“The little art he is master of”, according to a contemporary, amounts to “forging a story and imposing it on the world for truth.” That is not the harshest thing that has been said about him in the current year. Now coming up to sixty, he will not achieve his big breakthrough for another few months. (It will make up item 201 in his oeuvre – give or take twenty.) Although it is one of the most celebrated novels in the world, its author poses as merely the editor, claiming that it records historical fact without “any appearance of fiction in it”. That isn’t true either.
He has already been accused, a decade earlier, of spreading misinformation. That was when he ran a journal which featured the doings of an imaginary Scandalous Club, whose members dealt in gossip and liked to expose immoralities in public life. It also offered some muted support for an unpopular war in which the nation had been engaged. He has worked as a spin doctor for the government in Edinburgh, trying to convince the Scots that their interests lay in maintaining close links with England. He has travelled the country as a political fixer. In Devon a magistrate will issue a warrant for his arrest, charging him with spreading “scandalous and seditious libels and false news”. By that time he has seen the inside of several gaols, once as a result of a literary hoax that misfired when readers could not decode its ironic intent, and once when yet another of his failed businesses led him into bankruptcy. On his travels his preferred guise is as Alexander Goldsmith, or sometimes the oddly Frenchified Claude Gilot. He has written books, or will soon have written books, in the guise of a soldier, a female criminal, a courtesan, a pirate, a French diplomat, a Quaker, and all kinds of people. In due course the former government will be crushed at an election and his patron, the first minister, toppled from power and impeached by Parliament.
Now our author’s life has become more complicated than ever. He has agreed with the new ministry to infiltrate an opposition journal, with the aim of toning down its militant attacks on the establishment. His contact in Whitehall wants him to push harder to control the paper’s dangerous rhetoric as it seems to be gaining too much popular approval. He maintains an uneasy relationship with the journal’s editor, who has long been in trouble with the authorities, and is thought to serve the interests of a hostile foreign power. The aim of this man’s faction is to spread alarm in order to sway public opinion, and perhaps influence the next election, which will be held under a new constitutional arrangement over the length of parliaments. Another objective is to cause embarrassment in connection with an overseas war which Britain has been supporting without actually joining. In particular, the government has difficulties with a wily and expansionist leader of Russia. Recently a high-ranking diplomat in London has been exposed through a sting by security agents, who were able to decipher his dispatches. These showed him to be engaged in a plot against this country by the foreign group for whom the journal was seen to advocate.
All this puts our author in a fearsome double bind. He has long endured threats of physical retaliation, and now an unprecedented campaign to revile him opens up in the public prints. His leading critic, a rival weekly newspaper, assaults him in every issue with claims of his double-dealing. It is true that he has now set up another journal, this time toeing the government line, and works on both papers concurrently. On November 1, the rival organ runs a tale that he has hanged himself in despair at his home in outer London, but immediately retracts it. It turns out that the scurrilous fellow “has just enough wit not to befriend the hangman, by becoming a Felo de se, which he knows would be the shortest way indeed to the D[evi]l”.
This is just one more planted scare story, but it leaves damage because our author and his employer on the factional paper are themselves accused of inserting fake obituaries for individuals whose demise has been greatly exaggerated. (The author’s new paper has also claimed, without any warrant, that a respectable clergyman had been sent to Reading Gaol for armed robbery.) As winter draws on, it looks as if our author’s precarious life as a journalist and polemicist has landed him in his most parlous situation yet. Nobody any longer finds him a credible source.
The year was 1718, the author Daniel Defoe of course, and his forthcoming bestseller was Robinson Crusoe, which would come out in the following April. His chequered career had included three days in the pillory as a result of a satire, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, that misfired. After this came a long spell conducting his paper the Review, on which he was the sole operator twice or three times a week for almost a decade; loyal service to Robert Harley, even after the former Whig secretary of state gravitated to the Tory party and gained power in the last years of Queen Anne; and a period in Scotland promoting the Union of 1707. He had always been suspected of selling his pen on both sides of the political divide, and had always denied it. Although he had wanted to see trade with the Pacific rim expanded, and had sent Harley a supportive memo when the South Sea Company was founded in 1711, he had soon lost faith in the operations of the market, and by 1719 was ready to compose a diatribe, The Anatomy of Exchange Alley, which anticipated some of the factors that led to the bursting of the Bubble in the next year.
However, the imbroglio in which he now found himself stemmed from his work in trying to tame the Weekly Journal, or Saturday’s Post. This was the most brazen of outlets for the opposition, run by the unrepentant Jacobite, Nathaniel Mist. The paper made mischief out of fraught British relations with participants in the Northern War: Charles XII of Sweden was killed by a stray shot on November 30, 1718, but the Tsar of Russia, soon to be declared Peter the Great, remained a potential threat. In the end Defoe gave up his hopeless endeavour, although he seems (until Mist was forced to decamp to Rouen) to have helped his associate, who spent periodic spells in prison for seditious items in the Journal. Meanwhile Defoe’s talent for troublemaking passed to his son Benjamin Norton (celebrated in the Dunciad as “Norton, from Daniel and Ostroea sprung”, hinting that he was the offspring of his father’s liaison with a girl who sold oysters in the street – again an untruth). In 1721 Benjamin was arrested for his part in the London Journal, a radical outlet calling for the punishment of those responsible for the South Sea fiasco. The paper was said to have corrupted the populace for 40 miles around Birmingham, where a copy was found in every alehouse and taken for gospel by the gullible. Small wonder that the government was alarmed by the power of the press.
