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Commentary on:
Censorship Instruction for Newspapers, Denmark–Norway (1701)

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Commentary on the Censorship Instruction for Newspapers (1701)

Johanne Slettvoll Kristiansen

 

Please cite as: Kristiansen, Johanne Slettvoll (2023) ‘Commentary on the Censorship Instruction for Newspapers (1701)’, in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, www.copyrighthistory.org

 

1. Full title
2. Abstract 

3. Context: What kind of newspaper did the Instruction apply to, and how did
newspaper managers acquire their news?

4. The 1701 Censorship Instruction: A growing need to control the circulation of news
5. The separation between news and commentary
6. References

1. Full title
Censur-Instruks 1701/1756 [1701/1756 Censorship Instruction]

2. Abstract
King Frederik IV’s 1701 Censorship Instruction[1] (reissued in 1756) is a central document in the history of Scandinavian copyright because it sheds light on the regulation of an until recently overlooked cultural product within the field, namely the news report. It is one of the earliest attempts to control the Dano-Norwegian news trade, and reveals a tendency to treat news (defined in this commentary as foreign political news) as a distinct form of writing. By constructing a fundamental separation between “pure” news on the one hand and so-called “reasoning” or conjecture on the other—in other words a separation between what was considered or presented as fact versus speculation—it singled out news for special regulation. In eighteenth-century Denmark-Norway, the absolutist government would not only guard political news against inaccuracies but would also make sure that unwanted news did not reach the public. Perceived as matters of state that should be reserved for the rulers and decision-makers, news would be protected from public interpretation and discussion, and from any claims of public ownership.

 

3. Context: What kind of newspaper did the Instruction apply to, and how did
newspaper managers acquire their news?

In this commentary, the term “newspaper” applies to the news-carrying publications with a license to publish foreign political news. This privilege was reserved for a few magnates in Copenhagen, such as Daniel Paulli from 1672, Joakim Wielandt from the 1720s, and Ernst Henrich Berling from 1749. They were responsible for leading titles in German, Danish, and French, including Paulli’s Extraordinaire Relation (1672-1684) and Dansk Advis (1675-1680), Wielandt’s Nouvelles de divers Endroits (1720-1728) and Kjøbenhavns Extraordinaire Relation (1721-1748), and Berling’s Berlingske Politiske og Avertissementstidende (1749-). From 1760 onwards, these political newspapers received competition from a new genre, called the Advertisers (“Adresseaviser”). These were connected to a local advertising office. They were not allowed to carry foreign political news, but instead filled their pages with advertisements, local news, and miscellaneous pieces, including moral essays and letters from readers – content that was becoming increasingly popular with readers. The focus in this commentary, however, is on the political newspapers, because the Censorship Instruction was issued prior to the advent of the Advertisers (and thus, it applied only to the political newspapers).[2]

The managers of the political newspapers acquired their foreign news primarily by copying others. Foreign news was typically scissored from foreign papers, especially those published in Hamburg, which was a central node on a wide-ranging European postal network that connected Copenhagen with the rest of Europe.[3] One might expect this extensive copying to cause cross-jurisdictional conflicts over copyright, but as Will Slauter has pointed out, news has long been a cultural product that is notoriously difficult to control and to claim ownership over.[4] Newspapers were not mentioned in the period’s copyright statutes (neither the English 1710 Statute of Anne, nor the 1741 Dano-Norwegian Copyright Act), and even if German newspaper proprietors had complained about the extensive copying by their Danish neighbors, their case would have been a weak one, given that their own news coverage was itself based largely on copying. Indeed, this was the standard practice for acquiring foreign news in Europe throughout the eighteenth century. As pointed out by Victoria Gardner and Joseph Adelman, eighteenth-century newspaper managers usually made no efforts to “go into the world to seek news.”[5] In some cases, this cutting and pasting could be supplemented by short news bulletins provided by news writers based in various European capitals, and by occasional letters from part-time correspondents stationed abroad, typically soldiers, merchants, and travelers.[6] Later, newspaper proprietors would invest further in practices for foreign news-gathering, by stationing their own full-time reporters at the scene of events.[7] This, however, only happened towards the very end of the eighteenth century, and – since this would demand a far greater effort than copying from foreign newspapers – it would only be attempted if newspaper managers could see a potential for profiting from such changed practices. There are to my knowledge no recorded initiatives of this kind in Denmark-Norway in the eighteenth century; which is hardly surprising, given the commercial limitations placed by strict censorship laws and policies for granting privileges. Shielded from competition by their privileges and operating within a narrow space in terms of what they were allowed to report, leading newspaper magnates in Copenhagen would have seen few advantages to investing in foreign news-gathering. Instead, they continued to rely on the widespread practice of cutting and pasting from foreign papers. It is therefore difficult to trace the provenance of individual news articles; consequently, the concept of authorship was not easily defined or protected in eighteenth-century newspaper culture.

