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International Socialism, Summer 1995


Chris Nineham

Is the media all powerful?


From International Socialism 2:67, Summer 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It’s the Sun Wot Won it.
The Sun’s analysis of the 1992 general election

Britain doesn’t need the KGB, we’ve got the BBC.
Tony Benn [1]

It has become fashionable to argue that as the end of the millennium approaches we are slipping into a media controlled nightmare:

The average American household now watches television roughly seven hours a day … and the soap opera stars receive thousands of letters a week in which the adoring faithful confess secrets of the heart which they dare not tell their wives, their husbands, or their mothers … The individual voice and singular point of view disappears into the chorus of corporate consciousness … in place of an energetic politics, we substitute a frenzied spectacle, and the media set the terms of ritual combat upon the candidates who would prove themselves fit to govern. [2]

Politicians and political commentators everywhere are obsessed with the media. Bill Clinton’s aides are trying to recruit sympathetic radio talk show hosts in the belief that right wing radio was the key to the recent Republican landslide. [3] The Italian political elite is still in awe of Berlusconi’s media influence. ‘TV is everywhere,’ one expert commented recently. ‘In the last decade it has literally hypnotised Italians’. [4] Meanwhile American Republican Newt Gingrich is proclaiming that the new cable technology is the basis of a revolutionary new ‘hyper-democracy’.

But this obsession runs deepest on the left. The British Labour Party has been fascinated with the media for years. The leadership have used the notion of an all powerful media as a key justification for shifting the party to the right. Kinnock spent the best part of the 1980s hounding socialists out of the party and ditching radical policies claiming this would make the party ‘media friendly’. By the 1992 election shadow ministers were complaining that media consultants were actually setting the party’s agenda. When Labour lost in 1992 Kinnock predictably blamed ‘the Conservative supporting press’. [5] Since Blair, ‘the media’s choice’, has taken over, he has been wining and dining the media moguls and his colleagues have been loudly welcoming the commercially led ‘communications revolution’. [6]

Their argument is simple. If the media corporations are all powerful, then it is only sensible to mould policy to the media’s whims and throw out all principles and all ambition for change. This has been the path taken by the Labour Party and a good deal of the left internationally over the last ten years. The consequence in Britain is that working people no longer have a parliamentary party that even talks in terms of basic working class demands for cheap housing, improved benefits, or comprehensive education.

Meanwhile, those who look for fundamental change are hampered by the suspicion that it is impossible to compete with the media corporations for the hearts and minds of the mass of the population.

That is why it is vital that socialists challenge the often unspoken assumptions of the media pessimists: that the media is always the main source of people’s information and understanding about the world, that people religiously believe all it says, and that the mass media itself, the factory for ruling class ideas, can never be disrupted.


The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production. [7]

The British ruling class has always taken the media very seriously. Since the earliest days of capitalism it has sought to establish effective control. During the 19th century the capitalists fought hard to destroy a popular radical press that was a strong focus of working class organisation. In 1836 radical London based newspapers had a readership of more than 2 million. Even the government admitted that the circulation of the radical papers exceeded that of the ‘respectable’ press. [8] Papers like the Northern Star, the Poor Man’s Guardian and Reynold’s News were crucial to organising and generalising the Chartist movement. ‘On the day the newspaper the Northern Star … was due’, one activist wrote, ‘the people used to line the roadside waiting for its arrival, which was paramount to everything else for the time being’. [9] As early as 1819 one MP complained:

These infamous publications … inflame working people’s passions, and awaken their selfishness, contrasting their present condition with what they contend to be their future condition – a condition incompatible with human nature, and with those immutable laws which Providence has established for the regulation of human society. [10]

After failing to muzzle the radicals with the libel laws the establishment turned to taxation. In 1819 publications subject to the stamp duty were redefined to include political periodicals to ensure, in the words of Lord Castlereagh, that ‘persons exercising the power of the press should be men of some respectability and property’. [11] The attempt failed as workers responded to higher newspaper prices by pooling resources. In the heightened political atmosphere of the 1830s union branches, clubs and political associations financed the collective purchasing of papers.

