The Public Sphere: An Introduction

By Stephen Basdeo

(SPT5225: Sports Journalism) Lecture Delivered at RIASA Leeds on 9 September 2019

I think it’s best if I begin with a quote from a Victorian writer—and those of you who I follow on Twitter will know I’m obsessed with the Victorians—named Oscar Wilde, who lived between 1854 and 1900. He’s most famous of course for novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, and for having been arrested and imprisoned for sodomy and gross indecency. But he did make some observations on the press which I think are pertinent for this class:

It was a fatal day when the public discovered that the pen is mightier than the paving-stone, and can be made as offensive as a brickbat. They at once sought for the journalist, found him, developed him, and made him their industrious and well-paid servant. It is greatly to be regretted, for both their sakes. Behind the barricade there may be much that is noble and heroic. But what is there behind the leading article but prejudice, stupidity, cant, and twaddle? And when these four are joined together they make a terrible force, and constitute the new authority.

Wilde had his own issues with the press—who were not friendly towards him during the days of his trial—but that quote raises two points which I want to dwell on in more detail today: that of the public ‘discovering’ the journalist and the idea that journalism constitutes ‘the new authority’. We’ll be talking today, therefore, about the emergence of the public sphere.

Oscar Wilde

So, I’ve given you a term there—‘public sphere’—and you may be wondering: what on earth is that? Briefly put: the public sphere, according to the theory devised by Jurgen Habermas, is any public place where individuals in society can come together and discuss political, social, economic, and cultural issues. Admittedly, put like that, it does not sound all that special—after all, isn’t that what we all do? In our previous Sport and Society class, contemporary politics featured a great deal, while during the breaks in those three hour slots we often talked about various issues informally. So, why the need to theorise this? and why have it in a media studies course? Those are two questions you might ask.


While printing had arrived in Western Europe in the 1400s, for a long time there was nothing resembling a daily newspaper. One-off pamphlets might be printed about pressing political or religious issues, but there was very little scrutiny of a government’s actions. In England and France, for example, the monarchs were almost absolutist; Henry VIII did not let parliament stop him from governing and taking various decisions on behalf of no one but himself on the advice of a few privy counsellors and courtiers from the royal palace. And, while people may have rioted over very specific issues in the 1500s, it was accepted that the people who made decisions were the elites, as very few people could vote, so there was less public scrutiny of such decisions.

However, with the rise of capitalism in the 1600s, merchants, especially those based in the hearts of the early modern European empires, such as the British Empire, Dutch Empire, and the French Empire, needed access information concerning stocks, shares, wars—which often serve as a discouragement to investors to put their money in certain projects—and new trading arrangements concluded with other countries. Essentially, the rise of capitalism gave the mercantile classes in England and France a stake in the running of the country. So, let’s examine these in a bit more detail.

There are four developments which the sociologist Jurgen Habermas points to which can be said to have ‘given birth’ to the public sphere. And I’m not being Anglo-centric here, but these developments did take place in England itself, with similar developments occurring slightly later in the rest of Europe and in America. The first of these was the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694. Now, in the 1690s, the English government was broke: it had suffered a crushing naval defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Beachy Head and England needed to rebuild its navy in order to maintain its ‘great power’ status. Due to the fact that England had a new king with a low credit rating—yes, credit ratings were a thing even in the 1600s—King William III could not borrow money from international bankers at a low rate. In any case, if he did manage to borrow money, the amount would be charged to him personally and not the English nation.

Bank of England

So, as a way out of this financial predicament, Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, proposed to the king that a public bank should be set up: England was a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ after all, and its merchants had a lot of wealth; it made sense for the government to convince merchants to invest in the nation, so to speak, and in return, merchants would be able to obtain special royal privileges, maybe even monopolies on the trade of certain goods. The scheme was a resounding success and, to give the bank its full title, The Governor and Company of the Bank of England was formed. And it helped the government enormously; the National Debt was formed which allowed the government to go into debt safely, allow the government time to sort its finances out further if needs be, and they would never technically go ‘into the red’, so to speak, because they were ‘allowed’ a certain amount of debt versus income.

