Wm. Paul

Capitalism, Labour and the Press

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 7 September 1925 No. 9, pp. 561-569, (3,829 words)
Transcription Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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The modern propertied interests control the most efficient instruments for maintaining economic and political power ever devised by any ruling class in history. They have organised their organs of attack and defence in every strand in the social fabric. Inside every institution and group—from the most innocent religious bethel up to the armed forces of the State—they have their sleepless defenders.

They even penetrate and undermine, with some degree of success, the very organisations set up by the Labour Movement. The more moderate or Right-wing these organisations are, the more easily do the capitalist agents carry on their work of transforming them into bulwarks to defend the propertied interests.

Judging by their public pronouncements, there are many leaders in the Labour Movement who, by their open support of the capitalist press, do not understand the line of causation that links up and binds the peaceful propaganda of capitalist ideas and theories to open violence. These leaders do not seem to comprehend the nature and function of capitalism in its historic struggle to stave off defeat at the hands of the workers. It is thus no accident that the first step made by Mussolini away from the Labour Movement was that of writing attacks upon the Left-wing of the Movement in the capitalist press. Having taken this step it was easy for him to take the further two steps that made him the incarnation of capitalist violence against the masses.

The policy adopted by any Labour leader towards the capitalist press is a real test which predetermines what his attitude will be towards the workers during any period of social conflict. (There are many leaders, of course, who must use the capitalist press as a medium of ordinary publicity.) But the particular type we have in mind is that well-known specimen that uses the millionaire press-combine and receives subsidies from it to attack the fighting wing of the Labour Movement. It may even happen in this country that certain propertied interests will provide them with a “Labour” paper to enable them to carry on this work.

It is, therefore, very necessary for us, in Britain, to watch most carefully those moderate leaders who receive subsidies from the millionaire press-combines for writing open attacks upon Labour’s Left-wing. And we must view with suspicion those financial interests who are exerting themselves to provide the Right-wing with a Sunday newspaper to be run upon “sane and moderate lines.”

Besides, many serious and honest members of the Labour Movement view the capitalist press as an instrument for conducting a peaceful opposition against Labour. In practice, it is the press that provokes and directs violence against the masses. It is, therefore, in England that the press has become one of the sharpest weapons in that conflict.

One of the revolutionary slogans of the bourgeoisie against their class enemies was that of a “free press.” In the great struggle between the bourgeoisie and the reactionary monarchists news-sheets and political pamphlets made their appearance. Having broken the power of the Crown and the Church over the control of printing, the capitalist class have always contended that they won the right of a “free press.” It is necessary to remember, however, that a free press is only “free” to a propertied class which has the economic means to expend wealth in subsidising and maintaining printing establishments.

But even the historical claim that capitalism has made a free press possible will not bear serious examination.

During every period of acute social crisis under capitalism the ruling class have always found ways and means of preventing their opponents from freely using the press. When the French Revolution encouraged ardent and discontented elements in England to engage in a bold agitation, the press was immediately muzzled.

Similar tactics were pursued from time to time during the last century. So long as Chartist, Labour and Trade Union papers were strictly “constitutional,” and were not backed by any organised power that threatened to endanger capitalism, so long these progressive and reform elements were permitted to enjoy the fruits of a “free press.” The moment, however, they ceased to be “constitutional,” and had some organised power behind them that seemed a menace to the ruling class, their presses were immediately smashed on some pretext or other.

During the period that British Capitalism was able to send its products into the world’s market and successfully compete with the then rising industrial nations, like Germany and America, and when the industrial and political situation was running smoothly, it was possible for the ruling class to adopt a policy of paternal benevolence towards the workers. But when imperialist capitalism began its fierce internecine struggle over markets, zones of influence, sources of raw materials and trade routes, the attitude of the British employers towards the workers was increasingly sharpened.

Side by side with this intensification of the class conflict the capitalists conducted a strenuous campaign to popularise their views and ideas among the workers. It was at this point that the all-importance of their control over the press made itself felt. From that moment the press has been one of the most aggressive weapons in the interests of capital against labour.

