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Modern British History

British Talkies and the “Correct” Female Voice

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The cinema of the interwar era (1919-1939) is commonly acknowledged as being an essential factor in influencing girls and women. From their fashion choices and hairstyles to what was considered at the time to be “unfeminine” behaviours like smoking and drinking.[1]  With the introduction of sound to the cinema in 1927, a new attribute that could be influenced was acknowledged, the voice.

In 1927 a Daily Express columnist claimed that ‘we have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intent and purpose, are temporary American citizens’.[2] The increasing popularity of Hollywood films over British films perpetuated the fear of Americanisation of the British culture and its perceived effects on demoralising society, by introducing their lax attitude towards manners, morality and speech. The perception that Hollywood promoted democratising and egalitarian values to a British population who had nearly tripled their electorate with The Representation of the People Act (1918), presented a danger to the concepts and ideals of Britishness.

Films with synchronised sound and dialogue, dubbed “talkies”, soon became the primary experience of the film viewing public, replacing silent pictures as the new norm. Film played an important part in offering a presentation of “proper” British speech, behaviour, and morality that could be consumed and imitated by audiences. With the introduction of the Hollywood talkies, the concern of American influence was exacerbated due to the alleged corruption of the British language with Americanisms and slang.

The preferred voice of the British screen was that of “Received Pronunciation” (RP), the uniform way of speaking to allow not only for the audience to understand the dialogue without confusing regional dialects, but to introduce a “correct” way of speaking by broadcasting the ‘superior speech’.[3] Yet in what Rachael Low calls ‘class-ridden Britain’, the audiences complained more about the ‘oxford accent’ and the ‘BBC voice’ associated with RP than the American slang and idioms of Hollywood films.[4] But how did this affect the relatability of female characters? Did hearing the voice of an actress ruin the illusion created of her on the silent screen, or would young women be more inclined to embody her, including the way she talked?

The female voice was subjected to unsubstantiated concerns over its suitability for broadcast, as women were considered incapable of retaining the attention of listeners because their voices were less commanding and could be at times “monotonous […] and shrill”, creating an unpleasant listening experience. Claims even went as far as suggesting that even if women’s voices were used, they wouldn’t have anything interesting to say anyway.

The introduction of sound to pictures only increased the list of things that a woman could be criticised for and added another aspect of femininity that could be idealised, learnt and conformed to. Larraine Porter suggests that sound cinema ‘created a vogue for particular kinds of voices’ and expected women’s voices to transform towards feminine desirability.[5]

Before the introduction of sound to film, cinema had already created visual forms of women that represented feminine desirability, sexuality, and the different tropes of female characters, to be instantly recognisable to an audience. This meant that women’s voices needed to match the aura of the character; high-pitched and girly for a youthful innocent image, lower-pitched for one of sexual promiscuity, and even manlier images. With the wrong voice, she may ruin her allure, desirability, and feminine image.

Cinema-goers when watching their favourite star had already formed an idea of their voices despite never hearing them which made it near impossible for actresses to meet expectations of their on-screen persona. The impossibility for these already successful silent actresses to meet vocal expectations set them up for inevitable criticism at every turn, they may be too high, too low, too monotonous, too fast, too slow, too weak and thin or too strong and mannish. Each critique set back the female voice, becoming evident that women were being punished for speaking at all, for occupying what radio considered to be a male vocal space.[6]

In The Film Gone Male written by Dorothy Richardson in 1932, she argued that the silent film was a feminine space that had been masculinised by the introduction of sound. The silent film produced images of feminine experiences and realities, and these male voices took away from the female audience’s experience, describing women as ‘humanities silent half’.[7] In silent film, the female audiences could easily envision themselves or insert their own voices and experiences onto the female characters being portrayed. Antonia Lant too, argues that the silent film was considered by female audiences to hold a feminine universalism, transposing onto silent film the value of femininity. After the introduction of the more dominant male voice in cinema, many women critics felt like on-screen women lost their voice, and in turn women in British society did too, suggesting that men became established as the possessor of the voice.

