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19 June 2015

The news from Waterloo

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The bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo is upon us, and of the many books, programmes and articles currently published about the event, one of the most novel and fasincating is Brian Cathcart's history The News from Waterloo. This tells not the story of the battle but of the race to report the news in Britain, and in doing so it tells us a lot about the transmission and understanding of news in the past, and the world of news we enjoy today.

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The 11:00 am 'Waterloo' edition of The Times, 22 June 1815.

The battle itself took place on Sunday 18 June 1815, ending somewhere between 9 and 10 that evening. The British public, however, did not start to receive certain news of the outcome of the battle (nor indeed confirmation that any such battle had taken place) until the very end of Wednesday 21 June, with the London newspapers reporting the story from the morning of the 22nd.

The reasons for this delay were several, and in describing them Cathcart gives an excellent and accessible account of how newspapers operated in the early nineteenth century. To begin with, there were no journalists at Waterloo. Newspapers in Britain at that time did not have journalists as we would understand them; there were parliamentary reporters (a recent innovation after government had finally conceded to the reporting of its affairs), there was an editor who would write the editorial, and there was much gathering of content from other sources, such as official sources - foreign news was generally channeled through the Post Office, as a means of exercising governmental control over reporting such dangerous information.

Government exercised control over newspapers through law (particularly libel laws) and through taxation, which had the effect of narrowing down the number of people who might read a newspaper because of the cost, and hopefully keeping the news out of the hands of the masses. This only worked so far, because newspapers were nevertheless distributed widely, borrowed, made available in reading rooms, inns and coffee houses, and read aloud in groups. But the high cost meant a restricted buying public, and together with the mechanical limitations of newspaper production of the time kept down the number of copies published - The Times sold around 7,000 copies a day in 1815.

News travelled slowly, though it was speeding up. The mechanical or optical telegraph, which worked by replaying signals from high vantage points, meant that messages could travel quickly over long distances, and it awakened in people a sense of news being able to be communicated to them far more quickly. However, the telegraph was expensive to maintain and it didn't work in the dark. Extraordinarily such problems led to the British closing down their telegraph operation shortly before Waterloo, so the only way to get the news to the British public was by road and water.

Cathcart's book entertainingly describes how news false and true made its way to London from Waterloo, causing much confusion among a public desperate to know if Napoleon had been defeated, as accounts of the battles that took place the day before Waterloo were muddled up with the battle on the 28th, communicated by private individuals who brought over scraps of information on what they thought had happened.  (See his blog post for the British Newspaper Archive for a summary of these unofficial reports.) The official dispatch, which Wellington completed writing around noon on June 23, was mysteriously delayed while its bearer, Major Henry Percy, was travelling through the Netherlands. It then got held up crossing the Channel when the wind dropped, so that Percy ended up having to get into a rowing boat, before completing his journey by post-chaise. Finally the official dispatch was delivered in London around 11:15 pm on Wednesday 21 June, not a moment too soon for the newspapers laboriously to remake some type and to publish an account for the morning editions.

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The Morning Post, 22 June 1815, via British Newspaper Archive (note that it is the second edition)

There were an estimated 56 newspapers published in London at this time, from dailies to weeklies. The leading titles were The Times, The CourierThe Morning Post and The Morning Chronicle. This was a time before there were press directories with lists of all newspaper titles published, but in the British Library collection we have just under 300 British newspaper titles from 1815, with some 40 of them published in London. So it is not every newspaper that was published. Cathcart has done a remarkable job piecing together the complex narrative of what was published when over 18-22 June 1815, noting where a newspaper issued more than one edition with more war information, but bemoaning the fact (on his website) that "Superb though it is, the British Library collection is nothing like complete for 1815." Well, there's a reason for that.

In 1815 there was no national newspaper collection. The Stamp Office took in a copy of every newspaper published (part of the taxation regime designed to keep the newspapers in line), retaining these for a period of two years before disposing of them. It was only in 1823 that copies published in London started to be transferred to the British Museum, with regional newspapers following after 1832, and not until 1869 were newspaper deposited directly with the Museum.

So for newspapers in 1815 we are dependent on private collections acquired subsequently, and inevitably there are gaps in the surviving record. Moreover, the British Museum and then the British Library have always collected just one edition of a newspaper per day, for practical reasons of space. We do not have, and cannot have, everything. Different editions of an historical newspaper on a single day are therefore quite a rarity (indeed most titles in 1815 only produced a single edition), existing usually on the few occasions where the same title was acquired from different collectors.

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From page 3 of The Times, 22 June 1815, via The Times Digital Archive, summarising information on Waterloo learned from the official dispatch.

