heard on public platforms or read in Hansard. As A.J. Balfour says in the quote above, "this channel of communication must be rarely required by English politicians considering the great increase in platform speaking which has taken place during the last twenty years." Instead the interview became primarily the feature of journals such as the 'Illustrated Interviews' in George Newnes' Strand Magazine - light reading for those who wanted some personal insights into the lives of the famous. Interviews in newspapers were to become more searching as the new century began, particularly in America, but it would be new technologies that would help transform them.
The first sound interview (probably). Interview by Phonograph with Edison agent Colonel George Gouraud, as recorded by the Pall Mall Gazette, 24 July 1888, p. 1. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
A startlingly early intimation of how thing could change occured in July 1888 when the UK agent for Thomas Edison's Phonograph sound recording machine was 'interviewed' by the Pall Mall Gazette, boasting of how a sound recording would provide a 'faithful report of the conversation' (intimating that not all newspaper interviews were so faithful to the words spoken). This was in all probablity the first sound interview, but although the Phonograph and later technologies such as the Dictaphone were used to record famous voices and as dictation devices in the early 1900s, it would be decades before they were adopted for news reporting.
Colonel Gouraud (left) being interviewed by an unidentified journalist from the Pall Mall Gazette, with the Phonograph recording the meeting, July 1888. From British Library Sound Archive collection.
Projected film appeared in 1896, but it proved a medium ill-suited to interviews. Attempts were rare and seldom successful, even after films gained sound in the late 1920s, with the few efforts from the cinema newsreels being short statements delivered in stilted fashion that offered little advance on the Hepworth interviews of 1916. What gave the news interview new life was radio, which began in the early 1920s. This gave the interview greater credibility, through the chance it gave the public to hear the subject's voice, through the live nature of radio, and because the interviewer's questions gave the sense of a process of interrogation, a driving towards the truth. BBC radio interviews of the 1920s-50s were seldom adversarial, being more in the way of civilised conversations, but the greater power had now been offered to the public to judge what was delivered to them, be it the words spoken or the ways in which those words were spoken.
It took live television to make the news interview come into its own, a process not for delivering statements but instead a contest for the truth.
Leslie Mitchell interviewing Anthony Eden for a Conservative party political broadcast, BBC tx. 16 October 1951. From University of Sheffield's Department of Journalism Studies' YouTube channel
Television's first news-related interviews were a disappointment. The BBC's Leslie Mitchell's pre-planned interview with prime minister Anthony Eden for a Conservative party election broadcast in 1951 has become notorious for its stilted obsequiousness, even if it was viewed as a technical success at the time. Mitchell asks:
Good evening. I would just like to say that, as an interviewer, and as I what I hope you will believe to be an unbiased member of the electorate, I'm most grateful to Mr Anthony Eden for inviting me to cross-question him on the present political issues ... Well now, Mr Eden, with your very considerable experience of foreign affairs, it's quite obvious that I should start by asking you something about the international situation today, or perhaps you would prefer to talk about home. Which is it to be?
Supine as this was, it did show at least an understanding of how television was ideally suited to the question-and-answer format, counterbalancing formality with informality. The first step on the road from here to Paxman came in 1955, when Robin Day brought a new forthrightness to television interviewing at ITN, two notable highlights being his sharp questioning of President Nasser in 1955 and his interview with prime minister Harold Macmillan in 1958, where what might now seem a fairly tame question asking about criticism that had been made of the foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd was seen by some as shockingly intrusive, not least because you could see Macmillan thinking about his answer before delivering it. The interview was letting the viewer be the judge, exposing what might be the truth between the lines.
The adversarial quality of the television news interview grew throughout the 60s and 70s, in tandem with the emergence of a less deferential, more determinedly democratic society. Television was becoming the forum for public debate. The medium delighted in getting the upper hand, as demonstrated by David Frost's interrogation of the fraudster Emil Savundra and the revelations that he coaxed out of Richard Nixon. The goal of the interview came to be the revelation of the truth, hoping by a process of seeking out weak points to lead the subject into revealing something they would rather not have made public. The interviewee was no longer someone who had deigned to share some selected information with us all. They were now lying bastards, and their lies had to be exposed.
Interviews on radio likewise became less polite and increasingly forensic. BBC programmes launched in late 1960s/early 70s such as The World at One, Analysis and It's Your Line (a programme hosted by Robin Day, in which the public phoned in questions to ask of the interviewee) made the interview central to a process of burrowing beneath the headlines to uncover what was really happening. The Today programme moved away from its cosy beginnings to become the programme opinion makers had to listen to and had to appear on. This was particularly on account of presenter Brian Redhead's refusal to doff his hat to anyone in power, as in his famous response (in a 1987 interview) to Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson accusing him of bias through being a supporter of the Labour party:
Do you think we should have a one-minute silence now in this interview, one for you to apologise for daring to suggest that you know how I vote, and secondly perhaps in memory of monetarism, which you've now discarded?
Politicians accountable to an electorate had little choice but to appear before the cameras and microphones, but as television became bolder so they responded through increasingly sophisticated media training. The art of not answering, or of turning the interview to your advantage arose. Margaret Thatcher was well trained in interviewing techniques and image management, through the guidance of former TV producer Gordon Reece, but it was the Labour government of 1997 that turned control of message into an artform (guided by another former TV producer, Peter Mandelson).
