Popping the Red Top on Power in the British Media at the British Library London

Picture Post, 'Roberta Cowell's Own Story’, newspaper, 1954
Picture Post, 'Roberta Cowell's Own Story’, newspaper, 1954

Breaking the News

Mon - Thu 09:30 - 20:00, Fri 09:30 - 18:00, Sat 09:30 - 17:00, Sun 11:00 - 17:00

From: 22 Apr 2022

To: 21 Aug 2022

The British Library
96 Euston Road

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You can never quite grasp the scale of a front page until you pore over it up close – nor its impact. But not everything that’s news makes the headlines, nor do the headlines reflect all the narratives that matter. 

Beyond the broadsheets, Breaking the News covers 500 years of British media through blogs, broadcasts, and blatant propaganda. Focussing on era-defining events, we see how news and national histories are intimately entwined. The space opens and closes with red-topped captions, all narrated in the familiar typefaces of newspapers.

This sort of exhibition could so easily descend into England (or Westminster)-centric navel gazing, else perpetuate the exploitative sensationalism of tabloid news. But more often than not, the British Library uses the opportunity to reconsider its own collection, retelling established stories and events from the perspective of their subjects – and those subject to historical obscurity. 

Picture Post, 'Roberta Cowell's Own Story’, newspaper, 1954
Picture Post, ‘Roberta Cowell’s Own Story’, newspaper, 1954

The multimedia sections are the most imaginative: radio scripts and audio clips, curated side-by-side, provide each other with alternative experiences and meanings. A free accompanying display reimagines the British Library’s Victorian news archive, making infographics from data of the price of tea in the British Empire, and mapping the lecture locations of African-American abolitionists. Here, agency over narratives is more direct. We read the words of Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass, Josiah Henson, and Ida B Wells: ‘You’ve heard the slave holder’s side of the story. It is time for the slaves to speak.’

Elsewhere, contemporary and historical artefacts are placed in conversation, highlighting how little of news is new. Brexit propaganda features with English Civil War pamphlets, and #WagathaChristie posts by the poetry of Lord Byron, leaked after his divorce in the 1860s. Satires and cartoons show the historical use of humour in social coping, from Have I Got News For You, to Sir David Low acknowledging his place on Nazi Germany’s potential arrests list. 

Sir David Low, 'The Angels of Peace Descend on Belgium', 1940
Sir David Low, ‘The Angels of Peace Descend on Belgium’, 1940

Making the News is anchored around vague ‘ideals’ like public interest, national interest, and transparency, that supposedly govern the British media. Perhaps this is in recognition of ethical grey zones – and who profits from them. 

‘Democratic accountability’ is used to distinguish between public scandal – whether Profumo (1963) or parliamentary expenses (2009) – and stories of crime and sensationalism targeting the likes of Joyce McKinney and Jade Goody. (The gendered nature of such ‘scrutiny’ never starker than when The Times’ William Rees-Mogg jumps to Mick Jagger’s defence, when the Rolling Stones’ suffer a ‘humiliating’ drugs bust).

Filmmaker Errol Morris, writing in The Wall Street Journal, perfectly articulates the double marginalisation in such true crime taletelling. ‘The tabloids were able to tease out two stories: the virgin and the whore, and to exploit both of them’.

Illustrated Police News, 'Trial of Oscar Wilde', newspaper, 1895
Illustrated Police News, ‘Trial of Oscar Wilde’, newspaper, 1895

At its most critical, Breaking the News implicitly challenges the idea of a ‘free press’. Instead, we see how individuals have challenged suppression, from the 1974 Gay News front page featuring two men kissing, to the copies of Berthold’s Political Hand printed on cloth rather than paper. Simultaneously dodging tax, political censorship, and bids to suppress working class access to news under the Stamp Act, these acts of ingenuity reveal the creativity often inspired by limitation. 

‘Fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ follow a similar formula. Shots of the Titanic, shown to soothe public anxieties of its sinking in 1912, are really images of its sister ship, the RMS Olympic. Much attention is paid to how we must navigate these different narratives. It comes up again in Prime Minister’s 2020 COVID statement, and disparate Stay Alert messages across regional and national news outlets.

News oscillates between a source of information and a political instrument, from the 20 protestors killed in the Peterloo Massacre (1819), to Bellingcat’s exposés in Syria two centuries later.  Forgeries and leaks add a party-political dimension. Published in The Times in 1924, a letter from the Communist International’s Grigory Zinoviey calls for revolution, suggesting the current Labour government was a puppet of Soviet Russia. (It was a fake, but one that would nevertheless lose them the election the same year).  

The Guardian, 'Edward Snowden Destroyed Data Files', equipment, 2013
The Guardian, ‘Edward Snowden Destroyed Data Files’, equipment, 2013

It may have been ‘The Sun What Won It’ in 1992 (and, to the alternative for Labour, in 1997), but media owners have always held power in choosing which stories to suppress and which to spotlight. Before Murdoch, there was Lord Northcliffe – of The Times, The Mail, and The Mirror – chastised by Churchill for publicising British losses in the First World War. Corruption was rife around London’s Grub Street by the 18th century. Elsewhere, opportunistic journalists like Marchamont Nedham profited from conflict by publishing for both sides of the English Civil War.

We see where power lies, but also stories overlooked in the mainstream media narrative. Emily Hobhouse’s exposé of British concentration camps in the Second Boer War, featured in The Manchester Guardian (1901). By choosing to platform ‘unpatriotic’ accounts of Black African suppression, from the perspective of a British woman, the newspaper sacrificed advertising income – and some much needed public support. 

Breaking the News explores how national stories become international ones, why Phan Thi Kim Phúc became ‘Vietnam Kim’ – and subject of the World Press Photograph of the Year (1972) – and how 20% of the global population tuned in to witness the US moon landing.

Germany, 'Mit Apollo Zum Mond', photograph, 1969
Germany, ‘Mit Apollo Zum Mond’, photograph, 1969

Breaking the News closes with a timeline, stretching from the sixteenth-century town square, through to coffee houses, gentlemen’s clubs, and newspaper reading rooms for working class men. Here, tensions would arise between the wealthy benefactors, and the radical readers who resented the public restrictions on debate. 

Through cinemas, radios, and televisions, it is implied that media is increasingly consumed in more private spaces, perhaps limiting the potential for dialogue. And though social media has certainly enabled the likes of Raheem Sterling to #BLM to bypass mainstream power hierarchies to platform injustices, it is unclear whether these developments have necessarily democratised journalism, or furthered polarisation.

That is Breaking the News’ most important purpose – to challenge how we consider and consume media, and remake the news by putting it back into public conversation.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review. Jelena is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

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