Politics of press freedom

Rather than relying on bureaucratic solutions, argues James Turley, the left needs a dynamic approach to the media

Prior to the outrage in Norway, the news agenda had been dominated by the phone-hacking scandal, and the chaos into which it pitched the entire establishment.

The left press was no exception. The wanton depravity of the Murdoch media and the incestuous networks of patronage that stand revealed as a key operating mode of the establishment have rightly come under scrutiny from our side - in the Weekly Worker, and also throughout the papers of our comrades on the left.

With parliament in recess, and a momentary let-up in shock revelations, it is a good moment to think more systematically about the political problems raised here. The left has criticised, in some detail, the operations of the police and the corridors of power long in advance of the present crisis - and, while there are severe deficiencies in the political approaches favoured by the left at large on these issues, we must all sharpen our critique of the capitalist media.

After all, if we picture the present scandal as a black hole, into which all manner of forces and institutions are pulled with irresistible force, it is the media which form the singularity at its centre. It might have been something else, of course (as in, for instance, the Watergate scandal); but it still remains to be explained how it is that the capitalist media have accrued sufficient power to trigger a generalised political crisis among the ruling class.

Lurking behind all this is the clichéd but nonetheless true proposition that ‘knowledge is power’. The media have obviously a very important role to play here; but it is necessary to dispense in advance with two common errors. The first is the notion, held among the more conspiratorially minded sections of left liberalism (but also rightwing conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones), that the media effectively brainwash people: they begin with a lie and lull a docile populace into believing it.

Secondly, there is the simple inversion of this position: the very apparent partiality of the media is merely an epiphenomenon of something more fundamental, and not of any note in itself. This is part of a more general economistic deviation from Marxism: questions of the state and democracy - in other words, the concrete forms of capitalist political rule - are to be subordinated to the ‘real’ action, typically though not exclusively assigned to the direct struggle of worker and boss at the point of production.

For Marxists, neither of these views has any truth to it. The ‘brainwash theory’ is simply a cop-out explanation that does not describe the reality of the capitalist media; the vulgar ‘Marxist’ theory is one of many casualties of the last few weeks, whereupon the very real importance of the media became utterly obvious.

Knowledge economy

We must start from a considerable level of abstraction. As long as one class has ruled another, it has been necessary to control the flow of information. In feudal Europe, for example, the Catholic church set itself up as a kind of filtration system, hoarding the intellectual products of classical antiquity, promoting those that shored up its own power and ideology and repressing all the rest. By maintaining a monopoly on the reproduction of information, the church maintained itself as a powerbroker in the European state system.

Some of the results are well known - the persistence of geocentrism, Galen’s views on physiology and other profound errors well past their sell-by dates. The more fundamental result - the continued subordination of broad masses to the political-economic assemblage of feudalism - should not escape notice.

In capitalist society, things are more complex. The capitalist class relies, in order to sustain itself, on a flow of economic and political information amongst its own members. It also, however, brings into being the proletariat - a popular class of a historically unprecedented type, with no power other than its collective organisation, which is driven even more radically to arm itself with information about the society it inhabits and reproduces through its own sweat.

The mass media appear to us, in 2011, as fairly straightforwardly a means of capitalist control. Yet their very existence is also a concession to the working class. Like all ruling class concessions, they are something of a poisoned chalice; but the principle embodied in the popular press, in a highly deformed way, is democratic: free, equal citizens should have equal access to information about the goings-on in society. Analogous is the principle behind extending literacy - it has democratic potential, even if we are only taught to read deformed and apologetic accounts of history, economics and so forth.

This can be dramatised briefly and effectively in the history of The Sun - this keystone of the reactionary gutter press started life a century ago as a strike bulletin, and as The Daily Herald remained a quasi-official journal of the labour movement until it hit its terminal crisis in the 1960s, leading to the name change and the Murdoch buy-out. At its peak, the Herald was the largest-circulation daily newspaper in the English language.

