The News of the World has abused its powers, but fundamentally we have a free press, don’t we?
No. In Britain – as opposed to say Cuba or Saudi Arabia – the media is largely free from dictatorial state control. This is worth having, and was won by the organised working class over many decades of struggle. It means there is some diversity of opinion even in the mainstream press, and also that we can publish newspapers like Solidarity. We should defend that. But it is freedom of the press primarily for the very rich, for individuals and corporations rich own enough to media resources like TV stations, newspapers and large-scale printing presses.
As Lenin put it in 1917, when the revolutionary workers’ government he led was attempting to establish a policy for reshaping the press in line with working-class and popular interests: “For the bourgeoisie, freedom of the press meant freedom for the rich to publish and for the capitalists to control the newspapers, a practice which in all countries, including even the freest, produced a corrupt press.”
In today’s capitalist world, we have “freedom of the press” in the same sense we have “democracy”. It is not purely a sham, or meaningless for the working class. But it is freedom and democracy curtailed and distorted by capitalist limits, denying real voice and control to the vast majority of the people.
So we should limit media monopolies? One man, one newspaper?
Any curbing of Murdoch is welcome. It is good that News Corp will not be able to acquire the rest of BSkyB. But even “one person, one newspaper” – which is far more radical than anything being proposed in the political mainstream – would not deal with the basic domination of the media by big capitalists. If Murdoch goes down, someone else might replace him; if his empire is broken up, we will have more numerous smaller tyrants, not democracy.
So what then?
Public ownership of all large-scale media resources and capital (printing presses, newspaper and TV offices, studios, broadcasting technology, distribution networks, etc) and their allocation for use by different organisations and groups according to support in the population.
How is that different from a state-controlled media?
It’s completely different. Advocating public ownership of something does not necessarily mean you want it controlled by the government. We do not want the media regimented by any government - certainly not by a capitalist government, but not by a workers' government either.
In the 19th century, when most education was private, Karl Marx advocated a universal system of state schools. But he strongly objected to the notion of “education by the state” suggested by some socialists, demanding that “government and church should be equally excluded from any influence on the school” and commenting that, in fact, the capitalist state “has need of a very stern education by the people”.
Far from creating monolithic state control, the system we want would allow a flowering of media diversity far greater than what exists today. There should be strict legal guarantees of pluralism and minority rights to underpin this.
“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… Freedom of the press would in practice become much more democratic, would become incomparably more complete as a result.”
Note that the state-owned media we have now – the BBC TV and radio channels – are very far from government mouthpieces churning out uniform, obedient, dull propaganda. And that is despite being run in a bureaucratic and market-driven way. We need to fight for the democratisation of public broadcasting too, but even today’s BBC is evidence that public ownership need not mean authoritarian state control.
How would all this be decided?
We are a long way from winning a workers’ government which could put this sort of set up into effect. The details would have to be worked out in the course of the struggle. But it would not be difficult to have some sort of public media commission to establish and oversee the framework for access to and allocation of resources. There could be various mechanisms for judging popular support, from membership figures to referenda to collecting signatures. It would have to be a continuous process.
In Russia in 1917, Lenin advocated that priority go first to the various soviets, the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils that had become the basis of the new government; then to large political parties; and then to smaller parties and any group of citizens able to collect a given amount of signatures (he suggested 10,000).
What about advertising?
If, say, the Daily Telegraph has enough support to get the resources it needs to continue publishing a similar paper, fine. Freedom cannot just mean freedom for those a workers’ government approves of. It has to include freedom for opponents. But there is no reason why a socialist society should tolerate the current system of private advertising, which is another mechanism which distorts the media in the direction of the rich and powerful. It has also contributed to the deterioration of journalistic standards – look at the free newspapers.
There should be progressive taxation of such advertising to balance things out.
It’s obviously true that only a workers’ government could put such a system into operation. So what should we fight for now?
In the first place, we need to expose and dissect the idea that what exists in Britain and other “democratic” capitalist countries is a really free press, and popularise ideas about the kind of media system we would like to see. The ideas outlined above are not well known, even among people on the left. They should be.
Secondly, we should support media workers’ struggles, starting with the many battles the NUJ is fighting to defend jobs, terms and conditions in the local newspaper industry.
Of course, freedom of the press does not simply mean control by journalists or print workers. But media workers’ organisation and power will play a crucial role in any transition to a genuinely democratic media system in a socialist society.
In May 1984, in the middle of the miners’ strike, the Sun tried to print a front page picture of Arthur Scargill with his hand in the air and the headline “Mine fuhrer”, implying some sort of affinity with fascism. The News International printers at Wapping, in East London, refused to print it; in the end the Sun ran with the headline “Members of all the Sun production chapels refused to handle the Arthur Scargill picture and major headline on our lead story. The Sun has decided, reluctantly, to print the paper without either”.
Great days! The News International bosses, the right-wing press and the Tories presented this as an attack on press freedom. In fact it was a working-class assertion of press freedom against the almost universal anti-NUM consensus of the capitalist press, of which the Sun represented the most extreme expression.
After the miners were defeated, Murdoch took on and smashed the printers’ union at Wapping, before going on to batter NUJ chapels at his newspapers. The destruction of the newspaper unions was intimately bound up with the development of the Murdoch empire. And the reassertion of media workers’ power will be intimately bound up with the defeat of Murdock and his like.
Ideally, when the News of the World closure was announced, we would have liked the paper's workers to take over its facilities and start producing a new, better paper - though in fact their organisation and consciousness were nowhere near high enough for that to happen. (We would also have advocated that the paper's resources were nationalised - as with other firms that close and lay off workers.) A socialist system would no doubt include elements of workers forming co-operatives to run newspapers and other media.
There are also more immediate demands we can make — for instance, greater rights for small publications to be distributed.
Lastly, and for now most importantly, we need a flourishing labour movement press.
Believe it or not, the Sun is the successor of the Daily Herald, a one-time socialist paper that began as a print workers’ strike bulletin in 1911 and from 1922 belonged to the TUC. Murdoch bought it in 1969 and created the monster we know today.
At present there is no major newspaper that will even support strikes. From the Sun to the Guardian, they all take the bosses’ side. Why doesn’t the labour movement establish its own, quality, popular daily paper? (We don’t mean the shoddy, Stalinist Morning Star.) The answer is conservatism and timidity. We should fight for this, and meanwhile do everything we can to strengthen, promote and win a wider circulation for socialist papers like Solidarity.