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Reason vs. The Beast: Four Centuries of British Establishment #FakeNews

1 BANNER - Fake News Week
In response to the establishment media’s contrived ‘fake news’ crisis designed to marginalise independent and alternative media sources of news and analysis, 21WIRE is running its own #FakeNewsWeek awareness campaign, where each day our editorial team at 21st Century Wire will feature media critiques and analysis of mainstream corporate media coverage of current events – exposing the government and the mainstream media as the real purveyors of ‘fake news’ throughout modern history…

1 fake news john-milton
Alex Thomson
21st Century Wire

Lords and Commons of England! consider what nation it is whereof ye are [members], and whereof ye are the governors: a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit […] It would be no unequal distribution in the first place to suppress the suppressors themselves.

– John Milton, Areopagitica: a speech for the liberty of unlicenc’d printing, 1644

Those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited [by the mainstream press] the delicate layers of ornament [] The workings of commerce and politics are very, very simple, but not quite as simple as [Fleet Street journalists] represent them.

– Evelyn Waugh, Scoop: a Novel about Journalists, 1938

On 30 January 2017, the British House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee launched an inquiry into “fake news”, one preparatory to the expected issuance of guidelines for new legislation. Damian Collins MP, the Committee’s chairman, has a history of having called for news to carry social media stamps of approval for reliability. That latter sentence is not my assertion but the observation of the leading Dutch broadsheet, NRC Handelsblad.

The committee chairman’s track record of advocating the unprecedented (particularly for Britain) practice of quasi-officially approving news as correct or fake, together with his past career with the Conservative Party’s and Home Office’s long-term partner advertising brand, forms much of the reason why independent media outlets like the UK Column are sceptical about the inquiry’s agenda. Indeed, a few weeks prior to launching the inquiry and only two months after having taken the helm at the committee, Mr Collins wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “the greatest threat to the credibility of the media […] comes via the internet, where ‘fake news’ spreads without regulation”, and told the Guardian (whose glowing write-up of the interview makes no bones about his status as a darling of Fleet Street) that social media had “a social responsibility” to flag up “fake news”.

The initial impression afforded by these developments is that of a British Establishment, both political and press, horrified by some new and alien phenomenon of “fake news” in which that Establishment itself would never involve itself. A consideration of the history of the London press and Parliament, however, will soon indicate that the source of suppression of news, of fake news and of bellicose rhetoric in Britain—and far beyond—has for centuries been none other than the London establishment itself. We can most usefully pick up this thread of history in the era of that all-decisive struggle for the politics of our islands, the mid-seventeenth-century Civil Wars.

Milton’s Warning

In his rhetorical masterpiece against censorship, Areopagitica, John Milton (1608-1674), the great epic poet and able penman, documented his dawning concerns that the Puritan-led republican government then rising to power in England and Wales might be proving as absolutist as the Stuart monarchy it was supplanting. Although he would go on in 1649, five years after publishing Areopagitica, to serve as the republican Council of State’s ‘Secretary for Foreign Tongues’ (Latin diplomatic correspondent and propagandist-cum-censor), and even three years after that hailed Cromwell in a sonnet as “God’s Englishman and our chief of men”, we see the seeds of Milton’s doubts about untrammelled Parliamentary rule in his Areopagitica, and it is concerning this matter of press management that his doubts emerge.

Milton’s speech was written in 1644, in the middle of the First Civil War in England. The previous government’s suppression of the press and its unchallenged inaccurate propaganda had been two of the many grievances that triggered that war against the Crown. This being the immediate background (and the existential threat to the nation), Milton was naturally highly concerned at this wartime development: that the Parliamentarian side was prepared, as it gained the ascendancy, to entertain a petition by established publishers to resuscitate the stringent censorship of the press, a censorship which Charles I’s dying government had imposed as one of its last panicked measures against the stirring people. One might say that Milton saw the London establishment reimposing its (then already age-old) fake news practices under cover of bogus regime change rhetoric.

To impose such a media policy was, as Milton aptly observed,

… the immediate image [exact equivalent] of a Star Chamber decree to that purpose made in those very times [seven years previously] when that Court did the rest of those her ‘pious’ works, for which she is now fallen from the stars with Lucifer.

