How the media went from revolutionary to reactionary

When merchant William Caxton imported the Gutenberg press to London in the 1470s, sedition was not his intent. But the continental innovation, which dramatically increased printing speeds, was a threat to the English feudal establishment. For centuries, monarchs claimed to be the “Lord’s anointed”—sovereign by divine right and guided by God’s hand. Under them stood the landholders, pledging allegiance in return for protection. These classes—gentry, barons, knights and others—held both economic and political power in their respective fiefdoms: their ability to exploit peasants economically was a function of the power to govern them more generally. For the labouring classes, there was no such thing as free thought or free expression. The clergy and courts decided what was true and what was false in most matters. They drew from the Bible, Aristotle, the Magna Carta and other texts that only a minority of the largely illiterate population was sanctioned to interpret.

The introduction of the printing press foreshadowed mass production and consumption of the written word; it was democratic in character and therefore a challenge to the existing, rigid feudal hierarchies. Because political and economic powers were fused, any movement for democratic rights under feudalism threatened the entire basis of the aristocracy’s economy. Newspapers were dangerous because they could help forge a collective identity, organise opinion, articulate grievances and, importantly, give truthful explanations of human suffering, of which there was no shortage in England.

The establishment was successful for a long time in keeping the machines under their control. The first newspaper licence was not issued until the reign of James I (1603-25) and then only for reporting international events. A decade after the first officially licensed newssheet appeared in 1622, all licences were cancelled. The outbreak of revolution in 1640 and the upheaval associated with civil war for a period broke the censorship. Pamphlets and papers spread throughout London carrying reports from the frontlines of the war against King Charles I, along with arguments about atheism, humanism, democracy and wealth redistribution. “An author, that writes always for the Levellers [a movement that stood for equality and popular sovereignty] ... endeavours to invite the people to overthrow all property, as the original cause of sin; and by that to destroy all government, magistracy, honesty, civility and humanity”, complained the Earl of Leicester about the content of one such partisan paper, the Moderate.

Monarchs and the nobility had regular disputes, but they were united in their hostility to the rest the population intruding into political life. With the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, John Twyn was executed for high treason after printing “a seditious, poisonous and scandalous book”. The treatise had contained a passage advocating the king be put to death and incited people “to take the management of the government into their own hands”.

When John Tutchin, editor of the Observator, was indicted in 1704 for sedition and libel after accusing the government of corruption and incompetence, Lord Chief Justice Holt lectured: “It is very necessary for all governments that the people should have a good opinion of it. And nothing can be worse to any government than to endeavour to procure animosities as to the management of it; this has always been looked upon as a crime, and no government can be safe without it be punished.” Laws ultimately proved inadequate. Tutchin got off on a technicality, and juries showed reluctance to convict. When editors were charged, they often became celebrities and their paper’s circulation sometimes increased.

Through economic development and class struggle, feudalism was gradually undermined. The network of largely self-contained fiefdoms was encroached upon by a new and independent “public sphere” occupied the rising class of merchants and productive capitalists, who were rapidly accumulating, but remained politically disenfranchised. Newspapers played an important role in developing this sphere, which consisted of the totality of forums and institutions in which political debate took place. As historian Bob Harris wrote in Politics and the Rise of the Press: “The press was the vehicle by which the private reasonings of bourgeois [capitalist] individuals were rendered public ... By encouraging public intervention in politics, the press acted to undermine traditional structures and forms of political life”

This process reached a high point in Europe with the French Revolution of 1789. “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”, thundered the first page of each issue of Révolutions de Paris. The revolutionaries insisted that, to be legitimate, politics had to smash the secrecy associated with the old order. There had been only one Parisian daily in 1788, the Journal de Paris. By 1790, there were 335. Through the press, hundreds of thousands of Parisians and millions of French could “virtually be present at the sessions [of the Senate] as if they were attending in person”, explained the editors of Journal logographique. The revolution demolished feudalism and established a republic until the Bourbon restoration in 1814. Across the Channel, there had been a compromise: England retained a constitutional monarchy and the landed aristocracy still wielded considerable power. Nevertheless, in both countries the capitalists were now clearly part of the ruling class. This changed the character of their press.

“Publicity is the people’s safeguard”, Paris Mayor Jean-Sylvain Bailly said in 1789. As newspapers became institutions of the capitalist establishment, such phrases began to lose their revolutionary content. The capitalist ruling classes didn’t require direct political rule to exploit labour and accumulate wealth—unlike peasants, who grew crops on their own land and therefore had to be threatened and forced to labour for the aristocrats, the new working class was dispossessed of land and had no choice but to find a capitalist to work for. So the capitalist didn’t need a private army; the workers’ hunger pangs drove them to the factory gates to plead for their own exploitation and the hands of their new rulers.

Secrecy in matters of state the capitalists kept, but democratic government was possible without threatening their control of industry, as long as democracy was limited to parliamentary squabbling (though even in this sphere there was long reluctance to extend the franchise). So newspapers, as a medium, rather than remaining inherently radical, became standard fare. In fact, the free press became, as the journalist J.F. Stephen commented in 1862, “one of the greatest safeguards of peace and order”.