4. The 1701 Censorship Instruction: A growing need to control the circulation of news

In 1701, King Frederik IV issued an instruction with clear stipulations for the censoring of

newspapers. It was not the earliest attempt to regulate the Dano-Norwegian news trade, but controls were made more systematic, revealing a changed attitude to a medium that had formerly been handled quite arbitrarily. Prior to the introduction of absolutism, the task of censoring newspapers had been assigned to university faculty members, who were already responsible for censoring other genres. In this system, newspapers were placed under the charge of the professor of history. Sometime after the introduction of absolutism, the state assumed closer control of the press, and the task of overseeing newspapers was transferred to the administrative branch for foreign affairs (“Tydske Kancelli”). This move was presumably motivated by the newspapers’ role in the demanding relations with foreign powers. The news publishers were only allowed to print foreign news, and they tended to handle foreign issues less carefully than domestic matters. This would often lead to complaints from foreign envoys. The situation was strenuous enough during peacetime; in times of war, the governing authorities were extra vigilant in their attempts to control the circulation of false or unwanted information.[8]
            The transfer of censorship from the university to the central administration suggests a need for greater control of the news press. Moreover, the publication of political newspapers was restricted to the capital, Copenhagen – a policy that further reveals the centralized state’s need to control the circulation of news and information. Still, the legal framework was inadequate, and the procedures erratic. Newspapers were, for instance, not mentioned in the Danish and Norwegian Codes from the 1680s, which in a section on “Books and almanacs” prohibited the printing of anything that might be seen to challenge the political legitimacy, or the policy in general, of the king and government.[9] This situation was untenable by the early eighteenth century, when the newspaper had established itself as a medium to be reckoned with, and the governing authorities were spurred on to provide clearer censorship instructions for news.
            In 1701, measures were taken to control the news press, when the king appointed two commissioners tasked with the permanent censorship of newspapers. Søren Rasmussen and Johan Bartram Ernst were civil servants within the branch for domestic affairs (“Danske Kancelli”), which means that the responsibility for overseeing the newspapers was transferred from the Foreign to the Home Ministry.[10] Rasmussen and Ernst prepared an instruction, giving explicit guidelines for both censors and newspaper publishers, so that they would know what was acceptable to print (or, perhaps even more importantly, what was not). The resulting rescript can be read in its entirety in the transcribed and translated version available here on the PSOC website. According to the guidelines, no newspaper could be printed without first having been scrutinized and approved by the censors. This involved a rather intricate process, where newspaper publishers were required to hand in two identical manuscript copies, which would be corrected and approved. The censor retained an approved handwritten copy, so that it could be checked against a printed version he would later receive. If this printed version was approved by the censor, the editor could finally hand the text over to the printer, who had to make sure not to make any changes to the approved version.[11]
            This was a complicated and time-consuming process. In fact, it might have proved a little too inconvenient for a business depending on the swift transmission of its product (i.e., news); in any case, regulations were not always followed in practice. The governing authorities seem instead to have relied on another well-tested strategy, namely the self-censorship of printers who were wary of losing their newspaper privileges.[12] Be that as it may, the instruction nevertheless testifies to a stricter control of the press, both formally and in practice. Even if the procedure itself was not followed to the letter, the instruction signaled clearly what was within the realm of the acceptable, and newspaper publishers seemed to have respected this. In short, the rescript performed its function and marked a transition to a far more rigorous approach to newspapers than prior to the eighteenth century. This contrasts with the situation in England, where the Lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695 had led to a loosening of press controls. According to Will Slauter, eighteenth-century England saw changing convictions about the advantages of public access to information, which in turn “made the idea of legally enforced monopolies on news seem less and less defensible.”[13]

5. The separation between news and commentary

As mentioned above, an important motivation behind the 1701 instruction was to stop the spread of false or unwanted news stories, especially during times of war. A further aspect, however, would have a significant impact on the aesthetic development of the Dano-Norwegian newspaper, namely an explicit differentiation between “pure” news on the one hand and commentary on the other. The instruction communicates this crucial distinction in the following manner:

Illigemaade kand forbigaaes Nouuellisternnis raisonnements, eller andris discourser over det som passerer; desligeste unyttige gisninger, om det som formodentlig kunde skee, og haver mand kun at befatte sig med det som refereris at skulle virkeligen sig have tildraget.[14]

[Moreover, one should avoid any inferences by the news writers, or other discourses on what has passed; as well as worthless speculations over what might possibly happen. One should limit oneself to reporting the events that have actually taken place. Translation my own.]