He also correctly identified the ultimate generator of fake news as not Parliament itself, but—crucially—the City of London-headquartered mainstream press with its stranglehold over the various branches of government. After all, the strongest motive for the suppression of independent news is that which the established press has to contain rivals. The mainstream press took the form of the august printers’ and publishers’ guild known as the Worshipful Company of Stationers (still in existence anno 2017 and now rejoicing in the full title of the City of London Livery Company for the Communication and Content Industries). Directly addressing at the climax of Areopagitica this new Cromwellian order for press censorship, Milton speaks of,

the fraud of some old patentees and monopolizers in the trade of book-selling; who under pretence of the poor in their Company not to be defrauded [protecting the mainstream press’ revenue and reputation] […] brought diverse glossing colours [lobbying techniques] to the House [of Commons], which were indeed but colours [mere spin], and serving to no end except […] to exercise a superiority over their neighbours, men who do not therefore labour in an honest profession to which learning is indebted, that they should be made other men’s vassals [with the false argument that the press were being beggared by bootleg  gers]. Another end is thought [by sceptics] was aimed at by some of them in procuring by petition this Order: that, having power in their hands, malignant books might the easier escape abroad, as the event shows.

The final sentence there levels the charge that with censorship in place, Establishment fake news would be more easily pumped out to the nation unchallenged. Note that ‘abroad’ here means ‘within society at large’, not ‘overseas’.

The Establishment’s Most Notorious Fake News Order

What, then, had this original censorship decree by Charles I’s government been which the Parliamentarians were now mirroring; a decree which, at least in Milton’s expert judgement, was so outrageous that it hastened the demise of the very Crown of England? It was the 11 July 1637 Decree of Star Chamber concerning Printing. It is worth quoting this decree at length, since it is explicit about the media management mindset which has been latent in Westminster and the City ever since—a mindset which resurfaced a few years ago as kitchen cabinet policy, through the planning chamber of political charity Common Purpose, and which was trial-run by the pre-cooked Leveson Inquiry, chaired by Lord Leveson, now the hot tip to become the next Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Article II of the Star Chamber Decree stipulates that all publications be censored in advance, and that

every Printer offending therein shall be for ever hereafter disabled to use or exercise the Art and Mystery of Printing, and receive such further Punishment, [such] as by this Court, [or] of the High Commission Court [the ecclesiastical authorities] respectively, as the several Cases shall require shall be thought fitting.

Our first surprise, then, is the abiding keen interest of the post-Reformation Church of England archiepiscopacy in censoring publications of all kinds, including news and science; and this a full century after William Tyndale had been burned at the stake on the Continent of Europe, by Henry VIII’s international warrant issued at the fervent rhetorical instigation of the Bishop of London and of the alleged humanist intellectual Sir Thomas More, for having published an unlicenced English Bible translation in Germany.

Article III is nakedly political in its repression of the press:

[…] all Books of History, belonging to this State, and present Times or any other Book of State Affairs, shall be licensed by the Principal Secretaries of State, or one of them, or by their appointment [order.]

According to Article V, publications imported from abroad must not be read by anyone until government inspectors arrived. After going into detail on how merchants must not themselves open any consignments of books they had bought (this perhaps in response to the way in which Tyndale’s New Testament had been smuggled into London a hundred years earlier, hidden in cargoes), the Article forbids anyone in the importing chain to so much as glance at a pamphlet on the dockside, 

… before such time as the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, or Lord Bishop of London, or one of them for the time being, have appointed one of their Chaplains, or some other Learned Man, with the Master and Wardens of the Company of Stationers [the Establishment printers’ guild], or one of them, and such others [unspecified!] as they shall call to their Assistance, to be present at the opening thereof, and to view the same[.]

It is further ordered and decreed, that no Merchant, Bookseller, or other Person or Persons whatsoever, shall Imprint, or cause to be Imprinted, in the Parts beyond the Seas [British colonies], or elsewhere [foreign countries], nor shall import, or bring, nor willingly assist or consent of the Importation or bringing from beyond the Seas into this Realm, any English Books, or part of Book, or Book whatsoever, which are or shall be, or the greater, or the more part whereof is or shall be English, or of the English Tongue[.]

Later on in the same Star Chamber decree, the making of new printing presses without state permission was outlawed, and master printers must not take on more than three apprentices each. Journeyman (freelance) printers required by the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, i.e. men with particularly wide access to information, were forbidden from seeking work on the regulated commercial market in London except upon request from a London firm; otherwise, they would be punished as “Delinquents”.

Anyone who was not a licenced printer who dared to print anything, or even set type for printing, was to be pilloried and whipped through the City of London. Only four men in the country, specified by name, were licenced to cast type (the metal letters needed to print any kind of publication in the pre-computer age).

Such was the substance of the decree which England’s greatest poet of all time effectively called a work of the devil.