Fortunately 22 June 1815 is one date when there are some different timed editions available. The early edition of The Times for that day had the above notice, noting that the official dispatch had been received and summarising its contents. It is this version of the newspaper that can be found online via the Times Digital Archive (subscription access only, freely available in British Library reading rooms). The copy in the British Library is of the second edition, issued at 11:00 am that day. For this the second page of the 4-page newspaper had been entirely remade to accommodate the Duke of Wellington's complete dispatch. The full two pages are illustrated at the top of this post; the start of dispatch on page 2 is below, alongside the earlier page 2 from the version on the Times Digital Archive:

Times22jun1815p2

From page 2 of the The Times, 22 June 1815, early morning edition on left (via Times Digital Archive), 11:00 am edition on the right (from British Library collection), with the official dispatch from Waterloo reproduced on the right-hand column.

The dispatch had first been published in The London Gazette, which was a government publication issuing official information, and which is still in operation today (as The Gazette). The Waterloo 'extraordinary' edition of The London Gazette is freely available online, and this is the front page:

 

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The London Gazette, 22 June 1815, via www.thegazette.co.uk. Wellington's official dispatch did not reveal the information that the battle had been won until halfway down the second column of the second page.

Once The London Gazette had been published, the other London newspapers plundered the official text for their own editions, and then gradually the information spread over the nation as mail coaches carried the news to every corner over the next few days (Edinburgh, for example, received the information on Saturday 24 June).

Today we may marvel at a time when the news of a major battle took three days to get from Waterloo to London, with part of the journey undertaken by rowing boat. We live in a world of constantly breaking news, where tweets or other electronic alerts informs us of news happening even before it is news (if we define news as something which has been composed after a period of time with an understanding of the context of the story, and with checks made to verify it). News has become instantaneous. Moreover news is cheap, for the most part free (in the UK) from governmental interference, and created by legions of journalists.

Yet in some ways the news archive we are creating for 2015 will be as problematic for future historians as 1815 is for us today. We are not keeping every edition of every newspaper published on any one day. More than that the news has now spread over so many different media and platforms that it lies beyond anyone's ability to capture it all. Still more problematically, we are failing to capture the experience of news today. Increasingly we are finding our news online, but web archives can only operate as snapshots, capturing how a web pages looked at a particular point in time.

Most of the websites that we archive are crawled just once a year, but for news websites we archive these on a daily or weekly basis. Yet not only will stories fall between the cracks (i.e. they may disappear from a site between one archive capture and the next), but the experience of the flow of news is lost. There is nothing in web archiving - as yet - that can capture the experience of seeing news being reported as it happens, as we experience through ever-changing Twitter feeds or through the increasingly-popular live blogs on news websites (and the British Library does not currently archive social media, except on a very selective basis). News is increasingly tailored to our individual interests - we may each of us see a different news. News is now an endless succession of ever-changing editions; but as archivists we still capture it as a single instance, as though it were still a thing on paper, to be published just once a day.

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The endless flow of news - the live #Waterloo200 Twitter feed at 18:36, 18 June 2015

In 1815 we see the news almost overwhelming the mechanisms that were put in place to communicate it. The need to know outstripped the means to satisfy it. That led to new technologies. In 1814 The Times had introduced a steam-driven press, which would transform the rate at which newspapers could be printed. The arrival of the railways greatly spread how newspapers could be distributed, and the electric telegraph (the first working system of which was demonstrated in 1816) collapsed the distances between places worldwide. The invention of steam ships put an end to becalmed sailing ships holding up the news from overseas.

In 2015 we again see the overwhelming nature of the news. There is so much news available that services like Facebook must now filter it for us, telling us what they think we need to know. We cannot capture everything, yet we must strive always to capture something, and trust in the ingenuity of historians such as Brian Cathcart to fill in the gaps in the archive as they find it. History is not made by the evidence; it is a product of the reasoned imagination.

Where to find British newspapers from 1815:

  • British Library - most surviving British newspapers for 1815 are held by the British Library and can be accessed by anyone with a Reader's pass at either of our sites (St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire)
  • British Newspaper Archive - the subscription website based on digitised newspapers from the British Library's collection has 48 titles for 1815, four of them London titles (Morning Chronicle, Morning Post, The Examiner, Cobbett's Weekly Political Register)
  • The Gazette - the full run of the London Gazette from 1665 (when it was the Oxford Gazette) to the present day can be found for free on its site
  • Guardian and Observer Digital Archive - subscription site  - only The Observer was published in 1815
  • Newspaperarchive.com - American subscription site with some British titles covering the 1810s
  • Times Digital Archive - subscription site for The Times, from 1785 to 2009

15 June 2015

UK General Election 2015 - the broadcast archive

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The UK General Election of 2015 was decided by television. Despite the ardent advocacy of some newspapers, and for all the claims being made about it being a social media election, television dominated perceptions, debates and the presentation of policies. A Panelbase survey of the UK audience said that 62% found TV coverage had been the most influential in informing them about the general election and the policies of the political parties, far more than newspapers at 25%, websites at 17% (mostly the BBC news website), radio at 14%, speaking to family and friends at 14%, and only 11% social media (primarily Facebook). 38% of the audience said they were influenced by the broadcast debates, 23% by TV news coverage and 10% by party political broadcasts.

