Marking 100 issues of Red Flag

Said the great machine of iron and wood,

“Lo, I am a creature meant for good.

But the criminal clutch of godless greed

Has made me a monster that scatters need

And want and hunger wherever I go.

I would lift men’s burdens and lighten their woe

I would give them leisure to laugh in the sun,

If owned by the many – instead of the one”.

– “The protest”, Ella Wheeler Wilcox

What is the socialist press for? Launching Red Flag four years ago, we wrote:

“Over the past few years – from the Arab revolutions to Occupy to the resistance to austerity in Europe – people have time and again taken to the streets, organised in their communities and their workplaces, and set themselves the task of fighting for a different, better world. This politics of resistance is what Red Flag is about. It is a paper that will tell the truth about the rulers of our society, and champion every flicker of resistance from the workers and the oppressed.”

Over our first 100 issues, this is what we have tried to do. But socialist media are more than just alternative news and opinions. To understand our project, it is worth comparing Red Flag with the corporate media.

Classic print journalism is in crisis, and all too often a publisher of spin. 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 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”.

Most people have a healthy scepticism of the press. 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 media as either “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt”.

Yet the main problem with the corporate press is not just the spin and disinformation contained within it. The more insidious ways in which the media operate stem not from their inability to be organisationally and financially independent of the establishment. The greatest problem is arguably their ideological dependence on ideas that protect the ruling class.

The capitalist press can be subversive at the margins when exposing corruption, mismanagement, lawlessness in government or conspiracy – such as the 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, never challenges the existing social set-up.

In this regard, it is not the reactionary Murdoch empire that provides the rich and powerful with the greatest service, but those liberal outlets that present themselves as critical, but hold 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 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 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.

How are we different?

“In a time of universal deceit”, wrote George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. Telling the truth can be heroic and immensely valuable. As Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have shown, governments cherish secrecy because the work they do is indefensible.

Capitalist power, however, doesn’t rest simply on deceit. 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 ideological domination of pro-capitalist ideas in the press helps promote a positive identification with the system, even when lies and propaganda are recognised and exposed. 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 understood 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 goal is to be part of building a larger movement for a classless society in which the world’s wealth, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, is “owned by the many – instead of the one”.

This piece borrows from “When the press was revolutionary”, published in issue #4 of Red Flag.