But here was the catch: middle-class merchants, who formed the bulk of the subscribers, were not the government’s creditors. They may not have been able to vote, but the government was now financially responsible to its creditors. The bourgeois capitalist classes now had a stake in the proceedings of the government itself.

William and Mary: joint monarchs of England.

The second development in the reign of William III was the formation of the first government by cabinet. The cabinet was intended as group of advisers to the king who were separate to the king and whose members were drawn from the dominant political party of the day: the Whigs. However, there was a catch: the cabinet of ministers was not accountable to parliament, which meant that the capitalist classes, or the bourgeoisie, had ample scope to moan about the decisions taken on their behalf.

And moan they did. And luckily, they had a wonderful tool with which to do so: a free press. You see, for most of the 1600s, the Licensing Act had been in effect: this meant that all printed matter had to be read and approved by a censor before it was published. But upon King William III’s ascension to the throne, the people who were drafting the Bill of Rights did not think about how the bill—with its article upon the freedom of speech—would affect the Licensing Act. Well, it was clear that the Bill of Rights had to be adhered to, and the old antiquated censorship laws had to go. So, the Licensing Act was allowed to simply ‘lapse’ which led to an ‘explosion’ in the words of James Van Horn Melton, of newspapers, periodicals, and pamphlets.

18thc magazines
A selection of some famous 18th-century magazines

Of course, it made little sense to buy a newspaper, read it at home, and mutter to one’s self about the state of the government. The public sphere was not only metaphorical but also, in some respects, a real place as well: anywhere outside the home. Grievances are often best shared and, as a further development to the public sphere, Brian Cowan adds to Habermas’s ‘model’ the emergence of the coffeehouse. Coffee, as a result of Britain’s imperial trade, became a very popular drink and coffeehouses sprang up all over England. Tradesmen who wanted to breakfast, or who wanted a break from the day’s business, would go to coffeehouses to drink this very stimulating drink, and the coffeehouses all contained the latest newspapers and periodicals. Now, when we visit a coffeehouse today, generally we want to be left alone, but this was not the case back in the late 1600s and early 1700s. It was expected that one would socialise in the coffeehouse, transact business, and indeed, complain about the government. And it was more respectable than the tavern, which was focused on entertainment and, while newspapers were available there, it was a less bourgeois space.

Early Modern Coffeehouses — look at the sociable aspect of it, along with the importance of print.

So central was the coffeehouse to the formation of the public sphere of political debate that, to return to the sources we encountered in previous weeks, early periodicals like The Tatler and The Spectator often covered the news from well-known London coffeehouse locations:

All accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment, shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate-house; poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; learning, under the title of the Grecian; foreign and domestic news, you will have from St. James’s Coffee-house; and what else I shall on any other subject offer, shall be dated from my own apartment.

While many periodicals and newspapers such as The London Gazette and The Daily Courant offered dry, ‘factual’ reporting, we also see the rise of ‘opinion-based’ newspapers, not only the likes of The Spectator and The Tatler, which favoured the Whigs, but also magazines such as the Craftsman, which favoured the Tories.

So, to sum up thus far: the rise of capitalism, the establishment of the Bank of England, the emergence of a free press, along with the rise of public spaces such as coffeehouses where people of all ranks could freely debate the issues of the day—politics, philosophy, commerce, trade—meant that power was shifting away from the hands of royals and courtiers and into the hands of the middle classes. What we have is the emergence of a ‘marketplace of ideas’, so to speak, where rank counted for very little and everyone could have a say in the issues of the day.

Thus, the ‘public’—as a figurative term—was born: no longer could rulers make decisions which would affect the pockets of taxpayers without paying regard to public opinion—and the newspaper and periodical press was all-important in facilitating the exchange of ideas within the public sphere and, more importantly, shaping public opinion. Conversely, the press was a means through which the powerful could be held to account by the people, as it provided people with information about what the government was doing.

Thus, part of Habermas’s thesis was that a healthy and free public sphere was integral in advanced democracies. Countries such as (when Habermas was writing) Soviet Russia did not have a public sphere where ideas could be exchanged freely. Rather, the ideas which circulated in the public sphere were proscribed. There were few media outlets and the ones which existed were censored by the government. It is a similar situation in North Korea. Citizens cannot discuss or criticise the actions of a government and they lack a strong media which, in other countries, provides citizens with the information they need to do so.