Ironically, it was the repeal of the stamp duty that finished off the radical press. Mid-19th century free marketeers realised that the popular press was a potential money spinner for business investors. Aware of the rising capital and operational costs in popular newspaper publishing in the US, they realised that free market processes would favour wealthy entrepreneurs and drive the impoverished radicals out of the field. The repeal of press taxes, declared Milner-Gibson, president of the Association for the Promotion of the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge, would create ‘a cheap press in the hands of men of good moral character, and of respectability, and of capital’. [12] Leaving aside the question of moral character, Milner-Gibson proved to be right. Against the background of the political demise of the Chartists, spiralling capital costs and advertisers’ distaste for working class papers were enough to break the radicals and ensure the supremacy of a popular capitalist press which was ‘a police of safety and a sentinel of public morals’. [13] By the late 19th century the royalist and pro-imperialist Daily Mail was Britain’s number one daily.

Concentrated capitalist ownership of the press was well developed by the beginning of the 20th century. By 1910 three companies controlled 67 percent of the circulation of the daily metropolitan press. [14] In Britain today four companies control 85 percent of all daily and Sunday newspaper circulation. Of the national press, only the Guardian is owned by a company which does not have major commercial interests outside the media. [15] The development of broadcasting presented a different kind of problem for the ruling class. The technical nature of radio-limited wavelengths and the need for a national infrastructure for transmission pointed to the need for state involvement. The new medium had massive reach, and state control must have had its attractions for a ruling class that felt shaky in the period of massive working class militancy after the war. Too obvious state control, however, would have weakened broadcasting’s credibility. The notion of a broadcasting ‘corporation’ gave the BBC the illusion of independence from the government, and from the capitalists. As Reith, the BBC’s founder, said during the general strike, ‘The cabinet want to be able to say they did not commandeer us, but they know they can trust us not to be really impartial’. [16]

Far from being independent, the BBC has always been run by governors directly appointed by the government. In the Thatcher years a spate of appointments led to a level of direct Tory influence at the top of the BBC that shocked even the director general at the time, Alisdair Milne. When he complained to the Home Office, ‘They said that No 10 was quite clear in its view that the board should be as she wanted it. There is no doubt in my mind at all that she wanted to Thatcherise the board’. [17]

Even if not always so politically partisan, the board is always selected from amongst society’s elite. A 1980s survey showed that out of 85 recent BBC governors more than half had business or upper civil service backgrounds. Only six were trade unionists. [18] In any case, the government holds the purse strings:

In 1935, when broadcasts by the communist Harry Pollitt and the fascist Oswald Mosley were planned, the Foreign Office was not prepared to tolerate a communist on air. But nor did it want to be seen to issue a direct prohibition (as a government is entitled to do under the BBC Charter). Instead the Postmaster-General reminded Reith that the license fee was shortly due for renewal, and the government made it quite clear it would not countenance any mention of its own interference. Both broadcasts were abandoned without any reference to government pressure. [19]

So called ‘independent’ broadcasting has always been owned by big business. The government’s 1988 white paper on broadcasting declared that ‘clear rules will be needed which impose limits on concentration of ownership and on excessive cross media ownership in order to keep the market open for newcomers and to prevent any tendency towards editorial uniformity or domination by a few groups’. [20]

But, in fact, since the 1990 broadcasting act Central has merged with Carlton, Meridian has acquired Anglia and Granada has taken over London Weekend Television. Carlton now has a 15 percent share in Good Morning Television, a 50 percent stake in London News Network and a 36 percent stake in Independent Television News. Regulations were suspended for satellite ownership, making a complete mockery of the government’s commitment to limiting cross media ownership. Rupert Murdoch’s Sky television now dominates British satellite. [21]

