Political allegiance as a business strategy in the 19th century English Provincial Press

Rachel Matthews
Coventry University

The 19th century is the period within which the English provincial newspaper is characterised by the link between ownership and political influence in a process which has contributed to the still extant relationship between journalism and democracy. In this period, regional newspapers developed from didactic organs disseminating the values of polite society (Black, 2001), to titles overtly aligned to political parties to the extent that by 1860 they could be categorised according to their politics (Milne n.d).

Lee (1978: 118) suggests that in this epoch, two varying constructions of the provincial press – “one of Fourth Estate, with proprietorship a form of public service… the other as a press as an industry” – vie for supremacy. This paper argues political allegiance was actually integral to the economic structure of the newspaper industry as it transitioned from the high-cost, low-circulation business model sustained by Stamp Duty to the mass circulation product of an industrialised process. Therefore, the relationship between politics and paper was not an opportunistic one in which titles were exploited for political purposes; instead it was a matter of mutual dependency with political purpose an integral pillar of the newspaper’s business model.

In this reading, political purpose was used by owners to maintain the elite business model for the provincial press in opposition to the burgeoning radical press in the mid-19th century. Following the abolition of Stamp Duty in 1855, party political allegiance is codified in the articles of incorporation for titles and politics provides the basis for early forms of chain ownership. As the century progresses, more owners are to be found in Parliament as MPs. The relationship wanes only as titles respond to the new business model necessitated by industrialisation, by placing an increased emphasis on shareholders, mass circulations and popular content.

Original archival research demonstrates how this structure is typified by The Carlisle Conservative Newspaper Company, and its titles the Carlisle Patriot and the East Cumberland News, created for the “upholding of Conservative political opinions”. Members of the Cumbrian social elite were among the founding members and such was the significance of Conservative principles to the company that it’s articles of association enabled anyone who was not sufficiently dedicated to the cause to be removed as a shareholder. Significantly, it also demonstrates how maintaining a business structure allied to party politics enabled these titles to resist the absorption by conglomerates which befell so many other titles as the 20th century began.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900