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Marxism and the media: Press freedom, the royal charter and the hypocrisy of the press barons


The row over a royal charter to regulate the press that erupted earlier this year was not about press freedom but about the desire of the billionaire newspaper owners to keep control of their moneymaking machines. Freedom of the press and of speech can only be guaranteed by the mass of people being involved in the production and dissemination of ideas, not by a tiny elite of super-rich owners in cahoots with the Tory party, writes Keith Spencer


The proposed royal charter to oversee the press is an attack on press freedom. However, unlike the hypocritical billionaire press, as revolutionary socialists we oppose a royal charter both in its Tory form and its Lib/Lab form. We are against any state control of the press and any media.


However, much of the debate about press freedom is really concerned about the right of billionaire owners to publish whatever rubbish they want in order to make money, rather than anything to do with freedom of speech.


The actions of the press barons and their puppet editors have confirmed this. The right-wing proprietors and their editors worked with the Tories on the proposal for a royal charter.


The royal charter will now go forward to the Privy Council for agreement on 30 October. The Privy Council is a medieval relic in the UK constitution that is, in practice, overseen by the government of the day. It is staffed by MPs who are government appointees and, like most of the monarch’s powers, is beholden to the Prime Minster.


For all the media’s outrage about press freedom, on which the UK is frankly quite poor, the newspaper industry supports a feudal body controlled by the government as its preferred form of oversight.


The talk of press freedom was always a diversion. The main fear for the press barons was the perfectly reasonable proposals on public access to redress and apologies. These proposals would have interfered with commercial freedom to print whatever is necessary to make money.


All the Liberal and Labour amendments did was to strengthen some control of parliament and boosted the public’s right to apology from the press.


Even within its own political parameters, Labour could have argued for a strong right of reply for the public, rather than any form of state interference of the press. This is a democratic reform that would have enabled greater freedom of speech as it would have enabled debate, discussion and challenge to mainstream newspapers. But Labour, like the other mainstream political parties, are afraid of greater press freedom that could expose their own dishonest dealings.


And the press barons and their lackeys would rather see themselves emasculated further than cede the commercial right to print whatever makes money.


As Karl Marx said, the commercial freedom of the press is a debasement of the real freedom of the press and speech.


The Leveson inquiry and the UK press

The press has been in turmoil for more than two years. The Leveson inquiry into phone hacking at News of the World and News International exposed illegal acts; cosy relations between journalists and police, including senior executives on newspapers and in the Metropolitan Police; and close ties among journalists and politicians.


Much of the hacking was about obtaining prurient evidence of the romantic intrigues of celebrities. There was little scrutiny of government or public officials, wrongdoing by the police or exposes of multinationals. Although there was a disproportionate number of Labour MPs and ministers being hacked than Tories, little came of it when Labour was in power.


Tony Blair and his conspirators went ahead with lies about the Iraq war with the overwhelming backing of the press. The police carried out a 20-year smear campaign of those who died at Hillsborough, fully supported by the Sun. Even the MPs’ expenses scandal came about because someone (most probably someone in the security services) sold a CD containing the information to the Daily Telegraph, rather than any dogged pursuit of the truth.


Importantly, the Leveson inquiry revealed how the press can ruin people’s lives, not just publicity-seeking celebrities but citizens with neither the money nor legal access to counter the lies and distortions, such as the family of Milly Dowler.


In effect, the inquiry provided us with clear-cut evidence that the media spews out ruling class propaganda. Not necessarily in a crude didactic fashion – although that certainly takes place with lies about disabled and unemployed people’s benefits, migrants, Black and Asian people – but by the flood of superfluous ‘news’ about people in the entertainment industry, drowning out any serious examination of economics or politics.


Even when newspapers do attempt to cover the ‘serious stuff’, it is often done in a partial or flippant manner that is incapable of proving a coherent world view: blaming economic crises on poor people buying houses (sub-prime mortgages scandal), disabled people claiming benefits or too much regulation harming the banking industry. These are explanations that take us further from the truth.


The evidence reinforces the point made by Karl Marx in ‘the German Ideology’ that the dominant ideas of an epoch are those of the ruling class, with its control of the schools, universities, church and media.


After the inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson recommended an independent press watchdog, tougher rules on journalists’ behaviour, giving the public enhanced rights to apologies and redress from papers, statutory underpinning to a watchdog and enshrining press freedom in law.


Some of these proposals such as a press freedom law and public redress are progressive; others such as statutory underpinning and restrictions on what journalists can investigate are regressive, opening up the road to parliamentary interference.


