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1 Bringing the news on the back of a horse

We seem to be surrounded by 'news' these days, but it was not always like that. In Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2, Falstaff hears the news that his former friend and drinking partner, Prince Hal, is now King Henry V, following the death of Henry IV. It is a comic scene set in Gloucestershire, 200 km from the royal court in London, and it is clear that before the messenger (called Pistol) arrived on horseback Falstaff did not even know that Henry IV had died.

It would not be like that now. Maybe Falstaff would have got a text message on his mobile phone: Hnry 4 ded. Hal 2 b Kng Hnry 5.

And perhaps he would have then dashed home to watch BBC News 24, listen to BBC Radio Five Live or log on to the official website of the British Monarchy [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

I do not want to dwell for long on the times before the Industrial Revolution, but before we move on I would like to draw out some of the themes, issues and concepts that help to provide a framework for discussing newsgathering and dissemination of news.

Activity 1

Think for a moment about the following aspects of news dissemination during the time of Henry IV and V (15th century), or any time before the Industrial Revolution.

  1. What determined how fast the news could get from one place to another?

  2. What determined how much information you could get about an event?

  3. What determined how many people could find out about an event?

  4. How far could news travel?


For the most part, news would have travelled with people, so the answer to all of the questions about the spread of news is linked with individuals travelling. There were a few other methods that didn't require people to travel, such as beacons, semaphore and carrier pigeons, but these had rather specialised applications.

  1. The fastest means of transport on land would have been a galloping horse, so we can think of news travelling at up to a few tens of kilometres an hour.

  2. If a messenger is bringing the news, then perhaps the amount of information they can carry is determined by how good their memory is. They might also, or instead, have something in writing (exploiting technology) and the text could supplement their memory. Either way, a messenger can bring quite a lot of information.

  3. If the spread of news is relying on word of mouth, then we can imagine news spreading in the way of the 'office grapevine' today, where one person tells two or three others who each tell another two or three people and so on. The total number of people who know the news rises rapidly in this way. Alternatively, if the news is written down, the written text can be passed around and read by more than one person (assuming widespread literacy). Even better, once printing has been invented, large numbers of copies can be produced and many people can read it at the same time.

  4. In principle there is no limit to how far news can travel – it just might take a long time, since the speed at which it travels is limited to that of a galloping horse. In practice, only the most important news items are likely to get very far.