Britain: the capitalist press – “a great keyboard on which the government can play”

24 April 2020 — In Defence of Marxism

Ben Gliniecki

Image: Socialist Appeal

This article was written before the coronavirus pandemic, but with the press spending weeks subjecting the Tories to nothing but uncritical “wartime” coverage, and now fawning over the establishment-friendly Labour leader Keir Starmer, the points it makes are more valid than ever.


Lawyers in London are arguing over whether Julian Assange should be extradited to the USA to face trial for espionage. Assange’s website, Wikileaks, published information that damaged US imperialism. His defenders say his prosecution would be an assault on freedom of the press.

Unfortunately for Assange, there is no such thing as a free press under capitalism today. In fact, it long ago ceased to exist; and the British state, which is now sitting in judgement on Assange, is cheerfully helping to bury it.

Press censorship in Britain

JULIAN ASSANGE Image Cancillería del EcuadorDespite the appeals of people like Julian Assange, there is no such thing as a free press under capitalism today / Image: Cancillería del Ecuador

Censorship, the most brazen assault on press freedom, is alive and well in Britain. The UK government has a Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee whose role is to censor the press in the ‘national interest’.

This committee is chaired by the chief (unelected) civil servant in the Ministry of Defence. He is flanked by counterparts from the Home Office, the Foreign Office, and the Cabinet Office. Joining them are representatives from all major media organisations, including the BBC, ITV, Sky, the Press Association, and Google.

Technically decisions of this committee are not binding. In reality they are always adhered to. In 2010 this committee issued a notice to all UK newspapers prohibiting the publication of US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.

Julian Assange, the man whom the British state censored, is now appealing to that state to take a stand against press censorship.

The media and the state

The state under capitalism is a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. In the final analysis it relies on its armed bodies of men and women, in the form of the police, army, courts and prisons, to defend the interests of the capitalist class.

But it’s not in the interests of the capitalist class to be seen relying openly on violence to maintain its rule. Especially today, in a country like Britain, military-police methods of government would provoke a working class that is numerically stronger than it has ever been into a movement that could overthrow the entire capitalist system.

So, the bourgeois state uses other, softer, methods to defend capitalist rule, including a heavy reliance on the media to shape public opinion.

For example, during the 2019 UK General Election the political editors of BBC and ITV news were granted preferential access to ‘Number 10 sources’ who fed them breaking news stories and juicy quotes.

But these career-enhancing titbits came at a price – if these journalists produced negative stories about the government, this preferential access would be revoked. This way the executive officers of the British state were able to leash and house-train two of the most prominent journalists in the country during a general election in which the capitalist class felt seriously threatened.

In February 2020, Downing Street took things a step further when it tried to exclude certain journalists from a Brexit-related press briefing. This is the logical next step in its well-established policy of treating the press as the PR arm of the state. In the USA Donald Trump already does this. Unfortunately for the government on this occasion the move was too brazen and even the invited journalists refused to take part in the briefing.

Government threats to Channel 4 after the climate debate election broadcast in December 2019, and the question of the BBC’s licence fee, are more examples of the state trying to mould the media to its needs.

Who are our journalists?

Kunessburg Image Benjamin NolanBritain’s top journalists are tied hand and foot to the establishment: they dutifully protect and aid it / Image: Benjamin Nolan

The bourgeois representatives who manage the state apparatus on behalf of the ruling class have their task of wielding the media as a weapon of class rule made easier by the class background of reporters, journalists, and press chiefs themselves.

Take the BBC for example. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, is establishment to the core. She’s the granddaughter of Lord Robertson, and great-niece of the last British Governor-General of Nigeria. Her parents have both been awarded honours by the Queen.

Andrew Neil, the BBC’s chief political interviewer, is the chairman of the Tory-supporting Spectator magazine. He is on record speaking in defence of Friedrich Hayek’s hard-right economic policies, and as a climate change denier.

Robbie Gibb (former head of live political programming), David Dimbleby (former Question Time host), Andrew Marr (political interviewer), and other BBC heavyweights are all up to their neck in Tory connections and worldviews.

It is well known, whether at the BBC or elsewhere, that top journalists today are employed for their connections, not their writing or presenting skills. It is very much a question of who you know, and who can give you the juiciest inside gossip or an impressive quote. This means that the top journalists everywhere will be the ones with the best connections to the establishment – in other words those who are establishment figures themselves.

And so, we end up with the granddaughter of Lord Robertson as the BBC’s political editor, even though someone born and raised on a council estate on Merseyside would probably have a better political understanding of what’s going on in Britain today, and certainly one that is closer to the majority of working-class people.

Who owns the press?

It’s not just the background and worldview of journalists that leads the media to support the establishment. These days, the press is big business. Far from being free, the press today is worth several fortunes, concentrated in a tiny number of hands.