More impressive still is the example of German social democracy in its revolutionary phase - a party which organised millions of workers equally organised a great swathe of publications, national and local, agitational and theoretical. The strongest workers’ movement in Europe knew very well it needed a press worthy of its ambitions, and during the period of Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws developed a complex apparatus to smuggle papers into Germany from exile, the famous ‘red postal service’: knowledge is power.

Because its power lies wholly in collective and conscious activity, the working class needs democracy - both to challenge capitalist rule, which in the end negates democracy, and to rule itself. The cornerstone of democracy is substantial political freedom - including the right to free association, and most crucially of all the right to free speech and freedom of publication. The issue of press freedom was the first matter to which the young Karl Marx addressed himself, before he was even a communist; it remained a mainstay of the movement he founded well beyond his death.


As communists, then, our primary goal with respect to the media is to ensure our ability to agitate and propagandise freely amongst the class. The particulars change: this or that medium comes to dominate others; political regimes mutate according to their own logic. The fundamental democratic principle does not.

It is this principle which must govern our response to the particular matter of the Murdoch scandal. Unfortunately, given the left’s crippling economism, it too often does not. The Socialist Workers Party is content to raise one or two pretty minimal demands: the break-up of the Murdoch empire, and prison sentences for the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks.

With the former, one would not want to argue; and, while calling for jail time for anyone leaves a sour taste in the mouth, it is certainly correct to demand that these oleaginous barons should be put in the dock and the full extent of their corruption brought to light in court. Given all that these three seem to have been up to, prison sentences would be an inevitable consequence.

Yet there is surely more to be proposed here; jail those three, and five more will spring up in their place. The media as a collective institution remain untouched. In this connection, we turn to the Socialist Party in England and Wales, whose headline article on the subject carries the sub-heading, “Nationalise the media to allow full and democratic freedom of discussion and decision-making”.[1]

In that bald form, the demand is obviously nonsensical. Nationalising the press tomorrow tout court would hand it over to David Cameron, who is hardly a friend of “full and democratic freedom of discussion”. Of course, this is not precisely what the comrades mean. Cited instead is “the need, in the first instance, for the democratic nationalisation of the printing presses, television and radio under democratic popular management and control - beginning with the state confiscation of the resources of News Corporation ... This will not result in a monopoly for the government or one party, but allow access to the media in proportion to political support.”

The fundamental issue, however, is the same. In order for proportional access to be to our benefit, we first have to build political support, for which general freedom of publication is essential. The Weekly Worker is put out by a small group, but punches well above its weight in terms of readership. The Socialist could do the same, were it not so bereft of controversy and deathly dull. ‘Proportional access’ is a recipe for bureaucratic reproduction of the existing relation of forces.

For both of our publications, it is not proper for production to be accountable to some ill-defined mechanism of “popular control” - but rather for them to be under the political control of our respective organisations. Peter Taaffe appears simply to have lifted the Militant tradition’s all-purpose solution to everything - nationalisation - and dropped it without a second thought on one industry which certainly should not be nationalised.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has also come out strongly in favour of public ownership of the media, albeit with a number of caveats, and more auspicious sources in the writings of Lenin, that result in a much stronger case. The AWL calls for “public ownership of all large-scale media resources and capital (printing presses, newspaper and TV offices, studios, broadcasting technology, distribution networks, etc) and their allocation for use by different organisations and groups, according to support in the population”.[2] The model for allocation is broadly similar to SPEW’s, though it is closer to Lenin in its particular details.

Still, we should be sceptical about how closely an analogy can be drawn with the writings of Lenin the AWL cites: a draft resolution on press freedom dated November 1917, and an article on the same issue from a couple of months earlier. Given the economic chaos that followed the collapse of tsarism, the rationing of resources (such as paper and printing materials) was very clearly necessary. It may perhaps be necessary after our own revolution; but the material basis for mass communication has changed drastically, with cheaper, smaller digital equipment replacing the old hot plates and - obviously - the emergence of the internet.

