New Technology And The Call For Censorship

The first recorded call for press censorship wasn’t for reasons of politics, or heresy, or public morality. It was to police “quality”. The gatekeeper mentality is a very old one indeed.

Printing spread rapidly after Gutenberg’s first Bible went on sale in 1454. Following the Bible and legal documents, one market priority for early printers was ancient texts. The first edition of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History produced in Italy was printed in 1469. It was riddled with errors and was in some parts incomprehensible. A second edition was printed the next year, by a printer in Rome, whose editor was a Bishop by the name of Giovanni Andrea Bussi.

Bussi’s edition also had problems. Lots of them. Demand for books at their now much lower prices was enormous, and Pliny was not the only book the editor was working on at the time. (Bussi blamed “technical reasons” for errors in his work – an excuse no more convincing then than it is today.)

The print industry was already highly competitive, and Bussi’s rivals played dirty. One of those rivals was Niccolò Perotti, an archbishop and author of one of the earliest guides to Latin grammar.

Perotti wrote a letter to Pope Paul II. Bussi’s corrupt version of Pliny, Perotti complained, was one of many corrupt versions of Roman and Greek books being pushed around Italy. Editors who “set themselves up as correctors and masters of antique books… pervert what is correctly written”. They do not understand what they are editing. They interfere and impose their own views on the classical masters.

Perotti’s solution was two-fold. First, there should be a common standard for editors – a code of practice, we would say. But no doubt some editors would violate the standard. So Perotti asked the Pope to set up a bureau to regulate the quality of books. This bureau would “prescribe to the printers regulations governing the printing of books” and “examine and emend” each book. “Reckless advertisement” of the editor’s views would be limited. The performance of this task “calls for intelligence, singular erudition, incredible zeal, and the highest vigilance”.

The Pope did not take up Perotti’s proposal. Censorship in the decades to come focused on banning heretical and Protestant books, and regulating obscenity.

But this early peculiarity in the history of censorship looks conspicuously like a debate we are having five and a half centuries later.

It took a few decades for Church and secular authorities to understand the revolutionary potential of mass printing. But they got there. The institutions to censor and restrict bad books were being developed half a century before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against Rome. The medium necessitated censorship more than the message.

Perotti’s argument is almost an exact parallel of one made today. Online media is out of control. In the print media, editorialising is crowding out description. The pressure of competition is undermining quality everywhere. New technology is bringing out the worst in the journalist and reader alike.

Niccolò Perotti welcomed the printing press yet said it was being abused and needed to be regulated. The head of the Press Council Julian Disney told the Independent Media Inquiry last month that the internet is “a cacophony” and that “serious bloggers and serious websites” should submit to Press Council regulations. The council has written that bloggers exist in a “regulatory void” and “print or post material before facts have been adequately checked”.

One academic submission to the Media Inquiry decried “blog troll chatter”. Another group of academics suggested that the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s union code of ethics was vital for blogs (even though they are not bound by it) because the codes’ “standard is one against which their actions can be judged”. Ken McKinnon, a former Press Council chair, argued “news-type” blogs should be dragged into the council’s jurisdiction.

The internet is to these advocates what the printing press was to Perotti – something that, unless judiciously tamed, will lead to the coarsening of public debate. According to this mindset, new technology has to be bought under old frameworks. It is too anarchic to be left by itself. Online debate is wild and uncontrolled.

“Cacophony” is an evocative word. It doesn’t mean simply too many loud voices. It means too many loud, discordant, clashing, harsh voices. Online debate is not being coordinated by a body like the Press Council. It is meaningless until it is tamed by regulators. Julian Disney’s complaint seems like an aesthetic one on the surface, but it masks a deeper objection to the nature of democracy. When everybody can have a say, everybody will have a say.

You would think this is a good thing.

But just as Perotti’s vehement attack on Bussi was driven by rivalry, so too is the backlash against online media being driven by those who see it as a threat to the established order.

Perotti eventually took Bussi’s job. He produced his own version of Pliny’s Natural History in 1473 – which was promptly denounced by another scholar for being even more error ridden.

And his proposal was ridiculous – Perotti obviously did not foresee the explosion of book production in the subsequent decades, let alone centuries. Obviously the Church had no moral issue with censorship. But even if the papacy had wanted to enforce quality in the press, how could it do so?

We will remember complaints about the “cacophony” of the internet as just as foolish.

Every new media technology is met with earnest concern that it undermines standards or is out of control.