C-Span: Born of Fire

German philosophy has never really caught my fancy, but I love British history.  To my delight, Part III of  Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Strukturwandel der Öffentlicheit) cites the development of post-interregnum Great Britain through the 18th century as the first “public sphere that functioned in the political realm.”

Habermas likes three spawning points for Britain’s transformation:

  • Bank of England – 1694 (centralized capital)
  • Licensing Act – 1695 (eliminate censorship)
  • Cabinet system – 1695/98 (increased parliamentary powers)

Of these, the most striking (and most thoroughly discussed) are the “unique liberties” of British journalists when “[c]ompared to the press in other European states.”

The wit and satire of this period in British literature are amongst the most popular of any era in the history of the English language. Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe are two names every high school student should know. It is no small coincidence that these and other authors of the period (e.g., Alexander Pope) are famed for their subversive political commentary, often through satire (e.g., Gulliver’s Travels).

In addition to their more popular (and humorous) satiric works, the authors of this era are also known for their journalism. If we still discuss these works in modern classrooms, one can see how these types of works “were discussed in clubs and coffee houses, at home and in the streets” when they were fresh and immediately relevant to events of the era.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before journalism was being exploited by the powerful:

Harley was the first statesman to understand how to turn the new situation to his advantage. He engaged authors like Defoe… who defended the cause of the Whigs not only in the pamphlets used up until then but also in the new journals. Indeed, he was the first to make the “party spirit” a “public spirit.”

The ensuing trend was one of competing publications, alternately favoring the Whig or Tory agendas. This polarization within the British public transformation parallels that of modern U.S. media in a startling way.

Modern political figures use media (print, internet, and especially television) to promote their own messages and/or agendas, which helps transform the politicians from targets “of critical comment by public opinion, into the very organ of this opinion”, exactly as Habermas describes when referring to 19th century British Parliament.

What really drives this point home are the “stands for reporters installed” within the “House of Parliament newly constructed after the fire of 1834” and their parallel to C-Span coverage.

One need only watch a few minutes of C-Span coverage of the U.S. House or Senate to see what it looks like when a representative or Senator gives a fiery speech to an empty chamber — clearly for the benefit of those watching at home. Suddenly, politicians ARE political commentators…

The more things change…


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