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Satire and Scorn

It did not take long for the news industry to come under attack, and criticism became even more scathing after the explosion of partisan newspapers in the 1640s. Many saw newspapers as vehicles for biased propaganda and outright lies. Ben Jonson in the The Staple of News had ridiculed the foolishness of people wasting their money on salacious and inaccurate news.

Henry Peacham. The world is ruled & governed by opinion. London, 1641.

In 1641 England was on the brink of civil war and the bookstores were overflowing with “opinions found in every house.” Henry Peacham’s poem (above) laments this sad state of affairs: “The fruit of those idle books and libels be, In every street, in every stall you find.” In the illustration, the figure of opinion is no longer able to distinguish truth from opinion. A jester waters the tree to bring forth more false news as a man looks on in wonder at the proliferation of pamphlets.


In 1642, as civil war erupted in England, the public demand for news was insatiable and newsbooks and pamphlets proliferated. With them came satires on news and newspapers. “The general news is, nobody knows what to make of the World,” the author of Pigges Coranto  laments.


InA Rope for Pol, Roger L’Estrange compares infamous newsman Marchamont Nedham to the devil and calls for him to be “marked” so all could see his faults. Nedham had been one of the chief propagandists for the Republican regime in the 1650s. A friend of John Milton, Nedham edited one of the most influential and widely read newspapers, Mercurius Politicus.


John Davies'A Scourge for Paper-Persecuters complains about the abundance of writers now publishing their works and “murdering paper.” Newsletter writers were particularly scorned: “behold the walls buttered with the weekly news composed in Pauls,” is a direct reference to Nathaniel Butter, the publisher of earlier corontos.


Perhaps the most famous of these satires on news is Ben Jonson’s play, The Staple of News , written a few years after the introduction of corantos to England. It pokes fun at the news industry and particularly those who wasted their money buying news sheets. In the play, the publisher Nathaniel Butter is lampooned as Cymbal, manager of the News Staple, itself a parody of early corantos. Four Gossips sit on stage making a number of jokes at Butter’s expense, and the industry as a whole is pilloried as a purveyor of untruths and tittle-tattle.


By 1660, newspapers were under sustained criticism and all pretense of objectivity was lost in a wave of bitter invective.


Pigges corantoe, or, Nevves from the north. London, 1642

John Davies. A scourge for paper-persecutors. London, 1625

A rope for Pol. Or, A hue and cry after Marchemont Nedham. London, 1660

Jonson. Works. Vol. 2-3. London, 1640 (i.e. 1641)

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