The latter certainly should be socialised, on the basis that it is an infrastructural ‘natural monopoly’ after the fashion of roads or sewers; but the idea that one then needs to ‘allocate’ access to web space is simply technologically defunct with the relevant overheads having long approached zero.

The AWL is quite clear that it is only a “workers’ government” that could put this into effect, which - despite certain ambiguities in the slogan - is to its credit. This then poses the question of immediate demands, which for it are as follows: support for workers’ struggles in the media, including protest actions (they cite Sun printers refusing to handle the now infamous ‘Mine fuhrer!’ front page that never was, which compared Arthur Scargill to Hitler during the miners’ Great Strike); workers to take over threatened publications for themselves and form producers’ cooperatives; and finally the creation of a mass-circulation labour movement press.

All these things are very supportable - in particular, there certainly is a dying need for our own mass media. There is a gaping hole in the list, however, which is most peculiar, given that Lenin’s September article analyses it extensively: advertising.

Advertisement and subsidy

If it is a peculiar omission in view of Lenin’s obvious concern, it is also a vitally important one. In legal-formal terms, a corporate newspaper is no different from a communist paper; both are published on the initiative of a discrete group of people, who organise production, promotion and distribution according to their own division of labour. Yet the papers of the left languish, with circulation at best in the low tens of thousands; capitalist papers regularly sell in the millions.

The difference is the subsidy from advertisers. Papers can be sold at below-market prices and promoted widely because they are propped up by enormous external revenue streams primarily from advertisers. Advertisers get two things for their money - first of all, an implied veto on bad press for their products; and more generally a threat to withdraw the subsidy, should the paper’s content or conduct be deemed inappropriate.

It was the flight of corporate advertisers that finally put paid to the News of the World; but it is equally true that a Morning Star box-out which offered those same companies “the best rates in the business” would most likely come to nothing, because of the paper’s support for the official workers’ movement.

The result is a twofold distortion of public discourse: the subsidy allows the positive promotion of ideas well beyond their ‘natural’ social weight; and it allows the (negative) censorship of views deemed to be too dangerous. The obvious demand, then, is phrased best by Lenin: “why cannot democrats who call themselves revolutionary carry out a measure like declaring private press advertising a state monopoly, or banning advertisements anywhere outside the newspapers published by the soviets in the provincial towns and cities and by the central soviet in Petrograd for the whole of Russia? Why must ‘revolutionary’ democrats tolerate such a thing as the enrichment, through private advertising, of rich men, Kornilov backers, and spreaders of lies and slander against the soviets?”[3]

Back to first principles: our aim is the most complete freedom of the press and media. Our plan has to be to overcome all the obstacles to this - legal and most particularly economic. There is no problem - even, in fact especially, under workers’ rule - with capitalists publishing pro-capitalist newspapers. We can defeat their reactionary ideas all the better if they are out in the open.

The problem lies in the overwhelming domination of the media by corporate bean-counters, backed by cartels of advertisers. We want to ensure that the media are, on the largest social scale, just that and nothing more - ‘neutral’ channels to be used as widely as possible, without structurally distorting communication as they do under capitalism. Making nationalisation or public ownership an end in itself, as do SPEW and to a lesser extent the AWL, is unhelpful in the extreme. We do not want to nationalise every chip shop, and a fortiori we should not want state enterprises to print every local paper.

Our approach should instead consist of the destruction of the means by which the capitalist media dominate, on the one hand, and the reconstruction of an alternative workers’ media, on the other. In a fair fight between Marxism and the hysterical gibberish put out by the Daily Mail, there is surely no contest. But such a fair fight will never happen until we turn press freedom from an empty abstraction into a reality - by demolishing the capitalist monopoly over the press.


  1. The Socialist July 13.
  2. Solidarity July 20.
  3. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/sep/28.htm