AWL London forum: Wed 20 July, 19:30, Calthorpe Arms, 252 Grays Inn Rd, London WC1X 8JR. Speakers Dave Osler and Cathy Nugent.
“Freedom of the press in Britain is the freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers don't object to”—Hannen Swaffer, one of the early 20th century pioneers of British tabloid journalism, cited in Tabloid Nation, by Chris Horrie.
The Murdoch empire has decided (7 July) to shut down the News of the World — hoping to dodge the discredit of the hacking scandals, and no doubt quickly to move on to a new venture.
Murdoch should not be allowed to dodge so easily. The latest revelation in the unfolding story of the abuse of its power and wealth by the News of the World is truly shocking.
It is also a revelation, even to people who had thought they knew “all about” the press.
“Reporters” hired detectives to hack into the mobile phone of a girl, Milly Dowler, who had been kidnapped and murdered, and by deleting messages confused the police, and Milly's parents, about whether she had run away, or been abducted, or was alive or dead.
They hacked into the phones of the parents of Madeleine McCann, the small girl who went missing on a holiday in Portugal. They did the same sort of thing to a very large number of other victims and their relatives.
Such papers concoct news, inflate the trivial, and trivialise and personalise the serious and important. They hound and persecute people who can be made use of in sensational stories.
They have the power to make or break the careers of politicians, commentators, show business “personalities”, and “ordinary” people — and they used it as capriciously as the mad Roman emperors, Nero and Caligula.
They arbitrarily decide what is news and what is newsworthy, not according to any objective judgement and measurement, but to sell papers and advertising. They hook readers on sensation, prurience, and identification with (or loathing of) the glamorous and the famous. They bestow fame, and take it away, and batten on its recipients.
What we now call the red-tops, and used to call the tabloid press, render serious mass discussion of certain subjects impossible.
They express the politics and the prejudices of the proprietor and advertisers. In a world in which international and British bankers inflicted catastrophe on the lives of millions, and still pay themselves obscenely large salaries and bonuses — in that world, the press campaigns against poor people and against disabled people as “scroungers” and “welfare cheats”.
Freedom of the press is of tremendous social and political importance. It had to be fought for and won in a prolonged struggle against censorship and against restrictions on what the working class could read. (In Britain there was a heavy tax — “stamp” — on each issue of a paper, to price it out of the reach of workers).
The mass circulation newspaper proprietors have made press freedom into something empty and repulsive - into freedom for proprietors and advertisers.
Richard Desmond owns the Daily Express, Sunday Express, and Daily Star. His newspapers are viciously chauvinist. They run racist campaigns against immigrants and workers of foreign origin. They do immense harm. They make rational discussion of questions such as large-scale immigration and the European Union impossible.
Rupert Murdoch, an American citizen, owns a vast swathe of the press, from the Times and Sunday Times to The Sun and the News of the World, as well as satellite TV and film companies. Politicians bow and scrape and pay court to him.
The need of conventional politicians to pander for the support of the press defines bourgeois politics in Britain now. It is the measure of their power.
Just before the present wave of revelations, the Government had licensed Murdoch to take complete ownership and control of Sky, where before he was a mere majority shareholder. The Liberal-Democrat minister Vince Cable was forced out of his job, sideways into another one, because he had said he was “gunning” for Murdoch.
Future generations will have difficulty in understanding the mindset of people who believe that bourgeois democracy in Britain could function properly while the media, a major factor is shaping public opinion, is owned, and operated for their profit, their prejudices, and their interests, by such as Murdoch and Desmond. As much difficulty as we have in understanding the mindset of people who accepted that children of ten should be hanged for theft, or tolerated chattel slavery.
The story of the modern press is encapsulated in the story of The Sun. The Sun is the lineal descendant of the labour movement paper Daily Herald.
George Lansbury started the Daily Herald in 1912 to help in the widespread anti-capitalist agitation of the labour movement then. After going from daily to weekly during World War One, it became a daily again, owned by the TUC, in 1922. From 1930 it was half-owned by the TUC and half by Odhams Press. It was the Labour paper.
It was sold, and its name changed to The Sun, in 1964. And then there was no labour-movement daily, however loosely-defined. It still backed Labour. Murdoch bought it in 1969, and then it took off as a demagogic “popular” tabloid in which bourgeois like Kelvin McKenzie mimicked the speech patterns of the working class, pandered to the most ignorant prejudices, and fostered them, so long as they were compatible with the interests of Murdoch.
The Sun became a major factor in British political life. It backed the Tory party until 1997, when it backed Blair, the Thatcher understudy who had hijacked and transformed the Labour Party. It has swung back to the Tories.
Isn't it the story of the power and role of money in political life, summed up?
The labour movement should aim to take the press out of the hands of the billionaires. The idea that the suppression of the power of newspaper owners would be an attack on the free press is as ludicrous as the idea that the press they run really is a “free press”.
There is no reason at all why a publicly-owned press should not be so organised that it would guarantee such real fail-safes as a legal right to reply — the sort of rights that members of the AWL have in our press now, writ enormously large.
Workers on the billionaire media should take over their presses, their offices, their studios, and their broadcasting centres, and have them put under public ownership. The media should be run under workers’ and democratic control, with legal guarantees of pluralism.