29 March 1933 – Claud Cockburn (re)invents Fake News… and lays the groundwork for Private Eye

Claud Cockburn was a former Times journalist, a Middle Class (pour épater les bourgois) Communist and an inveterate mischief-maker. He was arguably the first man in the world to intuit the media implications of a new technology – the mimeograph machine.

“When Northcliffe started the Daily Mail in the nineties, he was not “playing a hunch” but tapping into a mathematical certainty. He argued: The Education Acts of the 1860s have changed the entire character and extent of the literate public. But in the years since the 1860s the newspapers have not changed at all. Therefore there must exist a new pool of potential readers not taken care of by the existing newspapers. And this pool, if correctly tapped, could provide a new multi-million readership.

“There was not much doubt in my mind as to the sort of people who would constitute [my new conception of] the pool. Anyone in, for instance, London or New York or Berlin or Vienna who frequented any kind of club or other meeting place where, say, diplomats, lawyers, bankers and newspapermen gathered together and talked, must have been deeply aware of the strange contrast between the colourful information and significant rumours – for rumours can often be as significant as facts – circulating in the clubs, and the awful tight-lipped drabness of the newspapers being sold on the club doorstep.

“What all this added up to was that I had better go to London and start a weekly newspaper of a new type.

“G K Chesterton had written of editors that lived in the shadow of three fears – fear of misprints, fear of libel actions and fear of the sack. I would aim to disregard all considerations of that kind, more particularly of the second, because what I had in mind was a revival of the uninhibited eighteenth century English tradition of the Newsletter. It was going to give the customer the sorts of facts – political, diplomatic, financial – which were freely discussed in embassies and clubs but considered to be too adult to be left about for newspaper readers to get at them.

“The method I proposed to use – the mimeograph machine – would kill two birds with one stone: we should on the one hand ensure we were in total control of our own paper, and on the other that people who wanted to bring libel actions could of course do so, but probably would not, because most libel actions are brought for the purpose of getting money, and it would be evident to one and all that I had no money of any kind.

“Lawyers volunteered to help, but I had to point out to them that either they were good lawyers, in which case they would have to keep saying, “You can’t publish that, it’s libellous,” or bad lawyers, ignorant of whether things were libellous or not. In either case, what use would they be? It was sad having to fight off so many well-intentioned offers of assistance, but I had to keep firmly in mind that what we were running was a pirate craft and we would not burden ourselves with conventional navigators and mates, however skilled and knowledgeable…”


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