The arrival of sound to British film cemented pre-existing silent film gender tropes and set a precedence for the marginalisation of women’s vocal presence in film. Despite the fact that the majority of cinema audiences were made up of women, early sound cinema had developed an aversion toward the female voice that remains in film to this day.

Rachel Bogush is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on modern femininity in interwar British media. She tweets at @rachelbogush.

Cover Image: Exhibitor’s Herald, April 9th 1921. Still of the cast and production crew from the American comedy drama film The Affairs of Anatol (1921). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


[1] C. Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: Class, Gender, and Nation in Popular Film and Fiction in Interwar Britain, (2014), p.3

S. Harper, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, (2000),

[2] Daily Express, 18 March 1927, p. 6.

[3] A. Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars, (1991) P.215

[4] R. Low, The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Film making in 1930s Britain, (1985), p.89

[5] L. Porter, ‘“Have You a Happy Voice?” Women’s Voices and the Talkie Revolution in Britain 1929–1932’, MSMI, Vol.12:2, (2018), p.141

[6] Ibid., 152

[7] Richardson, D., Continuous Performance: The Film Gone Male (1932), in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, (1983)

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And they’re off!: What Sports Discourse Can Reveal About Postwar British Democracy

1971 Anglo-Italian Cup Winners – Blackpool Football Club

Whether you are an avid football fan who never misses a game or, like myself you have yet to grasp the offside rule, sport is near impossible to avoid. A form of entertainment and escapism, sport undoubtedly plays a crucial role within our lives.

In response to the irrefutable prevalence of sport, over the past decade we have seen a rise in sports history as a respected field within academia.

Noting how sport history is primarily ‘marked by a cultural approach’, in his 2021 article Harm Kaal makes a convincing case that sport should be taken more seriously by political historians of the postwar period.[1]

As Kaal states, sport and politics are ‘intimately connected’, yet until now political historians have ‘hardly reflected on the nature of this connection in the postwar years’.[2]

One of the most prominent ways that we see the link between sport and politics, and indeed between sport and many spheres of popular culture, is through language and communication. As a political historian whose research is centered on articulations of democracy in the tabloid press, it is certainly hard to avoid the conflation between sporting and political discourse.

In this blog post I will be investigating the use of sporting discourse in political reporting, in particular how it was utilised during British General Elections in the 1970s. This will provide insights into the nature of democratic culture during this period.

On 19th May 1970, the Express announced the beginning of the election campaign with the front-page headline, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES’, accompanied by the subheading ‘They’re off on June 18th’, utilising discourse drawn from horseracing in order to mark the start of electioneering.[3]

Alongside the article, the Express published a cartoon image of the main candidates, Wilson and Heath, racing on horseback.[4] Here the democratic process was being equated to horse racing, a sport with an unclear outcome that is very much dependent on the performance of individuals on the day. Coverage of the election was therefore less about policy and parties, and instead focused on the performances of individual prospective representatives during their campaign, as opposed to long-term party affiliation.

This process can also be seen in the following quote pulled from the Sun’s coverage of the second General Election of 1974:

 ‘As we move into the half-way stage of this thrilling contest – so help me, I am beginning to sound like Match of the Day – it is clear that honesty is the new policy. The dramatic first-half incident, in which Mrs Shirley Williams scored an own-goal, may actually have turned out to the advantage of that celebrated schemer, Twinkletoes Harold [Wilson]’.[5]

This time equating politics to football, we see politicians being referred to in a satirical manner, detaching them from their parties and instead focusing on their individual performance.

Along similar lines, in the month preceding the 1979 election, the Mirror also utilised boxing vocabulary in order to communicate their notions of the electioneering process, declaring that ‘the first round of the battle between the two election heavyweights [had] been won by Jim Callaghan – without a glove being laid on him’.[6]

Language such as ‘heavyweights’, ‘lightweights’, ‘combat’, and ‘battered’, along with describing Westminster as an ‘arena’, immediately drew parallels between politics and boxing, making democratic deliberation more tangible for newspaper readers.[7] As well as making politics more accessible, principally to men, it also shifted political representatives’ positions within democratic culture. Once yardsticks of gentlemanly civility, they instead became sources of entertainment, allowing for them to be viewed with less deference.