This is the real explanation why such a change has taken place in the development of the press during the last thirty years. With the advent of the modern Labour Movement the organisation and method of ownership of the press has been revolutionised. Thirty years ago newspapers were in the hands of editorial proprietors, who each endeavoured to give an individual tone to their paper. The ideas of the paper were those of the editor. While there was infinite variety, there was little or no cohesion of thought in the press. At that time the London Stock Exchange did not contain one single newspaper corporation. To-day there are several large companies and their capital runs into many millions. This reveals that not only has the press been enlarged and extended, as a weapon against the workers, but it has become one of the richest fields of capitalist investment. Journalism has ceased to be a profession. It has become an engine of commerce for digging up dividends.

The position of the press as a machine for turning out profits must be examined for a moment. To gain profits a newspaper must get readers by the million. Newspapers, by their nature, spread broadcast certain ideas. The modern press, being such an important asset for making profits, must of necessity defend modern capitalism. This means, in short, that the modern press must spread those ideas, which, in action, are opposed to the Labour Movement. We see here the explanation why capitalist newspapers denounce those Labour leaders who are leading the workers to make an attack upon profits, and conversely, why they praise those leaders who plead for an industrial truce and who advocate that the interests of capital and labour are identical. In a word, the capitalist press must defend the propertied interests for the simple reason that the capitalist press in recent years has become, itself, one of the greatest of the modern propertied interests.

It is necessary to explain, at the outset, that it is not always easy to give the real owners of the modern press, because many financiers work and operate their control through nominee companies or nominal shareholders. This was most dramatically illustrated in March, 1920, in the case of “Rhondda versus the Western Mail,” where it was revealed how industrial magnates held newspaper shares in the name of nominal agents. It was also shown in this case why Lord Rhondda, a South Wales coal owner, did not desire it to be publicly known that he was part owner of the Western Mail. This journal was a Conservative organ and Lord Rhondda was a Liberal. As it was the most important paper in South Wales it was necessary to have some control over it in order to direct its attacks against the proposals of the Miners for the nationalisation of the mines. All this was admitted during the hearing of the case.

One of the biggest newspaper combines in the world is that headed by the three brothers Berry. In their struggle to obtain control of the press the above group recently took over a series of provincial papers, particularly on the Clyde, the Tyne and in Lancashire, where the great mass of the workers are directly engaged in the coal, iron, steel, shipbuilding and textile industries. When the Manchester Daily Dispatch or Evening Chronicle, the Glasgow Daily Record or Evening News, or the Newcastle Chronicle are stating the case during any industrial dispute we can depend upon it that it will not be the workers’ case that will be put forward. And when these organs are making rhetorical appeals to the workers not to injure “society” or the “community” and to accept the judgment of “public opinion” we know what these bogeys are and what they represent.

The Berry Group, Allied Newspapers, Ltd., showed a profit of over a million pounds last year. Their chairman declared that their 1924-5 earnings were equal to nearly 22 per cent. after discharging a full year’s interest on loan and preference capital. This group not only earns big profits from their papers, but they use some of their journals, like the Weldon publications, to stimulate their interests in the textile industry. We have here an illustration that the press is part and parcel of the profit-making machine.

This becomes obvious when we know that well-known industrial and financial interests appear on the directors’ boards and in the shareholders’ lists of all the important capitalist journals. Not only do individual captains of industry figure there but large blocks of shares in many newspapers are held by important insurance companies and banks.

The big press combines earn enormous profits. During 1924-5, as we have seen, the Berry Group realised a profit of over one million pounds. The Amalgamated Press, Ltd. (controlled by the Harmsworth Group) show a record of high profits on its paid up capital of 1,065,000. The lowest dividend from 1901-2 to 1920-21 was in 1903-4 when thirty-five per cent. was paid. In nine years (1913-1921) profits amounting to 4,142,190 were paid, or almost four times the amount of the original capital. Another of the Harmsworths’ undertakings paid sixty per cent. for five years. One can easily understand why when the Berry Group floated the Allied Northern Newspaper, Ltd., and wanted 2,300,000 that the issue was over-subscribed in a few hours.

There is no escape from the facts, all of which prove that profit-making and the perpetuation of capitalism is the first and main objective of the modern press. It is true that the big newspapers attack each other from time to time. But if these internecine quarrels are carefully studied, particularly with an eye on the nature of the specialised economic interests behind the journals involved, it will be found that the dispute has arisen over a difference in methods of profit-making The industrialists will attack the financiers and vice-versa.

Beneath all these domestic tiffs there is absolute harmony regarding the need for a steady and united attack upon the demands of the workers and the militant leaders in the Labour Movement.