The situation is little different elsewhere in the world. Berlusconi’s domination of the Italian media is legendary. In Germany Leo Kirch presides over 40 media companies including Europe’s largest distributor of films and TV programmes, Germany’s main film production company and Springer, Germany’s biggest newspaper house. [22] Everywhere the media industry is well integrated into the wider capitalist economy. In Brazil 63 percent of TV sets are tuned in to market leader TV Globo at any given time. Globo, which makes all five top rated programmes in Brazil, is a business empire, with interests in computers and telecommunications as well as shares in financial, real estate, mineral and manufacturing companies. [23]

Meanwhile, media moguls like Murdoch, Berlusconi and Henry Luce with Warner Brothers have created corporate structures and media systems that span continents. Times-Warner, by 1989 the biggest media corporation and valued at $18 billion, has bases in Latin America, Asia, Europe and Australia, and employs over 340,000 staff. In 1990 it modestly changed its motto to, ‘The world is our audience’. [24]

Media studies

Left wing commentators have always tended to equate media monopolies with unlimited social control. When the mass media first became a subject of study in the 1930s, academics were in awe of the media’s power because of its novelty, and because some believed mass media had played a key role in the rise of fascism. On the reformist left Adorno and Horkheimer in Germany concluded that what they called the ‘culture industry’ was moulding the masses’ subjectivity with mechanical standardisation, in the process creating a population ripe for fascist ideas. Mainstream academic studies developed what has come to be called the ‘hypodermic’ theory of media effects, not much more sophisticated than a theory of brainwashing.

After the war the academic consensus shifted. A whole range of studies in the 1940s and 1950s stressed differences in the way that media ‘messages’ were received and understood. Sociologists pointed to studies showing that the average member of the media audience ‘reacts not merely as an isolated personality but also as a member of the various groups to which he belongs and with which he communicates’. [25] These conclusions were based on the first systematic attempts at audience research and clearly constituted a step forward from the crude brainwashing or ‘hypodermic’ model. Social class, gender, political affiliation and ‘sub-cultural formations’ were all found to influence the way individuals received information from the media. [26] However, in the hands of sociologists like Shils and Bell these conclusions were used to build a rosy Liberal pluralist view of American democracy that contributed to the Cold War offensive against the left. In this increasingly influential model American democracy functioned, in an albeit imperfect and pragmatic way, as an ‘open society’. Questions of media ownership were sidestepped by concentration on the mediating influence of a host of primary groups – the family, the church, trade union branches or a local business community – and by a model of ‘competition for opinion: that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for people’s votes’. [27]

This pluralistic view of opinion formation prevailed in academia until sometime in the 1960s. In the words of Stuart-Hall, ‘It was not, however, destined to survive the testing times of the ghetto rebellions, campus revolts, counter-cultural upheavals and anti-war movements of the late 60s’. [28] In the late 1960s and early 1970s the notion of ‘ideology’ returned to the debate. ‘Critical’ social theorists began to argue that, rather than simply ‘reflecting’ a pre-existing social consensus, the media was part of ‘producing’ it. The return of ideology to the debate was welcome, and amongst the flood of ‘radical’ or ‘critical’ media studies that came out of the 1970s and 1980s there is a good deal that is useful. But media studies was based in the universities and colleges and its key exponents, such as Stuart Hall, James Cullan and Tony Bennet, were, like most academics, inclined to exaggerate the role of ideology in society. Many of these writers were influenced by Marx, but rather than using Marx’s sophisticated grasp of the interplay between social structure and human activity and consciousness in society to develop an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of ruling class ideology, they argued that Marx had simply underestimated the importance of ‘the non-coercive aspects of power’. [29]

For support they looked particularly to the work of French structuralist Louis Althusser, and a distorted reading of the work of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci. Althusser completely broke the link, essential to Marxism, between economic development and ideas in society, arguing that ruling class ideology operated ‘autonomously’ of other social factors. What was needed therefore, was patient exposure of ruling class ideas from within the ‘ideological state apparatus’. This was a consoling notion for academics who could now claim that their academic research was their ‘revolutionary practice’ (or praxis, as they pretentiously called it).