According to the instruction, newspaper publishers were to limit themselves to conveying the most important information from foreign newspapers and refrain from offering their own interpretations or estimations. They were strictly prohibited from commenting on the news: interpretations or opinions were banished from news-carrying publications. This separation between news and commentary had a lasting effect on the composition of Dano-Norwegian political newspapers, and set them apart from another significant segment of the periodical press, namely the weekly and monthly journals. As Krefting, Nøding and Ringvej have argued, the ban on “raisonnements” in the news-carrying publications opened a productive space for publishers to establish journals as the main carriers of commentary in the period.[15] This development was reinforced by the system of privileges, which limited the publication of newspapers to a few magnates within the trade and placed efficient restrictions not only on the number of individual titles, but also on their contents, since some publishers had a monopoly on the printing of foreign news, others on the printing of advertisements, etc. In contrast, publishers were not required to apply for a privilege to establish journals, which meant that anyone could start one and publishers were freer in their choice of content.[16]
            The absence of commentary in Dano-Norwegian political newspapers also set them apart from other newspapers of the period, especially their more dynamic English counterparts. In the columns of the London daily press, news was mingled with a great array of other materials, including editorial articles and letters from readers or correspondents commenting on the news. Newspaper proprietors were thus able to provide their readers with instant interpretations and discussions of recent events, which gave them a significant role in facilitating public debate.[17] This was not the case with the Dano-Norwegian political newspapers. If the instruction opened a productive space for journals, this was certainly not the case for the political newspapers. The strict separation between news and commentary shaped the aesthetic development of these papers, by encouraging a rigid focus on “pure”, uncommented news scissored from foreign newspapers. The only stories included were those considered safe and acceptable by printers and censors alike. Whereas the newspapers of the late seventeenth century could boast a “surprisingly rich and lively” coverage of current affairs, the 1701 instruction cut this development short, and inspired a far more “conscious, rigid and submissive” profile.[18]
            In conclusion, then, the 1701 instruction had a marked and lasting effect on the Dano-Norwegian media landscape. Not only was it reissued in 1756, but its regulations were not lifted even during Struensee’s era of “unlimited” press freedom.[19] By singling out political news for special treatment, the Censorship Instruction helped create separate platforms for news and opinion in the eighteenth century, where the former would be particularly tightly controlled. Not only did the autocratic government want to prevent the spreading of false news reports, it also wanted to maintain classified political information as an arcanum for the privileged few. This control was performed through strict censorship laws and printing privileges, which clearly demonstrated that news was not considered to be a form of public property, as was commonly argued in England at the time. Nor did it belong to the (often untraceable) originators of the news stories (the “authors”), or even to the holders of the privilege to print this news. Ultimately, the right to know and to discuss such matters of state belonged solely to the absolutist government itself.

 

6. References

Gardner, Victoria E.M., and Joseph M. Adelman. “News in the Age of Revolution.” In Making News: The Political Economy of Journalism in Britain and America from the Glorious Revolution to the Internet. Edited by Richard R. John and Jonathan Silberstein-Loeb. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Harris, Michael. “Journalism as a Profession or Trade in the Eighteenth Century.” In Author/Publisher Relations during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Edited by Michael Harris and Robin Myers. Oxford: Polytechnic Press, 1983.

Kirchhoff-Larsen, Chr. Den Danske Presses Historie 1749-1827, Vol 2. København: Ejnar Munksgaards forlag, 1947.

Krefting, Ellen, Aina Nøding, and Mona Ringvej. En pokkers Skrivesyge: 1700-tallets dansk-norske tidsskrifter mellom sensur og ytringsfrihet. Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press, 2014.

Krefting, Ellen. “News versus Opinion: The State, the Press, and the Northern Enlightenment.” In Travelling Chronicles: News and Newspapers from the Early Modern Period to the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg, Paul Goring, and Christine Watson. Leiden: Brill, 2018.

Kristiansen, Johanne. “Foreign News Reporting in Transition: James Perry and the French Constitution Ceremony.” In Travelling Chronicles: News and Newspapers from the Early Modern Period to the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg, Paul Goring, and Christine Watson. Leiden: Brill, 2018.

Kristiansen, Johanne. Revolutionary Reports: Newspapers and Expanding Information Networks in the 1790s. Unpublished PhD thesis. Trondheim: NTNU, 2019.


Nøding, Aina. Vittige kameleoner: Litterære tekster i norske adresseaviser, 1763-1769. Unpublished PhD thesis. Oslo: UiO, 2007.

Popkin, Jeremy D. News and Politics in the Age of Revolution: Jean Luzac’s Gazette de Leyde. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Rian, Øystein. Sensuren i Danmark-Norge: Vilkårene for offentlige ytringer 1536-1814. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2014.

