“Every editor, being assumed to be a criminally disposed person and naturally inclined to blasphemy and sedition, had to enter into sureties. Every person possessing a printing-press or types for printing and every type-founder was ordered to give notice to the Clerk of the Peace. Every person selling type was ordered to give an account of all persons to whom they were sold. Every person who printed anything also had to keep a copy of the matter printed and write on it the name and abode of the person who employed him to print it. The printer was treated as an enemy of the state, and compelled to become an informer.”

Chartist George Holyoake’s description of the position of 18th and early 19th century newsprint staff in England couldn’t be more foreign to the situation today. The capitalist media are now controlled by the rich and powerful, pushing reactionary agendas of law and order and submission to authority. Why was there such a change?

The radical origins of the English press

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, posed a challenge 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 the monarch stood the landholding classes, owing allegiance to the sovereign in return for protection. These classes – gentry, barons, knights and others – held both economic and political power in their respective fiefdoms: their ability to extract tribute from peasants was given by the power to govern them.

Rights were few for the labouring classes. Free thought and expression were stifled. 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 small minority of the largely illiterate population was sanctioned to interpret.

The introduction of the printing press didn’t immediately change any of this. But its existence foreshadowed mass popular production and consumption of the written word; it was democratic in character and therefore subversive. 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 on 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.

The Earl of Leicester complained about the content of one such partisan paper, the Moderate: “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.”

Monarchs and the nobility had regular disputes, but they were united in their hostility to the mass of 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 “the 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: “[I]t 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 decade after decade. The authority of its rulers and their doctrines could not be maintained. Their network of largely self-contained fiefdoms was encroached upon by a new and independent public sphere occupied by some of the rising merchants and productive capitalists, who were rapidly gaining economic weight, yet remained politically impotent.

Newspapers played an important role in developing this sphere, made up of the totality of forums and institutions where political debate took place and in which information was shared. As historian Bob Harris writes, “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 on the continent 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 revolution 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 French 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 in the ruling class. This changed the character of their press.

From subversion to indoctrination

Paris Mayor Jean-Sylvain Bailly had asserted in 1789: “Publicity is the people’s safeguard.” As newspapers became institutions of the capitalist establishment, such phrases began to lose their revolutionary content. Unlike the aristocracy, the capitalist ruling classes didn’t require direct political rule to exploit labour and accumulate wealth.

Secrecy in matters of state they kept, but democratic governance was possible without threatening capitalist 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).

Bourgeois supremacy meant that the newspaper (and mass press in general), as a medium, rather than being inherently radical, was 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 existed a radical press committed to furthering the cause of the labouring classes, the lineage of which could be traced back to the Moderate and its peers. The establishment realised that attempts at state censorship were proving 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 sought to compete.

Thomas Milner-Gibson, the leading advocate for removing 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.

The Chartists’ Northern Star, a national radical weekly, required £670 to establish in 1837 and a circulation of just 6,000 to break even (circulation reached 50,000 within two years). 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 relates: “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 capitalist newspapers were businesses. Even if they didn’t bow to every dictate of advertisers, they shared a world view with the rest of the establishment and attempted to win their readership to it.

The capitalist press today

The role of the press today basically remains as it was in the late 19th century. The editors and lead journalists are required to 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 …”

This process is marked today. Classic print journalism is in crisis – it is simply 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. A study by Robert McChesney and John Nichols estimates 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 the actual spin and disinformation contained within it. Most people are sceptical of the content of the stories they read. In Australia, the media are one of the least trusted capitalist institutions. Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer found that 58 percent of the population described the institution as either “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt”.

The more insidious ways in which the media operate stem not from their inability to be organisationally and financially independent of the establishment. Rather, their ideological dependence on ideas that protect the ruling class is arguably the greatest problem.

The capitalist press can be subversive at the margins when exposing corruption, mismanagement, lawlessness in government or conspiracy – such as the British Guardian releasing leaked classified information it received via WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. Some outlets, with an eye to diversifying their readership and increasing sales, will even on occasion publish a radical article. The press as a whole and in general, however, is never subversive of the existing social order.

In this regard, it is not the reactionary Murdoch empire that provides the establishment with the greatest service, but those liberal outlets that present themselves as critical yet adhere to the same basic ideological 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; democracy narrowly conceived as parliamentary democracy; capitalism as a sometimes flawed but a generally desirable system.

These ideas are sometimes promoted explicitly but are more generally the basis from which more liberal arguments are constructed. 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 need to earn the right to qualify for payments.

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 more generally.

An analogy for the role of the liberal media can be drawn from the contrasting roles played by former US Republican President George W. Bush and current Democratic President Barack Obama. Bush was rightly despised for his crimes against humanity. But if there was one service he did the world, it was cementing hatred of US imperialism and instilling a feeling that the rich and powerful need to be challenged and fought.

By contrast Obama, hero of the liberal establishment, has carried out the same agenda as his predecessor, yet managed to preach that the US war machine might be a force for good and that cooperation with oppressors might, with enough hope, pay dividends for the oppressed. Obama’s task was to subdue, not enrage. Such is also the role of the liberal media.

The revolutionary press

“In a time of universal deceit,” wrote George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Is this really true today?

Telling the truth is certainly heroic and immensely valuable. As Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange prove, governments cherish secrecy because the work they do is indefensible, at least in the eyes of a large minority and often a majority of citizens.

Capitalist power, however, doesn’t rest simply on the population being ignorant. It rests on the exploitation of workers, enabled by the concentration of industry in the hands of a tiny minority. This is not a question of truth and lies, although that is part of it.

The system is resilient because it is accepted. The ideological domination of pro-capitalist ideas in the press helps promote in the population a positive identification with the system, even when lies and propaganda are exposed and recognised. Even those outlets advertised as “independent media” often promote such identification.

For independent media to be truly subversive, the meaning of “independence” needs to be broadened from denoting “free from corporate or government funding or control”. Independence needs to be conceptualised ideologically: Is this media outlet part of a coherent attempt to provide an alternative world view? Does it challenge the basic assumptions of capitalist society?

Seen in this broader 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.

That’s the philosophy behind Red Flag. Our paper, and other publications like it, attempt to unite revolutionary ideas with the actual struggles that emerge against the system. Our goal is to be part of building a larger movement for a classless society that operates according the maxim “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

[Ben Hillier is a member of the Red Flag editorial committee]