There was of course a radical press committed to furthering the cause of the labouring classes, the lineage of which, in England, could be traced back to the Moderate and its peers. The establishment realised that attempts to censor these papers were futile—by the 1830s, the “unstamped press” (tax-evading printers) had a higher circulation than the legal newspapers. In true liberal spirit, the bourgeois press tried to compete. Thomas Milner-Gibson, the leading advocate for lifting crippling newspaper taxes and duties in the mid-1800s, reasoned that removing state controls and interference would “give to men of capital and respectability the power of gaining access by newspapers, by faithful record of the facts, to the minds of the working classes”. No doubt this had always been part of the capitalist media’s intention. But in terms of its primary social role, it was transformed from being an instrument of agitation against the aristocracy to a tool for the indoctrination of workers.

And while the press gained independence in the narrow sense of “independent from government”, there were important ways in which it was anything but free. Improvements in technology had made cheap news (both figuratively and economically) a reality through the industrialisation of the production process. The precondition for the cheap output became increasingly large start-up costs, which only those of “capital and respectability” could generally manage. For example, the Chartists’ Northern Star, a national radical weekly, required £670 to establish in 1837 and a circulation of just 6,000 to break even. Eighty years later, the Sunday Express had to outlay £2 million and reach a circulation of 250,000 before breaking even. Freedom of the press was increasingly restricted to a wealthy minority.

Capitalist newspapers were generally dependent on advertising as well as sales revenues. Economically they were tied, and in some ways beholden, to other sections of the establishment. As media academic James Curran related in Power without Responsibility: Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain: “In 1856, the principal advertising handbook detailed the political views of most London and local newspapers with the proud boast that ‘till this directory was published, the advertiser had no means of accurately determining which journal might be best adapted to his views, and most likely to forward his interests’”. Corporate influence might not have been as direct as the handbook boasted. But newspapers were businesses. Even if they didn’t bow to every dictate of advertisers, they shared a worldview with the rest of the establishment and attempted to win their readers to it.

Today, the role of the press remains as it was in the late nineteenth century. The editors and lead journalists develop connections with and make sources out of politicians, business executives, state bureaucrats, military officers, police chiefs and other establishment figures who have influence and can provide information for stories. One result of this is that, as Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman wrote in their 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent, “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access ... [through] their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring ... and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources”.

It is also cheaper and easier to print public relations spin than to pay for investigative work. Journalist Nick Davies found in 2008 that well over half of all material published in the five major British papers was sourced from public relations companies or wire services. Just 12 percent of stories were created by journalists. And a study by Robert McChesney and John Nichols estimated that the ratio of public relations staff to journalists in the US grew from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 4 to 1 in 2010. In an interview in the Australian, Davies noted that politics and crime coverage was dominated by PR as well, “not because they are trying to sell a product but because the government and the police select what stories we should cover and with what angle and what sources”.

Yet the main problem with the press is not primarily the spin and disinformation contained within it—most people are sceptical of the content of the stories they read anyway. In Australia, the media are one of the least trusted capitalist institutions, Ipsos polling last year finding that about four in ten people don’t trust newspapers and magazines, and almost six in ten people saying that there is a “fair to great extent of fake news” in them.

The larger problem is the media’s ideological uniformity, even when outlets declare themselves “independent”. The capitalist press can be subversive at the margins when exposing corruption, mismanagement, lawlessness in government or conspiracy. Some outlets, with an eye to diversifying their readership and increasing sales, will even on occasion publish a radical article.

But the media in general never challenge the basis of capitalism’s social order. In this regard, it is not the reactionary Murdoch empire that provides the establishment with the greatest service, but the liberal outlets that present themselves as critical yet adhere to the same basic outlook as the political right: that the maintenance of the rule of law is paramount; that social classes either don’t exist or, if they do, should be maintained; that democracy can be nothing more than parliamentary democracy; that capitalism is a sometimes flawed but a generally desirable system.

So the progressive wing of the establishment press will decry poverty level dole payments—but in showing itself sympathetic to human misery, it will also maintain that the unemployed have “obligations” to the government. It will condemn the treatment of refugees, but concede that something has to be done to maintain the integrity of national borders. It might oppose vicious attacks on workers’ rights, but will lecture against unions causing industrial anarchy if the cause is not considered deserving. It will lament Indigenous deaths in custody but denounce the rioting that sometimes results from the brutal oppression Aboriginal people endure. In short, the progressive media will display sensitivity to suffering while teaching people that the solutions always involve respecting the institutions responsible for the suffering.

Most media outlets claim that independence means reporting the facts without fear or favour. Some might even quote George Orwell: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. To be sure, truth-telling can be heroic and immensely valuable. As Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have proven, governments cherish secrecy because the work they do often is indefensible. Capitalist power, however, doesn’t rest simply on the propagation of lies. It rests on the exploitation of workers, enabled by the concentration of resources and wealth in the hands of a tiny minority of the population.

The system is resilient because most of the time there seems to be no alternative to it—no alternative to just scraping by in whatever job is available, or to saving enough only for an occasional holiday, but not enough to get out of the workforce entirely. The ideological domination of pro-capitalist ideas in the media helps promote in the population a positive identification with this system. Even those outlets advertised as “independent media” often promote such identification. (By telling us, for example, that the solution to every social grievance can be found through the courts or through the parliament or through just putting different people in those institutions.)

For media to be truly “independent”, the meaning of the word needs to be broadened from denoting “free from corporate or government funding or interference”. Independence needs to be conceptualised ideologically: does this outlet challenge the basic ideological assumptions of capitalist society? Seen in this way, media are truly independent not simply when they expose the lies and conspiracies of those in power, but when they organise resistance to the existing order and argue for a system built on cooperation rather than competition, for a society that operates according the maxim: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

First published in 2013

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