Schobesberger, Nikolaus, Paul Arblaster, Mario Infelise, André Belo, Noah Moxham, Carmen Espejo, and Joad Raymond. “European Postal Networks.” In News Networks in Early Modern Europe. Edited by Joad Raymond and Noah Moxham. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Slauter, Will. Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Stolpe, P. M. Dagspressen i Danmark, Vol. 2. København: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1977.

Søllinge, Jette D. and Niels Thomsen. De Danske Aviser 1634-1989, Vol 1. Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1987.

Vogel-Jørgensen, T. Berlingske Tidende gennem to hundrede aar 1749-1949, Vol 1. København: Berlingske forlag, 1949.

 



[1] This is a Dano-Norwegian legal document, more specifically a rescript. Formally, a rescript was an order from the absolutist king to his civil servants, as opposed to an ordinance, which was styled to all the king’s subjects. In line with this, the 1701 rescript was not addressed to the general public, but to specific censors and printers.

[2] Jette D. Søllinge and Niels Thomsen, De Danske Aviser 1634-1989, Vol 1 (Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1987), 27-30; Aina Nøding, Vittige kameleoner: Litterære tekster i norske adresseaviser, 1763-1769, unpublished PhD thesis (Oslo: UiO, 2007), 26.

[3] Ellen Krefting, “News versus Opinion: The State, the Press, and the Northern Enlightenment,” in Travelling Chronicles: News and Newspapers from the Early Modern Period to the Eighteenth Century, eds. Siv Gøril Brandtzæg, Paul Goring, and Christine Watson (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 299; Nikolaus Schobesberger et al., “European Postal Networks,” in News Networks in Early Modern Europe, eds. Joad Raymond and Noah Moxham (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 21-22.

[4] Will Slauter, Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), 1.

[5] Victoria E.M. Gardner and Joseph M. Adelman, “News in the Age of Revolution,” in Making News: The Political Economy of Journalism in Britain and America from the Glorious Revolution to the Internet, eds. Richard R. John and Jonathan Silberstein-Loeb (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 52.

[6] Jeremy D. Popkin, News and Politics in the Age of Revolution: Jean Luzac’s Gazette de Leyde (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989), 71-77; Michael Harris, “Journalism as a Profession or Trade in the Eighteenth Century,” in Author/Publisher Relations during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, eds. Michael Harris and Robin Myers (Oxford: Polytechnic Press, 1983), 40–41.

[7] For an early example of this, see Johanne Kristiansen, “Foreign News Reporting in Transition: James Perry and the French Constitution Ceremony,” in Travelling Chronicles: News and Newspapers from the Early Modern Period to the Eighteenth Century, eds. Siv Gøril Brandtzæg, Paul Goring, and Christine Watson (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[8] P. M. Stolpe, Dagspressen i Danmark, Vol. 2 (København: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1977), 293-295; Øystein Rian, Sensuren i Danmark-Norge: Vilkårene for offentlige ytringer 1536-1814 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2014), 173; Krefting, “News versus Opinion,” 303, 305.

[9] Stolpe, Dagspressen i Danmark, 293-294; Ellen Krefting, Aina Nøding and Mona Ringvej, En pokkers Skrivesyge: 1700-tallets dansk-norske tidsskrifter mellom sensur og ytringsfrihet (Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press, 2014), 40.

[10] Stolpe, Dagspressen i Danmark, 295.

[11] Krefting, “News versus Opinion,” 306.

[12] Stolpe, Dagspressen i Danmark, 302; Chr. Kirchhoff-Larsen, Den Danske Presses Historie 1749-1827, Vol 2 (København: Ejnar Munksgaards forlag, 1947), 24; Krefting, “News versus Opinion,” 309; Søllinge and Thomsen, De Danske Aviser, 31.

[13] Slauter, Who Owns the News?, 5. For an extended discussion of this, see chapter 2 of the same book.

[14] T. Vogel-Jørgensen, Berlingske Tidende gennem to hundrede aar 1749-1949, Vol 1 (København: Berlingske forlag, 1949), 20.

[15] Krefting et.al., En pokkers Skrivesyge.

[16] Søllinge and Thomsen, De Danske Aviser, 31; Krefting et.al, En pokkers Skrivesyge, 39.

[17] Johanne Kristiansen, Revolutionary Reports: Newspapers and Expanding Information Networks in the 1790s, unpublished PhD thesis (Trondheim: NTNU, 2019).

[18] Krefting, “News versus Opinion,” 307.

[19] Rian, Sensuren i Danmark-Norge, 172; Krefting et.al, En pokkers Skrivesyge, 124; Vogel-Jørgensen, Berlingske Tidende, 135; Krefting, “News versus Opinion,” 316.

 

 Co-funded by the ERC project Before Copyright, funded by the European Union (ERC, BE4COPY, 101042034). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.



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