The use of sporting metaphors in newspapers’ coverage of politics was symptomatic of the broader changes in the way the popular press was articulating popular understandings of democracy. From the late 1950s onwards, party democracy was facing a lot of criticism from the popular press and its readers, who desired increased proximity between the people and their political representatives.

The version of democracy we see emerging in the 1970s therefore, referred to by Bernard Manin as “audience democracy”, was a product of efforts to make this an actuality.[8] Politicians attempted to present themselves and were being presented as “one of the people”. One of the ways through which the popular press did this was through the use of sporting vernacular, which allowed them to communicate politics with their readers within a framework that they could relate to. In other words, sport made politicians more palpable for the ordinary person.

What we can see from this small case study is that there is a real value in political historians taking seriously sports history, along with other aspects of popular culture including the tabloid press.

Sport can help us shed light on changes in political communication, popular expectations of representatives, inclusion and exclusion and shifts in political power.

These concerns will be explored in the Voice of the People project, which aims to put the voices of ordinary citizens centre stage in the discussions of postwar political cultural, by deconstructing articulations of democracy in the popular press.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie.

Cover Image: Anglo-Italian Cup Winners, Blackpool FC., 1971. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] Kaal, H. G. J., ‘Boundary Disputes: New approaches to the interaction between sport and politics in the postwar years’, Journal of Modern European History 19.3 (2021), p. 364.

[2] Ibid., p. 362.

[3] Maurice Trowbridge, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES!’, Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[4] Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[5] John Akass, ‘Twinkletoes could find it pays to tell the truth’, The Sun, September 30th 1974, p. 6.

[6] Terence Lancaster, ‘Election Briefing’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1979, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bernard Manin, The principles of representative government (New York, 1997), p. 218.

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The Long Fall of King Coal

Longannet_Power_Station_7_December_2011 (1)

When did Britain’s age of coal come to an end? A commonsensical answer to this question is likely to appeal to the decisive defeat the miners suffered during the great strike of 1984-5 and the swift closure of collieries that followed in the decade after.

Energy scholars such as Timothy Mitchell are more likely to point to the transition towards an oil economy in the immediate postwar period.[1] Long before the mid-1980s, Britain had become a car-driven society dependent on petrochemical manufacturing processes and oil had even begun to play a significant role in Britain’s electricity generation by the early 1970s.[2]

King coal’s fall was certainly longer than a story of rapid contraction allows for, but rather than being squarely located in an earlier time-period, it is a story that stretches into the present. British coal production and employment peaked at almost 300 million tons and over a million miners during the second decade of the twentieth century and has been in more or less sustained contraction since the early 1920s. It was only in 2020, during the midst of lockdown, that Britain went without coal-fired electricity for two months for the first time in over 130 years.

These developments are a sign of things to come. Britain is on track to end coal-fired electricity by the mid-2020s. Scotland’s last coal power station, Longannet, closed in 2016. Fourteen years earlier, in 2002, the curtain was brought down on a centuries-long historical saga when miners rose from the last of the drift mines dug to supply Longannet for the final time. This brought Scottish deep coal mining to an end.

I was finalising my PhD thesis on deindustrialization in Scotland’s coalfields when Longannet power station closed. My research included several interviews with men who had worked at the complex and were among the nation’s last miners. My first monograph was published this year, Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland.[3]

Coal Country approaches deindustrialization, the declining significance of industrial activities to employment and economic production, as a long-term historical economic process which had foundational cultural and political consequences. It understands the entire lifetime of Longannet power station, and the modernised mining complex which directly fuelled it with coal won beneath the Firth of Forth, as framed by deindustrialization.

Longannet was planned during the 1960s and contextualised by the numerical peak of coal mining job losses. Scottish coalfield employment stood at just over 30,000 in 1970 when the power station began producing electricity, less than half what it had been a decade before. These tens of thousands of job losses were negotiated through moral economy customs that evolved between the management of Britain’s nationalised coal industry and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Closures were agreed in consultation with union representatives, transfers to suitable jobs were found for miners within travel distance of their homes and suitable accommodations were made for injured, disabled and elderly miners, including the option to retire early in some cases.

