Scandal As Premonition: British Mass Media & American Virtue

More people get their whores from Harris’s than any other whore source

Nick Davies’ Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch (2014) is a must-read for anyone interested in modern media. It delineates in gruesome detail the wretched state of British media and its lust for money and power through manipulation and extortion and its total disregard for truth, justice, and honesty.

Perhaps shocking to those outside of the U.K., the best-selling newspapers in the U.K. had been the scandal sheets (“red-tops”) that profit from groundless gossip, topless girls, and purloined secrets.

One British redtop reported for weeks that the best scientists in the U.K. had confirmed that a woman was giving birth to rabbits. This was 1726. Similar articles aren’t found in American newspapers.

What Davies doesn’t tell the reader is that the British media has always been this way, and its media culture is fairly unique.

Western media largely emerged across countries and continents simultaneously. The North American colonies had more independent newspapers than did Britain in the earliest era of mass media, and during British media’s initial growth phase — 1710–1730 — North American media culture had already developed. Thus, it’s a mistake to think that one media culture was born from or even significantly influenced another. They had largely independent childhoods.

North American media was substantially influenced by the Puritan ethos, which cautioned against using the media as the devil’s pulpit so that mass communication wouldn’t be a means to promote vice and increase hardship. While England had national laws limiting the use of the printing press, the colonies had no such regulatory laws; the development of American mass media was informed by culture, not law.

Once government monopoly on the press was dropped in the 1690s and copyright was established in 1710, British presses unleashed a paper torrent of pornography. Edmund Curl, one of the new pornographers, published stories about lesbian nuns, rapacious priests, naughty Lords, and wayward girls. Curls found himself oft jailed in the 1710s-1720s as the authorities attempted to put an end to his inky licentiousness, but they failed to cool his presses in part because Curl was popular but largely because there were no laws curbing Curl’s hot presses. Money was to be made, and the government flinched at the thought of transforming social virtue into law.

At the same time, American presses were not hotly debating whether all Catholic girls were lesbians (or just some of them). The hottest topics in the New England presses in the 1720s were money supply (paper vs. hard currency) and inoculations (whether testing small-pox vaccines on humans was science or evil). One finds no discussions of lesbians or naughty oligarchs in the American press.

In the 1750s, the North American presses turned their attention from inoculations (which, despite what Wikipedia claims, were common in New England by then) to political and business discussions (from then on, ‘the business of America is business’ becomes rather evident from the press). The American presses were filled with debates over power structures (religious and political), discussions of financial instruments (paper money, secured vs. unsecured debt, etc.) and, more than anything else, notices for businesses (raw materials, finished goods, labor wanted, etc.).

At the same time, one could walk into a bookstore in a major British city and purchase a guide to prostitutes. Such guides were no generic descriptions but rather listed names, ages, prices, addresses, and usually some review. Titles of entries included “Just piping hot from a boarding school” for one seventeen-year-old. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies rolled off a London press in 1757 and would be printed annually for thirty-years, and yet was just one of a long line of directories that began with Wandering Whore that ran through five issues in 1660–61. (If anyone asks, the fall of Britain began with the Restoration and Charles II; British culture simply disintegrated under the whoremonger king).

Wandering Whore would have been unthinkable the colonies; even New York, founded on prostitution and piracy, would never have tolerated “piping hot from a boarding school.” In fact, publications that were common in London by the 1750s wouldn’t be seen in New York until the 1970s. Generally, this difference wasn’t generated by law but rather by culture.

Hack Attack is as depressing as it predictable. The American colonies earnestly and honestly believed in virtue, and, as it had always been a democracy, believed that virtue was expected of all. Puritan virtue was woven into the fabric of everyday society. In Britain, virtue was an elitist convention, and mass communicators such as Edmund Curl had but one guiding principle: greed.

Has America has been witnessing a convergence of virtue and scandal in the handful of for-profit companies that espouse mission but crave money? Is CNN becoming Wandering Whore? For the British, Hack Attack is a postmortem on a media culture that never really had life; for Americans, Hack Attack may be a prediction.

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