Proceedings of the House of Commons, 1766
Britain's press freedom was hard won, thanks to activists such as John Wilkes. Until the 1770s, parliament tried to ban all reporting of their debates, but Wilkes's persistence struck an important blow for public access to information
Proceedings of the House of Commons, 1766
Copyright © The British Library Board
Who was John Wilkes?
Born in London, John Wilkes (1725-1797) was a radical MP and journalist, frequently in trouble for his activities. Arrogant and ill-mannered, he married into wealth, but left his wife to have a string of affairs and illegitimate children. But Wilkes's very irreverence, and his determination to make trouble in a worthy cause, made him a popular champion of liberty against authority. And he was celebrated for his mordant wit: when a rival thundered that Wilkes would die either on the gallows or of the pox, he supposedly snapped back 'Sir, that depends if I embrace your principles or your mistress'.
What did Wilkes do?
In May 1762, George III controversially appointed his favourite, the Earl of Bute, as Prime Minister. Like most of the public, Wilkes disliked Bute, and attacked him viciously through his newspaper the North Briton. Bute resigned in April 1763.
That same week in North Briton, Wilkes accused the king of lying in his speech on the Treaty of Paris. Bute's successor, George Grenville, thought Wilkes had exceeded his Parliamentary privilege. Because the paper was anonymous, a general warrant, which carried no names, was issued for the arrest of all those involved. Wilkes's home was broken into and ransacked.
How did Wilkes get away with it?
Imprisoned in the Tower, Wilkes fought back on two fronts. Firstly he argued that he was entitled to say whatever he wanted on the grounds of parliamentary privilege. The judge agreed and he was released. He then argued that because no one was named in the warrant, the arrests were illegal and the vandalism of his property was trespass. All those arrested sued the officials who had issued the warrant, and won. The judge ruled that such warrants were "totally subversive of the liberty of the subject" and "contrary to the fundamental principles of the constitution." They were eventually made illegal.
Wilkes was literally carried away with his success, borne shoulder high by the public with cries of "Wilkes and Liberty". He reprinted the offending issue of North Briton, and when asked how far the freedom of the press went in England, replied, "I cannot tell, but I am trying to find out." Parliament voted the reprinted issue of North Briton a seditious libel and ordered it be publicly burned.
What happened next?
Wilkes fled from a libel and obscenity charge to France. He was tried in his absence, found guilty and declared an outlaw. Four years later, deep in debt, Wilkes returned home. He stood for re-election and was returned to Parliament - then turned himself in and voluntarily went to prison, subsequently being charged with libel. His invective writing from prison raised the hackles of Parliament. Again he was charged with seditious libel and again expelled from Parliament. He was re-elected three times and expelled three times. Overturning the popular vote, the Commons illegally declared his opponent the winner, leading to more public protests.
How did Wilkes get reports on parliamentary debates to be made public?
To defuse the situation Wilkes was released from prison, accompanied by bells ringing throughout England, and even eventually in America. Wilkes turned his attention to the City of London, rising to the position of Lord Mayor in 1774. He took advantage of his position as a magistrate to use the privileges of the City against parliament. Parliament had resented newspapers printing reports of its debates, and had ordered the arrest of several printers.
Wilkes, always more cunning than ministers, cited the arrests of freemen of the City as illegal and secured the printers' release. Wilkes's popularity was so great that Parliament dared not move against him and he won the day.
In 1774, John Almon, one of the printers Wilkes had helped, began the Parliamentary Register, which reported the details of parliamentary debates. It was a victory for the press and for freedom of access to public information.
What does this page show?
Published in 1766 by Almon, this is the cover page of one of the first such collections of reports, covering the years 1743-1746. Called the Parliamentary Register, it was the forerunner of Hansard, still the official record of debates in Westminster.
Regular radio broadcasting of parliament started on 3 April 1978, following nearly three years of trials. Televised trials of debates started in the Lords in 1985, becoming regular the following year; the first live televised broadcast from the Commons was on 21 November 1989.