News in the UK is freely available to everyone and is strictly regulated, but it wasn’t always that way. Whilst it’s common practice for tabloids to exaggerate news stories to try and garner a public reaction today, they are still heavily regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation and face heavy scrutiny for their standards of reporting.
In the Victorian era, the media was very different. It was not freely available, nor was it regulated to the extent it is today. It was a bit like modern tabloids on steroids.
During the first half of the 19th century, newspapers were few and far between, with just 355 titles going to print in England in 1846. For the most part, this was because the government had imposed hefty stamp duty taxes in a bid to keep newspapers from reporting negatively on them, resulting in the cover price going up. This meant a lot of working-class people couldn’t afford a newspaper of their own because the cover price was more than they earned in a day, making newspapers an unprofitable industry. Many radicals called it the ‘tax on knowledge’.
Instead, coffee houses and pubs would typically buy one or two copies of a local newspaper and entire communities would gather in what became known as ‘reading rooms’. In these rooms, one person would read the newspaper aloud to everyone so local people could keep up to date with the news.
Reading rooms paved the way for sensationalist news stories. Journalists would publish greatly exaggerated and borderline theatrical news stories that sounded more dramatic when read aloud.
This type of exaggerated reporting gave way to the rise of moral panics, whereby a certain issue was amplified far beyond what was reasonable and resulted in hysteria among the masses. The Jack the Ripper killings are a prime example of this.
At the time of the Whitechapel murders, newspapers in London reported that the city was suffering from widespread violent crime. Aside from the solitary actions of Jack the Ripper, violent crime in London was extremely rare at the time and most police investigations revolved around petty crimes like theft and pickpocketing. Despite this, many people thought violent crime was a serious issue in the city and drastic action was needed, and this was because of news stories circulating at the time.
In reality, crime was decreasing across the board, but this fact was not reflected in the news stories of the time.
In the Victorian era, newspapers could easily sway the opinion of the general public through sensationalist reporting, much to the distaste of the government. As mentioned, stamp duty taxes were introduced in a bid to keep negative commentary of the government out of the news, but this approach failed. The stamp duty tax resulted in the rise of reading rooms and the widespread circulation of underground newspapers and pamphlets, so even though most people couldn’t afford a newspaper, the vast majority of people were aware of the happenings of the time.
The government’s attempt of keeping the general public in the dark about the news was failing, and in 1855 the stamp duty tax was finally abolished. What followed was more newspapers arising and exaggerated headlines bolstered by factually loose news stories. As is often the case today, shocking news sells newspapers, so the more shocking the headline and story, the more popular the newspaper became and the more copies it sold.
Whilst a lot of what was reported was not strictly true, newspapers quickly found themselves at the forefront of social reform.
In 1862 an MP in London was garrotted. This was the word given to violent robberies. Statistically, violent crime was incredibly rare in London and garrotting was highly uncommon, but local newspapers began a campaign about garrotters which lead many people to believe it was a real problem in the city. The public began to protest for harsher sentencing of garrotters, and to keep the status quo, the government reacted by introducing tougher sentences for garrotters, including both flogging and custodial prison stints.
The legislature reflecting harsher punishment for garrotters was brought around as a direct result of a relentless press campaign which, at the very core, was incorrect. Garrotting was extremely rare, but if you were a Londoner living in Victorian England, you wouldn’t have known that based on the news stories dominating the press at the time.
In modern times, the press is heavily regulated, but unlike in Victorian times, journalists are no longer held in high regard because of their historically exaggerated approach to news writing. Despite this, the press is still often at the helm of social reform and is now more available to the masses than ever before.