The work of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci was more selectively plundered. Gramsci had pointed out (as had both Lenin and Trotsky) that workers need to create an independent pole of attraction in society to gain enough social leverage – hegemony as he called it – to take power. In developing this analysis, Gramsci stressed the complexity of ‘civil society’ and the need of workers to gain influence and hegemony through a range of institutions. Media studies academics took up Gramsci’s stress on ‘the central role which the superstructures, the state and civil associations, politics and ideology, play’ [30] to justify their inflated view of the importance of the media.

Both these strands of thinking removed class struggle from the picture. Ideology for the post-Althusserians was coded into language itself, and therefore undetectable to the masses. Only a handful of enlightened academics could penetrate the seamless world of ideological illusion. Gramsci’s writings were used, or abused, to justify arguments for taking up influential positions within the media, and making ‘tactical’ alliances with just about anyone. Work that had started out as a critique of the capitalist media had become an attack on Marxism, a rejection of the possibility of change.

For all the obscurity of much of their reasoning, many of their political conclusions were straightforward. They recognised the stubbornness of bourgeois ideology and the necessity to fight for ‘hegemony positions’ within civil society. But many media academics either succumbed to postmodernist apathy or joined the Labour Party. There many of their ideas were used to bolster the new realists against anyone who still talked about ‘class struggle’.

Unfortunately, most of the academics who have tried to challenge the pervasive pessimism within media studies have fallen back on pure subjectivity. Writers like Morley and Fiske have once again stressed the fact that different groups or individuals produce their own meanings from the same text. These diverse responses are presented as a form of resistance to dominant ideology. Morley and Fiske want to centre the production of meaning back on the individual as a means to reassert the possibility of human resistance to what Fiske calls ‘the power bloc’. But because there is no notion of class in their analysis and no attempt to explain the relationship between ‘ideology’ and ‘reality’, they allow no possibility for the emergence of a coherent or united movement that could challenge ‘the power bloc in reality’. Resistance could only be local: ‘It is in micro-politics that popular control is most effectively exercised’. [31] The danger is that by simply stressing people’s ability to interpret the media for themselves, we end up with a postmodern view of communication in which meaning depends entirely on the receiver, the complete opposite of the Althusserian notion of an all powerful ideology – but equally unhelpful.

’Interactive’ cable technologies have raised new questions. Fringe sections of the American right were the first to claim that they can help to take power away from a remote political elite, and win it back for the people. ‘Today’s spectacular advances in communications technology open, for the first time, a mind boggling array of direct citizens’ participation in political decision making’. [32]

In Britain Labour media experts have taken up these wild claims: ‘The electronic revolution could significantly alter the effectiveness of UK democracy by ensuring that ordinary people could constantly access information and input their views using new technology’. [33]

The new communications technology is theoretically exciting. But it is not in itself going to democratise anything. Would it give us access to information currently withheld? Will it give us more power over decision making? Will it put us in direct contact with anyone we can’t already get on the phone? The information superhighway would no doubt be put to good use in a socialist society. But the problem with our present ‘democracy’ is not that we don’t have adequate communications technology. Our parliamentary representatives already know from the polls that the majority oppose privatisation, health cuts and the recent huge pay rises for the rich. The problem is they are socially and politically tied to the establishment and we have no control over them.

The ‘left’ media analysts approach the media in isolation from wider society. The fact that they overestimate the media’s power leads them either to pessimism or a naive confidence in the ‘revolutionary’ potential of new communications technology. Either way they do not get to grips with the complete relationship between the media and public opinion and the changing, contradictory nature of media ‘effects’: the fact that long accepted attitudes propagated in the media can suddenly be questioned on a mass scale, or that different sections of society are more critical of the media than others, or even that the same individual will happily go along with certain media prejudices, but reject others.

