We are between two momentous anniversaries of states murdering their own citizens.
In June, the world marked the passage of 30 years since the Chinese authorities slaughtered an unknown number of unarmed people in Tiananmen Square. On 16 August, Britons – or some of them, for it is a less remembered event – will honour those killed and injured when cavalry and yeomanry armed with sabres hacked their way through an apparently peaceful crowd in Manchester.
Two massacres – Tiananmen and Peterloo – 170 years and half a world apart. When such moments occur the first urgent priority is for medical care. The second priority is for evidence; the third is for justice. The third is impossible without the second: justice can’t happen without agreed facts.
There’s the problem. It may be a rare thing these days for supposedly civilised states to use lethal force against their own people but, 200 years after Peterloo, the very notion of “facts” – never mind how, or whether, you can establish them – has become contested and problematic.
We know that the Chinese authorities have for years disputed the reality of what happened on 5 June 1989 – consistently denouncing claims of state violence as a myth and, to this day, attempting to block websites which reference Tiananmen. Estimates of the death toll range between 180 and 3,400. But few people outside China doubt the overriding truth about Tiananmen.
With Peterloo the story is more straightforward, if still complex. No-one denies that many people in the crowd were killed or injured that day. The number of deaths attributable to the actions of the authorities is generally agreed to be around 18, with as many as 700 more crushed, beaten, fractured, slashed or shot. There are a great many settled facts.
But the truth about the day didn’t magically appear or become automatically accepted. In the succeeding hours, days, months, years – and even centuries to come – it took painstaking work by journalists, lawyers, activists, archivists and historians to achieve something like a consensus about what happened and who was responsible.
In maturing democracies we perhaps take it for granted that, with most things – especially things that happen in public – the truth will eventually out. But that faith may be fading.
Why is there such consensus about the events in Manchester in 1819? One answer is the presence of a good many journalists. Peterloo was the debut of the reporter in English public life, according to the 1921 Haslam Mills centenary history of the Manchester Guardian. The paper was born as a direct result of a Manchester businessman, John Edward Taylor, having been in the crowd that day in 1819.
But reporters don’t work in an information vacuum. Then, as now, their version of events has had to fight with others. In addition to men with notebooks bearing independent witness there was also fake news from the state itself (largely represented by the city’s magistrates and expressed through their own tame propaganda outlets in the printed press); and, finally, the testimony of participants – including the victims of brute violence.
Reporters, state, people: each jostled with the others to establish a trustworthy narrative for the day.
In 1819 the decisive intervention of the London Times under its great editor, Thomas Barnes, was crucial. The newspaper anticipated the attempts of the magistrates to persuade public opinion – in all probability, falsely – that the attackers had been acting in self-defence.
Today’s Times is still a fine paper holding power to account through watchdog reporting. But, whereas it could command disproportionate attention in 1819 because of the scarcity of printing presses and a dominance over the means of distribution, today it struggles to cut through in the same way. Its daily reach is still an enviable 1.1 million or so. But the two other players in the debate – the state and the public – now vastly out-punch it for audience and attention.
President Trump, so persistently scathing about the credibility of virtually any mainstream reporting, can reach 62.5 million citizens on Twitter with the flick of a thumb. When the American state, in the figure of the president, speaks, he speaks to multitudes. Meanwhile the largest platform for the sharing of “horizontal” news, Facebook, claims to have 2.38 billion monthly users.
So, 200 years after Peterloo, the proportions of communication – and, in some ways, its influence – have been reversed. True or false, the testimony of citizens will spread immediately and to a vast and receptive audience. The press struggles to compete on speed, audience and, on some metrics, trust. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer found that just 37 per cent of Britons trust mainstream media.
Efforts to persuade people that it is worth paying for newspapers in order to send independent witnesses out into the world to report on their behalf have been patchy: more than 90 per cent of Brits still won’t fork out for news. Meanwhile surveys on trust show as many as two thirds of adults apparently are unable to distinguish between a “good” news source and an unreliable one.
Two hundred years after Peterloo we still have a lot to learn.