A power game arose between politicians and the news media over the communication and interpretation of the message, with the interview as the battleground. There was an increased desire on the part of the media to use the interview to extract revelations, matched by an increased determination from their subjects to reveal no more than they had been instructed to reveal. Sharp interviewers such as Paxman for Newsnight and John Humphrys for Today gained praise for their tough questioning and refusal to be hoodwinked, but the praise was sometimes more for the stance than any illumination obtained about the subject discussed. Paxman's celebrated 1997 interview with Michael Howard in which the interviewer asked the same question twelve times did little to inform its audience, for whom the point that the subject was not going to answer the question could have been made after two or three attempts.
Jon Snow and Alastair Campbell, Channel 4 News tx. 27 June 2003
Interviews turned into theatre, perhaps most famously when Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's Director of Communications, turned up unannounced at Channel 4 News on 27 June 2003 and was interviewed by Jon Snow on the Iraq 'dodgy dossier'. The result was a tour de force on both sides, a great interview of sorts but primarily a startling display of political passion. Politicians understandably prefer softer rides - Margaret Thatcher's interviewer of choice was Radio 2's Jimmy Young, for example. Equally, one of the marks of a successful politician has come to be how well they can deal with the toughest interviews. It is a trial of strength, as much as anything.
Interviews on television and radio flourish on non-news programmes of course. From Face to Face to Parkinson, to Piers Morgan's Life Stories there has been a consistent focus on celebrity and the personal revelation, teased out through a bonding between interviewer and subject. Interviews continue to be a mainstay of newspapers, or their associated magazines, where some of the dangers inherent in a live interview are lost and both sides have greater control over what is said. The interviewee will have their press adviser by their side, determining what can or cannot be covered; the interviewer can fill out the verbal testimony with background impressions, barbed or otherwise. Both sides have control, though it is still a battlefield, a game of attack and defence.
HARDtalk interviews, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/n13xtmdc/clips
A good example of the news interview programme of today is the BBC World series HARDtalk, first broadcast in 1997 with Tim Sebastian as the interviewer and now Stephen Sackur asking the questions, is a model of how two intelligent minds, with good preparation, can discuss issues of the day in a form that is a genuine questing for the truth. This is not news manufactured as pseudo-event - it is rational and vital extension of what is news. Nor is it a question of exposing liars (usually) - it is using the time-honoured process of question and answer to come to an understanding.
Tweets from a Twitter interview with US Vice President Joe Biden, 26 January 2012
Where next for the news interview? HARDtalk is a good programme, but quite traditional in format. Newspaper interviews continue, but seem more about drawing out character than setting the news agenda. The online world is developing new ways in which subjects can be interviewed, which involved the general public much more, such as Twitter discussions, while BuzzFeed's interview of 29 May 2014 with Ed Miliband (the one in which he said it was a good idea not to read the newspapers) transfers the magazine-style interview with illustrations to a web format in a way that resfreshes the interview form. Al Jazeera's web/TV programme hybrid The Stream is an example of how engagement through interviews is being adapted for a multi-platform world, and television interviews can feature questions posted by social media (see, for example, Glenn Greenwald's interview for NBC on 18 May 2014). The growth of citizen journalism may make anyone into a potential interviewer, with all of the hazards as well as the advantages that suggests.
In such a world, the traditional confrontation between interviewer and interviewee begins to look like it belongs to another age, an age when current affairs television (and radio) served as the forum for public engagement with the issues of the hour. That forum is increasingly located elsewhere, and the interview will have to adapt accordingly if it is to continue to be meaningful. It may not be so combative or theatrical as it has been in the past; it will undoubtedly be more social. It will be less constrained by space (as is the case with newspapers) or time (as is the case with television and radio). Consequently it may either be freer in form or hampered by a lack of discipline. The questions demanding answers remain the same; just who will be asking them looks certain to change.
- The Hepworth Cinema Interviews are held by the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales - a press release on the UNESCO recognition is here, and a catalogue record for the films is here
- Michael Cockerell's Live from Number 10: The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television (1988) is insightful and full of great anecdotes and quotations (such as the Eden-Mitchell interview quoted above)
- On interviewing in Victorian newspapers, see Lucy Brown, Victorian News and Newspapers (1985) and Laurel Brake, Marysa Demoor (eds.), Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism (Gent/London: Academia Press, British Library, 2009)
- The Pall Mall Gazette for the period 1865-1900 has been digitised and is available online via the British Newspaper Archive
- On Hulda Friedrichs and other women journalists of the nineteenth century, see F. Elizabeth Grey (ed.), Women in Journalism at the Fin de Siècle: 'Making a Name for Herself' (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
- On the technique of modern interviews, see Steven Clayman and John Heritage, The News Interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
- The Radio Times has a list with links of 'the greatest broadcast interviews of all time', including Campbell v Snow, Paxman v Howard, Frost v Nixon, and John Nott walking out on Robin Day
The Newsroom blog recent posts
- British Newspaper Archive
- Broadcast News
- Catalogues and databases
- Digital scholarship
- Family history
- Research collaboration
- Social media
- St Pancras Intelligencer
- Text mining
- User-generated content
- Visual arts