Media academics overstate the media’s influence because they are remote from the majority of the population. And because of the increasing rightward shift in intellectual attitudes in the last 15 years they have little theoretical understanding of how real challenges to ruling class ideology can arise.


Just because 18 million people have their sets switched on, it doesn’t mean they are watching.
Robbie Coltrane [34]

Does the media shape our lives? The standard rationale for the current media obsession is that the ‘communications industries’ are playing a more and more important role in our lives. In addition, many on the left argue that current levels of media monopoly and concentration are unprecedented.

Neither is necessarily true. The number of media systems and the number of global media consumers has increased in the last 20 years. Consequently, the level of investment worldwide in the media has rocketed. [35] But the impact on the daily lives of ordinary people in countries with an established mass media is another matter. The idea of a ‘communication society’ hooked together by the Internet and interactive cable services is itself still very much a media myth. Most families can’t afford Sky Sport, let alone a computer linked to the Internet. A recent survey published in the Guardian showed that in fact people in Britain are watching less TV of all kinds than they did a few years ago. [36] The reach and influence of the tabloid press are also exaggerated. Only one third of the electorate in this country regularly reads a Tory paper (including the so called qualities) [37] and of those who read the Sun only 38 percent voted Tory in the 1992 election. [38]

Of course the mass media does provide the bulk of entertainment and leisure time activity for millions of people, particularly working class people, around the world. But this is not because we are all media dupes. The fact is TV and the tabloids are the cheapest and most accessible entertainment available. A 1985 survey revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the quality and choice of TV programmes and suggested that viewers would switch off the TV ‘given the opportunity to participate in a more enjoyable activity’. Another survey, this time by Sahin and Robinson in 1974, found that TV viewing was regarded as one of the least enjoyable pastimes. ‘Once again’, it concluded, ‘viewing emerges as the most expendable or least important of daily activities’. [39]

Most people are not naive or uncritical consumers of the media. People often buy tabloids for entertainment, not news. For that they rely on TV which is regarded as much more reliable. [40] Even there cynicism is growing. A 1993 Gallup survey published in the Daily Telegraph showed that only 6 percent of the population thought politicians were truthful on the TV and radio! [41]

And despite the patronising attitude of editors and schedulers there is a popular hunger for worthwhile media production. Though a good deal of ‘highbrow’ output is off-putting in form and content, ‘quality’ dramas like Boys From the Black Stuff, The Singing Detective and Middlemarch regularly attract audiences of many millions. The tough investigative journalism of World in Action currently has average ratings of more than 7 million, and the Mirror was closest to challenging the circulation of the Sun when it was most fearlessly exposing the Tories in the early 1980s. [42]

There is no doubt that the media is dominated by big business. But it has been throughout the century. There were in fact more non-Tory newspapers available at election time in 1992 than at any time in the previous decade. [43] As early as 1922 four press barons, Lords Beaverbrook, Rothermere, Camrose and Kemsley, dominated the newspaper industry. [44] In 1961 some 89 percent of national daily circulation was owned by the three leading corporations, higher than the figure in 1985. [45] And yet Labour has managed to win seven elections this century. Recent research into voting intentions shows that owning the media is one thing, controlling the hearts and minds of the population is another matter altogether.

Voting intentions of newspaper readers




Lib Dem



Daily Express






Daily Telegraph






Daily Mail






























Daily Star






Daily Record






Daily Mirror


















*Swing from Conservative to Labour, compared with 1992 general election. Source: MORI

In fact, research into the last two elections makes Labour’s claim that the media has kept them out of office look threadbare.