The royal charter approach to press regulation

In February this year the Tories came up with the idea of a royal charter to oversee the body that regulates the press to counter Leveson’s proposals on statutory underpinning. However, this leaves the power effectively in the same hands: a royal charter is governed by the Privy Council, consisting of 20-30 active MPs chosen by the government of the day.


And David Cameron didn’t waste any time in inviting right-wing press chiefs such as Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail and proprietor Rupert Murdoch to fine-tune the proposals.


Rather than defend press freedom, the royal charter proposal opens up the press to the possibility of greater government interference than proposed by Leveson, a point made by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).


But the important content of the proposal was in deleting most of Leveson’s proposals on giving the public improved rights to redress and bolstering the independence of appointees to the regulator. In effect, the royal charter holds up the status quo, with a complaint Press Complaints Commission staffed by right-wing editors and a few tame non-journalist trade unionists and chaired by a Tory lord, effectively sticking two fingers up to the public who haven’t the money to take the papers to court for libel.


For example, the current Press Complaints Commission threw out a complaint against the Sun some years ago for publishing a story accusing asylum seekers of eating swans. The reason? It was a third-party complaint and the PCC said no one in the story had complained. But no one in the story could complain because the story was made up.


The wrangling between the political parties has given parliament a role in the charter if two-thirds of MPs voted for changes and boosted the public’s right to apologies in the press. But overall the royal charter is still an attack on press freedom.


The danger in the Leveson proposals

However, it is also true that Leveson’s proposals were not promising a free press, either.


Certainly a right to freedom of expression in law, including a free press, would be a good thing and mirror the US constitutional right. A right is for all – and the absence of such rights in the UK constitution gives far too much power to governments and judges to rule on cases.


Furthermore, a strong right of reply with the same prominence and position of the original article is a democratic right. Opening up the media to other voices, allowing debates and discussions and challenges to the lies and distortions that the media churns out, would be a boost to freedom of speech and should be supported by socialists.


We don’t need government or parliamentary oversight of the press – after all the UK press is already heavily restricted in law. Nor do we need exemplary damages for those who refuse to sign up to the new watchdog; this will almost certainly punish radical and progressive newspapers and magazines more.


What we need is a democratic right to reply with equal space and position to the original article in order to boost freedom of speech. But ultimately we also need workers and community control over the media, so that racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-working class lies can’t be spread.


The press against Leveson

The press barons and their loyal lackeys in Fleet Street also came out against Leveson’s proposals. The ludicrous Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, said he would be the first to go to jail under the new Leveson regime, telling Press Gazette that state control would ‘never happen in the US’.”


That is because the US has a constitutional right to a free press and free speech, which Tories like Nelson are against.


Establishment big shot Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian that Leveson and his supporters had “adopted sharia law”, before going off to join the very committee that came up with the royal charter idea, in order to add another worthy job title to his CV.


The great liberal hope Peter Preston also issued dire warnings; a man so committed to fearless journalism that while editing the Guardian in the 1980s he grassed up one of his own sources in order to escape going to jail. The source, civil servant Sarah Tisdall, was sentenced to six months in prison for leaking documents about American cruise missile nuclear weapons on British soil.


Their employers are the proprietors: billionaire tax avoiders such as Rupert Murdoch; the secretive Barclay brothers who live in a tawdry mansion on the channel island of Brecqhou; the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev of the Independent and Evening Standard; Richard Desmond, the pornographer at the dailies Express and Star; and Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail, offspring of the man who wrote the infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” article in January 1934 which praised the fascist Oswald Mosley for his “sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine”.


There are many more, mainly odious right-wingers talking about the threat to their right to attack anyone they want, as well as some misguided leftists who believe that billionaire tax dodgers and toadying editors are somehow in the front line of the fight for freedom.


So committed they are all to press freedom that they supported the Tory idea of a royal charter, despite handing oversight of the press over to some feudal anachronism. The Daily Telegraph called on MPs to “vote for Cameron’s compromise as the lesser of two evils”. The Sun on Sunday attacked the Labour proposals, coming out in favour of Cameron: “PM David Cameron wants MPs to back plans for a tough royal charter, paving the way for a beefed-up standards code, fines of £1 million and rules on apologies. Labour and the Lib Dems want a similar system – but crucially backed by legislation as recommended by Lord Leveson’s inquiry into press ethics. It would mean Britain’s first press law for 300 years.”


That should alert all those who defend the freedom of the press to the real motives of the owners and editors; after all, the royal charter idea was cooked up with Fleet Street’s blessing and involvement.


