In The Spectator office’s toilets there are framed front covers of the events that didn’t happen: Corbyn beats Boris; ‘Here’s Hillary’; Jeremy Hunt wins the Tory leadership contest. The British Library has something similar at its Breaking the News exhibition. The difference is that these ones actually made it to the newsstand. It’s enough to make any passing journalist break into a sweat.
‘Titanic sinks, no lives lost’, reported the Westminster Gazette in April 1912; ‘King Louis XVI dodges the guillotine’, we are told in the 1793 issue of the London Packet. The Sunday Times’s 1983 Hitler diaries hoax appears in this hall of infamy. So does ‘The Truth’, the Sun’s calamitous front cover in the days after the Hillsborough disaster.
News junkies will find plenty to enjoy here. For glum hacks worried about the death of print, there’s something reassuring about the timelessness of the stories on display. ‘Strange news out of Essex’, screams the front cover of one exhibit. A copy of today’s Daily Star? In fact, it’s a pamphlet from 1669 which tells the tale of a flying serpent terrorising people in Saffron Walden. Basildon on a Friday night can’t compete with that.
What about the story of the woman who gave birth to some rabbits? A headline on last week’s Sunday Sport? It’s actually a 300-year-old issue of Brice’s Weekly Journal. The paper splashes on Mary Toft, who fooled doctors with a yarn about her unusual offspring. As with many tabloid dramas, it had an unhappy ending: Toft was later locked up.
If the exhibits are fascinating, one bum note is the clunky editorialising. Lord Byron’s leaked poem from 1816 sits alongside the ‘Wagatha Christie’ tweets 200 years on. Do these really belong together?
Manchester City footballer Raheem Sterling also makes a bizarre appearance. In an Instagram message reprinted on the walls of the library, he compares the Daily Mail’s coverage of a black footballer, Tosin Adarabioyo, with that of a white player, Phil Foden. Both bought their mums a new house. The report about Adarabioyo mentions that he is yet to make a Premier League start but doesn’t dwell on Foden’s lack of success. Is racism to blame for this discrepancy in how their careers are portrayed? You’d think so from the British Library’s caption: ‘Spot the difference’, a sign asks. ‘Sterling calls out the implicit racism behind the difference in tone between the two headlines.’ It’s a bit of a stretch to blame skin colour on this inconsistency in reporting, but Sterling’s apparent accusation is presented as if it is a fact. The curators seem to have forgotten a key lesson from journalism school: be careful about parroting claims made by others.
It’s a sticking point that continues throughout the exhibition. A giant news screen marks the end of the artefacts on display. Few would contest the inclusion here of William Howard Russell, the world’s first war correspondent, whose eyewitness testimony from the charge of the light brigade has stood the test of time. But does Carole Cadwalladr really deserve her place in this pantheon? The Observer journalist’s dogged pursuit of Facebook’s hand in the Brexit vote started off as admirable but went too far. Will people really be talking about her in 200 years’ time?
Despite the hiccups, the greatest hits on display make the exhibition worth the cover price. ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ – the paper’s coverage of the 1992 election, in which it credited itself with playing a decisive role – can be seen in all its glory. You can also read the Times’s most famous editorial, ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’, written by William Rees-Mogg after Mick Jagger was jailed for drug offences. The lurid details of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and the coverage of John Profumo’s downfall are also on show.
It isn’t only the oldies that you get to see in the flesh: the News of The World’s ‘Thank you and goodbye’ final front cover is here; for those who grew up on a Sunday diet of the paper’s lurid revelations it’s an exhibit that brings back memories.
There’s also a remarkable collage of the ‘Stay Alert’ newspaper wraparounds that became familiar during the pandemic. Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of lockdown, seeing them on display in the British Library is a reminder of how bizarre this national curtailing of our freedoms was.
Could that freedom go again? The oldest piece in the exhibition shows that the ability of the press to say what it wants is a relatively new thing. A newspaper dating back to 24 September 1621 contains no news about Britain. Why? Because it was too dicey to talk about what was happening at home and risk falling foul of censorship laws. Instead it focuses on the Thirty Years’ War; a safer bet for an editor worried about getting locked up.
If there’s a hero here it comes in an unlikely place. The Guernsey Underground News Service’s publication sounds like a residents’ gazette reporting on what Brenda from next door has been up to. In fact, the issue on display was printed on tomato paper during the German occupation in the second world war. Those responsible were caught; two of their number later died in Nazi jail cells.
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