What the papers say — and what they don’t

Many readers will be aware of a regular B.B.C. radio feature called What The Papers Say. It is a digest of the most important articles in the day’s press. For those of us who can’t afford/can’t stomach to read every daily newspaper it provides a useful summary of what they are saying. It has often seemed that a rather more enlightening feature would be What the Papers Don’t Say or, even better, Why the Papers Said What They Did. The idea implied by calling a newspaper The Daily Mirror is that the press works on a reflective basis, i.e. the publication in written form of the facts as they really happened. This is far from the case. In fact, the press works on the principle of selecting what events are suitable for public consumption, deciding how the ‘story’ is to be told in accordance with ‘editorial policy’ (which is a journalistic term for political bias) and making sure that the ‘facts’ are not likely to contradict illusions created by the advertisements. The role of the press is more to do with implanting views than spreading news. Indeed, when a news event interferes with the image that the editor wants perpetuated, then it must either be not referred to or else distorted, in such a way so as to back up rather than contradict the political line of the newspaper.

Editorial Selectivity
Workers in Britain are brought up to believe that we live in a free country. We are told that Britain is democratic because there is a ‘free press’. It is an illusion to believe that the press in a capitalist society can be anything but the propaganda tool of the minority class whose social survival depends on the political ignorance of the masses. That is not to say that newspapers are part of some kind of capitalist conspiracy to brainwash the working class. An important distinction must be made between conscious political indoctrination and more subtle editorial selectivity. Indoctrination requires a captive audience, i.e. one which has only one source of news which is controlled totally by the State. The press in countries where capitalism takes a more liberal form of work on the basis of giving support to the status quo, but criticising the leaders of capitalism on matters not likely to lead to fundamental social change. A clear comparison between the two methods of capitalist propaganda can be seen by looking at the press in Russia and in this country.

Russia, despite its claim to be socialist, is one of the most brutal and undemocratic capitalist regimes in existence. The press has been developed by the ruling Communist Party as an elaborate and complex apparatus designed to shape the thinking of the Soviet working class. Krushchev, in 1956, said to a gathering of writers and artists

“The press is our chief ideological weapon. It is called upon to rout the enemies of the working class, the enemies of the toilers (sic). Just as an army cannot fight without weapons, so the Party cannot successfully carry on its ideological work without such a sharp and militant weapon as the press.” (Printed in Kommunist, no. 12, August 1957)

To ensure that the Soviet media carry out their task of indoctrination there exists a Department of Propaganda and Agitation, a Ministry of Culture, a Ministry of the Radio-Technical industry as well as a Press Commission. There are over 7,000 Soviet newspapers reaching over 100 million readers. All newspapers are controlled centrally—editorials are written by Communist Party officials and circulated for publication. All newspaper editors are appointed by the State and are subject to strict contiol from Moscow: each Soviet periodical must have the mark of authorisation from Glavslit, the government censorship agency.

Despite such attempts by the Soviet dictatorship to control the media, they have learnt that running a system of indoctrination presents problems:

“there are serious chinks in the Soviet propaganda armour. The agitators, for example, are caught between the direct pressures and hostilities of the population from below, and the constant pressure of the Party from above demanding that they exhort and goad on the population to still greater efforts and sacrifice. As a result thousands each year abandon their work as agitators. Editors must constantly be reprimanded for ideological ‘deviations’ in their newspapers . . . And the regime is in many respects a prisoner of its own system. For, insofar as it wishes to judge the state of popular thinking, it must rely either on the secret police or on the reports of the agitators and the newspaper editors.”(Developments in Soviet Mass Communications in Social Change in Soviet Russia, A. Inkeles, 1968)

The evolution of the British press has been along different lines because of the historical circumstances in which it emerged. It was created by the rising British capitalist class in the Eighteenth Century as a weapon in their struggle against the feudal State. The battle to publish parliamentary debates, to criticise the government and even to criticise the King, in the case of John Wilkes, was won by the capitalist class. Freedom to criticise is a tradition of the press which grew out of the division within the ruling class. Until the last two decades of the Nineteenth Century the press in Britain was independently owned, often by family concerns relying primarily on classified advertisements and regular sales. It was not possible for any one section of the ruling class to control the press as no one section owned it. It was the so-called Northcliffe revolution of the 1880’s which transformed the role of the press, for it was then that the previously independently owned newspapers were taken over by corporate press houses which were dependent on expensive, block display advertising. From then on newspapers became the province of large, capital intensive corporations, such as Beaverbrook, which endeavoured to direct editorial policy towards winning support for their class interest. The press in Britain is, therefore, free in that peculiar sense that freedom exists under capitalism: they are free to lie, distort, slander, publish trivia and exclude serious issues. Nevertheless, there does exist the freedom to publish alternative ideas, which is vital to the growth of the Socialist Party.

But the press under capitalism is not free in the Socialist sense, for to be so anyone would have access to the control of newspapers instead of a small group of businessmen or bureaucrats more committed to self-preservation than to providing useful information. How, then, can the aim of a free press be realised? One argument is that those who produce newspapers — editors, journalists, office staff, printers — should democratically participate in running them. The attempted ‘workers control’ of the Scottish Daily Express showed the unpractically of such reform within a society which places advertising revenue above democratic principles. Another argument, often advocated by the “Left”, is for the nationalisation of the print industry. As can be seen from the Russian example, State control of the means of communication, while politically benefiting those parties which are politically in agreement with the government of the day, can lead to discrimination against those seeking changes which are unwelcome to the State.

In fact, there is no way within capitalist society that the press can be made fully democratic. Capitalists will always provide newspapers with money for two reasons: to buy space to advertise their commodities to the workers who read the newspapers and to ensure the perpetration of capitalist ideology in a popular form — just as their great grandfathers supported the pulpit; they rely on huge sales to members of the working class. It is in the interest of all members of that class, whether they read The Times or The Sun to reject the lies and illusions of the capitalist press and support a journal which stands for their emancipation from the unfree society.


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