Ruling class press ownership

This control over the press by a small clique of rich owners is nothing new. Karl Marx writing in 1861 about British attitudes to the US Civil War described how the London papers were urging the Prime Minister Palmerston go to war in support of the slave owners of the Southern US against the North. The description of the owners and their politics has uncanny parallels with today:


“Consider the London press! At its head stands the Times, whose leading editor, Bob Lowe, was formerly a demagogue in Australia, where he agitated for separation from England. He is a subordinate member of the Cabinet, a kind of minister for education and a mere creature of Palmerston.


“The Daily Telegraph is the private property of a certain Levy. His paper is stigmatised by the English press itself as Palmerston’s mob paper…As soon, however, as the order to change its line reached it, the Telegraph has sought to compensate itself for the constraint put upon it by outbawling all its comrades in howling loudly for war.


“The Morning Herald and the Evening Standard, both … know that a war with America must shatter the present coalition Cabinet and pave the way for a Tory Cabinet. With the Tory Cabinet official subsidies for the Herald and the Standard would return. Accordingly, hungry wolves cannot howl louder for prey than these Tory papers for an American war with its ensuing shower of gold!

“One sees: on the whole, the London press represents nothing but Palmerston and again Palmerston. Palmerston wants war; the English people don’t want it…” (The Opinion of the Newspapers and the Opinion of the People, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1861/12/31.htm)


Even 150 years ago, the London press was advocating war to please a Prime Minister, in return for rewards such as cabinet jobs or favourable opportunities. Against them stood the working class of the cotton towns of Lancashire, who while suffering greatly from unemployment because of the North’s embargo of cotton from the South, still stood for the emancipation of the slaves and defeat of the slave owners in the South.


How little has changed. Leveson revealed the closeness of the press barons to both Tory and Labour prime ministers, sharing cosy chats, suppers and sleepovers. Murdoch has his man Michael Gove as education secretary and before that loyal Labourites such as David Blunkett and Jack Straw, while other papers have the patronage of ministers.


Cameron has been desperate to be seen as a defender of commercial freedom to win backing at the election in 2015. Even minor MPs can have their rewards. Louise Mensch sat on the Commons media committee that interviewed James and Rupert Murdoch about wrongdoing at News International. She came out in defence of them both. After resigning as an MP last year, she obtained a job writing for Murdoch and defending him against illiberal proposals. Politicians continue to be bought and sold for a column, a photo opportunity or backing at an election.


The ownership of the press has survived unreformed and unchanged over the past 150 years, guaranteeing billionaires a steady stream of profits and influence over politics and policy.


One key factor to capitalist ownership, particularly the press, is the right to manage without interference. Margaret Thatcher supported Murdoch because he offered to break the limited control the printer unions had over their terms and conditions. Since then, his papers and others have pursued a downward spiral of gutter stories in order to make profits, while attacking workers that stand up against the bosses and the austerity government. The fact that Fleet Street appears to have more than a few rotten apples in its barrel is down to the weak trade unions, bullying managers and lack of ethics or morality in pursuing a story to make a fast buck.


The recourse for the rich is the libel laws. The law is a powerful tool to suppress the press criticism. The laws are expensive and out of reach of most people, especially today due to cuts in legal aid. And the government can always rely on covert pressure such as “security” considerations to hush up real news stories. That is why the right of apology and redress is the last thing the proprietors want.


Lack of press freedom in the UK

The right-wing polemicists like to argue that the newspapers have been free since 1692, when the government abolished the need for papers to register with the government.


But this idea of 300 years of press freedom comes down only the right to publish whatever it takes to make profit. It ignores how successive capitalist governments have suppressed radical newspapers, including using the laws and state force to suppress freedom of the press and freedom of speech.


The great surge of radicalism and working class resistance after the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815 saw numerous attempts to close down workers’ papers. In the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre of 1819 (when government militia attacked a peaceful demonstration of workers in Manchester killing many), the government suppressed newspapers and brought in the Seditious Meetings Acts of 1819 (and five other Acts, colloquially called the Six Seditious Acts) that in effect forbade meetings, agitation and propaganda, and any acts deemed to threaten the state.


In the 1830s, the bourgeoisie itself was campaigning against government policy and advocating free trade. At the same time, the working class was organising the great Chartist movement for political rights. But any notion that working and middle classes could combine to secure freedom of speech was quickly dissipated. The Times called for the suppression of the Chartists, who were “democratic revolutionists” and were “assault[ing] the constitution”. Even the charter itself, a list of six demands that all bar one have now become law, was attacked for being an “inflammatory manifesto against life and property” (the Morning Post).


