Inside Story: Hold the front page

Newspapers stored by the British Library show how the press covered landmark moments in the evolution of this country's media, from the birth of television to the Wapping dispute

Given that today's press will seize on a throwaway comment by an unknown reality TV contestant and present it as a defining moment in the nation's destiny, it is remarkable to look back on the yawn-stifling coverage given to television when the medium was launched in Britain.

"Inauguration of Television", murmured The Times's single-column headline, buried in its edition of 2 November 1936. A concise piece began: "This afternoon the Postmaster-General, Major GC Tryon, will inaugurate the BBC television service from Alexandra Palace. The programme by the Baird system will start at 3 o'clock and, after the opening speeches, a news-reel will be seen. Later there will be a brief variety entertainment."

The same day, the Daily Express made the story the lead item in its Entertainment column. Journalist Jonah Barrington filed knocking copy: "Complications the big guns to be televised Lord Selsdon, the PMG, the BBC chairman will not be available for rehearsal. Result they go before the cameras not knowing what it will be like, while perspiring producers hope for the best. Also they won't wear make-up and therefore won't photograph well."

By the time commercial TV arrived in 1955, it was front-page news. "New TV Off Without A Hitch Back-room Boys Achieve Fantastic Feat" was the Daily Mail splash, above a piece glowing with an admiration Michael Grade is unlikely to find today in that title's TV coverage. "Viewers see first 'plugs'", observed the Mail of the arrival of TV ads, without a hint that they could mean the end of society as we knew it.

Channel 4, starting as it has gone on, was launched to a broadside of negative coverage in 1982. "Seven million miss great telly turn-on", carped The Sun as it highlighted transmission problems, unaware then of how the channel's appetite for locking people in a house and filming them would one day become an obsession that would dominate the paper's news pages. The day after launch, C4's relationship with the tabloid press was established as the Express screamed "Vulgar!" across its front page following swearing in the opening episode of the soap Brookside.

The emergence of the press from a monochrome world came in 1982 with the arrival of Today newspaper. The paper's journalists tried to make their mark with an old-fashioned scoop while telling readers that a front-page colour image of the Queen marked "the first time computer technology has been used to transmit news pictures from Australia to Britain".

Though media coverage in newspapers was nothing like as extensive as it is now, the collapse of the Wapping strike was front-page news in February 1987. In The Sun, whose staff had crossed the picket lines for more than a year, the splash headline "It's All Over" reflected the sense of relief. A year earlier, the paper had published from Wapping for the first time, using the headline "A New Sun is Rising Today" and triggering the bitter dispute.

Representing as it did a major setback for the unions, the story also made an attractive splash for the Daily Mail, which celebrated the "cave in" of the print union Sogat. Both articles were written by an "Industrial Editor", a specialist role that itself would be "all over" within a couple of decades.

In November 1991, the much-missed editor of the Daily Mirror, Richard Stott, found himself in the difficult position of having to cover the death of the newspaper's proprietor, a task made harder by the fact that Robert Maxwell's demise was a huge story for news organisations worldwide.

In a front page bylined to "The Editor", Stott wrote a eulogy in which he recalled how Maxwell had once told him at a dinner party that he wanted to be remembered as "the man who saved the Daily Mirror". In the article's headline, the paper granted him that wish, albeit temporarily. The piece was accompanied by a shot of a friendly, dickie-bow-wearing Cap'* Bob and ran to 16 pages of coverage of the life of "A Great Big Extraordinary Man". The Guardian could afford to be more circumspect, picturing a rueful-looking Maxwell, who was beset by financial problems, and speculating on the future of his business empire.

A month later, Maxwell would be back on the front page of the Mirror, this time with an unflattering image that gave the impression he had grown horns, alongside an article revealing that he had plundered a fortune from the company's pension funds.

The 17 May 2004 edition of The Independent wasn't the first time it had appeared in compact format but it was the first time the smaller version had been published without a matching broadsheet edition. The move, eight months after the first publication of the compact, signalled The Independent's commitment to the smaller format and set in motion a design revolution in the newspaper industry as scores of other titles downsized.

By Ian Burrell

A New Home

The British Library holds the finest newspaper collection in the world more than 52,000 hard-copy and microfilmed titles from 1513 to the present day. This unique collection is at serious risk in its existing location in Colindale, north London, and will be moved to a new store offering state-of-the-art preservation facilities. The phased move takes place from 2008 to 2011 ( http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/frontpage/save.html)

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