William L. Miller’s exhaustive study of the 1987 election concludes that, although the tabloid press had a marginal influence (both in favour and against Labour), ‘TV coverage had surprisingly little impact on party credibility’ and ‘only had a small influence on the public’s issue agenda’. [46] In the third week of the campaign TV coverage shifted its emphasis ‘massively’ onto the question of defence. According to Miller’s research, the public recognised that the media debate had shifted but the public’s own concern with the defence issue only increased slightly. Throughout the campaign unemployment remained a vital issue for the electorate but was barely touched upon by the media. [47] Miller came up with one other important finding: media influence is greatest amongst people with little political involvement or commitment:

The media set the agenda for only a part of their audience: those highly reliant on a particular news source, those low in political involvement and information, and those who are relatively inattentive to politics generally – in short, those who are marginal to politics. [48]

And ‘the influence of the tabloid press was particularly strong on those voters who denied being party “supporters” even when they had a party preference’. [49]

Evidence from the most extensive survey of the 1992 election showed that the Daily Mirror had more of an impact on the electorate than the Tory press (Labour did after all increase its vote on 1987) and that Labour’s vote actually went up amongst readers of the Tory tabloids. Without making any judgement on the long term influence of the media, the writers of Labour’s Last Chance concluded, ‘Neither the Sun nor any other of the pro-Conservative tabloids were responsible for John Major’s unexpected victory in 1992’. [50]

Dennis McQuail, who has collected and analysed material from a wide range of campaigns has come to a strikingly similar conclusion about media propaganda in general: ‘There is evidence that the lack of a strong disposition either way and a condition of casual attention may be most favourable to the success of mass propaganda’. [51]

The evidence suggests that Labour massively overestimates the influence of the media on elections. It also implies that Labour’s policy of moving towards the centre ground, shedding both activists and identifiably working class policies that create some enthusiasm, actually increases the media’s ability to influence the outcome of elections.

If specific media campaigns have a limited impact, doesn’t the media influence general behaviour and attitude in more subtle and subliminal ways? There is a widely held belief, for example, that the barrage of stereotypes and negative role models in soap opera, adverts, magazines and pulp romances are key to shaping women’s role in society generally.

The media treatment of women is a disgrace. Recent statistics show that men appear twice as often as women in light entertainment, drama and adverts on TV and, more tellingly, the proportion of men over 30 on TV outnumbers women by three to one. [52] Judging by the new acceptability of the ‘use’ of women’s bodies in ads and in programmes like Baywatch or The Word, improvements made in the way women are represented on TV are being rolled back. While it continues to treat women as objects of sexual desire, the media is still littered with tired stereotypes of women as monogamous and emotionally dependent ‘carers’.

In fact the representation of women bears little relation to the reality. Massive changes have taken place in women’s lives in the last 50 years. During the Second World War millions of women were conscripted into the labour force to replace absent men. Their lifestyles and expectations changed dramatically, the rate of births to married women fell, and the rate of illegitimate births and divorces soared. [53] Nearly a million women joined unions and thousands took strike action for equal pay. These monumental changes were barely referred to in much of the media. Gillian Murphy’s study of contemporary women’s magazines shows they ‘still depicted courtship, marriage and motherhood as a girl’s main aim in life and ignored topics arising from the increased part women played during the war’. [54]

Since the 1960s widespread availability of contraception has allowed a new sexual freedom, and women have been drawn back to work in large numbers – by the 1990s they made up more than half the workforce. The nature of the family and sexual behaviour have changed dramatically, most women have a series of relationships during their lives, and the number of single parent families has rocketed. [55] These changes have not brought liberation for women, far from it. The ruling class now want women to go out to work and to be the ‘caring’ centre of the family. But they are real changes. The media has half heartedly responded to these trends – often with hostility – but it has played no part in making them happen. As always, changes in women’s lives have been a response first and foremost to the social and economic needs of the system.

