News

The British Library’s new exhibition shows us how propaganda, disinformation and news is nothing new



Every time we consult a news outlet for an update on the battle for the Donbas we reflect a hunger for war reporting that goes back half a millennium to the dawn of the British media.

The first piece of British printed news in existence is a 1513 pamphlet headlined The Trewe encountre, carrying a report fresh from the Battle of Flodden, in which King James IV of Scotland died at the head of an invading army beaten by the English on a hill in Northumberland.

The first British newspaper, The Corante, was published in 1621 when domestic reporting was effectively suppressed by James I. Instead, the paper carried “newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France”, detailing the latest events in the Thirty Years’ War for merchants and other readers affected by that conflict.

Today, as we seek an understanding of another European war, television and social media bring us live video, direct from the frontlines. Yet although cameras in space capture images of suspected mass graves in Mariupol, that besieged city is mostly a news vacuum, cut off from the world.

As we contend with war propaganda and disinformation, our experience has parallels with that of news consumers in the seventeenth century, when a flurry of publications emerged to represent the positions of Royalist and Parliamentarian armies fighting the English Civil War.

This is apparent in the British Library’s important new exhibition, Breaking the News, which covers five centuries of news and combines news-breaking tweets and Instagram posts with ancient pamphlets. It runs until 21 August and more than 30 regional libraries are hosting related events.

Luke McKernan, lead curator of the exhibition, says that while formats and platforms for covering the news have changed, many of the content themes are the same. “There are certain things we are always drawn to…conflicts or disaster or celebrity or scandal…,” he says. “There are recurrent themes and stories from 400 years ago that sound like they were written yesterday.”

War is an obvious one. The Flodden pamphlet, from the reign of Henry VIII, was created by London publisher Richard Faques. “It looks like a news publication from yesterday – it has got a headline, it has got an illustration and it tells you an account of what happened,” says McKernan. “We think this could have been distributed quite widely – there were news networks even then.”

The British press took off during the English Civil War after a period in which the state had sought to stifle and censor the first printed newspapers. “All that fell down during the civil war period – it was almost like open season to report what you wished,” says McKernan. “They were very opinionated, a mixture of fact and propaganda, representing [either] Parliament [or the] Royalists.”

This material exists thanks to the foresight of George Thomason, a publisher and bookseller who operated from a shop in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral at the time of the civil war. An avid collector, he gathered 22,000 pamphlets, newspapers and books printed between 1640 and 1661.

Among them was Areopagitica, donated to Thomason by its author John Milton. The great poet’s 1644 pamphlet is a rejection of early media censorship that resonates now in the first years of the Internet. “Should ye suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge and new light sprung up and yet springing daily in this city?” he asks. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Part of the purpose of Breaking the News is to show how the British Library is adapting to the way contemporary audiences consume and define news. Once a collection of the printed word, its news archive of 450 million pages of newspapers extends to the output of 2,000 news websites, 18 TV outlets and more than 50 radio stations, recorded for posterity each day. “We are trying to show how the traditional borders of news are shifting,” says McKernan.

The exhibition provocatively juxtaposes the pamphlets of Roundheads and Cavaliers with their Facebook equivalents in a more contemporary ‘civil war’, Brexit. says the curator. “One of the things we are trying to do with the exhibition is show the news world we understand today has very clear antecedents,” says the curator.

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A section titled “news breakers” celebrates those who have changed the news, including the campaigners Greta Thunberg and Doreen Lawrence.

As today’s activists, journalists and Russian bots compete to shape our news online, and the Government seeks to regulate through its Online Safety Bill, we might reflect that Milton and the earliest British news publishers have travelled this way before. “They understood that they were on the cusp of something new and exciting,” says McKernan. “We have to keep learning these lessons over and over again.”

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