In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d pay homage to the “little people” who played a vital role in the development of the free press we enjoy today. Not leprechauns, but close. I’m referring to Lilliputians, created by Jonathan Swift in his most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels. (Swift was a gifted English writer but he lived most of his life in Ireland and that’s my only tie-in to the shamrock holiday).
Anyway, in the story published in 1726, Swift satirizes the politics of Britain with his description of the government of Lilliput, a land of people about six inches tall. At the time, it was illegal to print transcriptions of debates in the English Parliament. But the public thirst for knowledge was great enough to inspire some enterprising publishers to print them anyway. In 1738, Edward Cave, publisher of The Gentleman’s Magazine, was ordered to discontinue reporting on parliament. He evaded the problem with a little publishing subterfuge. He hired someone to hide within earshot of the debates and jot down rough notes about what was said. Then the notes were then written up and reported as the “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput.” Samuel Johnson eventually took over the writing of these reports, although historians doubt that he was ever actually present at a debate. Since he was working from another reporter’s sparse notes, Johnson had to imagine what the speakers actually said and fill in with political rhetoric he would have expected them to use. So the public was able to get a quasi-journalistic view of the debates.
Of course, to comply with legalities, the speakers in the debates were given Lilliputian names, but those familiar with the politics of the day would have easily been able to determine who he was referring to, especially since the Lilliputian names were often simple anagrams of the real political figures they represented. The Lilliputian debates were so successful they boosted the magazine’s circulation considerably. But after a few years, Johnson decided to stop writing the debates. He told his biographer that he had to quit as soon as he realized that people were mistaking his fictional speeches for the real thing. I guess this would have been sort of like the problem with the airing of The War of the Worlds, except that no one thought the Lilliputians were actually attacking. In any case, it seemed to take him an awfully long time to gauge public reaction. But he supposedly regretted his part as “an accessary[sic] to the propagation of falsehood” for the rest of his life.
Regardless of his regret, these half-fictional reports eventually paved the way for true parliamentary reporting in Britain, which was not officially legalized until 1771.
In a strange way, we seem to have come full circle in the media in recent years. We started with real reports pretending to be fictional. Johnson and his unknown reporter partner presented the substance of actual parliamentary debates under the guise of fiction. Today we have staged and contrived situations portrayed on television and reported in other media as “reality.” And with the advent of cable television and internet blogs, journalistic reporting and commentary have so many voices spouting “truth” from so many different divergent viewpoints that it is hard to know who has been hiding in the shadows taking notes on what’s really going on.
I, for one, would love to read what Swift and Johnson would have to say about it.
Until next time…