This week, team DG has been working hard on our show for this year’s Wilderness Festival. We’ve been digging into some serious research to bring together the best and worst of 500 years of journalism in a one-hour spectacle. Here’s one of the stories we particularly like:
The debate on press freedom versus government regulation is alive and kicking in the UK. It’s a debate that goes back some 300 years. On 1st August 1712, the British government introduced the First Stamp Act, imposing a tax on British newspapers. By 1815, the levy had crept up to four pence per copy, putting the price of a newspaper at seven or eight pence – well out of reach of the average worker.
But the levy, which radicals dubbed a ‘tax on knowledge’, did not stop the masses from keeping informed. People banded together to buy a newspaper or rented one for an hour from a vendor. Reformers with access to a printing press defied authorities by publishing a wide range of unauthorised, unstamped papers. Their popularity often exceeded that of the taxed papers: in 1836 the Police Gazette and Poor Man’s Guardian sold more copies in a day than the stamped Times did in a whole week.
The Poor Man’s Guardian was launched by Henry Hetherington in 1831 and bore the slogan “Knowledge is Power” where the tax stamp should have been. Hetherington was a prominent radical, and his defiance came at a price: besides the many fines he had to pay, he was imprisoned more than once and his printing presses were seized and destroyed in 1835. The newspaper tax was lowered to one penny in 1833 and abolished in 1855. Unfortunately, Hetherington didn’t live to see this victory: he died in an outbreak of cholera in 1849 after refusing medication on a point of principle. Two thousand people attended his secular funeral.
Intrigued to hear more about the history of journalism from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg? Don’t miss our performance on Sunday 10th August in Oxfordshire. Browse the full programme of Wilderness festival here, then buy your tickets here.
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