TheVote

James Graham’s The Vote, broadcast on More4 on election night 7 May 2015, with Judi Dench, Catherine Tate, Timothy West and Mark Gatiss

It is important therefore that to have an archive of what was broadcast on television over the general election period. The British Library's Broadcast News service usually takes in around 30 hours of TV news and 18 hours of radio news each day, from 22 channels. We expanded this significantly to capture every debate, party political broadcast, manifesto launch, campaign event, press conference, interview, leader profile and documentary that we could, plus the full election night broadcasts of each of the main broadcasters (including those from BBC Scotland, BBC Northern Ireland, BBC Wales and STV), as well as coverage given to the election from CNN, France 24, Al Jazeera English and RT (Russia Today). We also recorded the relevant TV dramas (Coalition, The Vote) and comedies (Ballot Monkeys, Newzoids, Have I Got News for You etc).

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From RT's general election night coverage

Overall, between 26 March (the date of the first of the TV debates) and 8 May 2015, we recorded 1,775 television and radio news programmes. Not all touched on the election, but most did, and it makes for compelling evidence for how much energy and calculation went into using television as the forum for a national debate.

All of these recordings are available via the British Library's Broadcast News service, accessible at our St Pancras (London) and Boston Spa (Yorkshire) sites. We're also making available here a spreadsheet listing every programme we recorded between 26 March and 8 May. They are listed by date, medium, channel, type of programme, title, description and duration, and the data can be sorted by anyone interested to undertake some preliminary analysis or simply to see in one list which party political broadcasts were recorded.

Download Recordings 2015_general election

The programmes are also listed on a new Special Collections page on the Broadcast News site, with links to all the main recordings. Please note that these general election recordings do not as yet appear on the British Library's main Explore catalogue (but will do eventually).

We would be interested to hear from any researchers using this archive. Do get in touch via broadcastnews@bl.uk.

06 May 2015

Five years of Broadcast News

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Five years ago to this day, at 21:55, we threw on the switches for the first official television and radio news recordings for our Broadcast news service. It was, of course, the day of the General Election, and we decided to kick off our service the moment the polls closed - or five minutes beforehand, to be precise, as that it when the all-night news programmes began.

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BBC1's election night broadcast, 6 May 2010

Things were simpler then. We had only just acquired the system for recording TV and radio programmes off-air, and there were a few teething troubles. So we started cautiously, and recorded just four programmes on that first day - the BBC 1, BBc Radio 4 and ITV election broadcasts, and Channel 4's Alternative Election. the following day we boldly upped the ante to record 15 programmes, adding broadcasts from the channels BBC News, World Service, Al Jazeera English and CNN.

ElectionITV

ITV's election night broadcast, 6 May 2010

Five years on, and things have grown. For 6 May 2015 we will be recording some fifty programmes from twenty-two channels: BBc1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, BBC 4, BBC News, BBC Parliament, Al Jazeera English, RT, CNN, Bloomberg, CCTV, Sky News, France 24, talkSport, BBc Radio 5 Live, BBC World Service, LBC, BBcCRadio 1, BBC London, BBC 1 Scotland and STV. We won't know until a day or two later how many programmes we've recorded, because we catch up on some unscheduled programmes after broadcast (such as the many General Election interviews and campaign events currently popping up on BBC Parliament), but it will amount to some 50 hours of TV and radio recorded for that day.

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Channel 4's Alternative Election, 6 May 2010

Over the five years we have recorded some 45,700 television programmes and 12,100 radio programmes. We record mainly news programmes, though we interpret news quite broadly and include current affairs, interviews, documentaries, live broadcasts and so on. The top 10 most recorded channels are BBc 1 (6,410 programmes), BBC Radio 4 (6,144), ITV1 (5.604), BBC News (4,865), Sky News (3,457), Russia Today/RT (3,153), NHK world (2,995), CCTV [China] (2,918), BBC World Service (2,647) and Al Jazeera English (2,552).

All of the programmes are available on any Library terminal at our St Pancras and Boston Spa sites. For reasons of copyright we cannot make the programmes available online. You can find records of what we have on Broadcast News on the Explore catalogue, but for the most up-to-date records and the fullest service - including word-searchability of programme subtitles - it is best to go to the Broadcast News site, which you can find under the Sound and Moving Image services page on any Library terminal, or just look for http://videoserver.bl.uk (please note, this link only works if you are located at one of our sites and working from a British Library terminal).

And here's to the next five years of news.