So, that’s kind of the general history lesson and theoretical grounding over and done with but should we be speaking of public spheres—notice the plural ‘spheres’—instead of just one monolithic public sphere? There are of course a lot of ‘holes’ in Habermas’s theories, which is good for you, of course, for you can use his theory and say: ‘well, yes, but what about XYZ?’

We saw last week how, even by the 1810s, the ‘news’—called ‘news’ simply because it was ‘new’ or novel—had splintered up into various sectors. By the time that Pierce Egan was alive, we have a variety of news publications. We have political news in The Times, The Morning Post, and we have literary magazines such as La Belle Assemblée (similar, perhaps, to today’s London Review of Books, but with a healthy dose of court gossip as well), and of course we have Egan’s sporting magazines such as Boxiana, The Book of Sports. And there was also a very strong regional press. Big national newspapers such as The Times, which began in the 1780s as the official ‘journal of record’, were of course important, but many people got their news from the local press, or the penny press, with newspapers like one of my favourites, Reynolds’s Newspaper, purporting to be the leading working-class ‘voice’ of the day. Then there were the more humble forms of reporting in the form of broadside ballads which appealed to poorer readers.

19th-century newspapers

Essentially, what we have, even at this early stage, is, perhaps, one large ‘sphere’ within which are contained many smaller spheres. And sports journalism, in effect, formed one of these smaller spheres: fans could come together and discuss the latest sports news. Did a certain pugilist give a good show in the ring? Was someone guilty of foul play? Who was the rising star of the day? Through printed media, these were all questions which contributed to making certain sportsmen into celebrities. We said earlier that rank mattered little in the public sphere and this was particularly the case with poor, working-class men who, being dexterous with their fists, found fame through the newspapers and periodicals of the day. For example, we have the case of Jack Randall, whom Egan said in Boxiana was

Born […] in the neighbourhood of St. Giles’s, near the brewhouse; and among the “gay boys” of that lively part of the Metropolis, his skirmishes have been numerous indeed.

St Giles was one of the poorest areas of London yet he became a celebrity. Race seemingly mattered very little in the ring as well: the Virginian-born African-American Tom Molineaux had escaped slavery in America and came to England. He achieved real fame with two fights against Tom Cribb, the undefeated champion of England. So popular was Molineaux that Staffordshire potters made cheap figurines of him to sell to people as mementoes—so even memorabilia was a thing back in the 1800s!

A celebrity pugilist: Tom Molineaux

Of course, if one’s living depended upon the public sphere, then public figures essentially became ‘public property’. While court intrigues and sexual scandals would have been too low brow for Addison’s Spectator, and he wasn’t the type of guy to publicly shame anyone to be honest, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and indeed into the Victorian era, the press delighted in reporting on the dirty sexual peccadilloes of the ‘great and the good’. So, here we have a print depicting Lady Worsley’s seraglio, in which each man takes his turn with her.

Lady W
From the outset, the public loved a good scandal (it didn’t always matter if it was true or not!)

And the press loved taking the moral high ground with these issues too, as they do today. So, unfortunately, there are some England football players who have a reputation, let’s say, for having a rather sordid private life. Stories of boozy extra-marital meet ups with ‘escorts’ have often been front page news. The front page of a newspaper will then condemn this behaviour in no uncertain terms. If we’re a particular fan of a certain player who’s been caught metaphorically with his pants down, we might think: just leave them alone it’s his private life.

Wrong. The player whose career depends upon the public is public property. You may still think his private life should not be plastered all over the newspapers, but there’s not really much you can do about it—same goes for politicians!


