The Privy Council — an unelected body of medieval origin — will meet on Wednesday 30 October to see if it can modify the proposals for press regulation backed by the three big political parties and placate the big newspapers, most of whom backed a rival scheme already rejected by the Privy Council.
The press lords want to retain the right to smear and lie without redress; but the proposed regulations include such things as making publications outside their framework (like Solidarity) liable to worse penalties under Britain’s libel laws, which already do much to protect the rich from criticism.
The socialist alternative was explained by the Russian revolutionary Lenin in this article shortly before the workers’ revolution of October 1917.
The Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) were reformist left parties, then governing Russia in uneasy coalition with open bourgeois parties. The Bolsheviks were Lenin’s party; they would win a majority in the congress of workers’ councils (soviets) in late October 1917, and take power.
The peasants are being deceived, fooled and intimidated by the utterly deceitful and counter-revolutionary bourgeois and “yellow” press, in comparison with which the press of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (not to speak of the Bolsheviks) is very, very weak...
The capitalists (followed, either from stupidity or from inertia, by many SRs and Mensheviks) call “freedom of the press” a situation in which censorship has been abolished and all parties freely publish all kinds of papers.
In reality it is not freedom of the press, but freedom for the rich, for the bourgeoisie, to deceive the oppressed and exploited mass of the people.
Indeed, take, say, the Petrograd and Moscow newspapers. You will see at once that it is the bourgeois papers ... that have by far the largest circulation. What makes for this prevalence? Not at all the will of the majority, for the elections have shown that in both capitals the majority (a gigantic majority, too) favours the democrats, i.e., the SRs, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. These three parties command from three-quarters to four-fifths of the votes, while the circulation of the newspapers they publish is certainly less than a quarter, or even less than one-fifth, that of the whole bourgeois press (which, as we know and see now, supported the Kornilov affair directly and indirectly).
Why is that so?
Everyone knows very well why. Because the publication of a newspaper is a big and profitable capitalist undertaking in which the rich invest millions upon millions of rubles.
“Freedom of the press” in bourgeois society means freedom for the rich systematically, unremittingly, daily, in millions of copies, to deceive, corrupt and fool the exploited and oppressed mass of the people, the poor.
This is the simple, generally known, obvious truth which everyone sees and realises but which “almost everyone” “bashfully” passes over in silence, timidly evades.
The question is whether and how this crying evil can be fought.
First of all, there is a very simple, good and lawful means... which workers should always bear in mind, for they will hardly be able to do without it when they have won political power.
That means is a state monopoly on private press advertising.
Look at [the bourgeois papers] you will see a multitude of private advertisements, which yield a tremendous income, in fact the principal income, to their capitalist publishers.
This is how bourgeois papers hold sway, how they get rich, and how they deal in poison for the people all over the world.
In Europe there are newspapers which... are delivered free... and yet yield their owners a sizeable income. These papers live by advertisements paid by private people, while the free delivery of the paper ensures the best circulation of the advertisements.
Then 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?
Such a measure would be absolutely just. It would greatly benefit both those who published private advertisements and the whole people, particularly the most oppressed and ignorant class, the peasants, who would be able to have Soviet papers, with supplements for the peasants, at a very low price or even free of charge.
Why not do that? Only because private property and hereditary rights (to profits from advertising) are sacred to the capitalist gentlemen. But how can anyone calling himself a revolutionary democrat in the twentieth century, in the second Russian revolution, recognise such rights as “sacred”?!
Some may say it would mean infringing freedom of the press.
That is not true. It would mean extending and restoring freedom of the press, for freedom of the press means that all opinions of all citizens may be freely published.
What do we have now? Now, the rich alone have this monopoly, and also the big parties. Yet if large Soviet newspapers were to be published, with all advertisements, it would be perfectly feasible to guarantee the expression of their opinion to a much greater number of citizens — say to every group having collected a certain number of signatures. Freedom of the press would in practice become much more democratic, would become incomparably more complete as a result.
But some may ask: where would we get printing presses and newsprint?
There we have it! The issue is not “freedom of the press’ but the exploiters’ sacrosanct ownership of the printing presses and stocks of newsprint they have seized!
Just why should we workers and peasants recognise that sacred right? How is that “right” to publish false information better than the “right” to own serfs?
Why is it that in war-time all sorts of requisitioning — of houses, flats, vehicles, horses, grain and metals — are allowed and practised everywhere, while the requisitioning of printing presses and newsprint is impermissible?
The workers and peasants may in fact be deceived for a while if such measures are made out to be unjust or hard to realise, but the truth will win through in the end.
State power in the shape of the soviets takes all the printing presses and all the newsprint and distributes them equitably.
The state should come first — in the interests of the majority of the people, the majority of the poor, particularly the majority of the peasants, who for centuries have been tormented, crushed and stultified by the landowners and capitalists.
The big parties should come second — say, those that have polled one or two hundred thousand votes in both capitals.
The smaller parties should come third, and then any group of citizens which has a certain number of members or has collected a certain number of signatures.
This is the distribution of newsprint and printing presses that would be just and, with the Soviets in power, could be effected easily enough.
Then, two months before the Constituent Assembly, we could really help the peasants by ensuring the delivery to every village of half a dozen pamphlets (or newspaper issues, or special supplements) in millions of copies from every big party.
That would truly be a “revolutionary democratic” preparation for the elections to the Constituent Assembly; it would be aid to the countryside on the part of the advanced workers and soldiers. it would be state aid to the people’s enlightenment, and not to their stultification and deception; it would be real freedom of the press for all, and not for the rich.
It would be a break with that accursed, slavish past which compels us to suffer the usurpation by the rich of the great cause of informing and teaching the peasants.