Representations of Crime, Justice, and Punishment in the Popular Press: A Study of the Illustrated Police News, 1864-1938

Smalley, Alice (2017). Representations of Crime, Justice, and Punishment in the Popular Press: A Study of the Illustrated Police News, 1864-1938. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis examines the representation of crime, justice, and punishment in the popular press, with particular focus upon The Illustrated Police News, a weekly newspaper published between 1864 and 1938. The Illustrated Police News, notorious for its sensational reporting of the week’s most exciting and dramatic crimes, has traditionally been dismissed as a marginal publication. The style, content, and popularity of The Illustrated Police News challenges the view that the cultural imagination of Victorian Britain was narrowly defined by the ideal of respectability, or that by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries popular culture had been successfully tamed.

The study employs a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the content of The Illustrated Police News, sampling the newspaper at six-year intervals throughout its seventy-four years of publication. This statistical examination of the newspaper’s core components, including its illustrations, sensational reports, police court reporting, and advertisements, reveals a complex story of change, continuity, and the remaking of representations of crime. The Illustrated Police News’s crime content continued to be shaped by the newspaper’s methods of production, availability of news, and the requirements of the physical space of the page. Strikingly, wood-engravings continued to be used after the introduction of photographs in the press, and execution continued to be used as source of entertainment long after the abolition of public execution in 1868.

Alongside these continuities in content, style, and audience, there were also important changes. In response to changing working-class leisure practices, The Illustrated Police News increased its sporting and gambling content and altered its layout, whilst during the First World War coverage of the war almost entirely replaced crime reporting. This, along with the noticeable continuities, show that the newspaper was actively engaged with reader demand, driven by the two main concerns of commercial viability and feasibility.

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