Now, between the 1400s and the 1900s, print was obviously the dominant means through which people received their news with which to discuss, debate, others in the public sphere—in taverns, coffeehouses, at work. But on 12 December 1901, the first radio transmission was broadcast. And soon people did not have to read the news but could have the latest news transmitted to them instantly. But when first invented, make no mistake, radios were very much a public device: by this I mean that they were expensive, so the factory boss may have installed a radio for workers to listen to, or there may have been a radio in a pub, but not really until the 1930s do we see mass radio ownership. It was the same with television—originally expensive items—and the Queen’s coronation, for example, is full of accounts of people crowding round one TV set on the street to watch—but the TV gradually became an item of mass ownership. Still, both of these mediums provided people with information which they could then take into the public sphere and discuss, if they so wish—I don’t want to spend too long on TV and radio as we’ll be discussing them in later weeks, but the principle is the same as print media. The information can be consumed wherever people want and then they debate/discuss it in public.

Yet with the rise of social media, we see a switch from people being consumers of news to being active contributors: no longer is ‘news’ simply disseminated by journalists and put into the public sphere, we can also put information out there as well. Journalists are no longer the gatekeepers. This, as we will see, has been a double-edged sword. Some celebrities can now shape their own narrative and, indeed, correct certain newspapers when they get something wrong, as Wayne Rooney did but two weeks ago:

The Sun – Enough is enough.

The Sun this week ran a front page story making look like I took a girl back to my team hotel. They know that it’s not true and that I did not. They are using mine and my family’s name to sell papers. Nothing happened between me and any girl on that night in Vancouver. I did not enter the lift alone with the girl pictured. The girl pictured in the club was simply one of many who innocently asked for autographs and pictures. The photographs published by the Sun were taken by a freelance journalist who followed me and my team mates to take long range shots, with or without our permission. The pictures sold to the newspaper were selected and edited to create a sensational and completely untrue story about me. This whole story was a smear against me. It is damaging to my family and not something I am prepared to put up with.

So, that was the muckraking Sun told. Now, public figures can hit back, while readers of newspapers can immediately call out what they see as the bullshit peddled by the media. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump, President of the United States, does the same thing in his own—ahem—unique way. If he doesn’t like a story, he will just cry ‘Fake News!’

This is not to say, of course, that when Rooney or Trump ‘correct’ the press, that they are telling the truth either. Instead what this means is that we have competing narratives of a single story. Print media essentially used to provide a ‘digest’ of the news and ‘package’ it in a certain way, but they no longer have the monopoly on that in an age when individuals can enter the public sphere directly themselves.

Once upon a time, of course, to be a celebrity, you needed the newspaper press. Not anymore. Now, all once needs is a platform—different to a newspaper—where you can put out your own message. So—and I never watch these people but I know you guys do a lot—YouTube stars are one prime example of this: they no longer need a friendly editor in a newspaper or broadcasting outlet to propel them to stardom.

As to what the end point of this process is, well, who can tell? We’re essentially living through a media revolution. And it’s happened quickly. I’m not that much older than all of you, but when I was growing up, newspapers were very important, as was the TV. We certainly have to add the digital public sphere as one of the mini-spheres inside the larger public sphere.

But to summarise:

  • The public sphere is a metaphorical space in which citizens can freely debate the issues of the day.
  • The exchange of ideas in the public sphere is one means, other than the ballot box of course, through which citizens can hold the powerful to account.
  • Journalism does not solely constitute the public sphere. Rather, journalism and the media (broadly defined) provide citizens with the information they need to debate and discuss issues within the ‘marketplace of ideas’.
  • It makes further sense to talk about ‘spheres’ in the plural: there is a ‘sphere’ of politics, scandal, sport, there is now a digital sphere.

Select Bibliography

(See course syllabus for further reading)

Cowan, Brian W., The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005)

Dahlberg, Lincoln, ‘The Habermasian public sphere: Taking difference seriously?’ Theory and Society, 34: 2 (2005), 111–36.

Habermas, J. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas McCarthy (London: Polity, 2002)

Hartley, John, The Politics of Pictures: The Creation of the Public in the Age of Popular Media (London and New York: Routledge, 1992)

Hobbs, Andrew, A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855–1900 (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2018)

Finlayson, James G., Habermas: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Fraser, Nancy, ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy’, Social Texts, 25/26 (1990), 56–80

Langford, Paul, A Polite and Commercial People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)

Negt, Oskar and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, trans. Peter Labanyi, et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)

Snowdon, David, Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan’s Boxiana World (Bern: Peter Lang, 2013)