Rupert Murdoch Image World Economic ForumThe press is not ‘free’: it is owned by a handful of billionaires like Rupert Murdoch / Image: World Economic Forum

Four companies publish all of the highest circulating newspapers in the UK. DMG Media publishes the Daily Mail, the Mail On Sunday, the Metro, the i, and has a 25 percent stake in the Evening Standard with which it shares its offices. The Daily Mail and General Trust company has total revenues of almost £2bn and is chaired by Jonathan Harmsworth, Fourth Viscount Rothermere, whose net worth reached £1bn in 2015.

News Corp publishes The Sun, The Sun on Sunday, The Times and The Sunday Times. These are all owned by Rupert Murdoch whose net worth reached $13bn in 2017.

Reach Plc publishes the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Express, Daily Star and 240 regional newspapers. Reach is a publicly traded company whose biggest investors are billion-dollar hedge funds including JP Morgan and Standard Life.

The Daily Telegraph and the Spectator are owned by the Barclay Brothers, whose net worth reached £3bn in 2019.

Between them, Harmsworth, Murdoch, the Barclays and Reach are the British press. The press is not free. It is wholly owned and controlled by a handful of billionaires and banks.

Even the Guardian isn’t free from the influence of big business. It is owned by The Scott Trust, which counts Sir Anthony Salz among its trustees. Salz was lawyer to Guinness in 1986 when the company illegally manipulated share prices. He later became an investment banker with Rothschild. Subsequently he was commissioned to “review” Barclays after the Libor-rigging scandal in 2012. His review let the bankers off with no more than a slap on the wrist.

Also on the board of the Scott Trust is Ole Jacob Sunde, principal shareholder and chairman of the multi-billion pound Norwegian investment, management and consultancy firm.

And so, when a figure like Jeremy Corbyn runs an election campaign that puts the super-rich square in its sights, and raises the question of nationalisation of big businesses, the capitalist class doesn’t have to work very hard to unite its press in opposition to such ideas. Those who own and control the British press are motivated by the same interests as those who own and control those businesses and industries upon which Corbyn was proposing to increase taxes and regulations. To attack one group is to inevitably provoke a response from the other.

Fake news

Lies and spin have been around for as long as the press existed to publish them. Fake news is nothing new. The Sun printed barefaced lies about the Hillsborough disaster under a headline ‘The Truth’, and the BBC reversed footage of the miners’ strike to make it look like the miners attacked the police, when the truth was that it was the other way around, to take just two examples.

During the 2019 general election campaign, the Tories continued this noble establishment tradition of telling barefaced lies to protect ruling class interests. The Tories doctored videos and photoshopped pictures; rebranded the Tory press office Twitter account as a fact-checking service; and had eight separate adverts banned by Google and Facebook.

Factcheck UK Image fair useFake news is a feature of the polarised political epoch / Image: fair use

Many Blairites in the Labour Party have also been spreading fake news in recent years, around questions of anti-Semitism for example, in an effort to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. The best example of this was the BBC’s “exposé” of anti-Semitism within Labour, which featured a parade of disgruntled right-wingers complaining about Corbyn while presenting a sum total of zero evidence of anti-Semitism in the party.

Leon Trotsky, writing in the introduction to Stalin, identified his own lifetime as one in which lies and smears were also a key weapon of political reaction:

“Our epoch is above all an epoch of lies. I do not therewith mean to imply that other epochs of humanity were distinguished by greater truthfulness. The lie is the fruit of contradictions, of struggle, of the clash of classes, of the suppression of personality, of the social order. In that sense it is an attribute of all human history. There are periods when social contradictions become exceptionally sharp, when the lie rises above the average, when the lie becomes an attribute of the very acuteness of social contradictions. Such is our epoch.”

The rise and prominence of fake news today reflects the sharpening of the class struggle in Britain. To tell the truth about the causes and impact of the austerity, poverty, environmental crisis and everything else taking place today would be to question the capitalist system. It would be a revolutionary act. And so, the truth is stretched, distorted and ignored completely by those who seek to defend and justify capitalism. The deeper the crisis, the faker the news.

Where has the press come from?

The picture of the press sketched so far in this article is one that has come a long way over the last few centuries. It has gone from being a revolutionary tool of the rising bourgeoisie, to being a muzzled lapdog and prop for the establishment.

The dawn of the printing press in early 16th Century Europe was seen as a mortal threat by monarchy and church. The pamphleteers of the English Civil War, who roused the emerging bourgeois class to action with revolutionary writing, proved their fears correct.

The struggle, first for bourgeois democracy and later for socialism, was carried on as an insurgency which used the printing press as a weapon. The Corresponding Societies that sprang up in the wake of the French Revolution; Tom Paine’s Rights of Man; the Chartist newspapers, all faced suppression while their authors and editors faced prison. These were the origins of the radical demand for freedom of the press.

However, having used the printed word to secure their position as the ruling class, the bourgeoisie soon turned their fire against those trying to use the press to struggle beyond hollow bourgeois democracy, towards genuine equality and socialism. Using a combination of government suppression, especially of anti-war papers in the first half of the 20th Century, and capitalist press ownership and competition, the workers’ press suffered a dramatic decline.

Today, all that remains of the original idea of freedom of the press is a shadow and a whisper for hypocrites to hide behind. In reality, the media is now big business and a political weapon for the capitalist class.

