Birch, James (c.1812–c.1851), journalist, was born in Londonderry; there are few other details about his personal life. He first came to prominence in 1834 when he offered the duke of Wellington (qv) his services and advised on the importance of controlling the press. It seems he was soon after employed by the government in some capacity during the ministry of Robert Peel (qv) in 1834–5. He unsuccessfully appealed to Daniel O'Connell (qv) for aid in 1837 and bitterly resented afterwards his refusal to help. O'Connell insisted that he had done all he could and accused Birch of ingratitude. In later years Birch used every opportunity to attack O'Connell; for his part, O'Connell quickly realised the true character of Birch and was soon referring to him as ‘a precious scoundrel’.
Birch became the first editor of the Dublin Monitor, first published on 6 November 1838; but he soon quarrelled with the proprietors and was replaced within a month. He then became proprietor and editor of the World (1840). This paper published many vicious and defamatory articles, and Birch regularly attempted to blackmail figures by threatening to publish these libels. He was found guilty of this offence in 1845 and imprisoned for six months.
In 1848 he offered the World's services to the famine-beleaguered government. Lord Clarendon (qv), the lord lieutenant, accepted the offer, not realising Birch's reputation and character; afterwards, he said Birch was a ‘polluted’ source. Birch used the World to attack the Young Ireland movement and other opponents of the government. The paper, while not read in Ireland, was distributed free in England, Scotland, and the Continent, and was quoted as representing the true opinion of Irish people.
In 1849 Birch began to complain about the sums of secret-service money he was receiving, and by the end of the year his letters became increasingly threatening. Realising his error, Clarendon put an end to the government's connection with Birch, who soon began legal proceedings. Fearing a public trial and exposure, Clarendon paid him a further £2,000 from his own resources. In January 1851 Birch decided to extort more money and sued the chief secretary, Sir William Somerville (qv). This lead to the celebrated case of Birch v. Somerville in 1851. The court sided against Birch, and the incident was the subject of a parliamentary debate on 19 February 1852. This case led to a reluctance on the part of government to get involved with the press and marked a shift in the use of secret-service funds in that way. After the World stopped publishing (December 1851), there is no further record of Birch.