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.

DISCOVER: The urban gang that terrorised Georgian London

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’.

Great Plague of London in 1665

London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.

The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:

Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those Crosses

England’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker

The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.

What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.

DISCOVER: How dog dung was used to make books!

Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.

The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history.

This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!