On 16 August 1819, the violence was soon over – reflected in Mike Leigh’s recent feature film, Peterloo, in which the attack on the crowd occupies just a few minutes at the end of the 154-minute epic. Within a short period 60,000 or more protestors had fled St Peters Field, leaving a bloodied mess of clothing, bodies and banners behind.
The Times reporter, John Tyas, was out of action – whether arrested or for his own safety is not clear. The Manchester businessman, John Edward Taylor – no great radical – immediately saw the danger of the magistrates seeding a false narrative, and smuggled his version of events on a mail coach to London.
The next edition of The Times would appear on August 18. In the absence of any word from Tyas, Barnes went with Taylor’s eyewitness report. He held open a panel on the main editorial page to devote to the first hot take of the incident.
By 19 August, Barnes was able to run Tyas’s own cool and detailed report at length. The editor cleared seven densely-set columns to begin to establish a believable account of what had happened in Manchester. He also used two techniques with 21st Century equivalents: crowd sourcing and aggregation.
By now many private citizens had started sending in their own “private letters”, most of which (but not all) corroborated Taylor and Tyas’s version of events. Barnes used several of them: “I use the opportunity of giving you a hasty but accurate account, as far as it goes…” begins one, from a correspondent whose sympathies lay more with the attackers than the reformers.
And then, also on 19 August, Barnes aggregated others accounts – in particular from the Manchester Mercury, and the Manchester Herald. Again, they did not necessarily support the Tyas account. The Mercury, a loyalist Tory paper, sided with the long-suffering magistrates (“the necessary ardour of the troops”) over “the odious instigators of the day’s calamity” (the reformers on the platform). The Herald claimed the troops had come under a shower of brickbats before attacking the crowd.
This was in direct contradiction of what Tyas saw: “Not a brickbat was thrown at [the troops]… not a brickbat was thrown at them – not a pistol was fired during this period… all was quiet and orderly, as if the cavalry had been friends of the multitude.”
To be slightly ahistoric, it was a time of culture wars. In the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic wars – with all the accompanying democratic upheavals and austerity – few in the press could be considered neutral. In the most recent history of the subject, Peterloo, an English Uprising, Robert Poole likens the divisions both to the Civil War and to the present day polarisation over Brexit.
“As it had been two centuries before, this feeling was particularly strong in hard-hit industrial areas far from the capital which felt themselves ignored by a profiteering and powerful metropolitan elite,” he writes.
“Cutting across the old political boundaries of right and left it recalled the binary split of ‘court’ and ‘country’ which had lain behind the civil wars of the 1640s and which has reappeared irregularly ever since. An older political term was revived to describe this movement, with its nationalist but bipolar vision of the will of ‘the people’ rising against a corrupt ruling ‘elite’.”
The Manchester Observer, with a circulation of 4,000, was unashamedly on the side of the reformers. So, too, were the Black Dwarf and the Reformer’s Register. The Manchester Chronicle, the New Times, the Manchester Mercury and Courier stood firmly on the side of the Tory magistrates.
Barnes clearly favoured Tyas’s eyewitness report over the competing versions to which he nonetheless gave space. The Times’s leading article on 19 August emphasised Tyas’s lack of sympathy with the reformers, describing him as “a gentleman of talent and education…about as much a Jacobin, or friend of Jacobins, as is [Tory prime minister] Lord Liverpool himself.” The editorial, in measured words that many modern outlets might reflect on, was judicious in not rushing to premature judgment: “…we have begged for information rather than uttered a decision.”
But the paper was immediately clear that, on the balance of the evidence it most respected, the paper could not ignore “the dreadful fact that nearly a hundred of the King’s unarmed subjects have been sabred by a body of cavalry… in the presence of those magistrates whose sworn duty it is to protect and preserve the life of the meanest Englishman.”
It is fascinating, at this distance, to see a great editor working out how to establish truth – or a near stab at it. Barnes came under a hail of abuse for his editions of 18 and 19 August – accused of “stupidity, folly and falsehood” by the Tory press. But he would not back down. By the time he came to write his editorial of 20 August he had concluded that the multiple accounts he’d received “have removed from our minds all doubt as to what the judgment of an honest Englishman ought to be”.
