A warning to Journalists who break the rules

Ruth Herman

There are certainly some gems in the Hertfordshire archives if you know the background story. One example of these rough diamonds is a little letter from an obscure journalist who has gone a bit too far with his notion of freedom of the press.  The newspaper man is a Dr Joseph Browne (1673-1721) who has been sentenced to a spell in the stocks and given a hefty fine for penning a naughty satirical poem ridiculing the members of Queen Anne’s Whig ministry. One of the targets of his satire is the Lord Keeper William Cowper whom he suggests should model himself on the badly behaved politicians. That way the poet says he will become an “able states-man.”  The poem, named The Country Parson’s honest Advice to that Judicious Lawyer and Worthy Minister of State, My Lord Keeper, circulated anonymously but was picked up by the Secretary of State Robert Harley. Harley, doing his job as watchdog on the transgressions of the press had Browne thrown into Newgate prison accused of seditious libel. In a bold move Browne went into print and in effect accused Harley of false arrest. Browne apparently had the manuscript but maintained he was not the author. Not surprisingly this rather irritated Harley who retaliated by giving Browne three separate doses of the pillory.  The disgruntled Browne then wrote to the Lord Keeper whom he (or the anonymous poet) had lampooned. His reason for doing so, he claims, is to suggest who the real culprit is, but it is more likely to be a complaint against Harley.

It is not that I am apprehensive of danger from the prosecution against me., but very real inclination to serve your Lordship that makes me willing to oblige you if it lye in my power by discovering the author of that paper call’d the Country Parson and Hons Advice & co.

But give me leave my Lord to tell you the severity Mr Secretary Harley has already imposed upon me, I fear will render it difficult  if not almost impossible now, to make a discovery tho’ I believe it had been easier to have done before this made such a noise about town, as I promised to do if practicable.

But notwithstanding the usage I  have had, since I find it may be acceptable to your lordship I will make it my business to give you the satisfaction I am capable of in this affair and don’t altogether despair but that I may gain your Lordship’s good opinion as well of my zeal as my readiness to serve you; for I have been lately inform’d that a copy of verses on the same subject and of the like nature with the first now handed about in manuscript , it is not improbably but they are done by the same hand, and may by a few days silence come to light; tho’ I would not willingly accuse any one whom I did not suppose to be the real author, nor indeed would I any person whatsoever was it not to do myself justice.

As soon as I hear anything worth your Lordship’s notice I shall be proud to let you know with what profound sincerity I am


My Lord

Your Lordship’s most obedient humble servant to command

Bow Street Cov. Garden

Feb 20 Covent Garden

(HALS ref:  DE/P/F53/46)

Despite his falling out with Harley, Browne took over the job of editing The Examiner, the official Tory journal after its more famous (and more talented) editors such as Swift and Manley moved on. But he was never a star in the glittering firmament of late Stuart writers, just another hack trying to make a living in the confines of the overcrowded Grub Street.

So, while the letter is a typically deferential eighteenth century address to someone in authority it is also an excellent example of the hazards of writing for publication in the period.  Insulting the higher echelons of the political regime is never an entirely sensible move but in these early days of the press it was very brave or alternatively simply foolhardy.


This page was added on 06/06/2019.

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