The Star Chamber itself, an odious breach of the common law which in the very year it issued this ukase was also hauling up preachers to sentence them to have both ears sliced off in the pillory, was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1640 by its Habeas Corpus Act. The Court of High Commission (referred to in Article II above) was done away with the following year. Yet even with both of these execrable Tudor innovations cleared away in the Civil War ferment, their respective power bases remained active: the City of London and the Church of England, each with a very pronounced interest in maintaining their privileges above the law of the land and which defined themselves over and against the people of the English nation.

The City and the Church were, of course, the two bodies so powerful even as far back as 1215 that they secured eternal autonomy, or ‘liberties’, for themselves in Magna Carta; liberties which could only ever be abolished by disregarding Magna Carta, an abolition which would arguably undo Parliament’s own right to exist. (Magna Carta could never be repealed anyway, because it is a treaty, not a statute, and pre-dates Parliament.) We cannot here delve further back into mediaeval history, with its persecuted independent publishers such as the Lollards (the disciples of Professor John Wycliffe) defying church and City to print and preach without licence. Fortunately, however, Milton succinctly summed up for posterity, in one line of iambic pentameter, the sham nature of the political transition from church-backed absolutist monarchy to Puritan Parliamentarian rule: “New presbyter is but old priest writ large.” Notice the title of the sonnet which culminates in that aphorism: On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament.

A Beast of a Book

Not all the political philosophers of the Civil War period were unhappy with the Establishment’s continuing interest in censorship and propaganda. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a writer often misrepresented as a champion of political liberalism, toleration and government by consent, positively urged the state to churn out the official line on everything through academia and the Church of England. (The real champion of the rule of law and freedom of expression in the English philosophical tradition is not Hobbes but the greatest writer of the subsequent generation, John Locke.)

Hobbes propounded his fake news imperative above all in his magnum opus of 1651, Leviathan, or The Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil: a whopping four-part read whose essential thesis is that the government must control every facet of church and society, including the total information realm.

The political and social landscape had changed beyond all recognition in the seven brief years since Milton’s Areopagitica, just as it had before that in the seven years’ interval between the Star Chamber Decree and Areopagitica. It was as if each seven years in the mid-seventeenth century encompassed a whole generation’s development. The England of 1651 was a fully-fledged republican Protectorate with an unchecked unicameral legislature (the House of Lords and the bishops having been abolished), and was a rising trading power able to hold its own against the great powers of the day: the Spaniards, French and Dutch.

In this increasing peace and prosperity, a great many groups of political and religious dissenters were disseminating their own publications, arguing for the whole gamut of notions more readily associated with the twentieth century: from universal free higher education to the enfranchisement of women. The very names of these groups — Diggers, Quakers, Levellers, Ranters — are sufficient to indicate how the old Establishment feared it might be toppled for ever.

In this context, and at the instigation of a group of Establishment patrons (biding their time for the restoration of Stuart rule) led by perhaps England’s most powerful aristocratic family, the House of Cavendish, Hobbes misappropriated snippets of Biblical and Classical antiquity to set about his famous claim that without government involvement on every hand, life would inevitably be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

His view of the masses is distilled in the middle of Chapter XXX (emphasis added):

[…] the greatest part of Man-kind […] receive the Notions of their duty, chiefly from Divines in the Pulpit, and partly from such of their Neighbours, or familiar acquaintance, as having the Faculty of discoursing readily, and plausibly, seem wiser and better learned in cases of Law, and Conscience, than themselves. And the Divines, and such others as make shew of Learning, derive their knowledge from the Universities, and from the Schooles of Law, or from the Books, which by men eminent in those Schooles, and Universities have been published. It is therefore manifest, that the Instruction of the people, dependeth wholly, on the right teaching of Youth in the Universities.

In other words, the Establishment’s information chain is, from top to bottom, government-universities-clergy-manufactured public opinion-commonplaces of the mainstream press. The mainstream press is therefore the product, not the leader, of ‘approved’ news and received morality. I would contend that no link has been altered in this chain in the three and a half centuries since Hobbes.

As if this doctrine (hidden in plain sight in the midst of a thick and revered tome, as is often the way) were not clear enough, Hobbes states earlier, in Chapter XVIII of Leviathan, in fact as a section heading in the inset, that “the sovereign is judge of what doctrines are fit to be taught to his subjects”. Could this dictum be the philosophical origin of the New York Times’ famous 1897 slogan (one ostensibly claiming fair and balanced news coverage), “All the news that’s fit to print”?



Author Alex Thomson studied the mediaeval history and languages of Britain at Cambridge before living and working in the former Soviet Union. He was then a GCHQ officer for eight years and subsequently moved to the Netherlands, where he is now a freelance translator and interpreter, and a commentator on European Affairs with the UK Column.





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