Meanwhile the people in the crowd were collaborating to get their voices heard. Numerous attendees signed a “declaration and protest” that “the meeting was perfectly peaceful”. That would have had modest impact. But it was the approach of the moderate Times which had most effect. The Guardian’s centenary history notes how “narratives.. [which] appeared in print within 48 hours of the massacre got ahead of, and were never overtaken by, the official version”.
Poole says of Barnes’s editing: “This was surely the Times’s finest hour to date. The impact on mainstream opinion of Barnes’s decision to print such an account… was powerful.”
It certainly impressed Sir John Byng, the regional military commander, who warned the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth: “Those favourable to government give not a faithful statement.” In the end, it was October before the magistrates could put together an even vaguely credible account of events in order to prosecute the reformers they portrayed (and successfully jailed) as the ringleaders.
By then it was too late. The power of independent witness was to have a lasting effect – with the radical historian EP Thompson declaring in 1957: “Never since Peterloo has authority dared to use equal force against a peaceful British crowd.”
The value of independent journalism is most certainly demonstrated by Peterloo. But both that massacre itself and numerous subsequent public traumas belie EP Thompson’s apparent optimism.
Take two subsequent occasions on which numerous lives were lost in the presence of many journalists – and yet it took decades for anything approaching “the truth” to emerge.
The event of Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972 has some parallels with Peterloo. Thirteen citizens were killed that day by soldiers in active service on behalf of the state. Official statements immediately claimed that the troops had come under attack and had fired “at identified targets” in self-defence. The British press had, in general, little sympathy for Irish republicanism, and much respect for the paras.
It took nearly 40 years and two judicial inquiries before a different truth emerged. After sifting through 20-30 million words of evidence, and at a cost of £195m, Lord Saville concluded in 2010 that none of the casualties was posing a threat or doing anything that would justify their shooting. He found that many of the soldiers had lied about their actions.
Or take the battle for truth – waged over more than quarter of a century – to establish the culpability of the authorities for the tragedy at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on 15 April 1989, which ended in 96 deaths. Official lies were eventually exposed for what they were, with an independent panel finding in 2016: “Police and ambulance services had made strenuous attempts to deflect the blame into innocent fans.” Just like Peterloo.
Today we tend to associate Hillsborough with The Sun’s shameful front page of April 19 – four days after the tragedy – which stood honesty on its head. Its blazing two word headline, “The Truth”, ran above a series of lies put out by the authorities. The Sun’s Kelvin MacKenzie was no Thomas Barnes. He had no patience to piece together conflicting evidence or listen to the voices of the people in the crowd. He went with lies – an abject betrayal of how the craft of journalism should work.
More recently, there was the death of a news vendor, Ian Tomlinson in street outside the G20 meeting in London in April 2009. Same story: the authorities claimed he had had a heart attack after being “caught among the mob.” The truth – established by Guardian reporter Paul Lewis and a bit of crowd-sourcing – was that Tomlinson died after being attacked from behind by a police officer.
Mike Leigh, who grew up a short walk from St Peter’s Field, said he had never been taught at school about Peterloo and called for it to be added to the national curriculum. There’s an equally strong case for suggesting it as a case study for aspiring journalists. What is “the truth?” How do you arrive at it? What are the craft skills of reporting and editing that would help uncover it? How do journalists persuade a sceptical public that their words and pictures are rigorously produced and tested to the highest standards?
But Peterloo asks tough questions of us all in an age of “strong men” leaders like Donald Trump who have little regard for the truth and are all too willing to harness the new engines of mass distribution to tell lies. We are swimming in an ocean of information chaos, with the majority of us apparently unable to decide who is to be trusted.
The culture wars over Peterloo continue to this day – even in The Times, which you would think would take more pride in the significance of Thomas Barnes’s achievement. An editorial in the edition of 3 August 2019 protested at “left wing mythology” over what it held to be “a tragic event of minor historical significance”.
In 1819 the slaughter was terrible, but the good guys eventually “won”. Two hundred years later it takes some optimism to believe the same would inevitably be true today.
Photographs by Getty Images and People’s History Museum