In the early days of capitalism it was possible, by stupendous efforts of thrift, to open out in business in a small way. At this period the capitalist class—by destroying the restrictions of the Guilds and the monopoly control of the Crown over certain undertakings—had some reasons for declaring that it had established freedom in trade. It also boasted that it had made the press free. But, as we have seen, during any political crisis which set up any rebellious ferment among the masses, the offending press was always destroyed in the interests of the ruling class under the plea that the “safety of the realm was endangered.” This means, in practice, that capitalism, and its much vaunted democratic freedom of the press, places no restrictions in the way of any newspaper or publication that loyally abides by the economic and political code established by the propertied interests. The moment any journal, however, gets sufficient revolutionary backing to make it a political danger to capitalism, it is promptly suppressed.

In case anyone thinks this is mere theoretical conjecture, let me relate my own experiences as an editor during the war. From 1915 to the end of the war I edited a virile anti-militarist monthly journal that had a good circulation in the engineering industry on the Clyde and amongst the South Wales miners. The policy of the paper was not the negative one of making a gesture of sentimental pacifist despair, regarding the war. It adopted a positive attitude and gave direct encouragement to every grievance of the workers that could be utilised against the Government. Time after time attempts were made to suppress the paper and the firms who printed it were sometimes closed down by the police. My trouble did not end when a printer was found who was bold enough to stand up against the terrorist tactics of the police. The real problem was to find paper to send to the printers.

The experience of the war, like any period of social upheaval under capitalism, proved most conclusively that the claim of modern democracy that the press is free is sheer hypocritical cant.

This becomes even more apparent when one turns from the political to the financial aspect of the modern press. The law of the concentration and centralisation of capital into ever fewer hands, is true not only of general industrial development—it is one of the main facts of the press to-day. Not a month passes but one or other of the Press Trusts takes over some paper. This means that the greatest instrument of political publicity is passing into the control of those who, because of their economic interests, must necessarily oppose the most elementary demands of the working class.

As a result of the finance poured into the modern press by the propertied interests, the technical equipment of a first-class paper has become such that the late Kennedy Jones, one of the founders of the Daily Mail, had serious doubts whether 500,000 would establish a good daily journal. This purely economic fact alone proves how shameless is the modern claim regarding the freedom of the press.

A daily paper that would cost 500,000 could not be maintained by depending alone upon the money received from its buyers. The most important newspapers to-day depend, financially, upon advertisement revenue. This, in reality, is a subsidy given by the propertied interests to one of their own organs. The greater the subsidy drawn from advertisement sources the more attractive and popular can such a newspaper become. This, in turn, increases its power to extract an ever greater subsidy in the shape of higher advertisement charges. The Daily Mail, for example, can collect 436,800 per annum from one page in advertisement revenue.

The importance of advertisement revenue for a newspaper only serves to show how hollow is the modern claim regarding the free press. For, everyone in the Labour Movement knows that the old militant Left-wing Daily Herald, of pre-war days, seldom got any of the really important advertisements that are so readily given to the ordinary capitalist newspapers. Even the modern Daily Herald, with all its undeniable claims to be a respectable and moderate journal, cannot overcome the advertisement boycott, and languishes, in consequence, from insufficient financial support.

The advertisers are the financial mainstay of the modern capitalist newspapers and they know it and call the tune accordingly. Thus it is an unwritten law in the editorial department that important advertisers must never be offended. Here we find, in another way, the power wielded by the propertied interests, and how much the freedom of the press is really worth when brought to a practical test.

The tremendous power wielded by capitalism through its press, shows how hollow are the claims of those who rant about the political equality of modern democracy. At the present moment, when the Labour Movement is not conscious of its latent power, the propertied interests have, in their control of the press, a political weapon much superior to anything possessed by the workers. The political pressure that the propertied interests can exert, through their domination of educational and other organs for moulding the ideas of great masses, is such that one brilliant student of the problem maintains:—

If reactionists are allowed to hold these intellectual and moral fortresses, they can afford to snap their fingers at the working class movement in industry and politics.—J. A. Hobson in Democracy after the War.

This is the reply to those foolish persons in the Labour Movement who tell the workers that all they have to do is to vote at the ballot box. Right-wingers are distinguished by their virtue for begging the question. The problem is: How can the masses vote for their class when the greatest idea-creating machine in the world, the press, predisposes them to vote for capitalism?

