The Tudor age saw a revolution that would change for ever the relationship between those in power and those they ruled. It was a technological revolution, the invention of the printing press. Now, printed books and pamphlets could reach multitudes of ordinary citizens in far off places, put new ideas into their heads and even stir up rebellion.
It was the start of a war between the world’s rulers and those with access to mass communication.
By the eighteenth century, something resembling today’s newspapers had begun to appear, and the first hesitant steps were being taken towards recognising the role of the press in a democratic society. If the people had any right to help choose who governed them, then they needed to be well informed.
In the late eighteenth century, the thirteen American colonies were in rebellion against their British masters. The challenge was to keep the colonists united. It was newspapers who did that by sharing between them the latest information about their struggle, so making the rebels feel a part of something much bigger than their own local community. When the Americans gained their independence, they enshrined freedom of the press in their new constitution.
We shouldn’t run away with the idea that journalists have always been on the side of truth. During the First World War, correspondents allowed themselves almost without exception to get sucked into their governments’ propaganda campaigns. And it would be little different in World War Two.
The history of mass communication has never been a simple tale of distributing information and opinion. It’s always too been about making a profit. In the early twentieth century, vast newspaper empires were in the hands of a few businessmen. They bartered their ability to influence popular opinion through the columns of their newspapers, in return for favours from governments.
It’s been claimed that the arrival of television, with its merciless moving images of what’s really happening, left those in power with nowhere to hide. But the reality is more blurred. TV news editors can be selective in what they show, and a television reporters’ words can be just as biased as those of a newspaper correspondent.
US President Donald Trump’s almost daily attacks on the mainstream news media are – in one sense – just a continuation of a five centuries long conflict. But technology again has changed the battlefield. Social media, Twitter, Facebook and the rest, have placed the ability to tell millions what to think directly in the hands of anyone with a smartphone - any crook, liar, foreign enemy or even the mightiest man in the world.
What hope then for the rest of us now who just want to know what’s happening in the world?
By Derek J. Taylor