As for Defoe senior, his principal tormentor was James Read, proprietor of the rival Saturday paper, the Weekly Journal, or British Gazetteer. In the last few weeks of 1718 Read kept up a merciless volley of fire on his adversary. Every issue carried a new set of allegations. The most inventive was a “vision” in the mode of Francisco de Quevedo, recounting a voyage to the underworld by Defoe, Mist and a publisher named Robert Mawson. On the way they encounter Charon, Cerberus and Pluto, who refer to Defoe as “Satan’s eldest son”. The poem dredges up his old misadventures with the law, and adds a mysterious reference to civet cats – an allusion going back as far as 1692, when Daniel had bought a farm used to breed the cats (needed in perfumery). He lost money, was accused of fraud, and faced a legal action from his own mother-in-law. Soon afterwards a poem in Read’s paper showed him as a Vicar of Bray constantly changing his allegiance:
As rats do run from falling houses,
So Dan another cause espouses,
Leaves poor Nat sinking in the mire,
Writes Whitehall Evening-Post for hire,
Deserts his Tory-rory prigs,
And finds new fools among the Whigs.
Naturally Defoe rebutted all the charges, and threw them back at his opponents. From his time on the Review he had proclaimed his own commitment to truth, though it was sometimes honoured in the breach. He had attacked the Daily Courant with a punning riposte, “What is the Lye Courant for the Day?” In the same way he would single out those in his trade who “are satisfied in lying, if a printed lie will hold one day, and tho’ it be detected the next, they think it worth while to go through with it”. In the Commentator, a new journal he set up in 1720, he makes sport with the news writers who would have nothing to write about after treaties were signed to end the Great Northern War:
I question not, but after the laudable example of Mr. Mist and other journalists, they will be able to supply the dearth there is likely to be of foreign news, by enlarging upon the domestick. I doubt not but they will dive deep into the private concerns of civil families, and rip up peoples whole life and conversation; and rather, with honest Curl, transcribe last wills and testaments from Doctor’s-Commons, than suffer the inquisitive spirit of their readers to sink, and relapse into their former state of ignorance and innocence.
The growth of celebrity culture in the hands of men like the rascally bookseller Edmund Curll belongs to a separate story, but Defoe indicates clearly enough that these gossipy columns are unlikely to be written with a strict regard to truth.
So strongly did he excoriate the mendacities of the print industry that in 1704 he wrote An Essay on the Regulation of the Press, condemning piracy of authors’ work and advocating a moderate degree of legal censorship. While endorsing the freedom of the press, and opposing the use of an official licenser, Defoe had no qualms about instituting “just restraints for the press”, and claimed he would happily abide by such constraints as long as they kept in check, or preferably suppressed, offensive journals. These were the product of “the useless, the deceiving, the false relater, the contentious, the flatterer, the forger, the implacable, let them all die the death of a criminal”. Engagingly he included the Review in the list of papers that would face extermination.
It is no surprise that fellow journalists accused Defoe of soiling his own nest. They had a point, when he inveighed against “street-scribblers” who “daily and monthly” confused readers with “unaccountable and inconsistent stories”. The result was that “People are possest of wrong notions of things, and nations wheedled to believe nonsense and contradiction”. As Norma Clarke has reminded us, Smollett wrote a generation later of “brothers of the quill”, but there were few signs of brotherly or sisterly love among those who contributed to the increasing spate of news and commentary in the press.
Fake news did not begin in 2016 or indeed in 1718. Maximillian Novak has pointed out an ur-source in Ben Jonson’s Staple of News (1626), where the fashionable quest for fresh intelligence is satisfied at a specially contrived newsroom. As the preface to the play explains, “The newes here vented” was “a weekly cheat to draw mony”, proceeding from “this ridiculous Office of the Staple, wherin the age may see her owne folly, or hunger and thirst after publish’d pamphlets of newes, set out every Saturday, but made all at home, & no syllable of truth in them”. But if there has always been disinformation, from the time that Gutenberg’s press began to roll, the inventions of Defoe at least had a self-limiting capacity. Even supposing it were true, as a Victorian biographer asserted, that “He was a great, a truly great liar, perhaps the greatest liar that ever lived. His dishonesty went too deep to be called superficial”, his untruths corrupted a small cadre of impressionable people. For the most part his audience numbered hundreds or low thousands. Luckily he did not have billions who hung on his words all round the world.
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