The capitalist press by its united action can stampede any uncritical mass at a given moment during any parliamentary election. Let anyone read the speeches of Right-wing leaders made on the Sunday that the press campaign was turned on the Zinoviev letter. By a simple trick the capitalist class reduced the leaders of the. Parliamentary Labour Party to a condition of amazing and contradictory incoherence. And these were trained and experienced politicians who were supposed to know all the tricks in the game.

Not only can a skilfully prepared press campaign accomplish such things it can be utilised, when the necessity arises, to provoke the most reactionary elements in society to violently attack the militant section of the working class. Long before Mussolini had any ideas regarding the capitalist policy of blood-letting as a legitimate method of political warfare, Lord Birkenhead had made statements on the subject that would make the most vicious Fascist appear like a pious Quaker. During the intense Labour agitation of 1919 the Glasgow Evening Times made sinister references to the “irresistible logic inherent in the bayonet and the bullet,” and hoped that strikers would “realise the futility of arguing with a machine gun.” And in the Aeroplane during 1918, the editor reminded revolutionary workers that the Royal Air Force could be used most effectively. These illustrations show what political weapons the propertied interests wield, through their control of the press, in the struggle against Labour.

With the increasing chaos of capitalism and the growing need of the masses to fight to obtain the barest necessaries of life, the enemy press will be forced to become even more hysterical in the denunciations of the workers’ demands. The very conditions of the class struggle, and the fact that capitalism has no policy to help the workers, will force the millionaire press to reveal itself as the enemy of the workers. This fact is already recognised by the propertied interests who know that their newspapers are rapidly losing their influence. One of the founders of the Daily Mail, the late Mr. Kennedy Jones, frankly admitted as much (vide his Fleet Street and Downing Street, pp. 324-5), and said this explained the amazing popularity of the pictorial press.

The Labour press must then concentrate its attention upon the immediate and concrete demands of the masses. While it is a simple thing to mislead people on purely abstract political principles—such as Conservatism, Liberalism or Parliamentary Socialism—it is almost impossible to wheedle workers over the concrete things they are struggling to obtain in the factory, mine, mill, railroad, or in the dole queue.

A workers’ press cannot and should not make any pretence to compete with capitalist newspapers. The attractive features of these are costly and seldom deal with things that are of direct importance to the masses. The old pre-war Daily Herald when it was a fighting Left-wing sheet was a much better working-class paper than it is to-day. The old paper had its own peculiar features that marked it out as “the limit”; to-day it attempts to emulate the millionaire press and fails.

The relation of the immediate needs of the workers to the Labour press is being solved in a rather novel manner. One of the most important signs of the time is the recent development of the factory newspaper. The growth of this idea has made even the Tory Government sit up and take notice. It is true we are only at the beginning of this new movement and that some of the papers, judged from the angle of Fleet Street, are poor and crude. But the idea is splendid and appeals to the workers who make their own copy, set it up, and distribute it among themselves. These papers know every little detail that happens in and about the factory and emphasise points that seem to have no meaning to outsiders. During a strike, they supply a form of news which the most alert press correspondent cannot get. And, above all, these factory papers breed a distrust of the capitalist press among the workers who support their own little paper which they make with their own hands.

The need for these factory papers, even if only made by the stencil and copying, process, will be apparent very shortly. As the Labour Movement is driven forward to big struggles the workers’ press will be attacked and in all probability suppressed. But the struggle in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere has shown that it is almost impossible to suppress the small factory and workshop papers. While, therefore, it is our first duty to support the Labour press, each according to his taste—nothing but the papers issued and printed by the Labour Movement, from the Herald to the more militant organs—it is highly necessary to pay every attention to the encouragement of the factory paper.

The cunning ruling class of Britain are watching all the moves that the workers are making to build up a press. By methods of silence and the boycott, two things the Sunday Worker had to combat, they try to undermine and weaken our papers. But they have several moves which they can make. They can, as they are contemplating, subsidise newspapers and place these, nominally, in the hands of Right-wing Labour leaders whose policy is not to fight capitalism but to make ever-increasing attacks upon the militant Trade Union leaders, the Labour Party’s Left-wing, and the Communists.

In preparing the Trade Unions for their historic task of taking over industry and holding it against all the attacks of the propertied class, we must show the printing trade workers that, by transforming the boss press from a weapon of capitalism to a weapon of revolution, they will perform a tremendous task.