Where is it going?

The printed word and media technology remain important weapons for the new generation of revolutionaries and socialists today. There is a crying need for a media by and for the working class, which reflects their lives and aspirations.

The Labour Party suffered from media attacks that were piped directly into people’s political consciousness every day during the 2019 election campaign through the television, radio and newspapers. And yet the party has the resources to publish its own newspaper and media channels, beyond just the occasional Facebook video. It is the largest political party in Europe, with an army of volunteers who made and distributed online pro-Labour material, and knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors during the election campaign. This could be mobilised to promote Labour’s own press.

This is an idea that Richard Burgon has raised in his campaign to be the new deputy leader of the Labour Party. With its own media, which is not owned by billionaires or staffed with Tories, Labour could take the offensive rather than being constantly forced into defensive positions. If it puts forward the right political ideas this could become a real workers’ press.

Such an operation by Labour would be a foreshadowing of what the press might look like in a socialist society. Billionaires wouldn’t own the press, everybody would. For the Bolsheviks, after the 1917 revolution, the starting point was to declare a state monopoly over press advertising. That way the democratically elected Soviets could decide which papers could be printed and which could not, because without advertising revenue the papers couldn’t survive.

Clearly this system degenerated under Stalinism into totalitarian censorship which is different only by degree to the system operated today in Britain. A clear line separates these methods from a democratic monopoly over state advertising, which is a socialist method of press production.

What can we do now?

As well as trying to promote our own workers’ media, we should use the other methods the labour movement has at its disposal to counter the ruling-class propaganda that is pumped out by the capitalist press.

The ruling class relies on the passive consumption of news. They want us to sit on our sofas watching TV or reading a newspaper, or perhaps sitting in front of a screen on social media. This atomisation makes it easier for them to ram their propaganda down our throats, because we have no one to debate and discuss it with.

The labour movement, by contrast, has always thrived through collective action. That goes for political education as much as defending rights at work. The Labour Party and trade unions have lively local branches up and down the country where current events should be discussed and analysed. In an election situation mass rallies could be called, as they were in the 2017 UK general election, to get ideas across to thousands of people at a time. Meeting, discussing and collective action are the way to fight the establishment media.

Sun Truth Image fair useThe ‘truth’ for the bourgeois press is subordinated to the interests of the ruling class. We need a workers’ press! / Image: fair use

Measures like this will give labour leaders the confidence to tackle the media head-on, instead of allowing themselves to be bullied by it. Donald Trump, while clearly not on the Left, nevertheless takes a belligerent attitude when it comes to the media.

Just one national newspaper in the USA backed Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, but that didn’t stop him winning, which highlights the limits of the media’s power. To get his revenge on the media he has banned those journalists and networks he doesn’t like from his press conferences. He brazenly accuses the media of telling outright lies. He generally makes no secret of his contempt for establishment journalists. In other words, he bulldozes those elements of the media who are his political opponents.

This belligerence is characteristic of the Right. Whereas the Left is more commonly characterised by cringing hand wringing and nervous courting of billionaire newspaper owners and Tory BBC journalists. If Labour had unity and confidence in the correctness of its socialist ideas and policies, and its own serious machine for spreading them, then it needn’t adopt this attitude towards the media.

The labour movement has another key weapon in the fight against the media: the workers who produce it. The owners of Sky News or the Daily Mail aren’t the ones who actually produce the programmes or the papers. That is done by cameramen, sound technicians, makeup artists, print engineers, sub-editors, journalists, and so on. All of these people are workers whose living and working conditions are as hard as they are for the rest of us.

A massive drive for unionisation among these workers would grip the billionaire and establishment media by the throat. At the height of the miners’ strike in 1984, print workers at the Sun refused to print a front-page likening Arthur Scargill, leader of the strike, to Adolf Hitler. The paper went out with a blank front page and there was nothing Rupert Murdoch could do about it. This is the power of the organised working class.

The Labour party and the trade unions should publicly and loudly declare a drive to unionise media workers so as to break the stranglehold of the billionaires over the media. It would incur the wrath of the class enemy, who would bleat about the mythical ‘freedom of the press’. But these people will attack us no matter what we do. Their lies need to be exposed and their power checked, and we need bold, decisive measures to do so.

For a genuinely free press

The press and the media are not free under capitalism. We are not doomed to simply accept this. We can fight back with the weapons of the mass Labour party, the collective action of the labour movement, and the power of a unionised workforce.

But ultimately, for the press to be free it must be democratically run, not privately owned and staffed with establishment stooges.

Breaking the monopoly of capital over the media isn’t a separate task from breaking the control of capital over the whole of society. Without the wholesale overthrow of the capitalist mode of production, by giving power over all of society to the working class, the press will never be able to accurately reflect the interests of working-class people.

The democratic planning of the economy by and for the working class will raise questions and debates over the best way to proceed. These will be the issues taken up by a free and democratic press under socialism. To unchain the media from the degrading position of being for sale to the highest bidder is our aim. A fundamental, revolutionary socialist transformation of society is the only way to achieve it.

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