Stamp Acts were brought in to penalise Chartist newspapers, the Northern Start quadrapuled in price to four and half shillings after the 1836 Newspaper Act.


A hundred years later, governments suppressed Communist Party’s Daily Worker during the 1926 General and the Second World War. During the Miners Strike of 1984/5, freedom of speech was curtailed with meetings being closed down and people barred from attending pickets or travelling to pit villages. Even a medieval law on ‘sheep worrying’ was utilised to stop miners going cross-country to escape police roadblocks.


In the past 50 years, the freedom of the press to report on wars has been curtailed. Compare the current lack of information about Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan with the role of the Times in exposing the rotten treatment of troops in the Crimean War, or even the writings of Frederich Engels and Karl Marx on the same conflict, the Indian Mutiny and the US Civil War, with their detailed descriptions of battles, troop numbers, and tactics and strategy.


Even reporting on day-to-day issues, journalists face many laws that curtail what they can or can’t say. The legal “Bible” for journalists, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, lists about 90 statutes that restrict the press in the UK.


We do not have a free press in the UK, even in peacetime, and particularly so in periods of class struggle. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are circumscribed by laws, police, the courts and government decrees. The UK’s lack of a codified constitution with the rights written down or declared in words for all to see and hear means that we are at the mercy of interpretation. And that interpretation depends on factors other than a mundane reading of dusty tomes, but fundamentally on the class struggle and the strength of the working class to impose its will on the bosses and the capitalist state.


Karl Marx and freedom of the press

Karl Marx was a lifelong journalist and in the 1840s he faced the censors in the Prussian Kingdom. At the time when Marx was writing, the Prussian state was “centring around two questions: representative government and freedom of the press”, (F Engels quoted page 2, ‘Engels: a very short introduction’, Terrell Carver). Marx takes up two arguments about the press: the question of a censor law and that of a press law (enshrining freedom of the press in law such as the US constitution).


Some, including the government, wanted no positive law on the press but only a censorship law to ban the “bad” press – frequently that which challenged the government or church.


The government argued that badness of the press was the reason for its censorship; in effect the measure was to save the press from itself and wider society from the press. But Marx argued that the freedom of the press was already a social good, as it corresponded with the essence of freedom in mankind.

The articles are marked by Marx’s own remnants of philosophical idealism, such as the talk of essence of freedom, natures and universalities divorced from socio-political considerations. But despite that, there is enough in his article to point to the need for a press freedom law.


“The true censorship, based on the very essence of freedom of the press, is criticism. This is the tribunal which freedom of the press gives rise to of itself. Censorship is criticism as a monopoly of the government.” (Karl Marx, ‘On Freedom of the Press’, 1842)


Marx does go further than just arguing against the censorship laws. He advocates a positive right or the press law: “The press law is a real law because it is the positive existence of freedom. It regards freedom as the normal state of the press, the press as the mode of existence of freedom, and hence only comes into conflict with a press offence as an exception that contravenes its own rules and therefore annuls itself.”


Marx is clear about the advantages of a press law and its relation to freedoms: “Laws are rather the positive, clear, universal norms in which freedom has acquired an impersonal, theoretical existence independent of the arbitrariness of the individual. A statute book is a people’s bible of freedom.”


“A statute book is a people’s bible of freedom” is as true today as it was in 1842. That is why we should demand rights for everyone in law, for the press, freedom of speech and wider concerns such as free healthcare and free education, rights to organise and meet, etc.


But while defending the freedom of press of all classes and groups in society, Marx still advocated a specific free people’s press:


“The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form…It is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal world which always wells up out of the real world and flows back into it with ever greater spiritual riches and renews its soul.” (Chapter Five, ‘On Freedom of the Press’, 1842, Censorship).


In effect, Marx’s idea of a free people’s press is far from that of the bosses’ newspapers. A real workers’ press as a living part of the working class, it educates, informs, articulates the struggles of the oppressed and advocates a different form of society away from the drudgery of everyday work. It is what a revolutionary press should be.


Marx’s later writings did more to expose the nature of capitalist press in being part of ruling class ideology. For example, we have seen how the London papers advocated war in support of the slave-owners in the US Civil war while it was the workers’ press that supported the North and slave emancipation. The press also contributed to divisions between English and Irish workers:


“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.” (‘Letter: Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt’, 1870)


The Bolsheviks and the press

The Bolsheviks experienced first hand how the bourgeois press hounded revolutionaries and worker militants, and how the mainstream press served the interests of Tsarism or the capitalists. Even under the bourgeoisie republic in the summer of 1917, the press called for the arrests of Lenin and the other Bolsheviks.


