As governments gather metadata on our internet communications and try to force journalists to divulge their sources, in the name of a ubiquitous and open-ended war on terror, it’s apposite to read about an early champion of freedom of the press in Regency England.
The title refers to a fascinating book by Ben Wilson about William Hone, whose name has slipped from memory, but who deserves to be better known for his unsung legacy of fighting hard for freedom of speech and the press. Charles Dickens was a friend and admirer of Hone, and attended his funeral.
William honed (sorry, irresistible!) his skills as a satirist, accompanied by illustrator George Cruikshank, and published best-selling pamphlets and books sending up corrupt political life in London’s fetid atmosphere at turn-of-18/19th century. He was also a bookseller and journalist, who survived on his wits, and managed to feed a family of nine children and faithful wife Sarah.
Hone eventually fell foul of the corrupt Regent, later George IV, and his minions, including the Lord Justice and Secretaries of State. They had Hone tried for contempt after he published a clever and cutting religious satire of Prince George. Hone successfully defended himself over three days of trials before a packed court in the Guildhall. Arrayed against him were nasty, prejudiced Lord Justice Ellenborough and a stacked jury, but to popular acclaim Hone won by the force of his sustained oratory and legal argument.
The story is made for film, so I hope the script is in development. An actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been ideal for the role, but alas!
Meantime, the book is a must for those interested in the history of the press. Interestingly the French Revolution and Napoleon scared the bejesus out of the English ruling class who feared revolutionary ideas and anti-monarchism creeping into England and tried to stem their influence by censorship of Hone and his contemporaries.
Actually the book title should clearly be ‘The Triumph of Laughter’.
(Thanks also to Matt C. for recommending and sending me the book)