Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
In 1930 newspapers across Britain and its Empire reported an audacious plot to destroy invaluable national treasures when a bomb was discovered outside the India Room of the British Museum. This was a sensational scoop, yet more sensational revelations were to follow. The bomb was an ‘impudent hoax,’ planted by an unemployed journalist and then circulated across the Empire by the disputable literary agency Transatlantic Features for commercial gain. The journalist was arrested and convicted by the Bow Street Magistrate; the agency subjected to vitriolic condemnation by journalists and political commentators.
Despite growing interest in the history of the British press, no-one has worked on this dramatic incident. This essay on The Bomb at the British Museum: Fake News and Cultural Politics in the British World explores the politics of news in a formative period for British newspapers and journalism. In the 1920s and 1930s, technological change and mass literacy sustained the emergence of a genuinely popular press. At the same time, new forms of personal journalism and the demands of the market created concerns over journalistic ethics and practice. Maintaining standards of ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy’ became increasingly important to sustain an informed democratic citizenship after the extension of the vote in 1918 and 1928, yet also increasingly difficult.
Focusing on cases in which news was apparently faked for commercial gain, gives us a way to explore the politics of mass culture, and the contradictions of modern Britain. In the case of the British Museum hoax, these tensions were made acute by the bomb’s position outside the India Room at a moment at which colonial violence and demands for self-determination were explosive issues.