After the October revolution, Lenin put forward a resolution on freedom of the press. Its four paragraphs succinctly sum up the lessons of 150 years of Marxism and are as applicable today as they were in 1917.


Lenin wrote:

i) 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.

ii) For the workers’ and peasants’ government, freedom of the press means liberation of the press from capitalist oppression, and public ownership of paper mills and printing presses; equal right for public groups of a certain size (say, numbering 10,000) to a fair share of newsprint stocks and a corresponding quantity of printers’ labour.

iii) As a first step towards this goal, which is bound up with the working people’s liberation from capitalist oppression, the Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government has appointed a Commission of Inquiry to look into the ties between capital and periodicals, the sources of their funds and revenues, the list of their donors, covers for their deficits, and every other aspect of the newspaper business in general. Concealment of books, accounts or any other documents from the Commission of Inquiry, or the giving of any evidence known to be false shall be punishable by a revolutionary court.

iv) All newspaper owners, shareholders, and all members of their staffs shall be under the obligation to immediately submit written reports and information on the said questions to the Commission of Inquiry, probing the ties between capital and the press, and its dependence on capital, at Smolny Institute, Petrograd.


Likewise today we should demand an end to commercial secrecy. The links between papers, big business and governments should be exposed and publicised. People should have the right to know what influences a newspaper’s editorial line and what relations it has with government ministers.


For example, currently there are more than 200 MPs with links to companies that would benefit from privatising the NHS. Under a workers’ republic such evidence would definitely be published.


But beyond that, the monopoly of the press needs to be broken. While proposals for greater freedom of the press should be defended, socialists should fight to hand over the means of producing material – news, stories, print, TV, radio and websites – to workers and oppressed sections of society. This can be done through nationalisation of the means of production of the media, which means taking into public ownership the presses, websites, TV and radio stations and giving free and equitable access.


The media as an industry is not different from any other. We should demand workers control, nationalisation and planning for the benefit of all. The one area where there is a difference is part of the media deals with freedom of expression and the reporting of facts and their interpretation. Those rights can be defended but also extended so they are applicable to all not just a narrow preserve of the rich.


Only then would the working class and oppressed sections of society, ethnic groups, women, lesbians, gays and transgender people, and disabled people be able to counter the capitalist-dominated media.


A truly free press

As the trial of David Cameron’s former Tory spin doctor Andy Coulson and ex-News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks over phone hacking and making payments to public officials begins this week, it is an excellent opportunity to consider what kind of media we should be arguing for.


This includes:


1) Opposition to any state control or interference over the press or other media.


2) A free press and the freedom of speech should be enshrined in law as a right for all.


3) We should also be in favour of a strong public right to reply to defend people from libel and to advance democratic debate and discussion. Trade unionists should fight for the right to veto media content that is oppressive, lies or anti-working class.


4) We should demand the opening the books of the press and media companies to see the links between ownership, big business and commercial secrecy.


5) Fight for workers’ control of media. Nationalise the means of producing media, the presses, TV and radio stations. Free and equitable access to workers and oppressed groups to use means and technology such as websites for producing media to publicise their own news, analysis and stories in order to counter capitalist ideology.


6) We need workers’ media: press, TV, websites and social media. Having thousands – if not millions – of outlets helps challenge capitalist domination but also fragments sources of information. The working class needs a coherent worldview putting forward strategy and tactics to achieve socialism. That is why the longstanding demand for a labour movement newspaper is still applicable, although needs updating to include the various different types of media now in use.


These proposals would bring about real freedom of speech and of the press. What we have now is what Lenin correctly described as: “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.”


That is why we have press scandals such as hacking, the disgusting lies about those who died at Hillsborough and the day-to-day intrusion into people’s lives. We have a press owned by a few, to make money for a few. The row about royal charter has exposed the shallowness of the owners’ understanding and defence of freedom of the press. We should not let them portray themselves as freedom fighters against state tyranny: they are the ones who support wholeheartedly the government’s austerity drive and attacks on the freedom of the working class to live and enjoy life.


Finally, real freedom can only be delivered when society is controlled and planned for the benefit of all. As the Bolsheviks found, only after the revolution could they challenge the corruption of the press and embark on building a better society for all. That is why today we need a socialist revolution to achieve true freedom.

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