Socialists and the Press

We live in what is claimed to be a “free country,” where there is “free expression of opinion,” but this must not be taken literally. It does not mean that anyone can say or write just what he likes. The Official Secrets Act and the libel laws cut off considerable areas of expression, into which you trespass at your peril. Much greater restriction arises because we live in a money world, in which capacity to make views known depends largely on what you can afford to pay. If your resources run into hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds, you can publish the Daily Worker, Daily Herald, Daily Express, etc.: if not you may have to be content with a monthly journal. But what about the possibility of the “free” expression of varied points of view in the columns of those and other journals with the big circulations? This again is a very narrowly circumscribed possibility when it is a question of securing publicity for a minority and not popular point of view, such as that of the S.P.G.B. When daily newspapers misreport matters of concern to us, or when they refuse to publish our letters or advertisements, there is no remedy—and this notwithstanding the existence of the Press Council, which is supposed to keep an eye on the conduct of the Press.

Another approach to the Press Council
In 1956 we approached the General Council of the Press about an incorrect statement (one of many in the Beaverbrook newspapers) that occurred in the Evening Standard, followed by editorial refusal to correct it (The matter in question was the practice of the Evening Standard of describing Labour Party conferences as conferences of “The Socialist Party of Great Britain.”)

The Press Council declined to interfere, on the ground that readers would not be misled. (See SOCIALIST STANDARD January and March, 1956.)

In May of this year we wrote again to the Press Council about the refusal of the Daily Telegraph to publish an advertisement of the SOCIALIST STANDARD, the only reason given being that there is no refusal to publish our advertisements on principle, each advertisement being dealt with on its merits.

The Press Council replied on 29th May, 1957:—

“Dear Sir,
“I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of May 27. The question of whether a particular advertisement will be published rests entirely with the Editor, whose decision is absolutely final. It may help you to quote the statement which appears on this subject in The Times every day. It reads
” ‘All orders for advertising in The Times are accepted on the express terms— (a) that they are subject to cancellation at the discretion of the Editor,’ etc., etc.
“Yours faithfully,
“(Sgd.) Alan Pitt Robins, C.B.E.”

Of course, we don’t feel at all helped. Either the Press Council approves of newspapers refusing advertisements or it disapproves, and it doesn’t add anything to be told that The Times does it as well as the Daily Telegraph.

The Royal Commission on the Press
The Press Council arose out of recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Press (1947-1949). In the report of that body the question of refusing advertisements was dealt with; though we confess we cannot be certain what exactly the Royal Commission was trying to say. The relevant passages in the Report (paragraphs 529 and 530) are as follows:—

“We consider it entirely wrong for a newspaper to boycott a particular advertiser arbitrarily and for personal reasons.”
“We have received evidence that some newspapers refuse all advertisements of a particular class. This is a different matter. We consider that a newspaper has a right to refuse advertisements of any kind which is contrary to its standards or may be objectionable to its readers. This right, however, should not be exercised arbitrarily.”

This statement may have the appearance of being both clear and reasonable. It is the last sentence that makes the meaning unclear. The Royal Commission appears to be saying that it would be quite right for the Daily Telegraph to refuse all advertisements from the S.P.G.B., because the S.P.G.B. is objectionable to the readers of the Telegraph, but wrong for the Daily Telegraph to decide, arbitrarily and without giving a reason, to publish some and exclude others: but that is what the Telegraph does.

By curious coincidence we received from the News-Chronicle an almost directly opposite point of view. Having written to them about a misstatement in someone else’s advertisement, a member of the S.P.G.B. received a reply to the effect that of course the News-Chronicle could not possibly interfere with statements made in advertisements.

The freedom to express Socialist ideas
The fact is that the possibility of making Socialist ideas known to the population is very narrowly restricted in this country. Newspapers and periodicals almost never give space to the Socialist viewpoint, and letters are comparatively rarely published. With paid advertisements we have somewhat better results, though refusals (sometimes masquerading under “no space available”) are frequent. As the Royal Commission on the Press was supposed to be concerned with “free expression of opinion and the accurate presentation of news,” they might have been expected to face the issue squarely: instead they sidestepped it by the insertion of the qualifying word “important,” (Report, page 676), and considered whether “ the Press as a whole gives an opportunity for all important points of view to be effectively presented.”

Is the expression of Socialist ideas important? Certainly it isn’t with the Tory, Liberal, Labour and other giants of the newspaper and periodical Press.

Not that the Royal Commission found everything to be satisfactory—far from it, and they half-understood the reason. “The failure of the Press to keep pace with the requirements of society is attributable largely to die plain fact that an industry that lives by the sale of its products must give the public what the public will buy. A newspaper cannot, therefore, raise its standard far above that of its public, and may anticipate profit from lowering its standard in order to gain an advantage over a competitor.” (Paragraph 680.)

Nationalisation no remedy
We say that the Royal Commission only half understood the nature of the problem. This is amply proved by the fact that they took for granted that publication can only be for the purpose of selling and making a profit—they never considered the possibility that the only way of securing “freedom of expression” is through Socialism, when the question of sale and profit would not arise.

And they are not the only ones who do not understand. A delegate at the recent conference of the Electrical Trades Union, speaking on the Press, said:—

“An end must be put to its reports of sadism, sensationalism and pornography. We shall nationalise this monopoly so that its views shall be that of the working masses for Socialism .”—{Daily Worker, 7th June, 1957.)

It is difficult to imagine anything more contrary to every experience. We are asked to believe that nationalisation would change the Press into a vehicle for enabling the workers to express Socialist ideas. Let us look at a few facts. Where the Press has passed under direct Governmental control, as in Russia, it is not only impossible to publish a journal putting Socialist ideas for a Socialist organisation, but it is legally forbidden for a Socialist political organisation to exist at all. Secondly, the broadcasting service in this country has been nationalised for 30 years after a five year life of the original British Broadcasting Company. Do we find the nationalised B.B.C. putting over Socialist propaganda? It is in fact even worse than the capitalist Press. For a quarter of a century the S.P.G.B. has tried to get the Socialist case put on the radio, but with never a single success. Not that the B.B.C. says it will on principle not let the S.P.G.B. broadcast—nothing so crude —but each time application is made the application is refused.

One of our adverts, refused by the Daily Telegraph mentioned that the S.P.G.B. is barred from the air by the B.B.C. Those who are silly enough to think that there is some essential difference between the “private enterprise” capitalist Telegraph and the State capitalist B.B.C. may wonder why the former didn’t jump at the chance of chiding the latter for its opposition to “freedom of expression.” Instead they showed their true affinity by behaving in the same way, suppressing the Socialist case.


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