These practices evolved over time, originating in responses to sustained closured in the Shotts area of Lanarkshire after the Second World War when the workforce defied Coal Board expectations of mass emigration to collieries in eastern and central Scotland. Instead, a ‘take work to the workers’ policy was pursued by civil servants, including the direction of inward investment in engineering to stabilise the local labour market. This approach was subsequently followed across the Scottish coalfields during the 1950s and 1960s.[4]

Job losses and fears of economic insecurity nevertheless fuelled dissatisfaction. Longannet became a key site in the 1972 strike over miners’ wages when the NUM Scottish Area (NUMSA) mounted mass pickets who clashed with police.[5] A decade earlier, a ‘strong coal lobby’ connected to the Scottish Office had insisted on investment in additional electricity capacity due to concern about sector’s future and employment consequences.[6] Later in the 1960s, the NUMSA responded to mounting colliery closures by becoming a leading proponent of a devolved Scottish parliament within the labour movement.[7]

Longannet strengthened the articulation of a Scottish national coalfield community that overcame traditional parochial associations. Pat Egan relocated from Twechar in Lanarkshire to Glenrothes in Fife so he could take up work at the complex after Bedlay colliery shut in 1982. When I interviewed him in 2014, Pat explained that regional voting blocs in union elections dissipated over time and that trusting relationships were built between men who travelled to work at Longannet each day from Lanarkshire, Fife, Clackmannanshire and the Lothians.[8]

Coal Country confronts the need to understand deindustrialization as a formative structural process and an intensely personal experience whose intricacies determined life courses and remoulded community, class and nationhood. The contraction of Scotland’s coalfields unfolded across the second half of the twentieth century, but its pace was determined by the agency of workers, politicians, nationalised industry managers and civil servants.

Archival records from government, industry and unions provide a detailed vantage on the contingencies that shaped deindustrialization. Oral testimonies are insightful for understanding how workplace closures and job losses were experienced in the coalfields and what these changes came to mean in the twenty-first century.

Earlier this year, Longannet power station’s boiler house was subject to a controlled demolition and the large chimney is set to follow soon. Visible signs of the role coal played in transforming Scotland over the last two centuries are disappearing from the landscape, whilst the energy transition that led to Longannet’s closure continues apace. The Neart na Gaoithe windfarm is under construction in the North Sea near the Fife coast.

Moral economy sentiments and arguments over the responsibility of governments to use Scottish national resources in the interests of communities continue to animate workers’ perspectives. Unions have condemned of the ‘paltry return’ of local jobs and production provided by wind turbine multinational supply chains. The concerns and conflicts which animated deindustrialization in the Scottish coalfields will continue to reverberate in the context of debates over a ‘just transition’ to renewables.

Ewan Gibbs is a lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. He published Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland with the University of London Press and is beginning a BA-Wolfson Fellowship studying energy transitions. You can find Ewan on Twitter @ewangibbs


Cover image: Longannet Power Station 7 December 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Longannet_Power_Station_7_December_2011.jpg [accessed 25 July 2021]

[1] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2013).

[2] James Marriott and Terry Macalister, Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation Kindle Edition (London: Pluto, 2021).

[3] Ewan Gibbs, Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland (London: University of London Press, 2021).

[4] The National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scottish Economic Policy, 4/762, H. S. Phillips, Research studies: geographical movement of labour, 9 August 1948.

[5] Jim Phillips, The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p.126.

[6] The National Archives, Kew, London, Ministry of Fuel and Power, 14/1495, Ministry of Power General Division, TUC and Fuel and Power policy brief for minister’s meeting on 12 February 1963.

[7] STUC, Annual Report 1967–1968, lxxi (1968), 191–2.

[8] Pat Egan, interview with author, Fife College, Glenrothes, 5 February 2014.

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50 Years of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)

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On 27 May, it is exactly fifty years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA), the UK’s primary legislation for controlling drugs, received Royal Assent.

The Act arranged drugs into a three-tier classification system – A, B and C – with controls based on the perceived relative harm of different substances. Now the legislation is at the centre of a campaign by Transform Drug Policy who are calling for an overhaul of the law which the organisation considers having represented ‘50 years of failure’. 

