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“Breaking the News” at the British Library Showcases Power of Press

by Hal Conte Timing an exhibition can be a knotty problem for an art gallery or museum, but it helps when your subject matter is trending by default. “Breaking the News,” running at the British Library through late August, covers 500 years of media history using old newspapers, video footage, pamphlets, and more. It has […]

by Hal Conte

Timing an exhibition can be a knotty problem for an art gallery or museum, but it helps when your subject matter is trending by default.

“Breaking the News,” running at the British Library through late August, covers 500 years of media history using old newspapers, video footage, pamphlets, and more. It has been rolled out alongside mini-exhibits on the theme in local libraries across Britain, including in Coventry Central Library near the University of Warwick’s campus.

The British Library exhibit portrays the media as veritable dynamite – something jarring, high-impact, flashy, and anything but subtle, with themes such as “SCANDAL,” “CONFLICT,” “DISASTER,” and “POWER.”

Although technically restricted to the United Kingdom,  the inclusion of multiple American items – including early American revolutionary pamphlets and video footage of the “alternative facts” controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s election – means “Breaking the News” is effectively a transatlantic exhibit. It does not extend to media controversies in Continental Europe, Asia, or the rest of the world, although the five curators had enough on their hands just covering Britain and the US.

A host of well-known – mostly infamous – papers and video clips, including issues of the Sun portraying Neil Kinnock’s red head in a light bulb, the same paper’s Hillsborough misreporting, and footage of the last Prime Minister’s Questions appearance of Margaret Thatcher, are used to demonstrate the power of the press across time in the hands of the partisans of authority and resistance alike.

Some of the original impact still reverberates. Chilling Reuters footage of Nazi camps has the power to shock viewers even today, as do front-page images in the Daily Telegraph of napalm deployed against Vietnamese children by American bombers. Another highlight is the smashed laptop of the Guardian newspaper used to publish the Snowden files.

Other highlights seem less impressive in retrospect, such as the Telegraph‘s breaking of the Commons expenses scandal or achingly predictable attempts to lend the weight of past muckraking crusades to figures such as Carole Cadwallader and Greta Turnberg whose messages are seen by many as histrionic.

“Breaking the News” takes a mostly noncommittal stance towards recent controversies around so-called fake news and disinformation, although a copy of the most notorious forgery in world history, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is displayed, as is Daily Mail coverage of the Zinoviev Letter, an MI5 hoax used to deny Labour an election victory in 1924.

A particularly fascinating gem is the display of two newspapers – the broadsheet of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and the Communist Daily Worker – side-by-side, covering the Battle of Cable Street with interpretations so at odds with each other they could be describing alternative realities.

Yet even as it stresses the shocks delivered by the most powerful stories, “Breaking the News” gives little insight into how the news has become, for a considerable percentage of the public, more omnipresent than God in the mind of a Catholic priest. Millions are alerted each second by the phone in their pocket to updates about events that are out of their control, blended with messages from friends and family and attempts to control one’s self-perception and self-projection.

An exception to this is the exhibition’s presentation of “The Tube,” a 1934 painting by Cyril Power depicting 1930s Londoners on the Tube literally absorbed into their newspapers, anticipating the degree to which media has merged with the physical persons and certainly the personalities of individual readers (now telling known, like drug addicts, as “users”).

According to the exhibition catalogue, “Breaking the News” had been planned prior to the coronavirus pandemic and blanket media pall that descended over the UK and the rest of the globe. In a move out of a dystopian movie, almost every UK newspaper – including local and religious titles – saw itself wrapped like a wound in government advertising ordering readers to “STAY ALERT.” Two years later, the bandages removed, it is possible to look on this heavy-handed intervention as the start of a period in which major government inroads into civil liberties and social life were made in an environment in which dissent was discouraged.

As much as emergencies can result in a ramp-up of authoritarianism and information control, they can also paradoxically result in more freedom. After the Great Fire of London, the official London Gazette, a state newspaper that normally only covered official news, was forced to publish an account to explain an obvious tragedy.

John Milton’s defence of free speech against censorship, Areopagitica, was able to be published as a result of the chaos of the English Civil War, an event compared by exhibitors to the Brexit revolution. A wall of slogans, hashtags, memes, and tweets reminds viewers of the raucous debate at the height of the referendum – and of a less sanitised era of social media that already seems antique.

If Elon Musk has time in his busy schedule between Tesla and Twitter, he should perhaps take a plane – or rocket – to the British Museum to see “Breaking the News,” which, although it could be improved, provides an illuminating look into the importance and stakes of media freedom. The same goes for the current head of the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport, Nadine Dorries, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Nina Jankowicz, head of the Biden Administration’s new Disinformation Governance Board.

Breaking the News, at the British Library, is on display through Sun. 21 Aug.

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