By the start of the 1600s, advances in printing technology led to the creation of the first newspapers and journals in Europe. Strict censorship in England meant that irregular pamphlets and official publications, such as The London Gazette, remained the main channel for getting information out. But in 1695 press licensing was abolished, increasing levels of freedom.
In 1702, the first regular English newspaper – The Daily Courant – appeared and by the middle of the century more than seven million newspapers were being sold each year.
In 1791, The Observer became the first paper to publish regularly on a Sunday. It struggled to make money and ended up accepting government subsidies in exchange for taking a generally pro-government line. However, in 1820 it defied a court order preventing reporting on the trial of the Cato Street Conspirators (alleged to have plotted to assassinate the prime minister and his cabinet).
While this did not prevent their conviction and hanging, it set an important precedent in terms of press freedom. During the 19th century The Observer grew into a major newspaper, especially after the newspaper tax was scrapped in 1855.
One major scoop included the confession in 1898 by Count Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy – a French army major who had been selling military secrets to the Germans – that he’d forged letters resulting in French Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, being sent to the Devil’s Island prison for five years for treason.
It tried to brand itself as “non-political” from the late 1940s to the 1970s, but was generally seen as left-liberal. In 1993, it was bought by Guardian Media Group. Like all newspapers, online competition has hit circulation. From one million in the early 1980s and 542,000 in 2006, weekly circulation is now below 200,000 (the same as the 1930s).
Also on this day
On this day in 1961, the contraceptive pill became available on the NHS, eventually leading to a major cultural shift in Britain. Read more here.