One of the rationales behind the MDA was to consolidate the existing patchwork of legislation that had developed in the UK since the Pharmacy Act of 1868. This was the first time Parliament recognised a risk to the public from ‘poisoning’ and the 1868 Act distinguished between substances that were ‘toxic’ (poisons) and substances that were both ‘toxic’ and ‘addictive’ (‘dangerous drugs’). 

Some of these so-called ‘drugs of addiction’ were later subject to further controls under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 (DDA) which introduced prescriptions and criminalised unauthorised possession of opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine. 

Whilst this did represent a continuation of wartime drug control efforts it was also the result of a racist media-led panic around Chinese opium dens, as well as being a response to international moves toward uniformity on drug regulation. 

The DDA was later clarified by the Departmental Committee on Morphine and Heroin Addiction in their 1926 ‘Rolleston Report’. This formed an interpretation of the Act that became known as the ‘British System’, framing ‘drug addiction’ as a medical issue rather than a moral failing. 

By the 1950s, drugs were becoming increasingly connected in public consciousness with youth subculture and – especially in the tabloid press – black communities and the London jazz scene, stoking further moral panic. 

By 1958, the British Medical Journal observed that the regulations around drugs and poisons were already ‘rather complicated’.[1] This picture was complicated yet further by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which laid out an international regime of drug control, ratified in the UK in 1964 by another Dangerous Drugs Act

Another committee was also formed under the Chairmanship of Lord Brain, ultimately leading to (yet another) Dangerous Drugs Act in 1967 which held onto the principles of the ‘British System’ but introduced new stipulations, such as requiring doctors to apply for a licence from the Home Office for certain prescriptions. 

During the 1960s, drugs continued to be associated in popular imagination with youth, with most attention by 1967 on the ‘Counterculture’ and ‘the hippies’, and in particular their use of cannabis and LSD. That same year, Mick Jagger’s country retreat in Redlands was raided by the drugs squad in a bust that was symbolic of a broader clash of ideologies.

The arrest and harsh sentencing of Jagger, Keith Richards and their friend Robert Fraser prompted William Rees-Mogg’s famous Times editorial ‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?’ on 1 July 1967. This became part of a wider public debate on drug use and on 16 July a ‘Legalise Pot’ rally took place in Hyde park, followed on 24 July by a full-page advert (paid for by Paul McCartney) in the Times calling for cannabis law reform.  

Imaginatively, the Government decided to convene another committee, this time under Baroness Wootton. Its report, published at the end of 1968, argued that whilst it did not think cannabis should be legalised, it should be made distinct in law from other illegal drugs. 

Finally in 1970, Home Secretary James Callaghan introduced a new Bill that was described during its passage through Parliament as an attempt to replace ‘…the present rigid and ramshackle collection of drug Acts by a single comprehensive measure’.[2] But the Bill was as ideological as it was pragmatic, and Callaghan himself had rejected the recommendations of Wootton.

The debates in both the Commons and the Lords indicate that not only did most Members of Parliament who spoke on the subject have little understanding of the complexities of drug use, but also that the theme of the ‘permissive society’ and its supposed excesses was central.

The Bill was approved in May 1971, given Royal Assent the same month and fully implemented after two more years. The Act also established the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), tasked with keeping the drug situation in the UK under review. 

Successive governments have tended to accept the recommendations of the Council but there have been clashes, such as in 2009 when there was a total breakdown of relations when Professor David Nutt, then Chair of the Council, was sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after Nutt had claimed – with substantial evidence – that MDMA and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. 

For all of this, what has actually been the impact of the MDA? Well, as Simon Jenkins recently pointed out in a blog for the Guardian, 27,000 children and teenagers are now involved in ‘country lines’ drug gangs. Jenkins had previously described the MDA as a law that has done ‘less good and more harm’ than any other law on the statute book.

It is difficult to argue with this. Far from stemming recreational drug use, use of illegal drugs only increased after the MDA and became endemic in cities during the 1980s as heroin became a significant social issue. In 1979, the number of notified heroin users exceeded 1,000 for the first time. 

