Newspapers in and out of history

Newspapers in and out of history
The World of Books
Felix M. Larkin


Even work on the scale of the new four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland (£350.00) cannot hope to be fully comprehensive. Nevertheless, the absence of a chapter on Irish newspapers in the History is quite remarkable. There is a chapter in volume four on broadcasting, but nothing specifically on print media.

This omission is despite what James Curran, the foremost media historian in Britain today, has referred to as the “sustained and focused historical investigation into the Irish press” in recent years facilitated, at least in part, by the establishment of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland in 2008.

Most historians regard newspapers as of interest essentially because of the light they throw on politics, society and public opinion at a particular time and because they offer the proverbial “first rough draft of history” – a phrase usually attributed to Philip Graham, the legendary publisher of the Washington Post. John Horgan, the former Press Ombudsman, has thus written that “newspapers are generally understood to be secondary sources for historians…sometimes they are the only record of things that actually happened. Sometimes they provide brief items of information, unavailable elsewhere, that can contribute important missing parts of a much larger historical jigsaw puzzle. And sometimes, precisely because they do not know what happened next, they are important witnesses to, and evidence of, the general mindset of populations and elites.”

All this is true, but it is dangerous for the historian to rely on any newspaper as a source without some background knowledge of the publication in question, especially its political agenda. That is the primary reason why historians should study the history of newspapers in general and also the history of individual newspapers. They must understand the press and its history in order to critically assess its value as a source and to come to a proper appreciation of its limitations as a source.

James Joyce inserted a wonderful aphorism into the ‘Aeolus’ episode of Ulysses: “Sufficient for the day is the newspaper thereof.” It echoes the Sermon on the Mount from St Matthew’s gospel – “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” – and its significance is that it reminds us that newspapers are ephemeral. They have a shelf-life of one day, hardly ever longer than that. They lack the long-term perspective that is the hallmark of the work of the historian. Historians using newspapers as source material must add that perspective, and knowledge of the history of the newspapers in question is an important factor in that process.

Moreover, the history of newspapers is an inherently interesting topic for study – of value in its own right and for its own sake. It is not merely a side show, not just an effort to enhance our ability to use newspapers as sources – important though that is. Newspapers have been a vital element in political, social and cultural life for more than two centuries. Both individually and collectively, they have always been regarded by politicians and others as of great importance in creating and moulding public opinion and/or as an expression of it.

The nature and extent of the influence of the press is difficult territory for the historian, public opinion being an even more nebulous concept in the past than it is today. In his book Public Opinion, published in 1922 and described by Robert Schmuhl as “one of the first intellectually rigorous inquiries of journalism”, Walter Lippmann argued that the importance of newspapers derives from the fact that they “signalize” an event or issue. They do not, and cannot, determine what people think – but they tell their readers what to think about and help shape the discourse that ensues.

Such considerations should inform the work of historians and others concerned with the past. Their work needs to take account of the history of the press and its influence on politics and society over time, and it is regrettable that the new Cambridge History of Ireland – in other respects, a very admirable project – fails to do that.

Felix M.  Larkin is a co-founder and former chairman of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland.