Daniel Defoe

When the public loved not hated journalists

The view of journalists today among the public is at an all time low. This is not good for democracy. Especially when that hatred is fuelled by populist politicians who resent being scrutinised….by journalists. But this is a new phenomenon – journalists in the past were loved, not hated by the public.

I have to declare an interest here. I’m a former journalist (BBC News, Sky News, Financial Times magazines, etc) and still a paid up member of the National Union of Journalists. And it depresses the hell out of me to see ill-informed people on Twitter writing BS about the so-called MSM. So I’m writing this blog post as a well overdue corrective.

The public loved journalists – even in the pillory

The path to creating a free press was a treacherous one. Not for nothing does the US Constitution protect the right of free speech. Because in the Old World – that right was non-existent or permitted at the whim of an absolute monarch.

Into the early 19th century, British journalists and publishers were literally placed in the pillory for producing work that offended the establishment. Just to be clear – they were put on trial and then taken to a wooden post with a yoke and fixed by their head and hands to be pelted by the mob.

But in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – the ‘mob’ often didn’t comply. They came out and supported the hapless journalist in the pillory. They loved them for defending liberty and exposing corruption and vice. How different from today!

Daniel Defoe – journalist loved by the public

One of the many journalists placed in the pillory was the author of Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe. Aside from writing a great yarn (based on real events) about a castaway, Defoe was essentially a tabloid journalist. He was also a bit of a spin doctor for the government.

In 1703, he wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. It was intended to be a ribald commentary on the attitude of the Church of England to Protestant dissenters on the one side and Catholics (or “Papists”) on the other. The CofE was likened to Christ with a dissenter thief on one cross and a Papist on the other. All pretty silly and Defoe wrote the whole thing tongue in cheek.

But the Church of England and government took the pamphlet very seriously and he was charged with sedition. The pamphlet was burned by the public hangman and Defoe went into hiding. However, he was discovered and put in three separate pillories around the centre of London for maximum humiliation.

The public, though, admired Defoe for his literary bravery and instead of throwing rotten vegetables at him – brought flowers and sang songs. Including a song he’d written for the occasion!

Public loved journalists who stuck it to the king!

Even though Daniel Defoe was cheered by the public – the experience of the pillory undoubtedly freaked him out. So much so that he agreed to spy on another journalist, Nathaniel Mist. Mist’s early 18th century weekly journal was hugely popular and it poked fun at the new German speaking king of Britain – George I.

Mist described the great grandfather of George III (who lost the American colonies) as a “cruel, ill-bred uneducated old tyrant”. He served a short prison sentence and like Defoe was sent to the pillory. Also like Defoe, the public cheered him on as a free spirit. But then Mist fled to France unable to handle the pressure and threats from the government.

Edmund Curll – also loved by the public

Edmund Curll was another early 18th century figure in the publishing world. This time, a publisher as opposed to a journalist. His sin in the eyes of the church and state was to publish both radical political works and pornographic tracts. Almost as if to cause maximum rage in respectable society.

One publication, Venus in the Cloister, alleged that while the church was prudish, Jesus Christ had believed in sexual exploration. This was a translation of a French work that went on to influence the notorious Marquis de Sade.

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Curll eventually earned a place in the pillory where, like Defoe and Mist, he was treated rather kindly by the crowds. And the list of pilloried and prosecuted journalists loved by the public – in Britain particularly – goes on and on.

What a sad contrast with today when many of the public would rather side with power against free speech. Or, worse, take the word of YouTube charlatans and hucksters as the truth ahead of people who are on the front line trying to report what is happening in the real world.

Below is the arrest of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez in 2020 while reporting on protests following the death of George Floyd. A modern pillorying of a member of the ‘fourth estate’.

Lewis Powell – the handsome assassin of Abraham Lincoln

Lewis Thornton Powell (sometimes known as Payne) was one of the four conspirators hanged for their part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He also looked like a GQ model. And his handsome features were rather tastelessly picked up by the new technology of photography.

Powell was tasked with killing US Secretary of State William H. Seward and managed to stab him several times but not fatally. Nevertheless, it was enough to earn him a place on the gallows with his fellow conspirators. And at the same time – he acquired a degree of celebrity which was quite modern.

In recent years, Lewis Powell has become noteworthy for the prison photographs taken at the time, which could easily grace the front cover of a men’s fashion magazine.

Lewis Powell – handsome but violent

Although Powell was a very striking young man (only 21 when he was executed), he did have a record of violence including a horrific attack on an African American maid. Powell had also supervised his father’s slave plantation before fighting with the Confederate side in the American Civil War.

The manner in which he tried to slaughter Seward suggested an unbalanced mind. Seward was already bed ridden after a carriage accident and Powell found his way into the great man’s bedroom and stuck a blade into his neck several times. Amazingly, the Secretary of State survived and indeed went on to serve under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

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Lewis Powell was arrested very soon after his botched murder attempt. This led to the prison photos that included him dressing up in different suits. He struck cocky poses and stared dreamily into the lens.

Quite why this was entertained by his captors is beyond me.

The hanging of Lewis Powell was a gruesome affair with him taking at least five minutes to die. One eye witness claimed that he writhed at the end of the noose with such vigour that at one point his knees rose so he was in a seated position.

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Here is Lewis Powell in his 1860s male model glory!