Over the 1980s and 1990s, drugs like MDMA were also increasingly used to enhance users’ experiences, especially in rave contexts, yet the Government line remained the same. As drug and harm reduction expert Julian Buchanan argued in 2000, ‘two decades of prevention, prohibition and punishment have had little noticeable impact upon the growing use of illegal drugs’.[3]

The MDA also deterred drug users from seeking help for fear of legal repercussions and limited the opportunities of countless young people. Last year, Adam Holland noted in the Harm Reduction Journal that in the UK, drug-related deaths were at the highest level on record and that although enormous time and money has gone into combating the illicit drugs trade, the market has not stopped growing.[4]

Writing thirty years after the MDA, Buchanan had argued that a ‘bold and radical rethink of UK drug policy’ was needed. Such a rethink never materialised. In 2019, the House of Commons Select Committee on Drug Policy concluded that ‘UK drugs policy is failing’. Now after half a century it might be time for real radical change, and the anniversary presents a great opportunity for this conversation to gain momentum. 

Hallam Roffey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey


[1] John Glaister and Edgar Rentoul, ‘The Control of the Sale of Poisons and Dangerous Drugs’, British Medical Journal (1958;2), p. 1525.

[2] House of Lords debate (October 1969), Hansard volume 790, cols 189-90.

[3] Julian Buchanan and L. Young, ‘The War on Drugs—A War on Drug Users’, Drugs: Education, Prevention, Policy 7:4 (2000), pp. 409-22.

[4] Adam Holland, ‘An ethical analysis of UK drug policy as an example of a criminal justice approach to drugs: a commentary on the short film Putting UK Drug Policy into Focus’, Harm Reduction Journal 17:97 (2020).

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From Popular Culture to Culture War: Free Speech and the British Press

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In recent years, debates about ‘free speech’ have become ever-present in politics and the media, central to what has been called a ‘culture war’. Responding to this situation, a recent volume that assembles a diverse group of commentators, activists and academics – including a chapter from myself – focuses on what it calls The Free Speech Wars.

It examines how speech has and has not been controlled both historically and today, and the ways in which the concept of free speech has been weaponised or deployed as a bad faith argument by those wishing to commit harm. In the introduction, the volume’s editor, Charlotte Lydia Riley, summarises some of the insights the book offers, arguing:

“that free speech is often only available to those who are already powerful; that the people who shout the loudest about their speech being denied are still, at the end of the day, the ones whose voices carry the furthest. Freedom of speech is an essential right and a powerful duty, but it is not the only thing that matters”.

My own chapter explores these themes by examining one particular case study: the British press. This is an important subject as the press has both a vested interest in the debate due to the criticism the industry receives for its own harmful practices, and because the press is a major platform in which arguments about free speech take place and where ideas and rhetorical slogans are crafted and popularised.

The notion of freedom has been central to how the British press has presented itself ever since the emergence of what are recognisable as ‘newspapers’ in the seventeenth century. At that time it was undoubtedly an existential concern, given the efforts of the British state to censor what could be printed.[1] Famous figures such as John Wilkes became symbols of the need to fight for free speech, and the press has long presented itself as the ‘Fourth Estate’, with a supposed duty to hold the powerful to account.

Yet the context has changed immensely in the intervening centuries. From a time when a small number of journalists and publications were truly radical voices speaking to a relatively small number of readers, by the end of the nineteenth century a mass press had emerged.

With readerships reaching into the millions, owned by wealthy figures such as the press barons, and with links to powerful interests in the spheres of politics and business, the press itself – particularly the largest and most influential newspapers – now wielded immense power. Moreover, the majority of the press remained resolutely right-wing politically, which remains the case today.

With such large circulations, newspapers were able to set the agenda and pressurise politicians. This mass press was also a key element in the emergence of a ‘popular culture’, as important as books, films or music. Newspapers played a vital role in crafting notions of ‘common sense’ and a political and cultural language for their readers.

This new state of affairs begged the question – who would hold the press itself to account?

The central character of debates about press freedom changed during the twentieth century, with the 1960s serving as a pivotal moment. Beforehand, debates about free speech and the press tended to focus on notions of morality, respectability and obscenity, and the tone of newspaper’s critiques of authority figures. Afterwards, debates about press freedom tended to centre on the press’s representation of disadvantaged groups, whether this concerned stereotyping and discrimination or issues of privacy and intrusion into the personal sphere.

The longstanding demonisation of migrants and ethnic minorities in the pages of many of the most high-profile British newspapers, especially the tabloids, is one obvious example. Another is the News of the World’s notorious practice of phonehacking, also likely utilised by other newspapers. This targeted not just celebrities, but also regular members of the public who had been thrust into the public eye, such as the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The press duly wheeled out all of the old arguments about free speech, the freedom of the press and the Fourth Estate. Newspapers presented themselves as the victims, ignoring the ways in which they had used their power and influence to harm others, their unethical – and even illegal – practices, and their frequent disregard for factual accuracy.

Although the phonehacking scandal led to the closure of the News of the World and some brief jailtime for a small number of perpetrators, most of those involved escaped censure and the Sun on Sunday was quickly launched by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK to replace the News of the World. Most damningly, the new industry regulator, IPSO, was again set up as a vehicle of self-regulation like its predecessors – and has been chaired by figures from News UK such as former political editor of the Sun, Trevor Kavanagh.

Murdoch has been central to another factor in ‘free speech’ becoming a central focus of much of the British press. His media organisations straddle both sides of the Atlantic (and far beyond). Much as Fox News has hosted reactionaries utilising notionally liberal values such as freedom and ‘free speech’ to provide cover for their regressive and discriminatory views and activities, so too have Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK – the Sun, The Times, and the Sunday Times.

This is part of a broader press environment where culture-war rhetoric has flourished, with constant alarmist articles about ‘snowflakes’ and PC culture, no-platforming and other supposed attacks against free speech on university campuses, and disingenuous claims that calling out racism, misogyny and homophobia is now the real bigotry and a threat to freedom – all of which are examined in The Free Speech Wars.

The history of the British press across the last century and a half has exemplified a broader societal shift from popular culture to culture war – and although the manner in which notions of free speech have been utilised has changed, they remain potent rhetorical tools. Free speech is a vitally important issue, especially at a time when authoritarianism is rising around the world and journalists in many countries are targeted with violence. The press is also clearly home to a diverse range of voices, including on the issue of free speech.

But the appeals to free speech offered by the press in Britain need to be treated with suspicion given the industry’s long history of hypocrisy over the issue and the various ways it has sought to weaponize the concept to justify its commercial imperatives and unethical behaviour. You can read my full chapter in the book for a more detailed account of how this unfolded.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

The Free Speech Wars is available now from Manchester University Press.


Cover image: A pile of newspapers secured with an iron chain.

[1] K. Williams, Read All About It!: A History of the British Newspaper (London, 2010), chs 1-3.

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‘Illegitimate’ Cultures: from the Music Hall to the Rave

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At first glance, mid-Victorian entertainment culture and the current ‘illegal’ rave scene of Covid-Britain may appear wildly incomparable. But the early Victorian period, as illustrated by the cultural division between the ‘music hall’ and ‘legitimate theatre’ was pivotal in cementing the division between ‘illegitimate’ and ‘legitimate’ culture. Understanding the historical drivers behind these definitions of culture is crucial to disentangling contemporary ‘public health’ policy from the influence of ‘moral panic.’  Distinguishing between the two can reveal the broader influence of dominant class anxieties about cultures which appear to challenge economic or social ‘norms’, of which early music hall and rave culture are both examples. 

The summer of 2020 witnessed stark contradictions in public health messages and policies.  Whilst an inevitable wave of ‘illegal’ outdoor rave gatherings were condemned and supressed by police forces, simultaneously the public were being encouraged (and subsidised) to ‘eat out’ in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being widely deemed a greater danger for viral transmission. This speaks volumes about the push to maintain the ideology of ‘legitimate culture’, defined by its relationship to free market economics (to which restaurant culture is wedded) as being more important than the scientific realities of public health.  

The first organised and uniformed police force emerged in 1829, playing a key role in shaping ‘legitimate’ modes of culture in the newly expanding towns and cities of the Victorian era.  Arising from a middle-class fear of the expanding working classes, early policing was born out of a desire to impose discipline outside of the confines of the workplace upon sites of ‘unregulated’ leisure time –on the street or in the ale house. In the context of the Chartist movement of the 1830s, which saw mass demonstrations calling for wider enfranchisement, a fear of the ‘unruly crowd’ and its potential to challenge state power remained present throughout the century. 

The larger, more commercially minded ‘Music Hall’ venue emerged out of the smaller ale houses and singing saloons of the late 18th and early 19th century urban milieu. Often tied closely to the brewing industry, music halls were associated with drinking, smoking and less ‘respectable’ behaviour.  Their perceived lack of legitimacy, compared to ‘legitimate’ theatres, where smoking and drinking were forbidden, was solidified by the 1843 Theatres Act. This Act stipulated that only venues holding a Theatre License, appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, could legally perform plays or performances with a ‘strong narrative’. This distinction between the music hall and theatre reflected the increasing tendency from the Victorian era upon centralising state control over censorship. 

The Eat Out To Help Out scheme of the summer of 2020 encouraged and subsidised the public to gather in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being deemed dangerous for viral transmission. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/8pc6VvR0gJs, Photographer: Nick Fewings

Associated with large gatherings in rural locations, a large part of the anxiety that the rave scene is associated with may stem from its physical dislocation from the regulation and surveillance of the urban space, a legacy that can be traced back to Victorian policing. It has been argued that the government night time economy policies of the 1990s, which sought to replace rave culture with tighter social controls, explicitly took aim at rave culture, driving it into commercial club spaces that could be regulated through licensing, rendering rave more visible and therefore subject to greater monitoring in the public sphere. 

Furthermore, unlike the Victorian music hall and ‘legitimate’ theatre, rave culture possesses neither a stake in broader social nor in economic capital, existing (largely) outside of the regulated entertainment industry. This helps to explain rave culture’s consistent suppression following its height during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Passed in response to the infamous rave at Castle Morton in 1992, the 1994 ‘Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’ gave sweeping powers to stop unlicensed gatherings of more than a hundred people, with an emphasis on supressing events which played loud music with ‘repetitive beats’ – an extremely unsubtle reference to rave culture. 

A telling quote from a raver involved in the scene of the time mentions the class politics at play in suppressing particular cultures, as well as the relationship between ‘legitimate’ culture and free-market economics: ‘If it had been a big event, [which] had been staged [and] had cost thousands of pounds it would have been all right[..]But because it was poor people, with no money, doing something they haven’t been granted permission for, suddenly it was the crime of the century.’ 

Unlike rave culture, Music Hall would eventually become more accepted through its increasing ‘commercialisation’ during the later 19th century as a national entertainment industry. Conscious attempts were made to prove Music Hall’s legitimacy through self-censorship, curating more ‘respectable’ content, and deploying surveillance to regulate crowd behaviour, as demonstrated by numerous statements on theatre bill posters proclaiming police would be ‘in attendance.’ 

Whether we understand or support the rave scene or not, ‘rave culture is culture.’  It is possible to be both critical of the public health practices of rave events (as indeed even many within the scene have been), as well as considering it a culture in all its complexity (for what is culture without its contradictions and problematic aspects?) 

Taking leisure culture, including rave culture seriously, brings into question the role of the state, and how it has historically influenced and enforced cultural norms, through both legislation and use of police force.  In both the music hall and rave culture, state suspicion and regulation has stemmed from a mistrust of forms of mass leisure that have risen ‘from below’; rave culture’s continued suppression, however, is in part due to its explicit refusal to ‘commercialise’ and become ‘respectable’ in the way that music hall did. In light of a recent investigation into a raver in Bristol being mauled by a police dog, asking serious questions about whose culture is given ‘legitimacy’, and the public health implications for this in the physical realm, has never been more pertinent.  

Izzy Hadlum is currently a History Masters student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research deals with entertainment culture in Mid-Victorian Sheffield, with a focus on the dynamic between respectability and class across Music Hall and Theatre.   

Cover Image: ‘Rave culture is culture’. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/EHWtxXpiDD0, photographer: Dima Pechurin

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