In the light of the evidence, the most convincing model of media influence is that suggested by Raymond Williams’s argument that the media plays a complete ideological role which older institutions like the church can no longer fulfil. Rather than directly manipulating opinion or behaviour he argues that, by airing controversies and anxieties, the media attempts to reorientate people in a world of accelerating social and economic change. The media, in other words tries to provide ‘safe’ frameworks of family, parliament and national community through which people can interpret a divided and disturbing world. At the same time, simply by running a commentary on the decisions of the powers that be, the media helps to foster the illusion of an ‘open’ society. [56]

Williams cleverly exposes some of the more subtle media tricks: the way linked political, social and economic issues are separated into discrete news ‘items’; the way TV can ‘normalise’ the most momentous events by inserting them into a predictable and endless flow of pictures; and the way ultra-respectable newscasters in their well ordered studios try to reassure us that however bleak things may seem out there, they, and by implications the establishment itself, are in control.

Williams underplays the more direct and conscious ideological ploys of the media – the attacks on the left, the racism and sexism – but the great strength of his analysis is that he recognises the media doesn’t create social trends, but responds to them and tries to incorporate them into a world view that doesn’t threaten the status quo. But even Williams exaggerates the media’s role. He underestimates the role of politicians and trade union leaders in propping up the creaking institutions of the nation, he fails to see that capitalism survives as much because of the alienation of the population as through any positive conviction, and he doesn’t recognise that the social and economic change he talks about can lead to explosions which blow apart the media’s precious notions of family values, gradualism and national community.

Ideology versus experience

Consciousness does not determine life, but life consciousness.
Karl Marx [57]

Even some Tories are aware of the limits of ideology. This is Tory deputy chairman John Maples in his ‘secret memo’ to the party:

Privatisation has not been popular … Very few people think we are out of recession … There is a feeling of powerlessness and insecurity about jobs, housing, health service, business, family values, crime etc and no vision about where we are heading … What we are saying is at odds with their experience, which leads them to conclude that we are ‘out of touch’, lying … [58]

All ideology has to contend with people’s experience of the real world. Even at the height of Thatcher’s influence in the 1980s most people did not completely swallow the Tories’ line. The government, broadly supported by the media, tried to convince us that class was a thing of the past, that ‘greed was good’ and that low inflation and low taxation were the ultimate virtues. We were sceptical. The annual British Social Attitudes Survey showed that throughout the 1980s workers continued to believe the notion not just that we lived in a class society, but that ‘there is one law for the rich and another for the poor’. Most people also consistently supported the idea of a one pence tax increase if the proceeds went direct to the NHS. [59] More recently government ministers and ‘independent experts’ alike have gone blue in the face insisting that we are experiencing an ‘economic recovery’. High street retail figures show we remain unconvinced. We have our own ‘economic indicators’, wage slips, shop prices or layoffs at work. And no amount of propaganda is likely to convince us that such first hand evidence is wrong.

There are plenty of studies of the media that analyse the different ‘readings’ that individuals from different social groups make of media output. But because these studies treat their subjects as passive consumers, they don’t take us very far. At their worst some of these studies reproduce stereotypes themselves. One report concludes that:

News and current affairs, as well as much documentary and adventure fiction output – such as war films – were designated as masculine and avoided by many of the women. The genres which they most readily related to were quiz shows specially those with a domestic, familial theme – movies with a fantasy’ content, and, most notably, soap operas. [60]

Others end up glorifying pulp culture. Janice Radway’s Reading Romance, very influential in media studies, goes as far as to celebrate escapism as a form of women’s resistance. ‘By the social act of reading romance, women signal a time out from their domestic and caring labour; and by taking up romances in particular with their omnipresent androgynous hero capable of nurturing woman herself, they deny the legitimacy of patriarchal culture in which such men are hard to find’. [61]

The point is not to just identify different responses to media ideology, but to discover how it can best be resisted. That is why class is so important. Class is not just the central division in society, it is the main source of oppositional ideas. David Morley’s report on the way different groups interpreted one edition of the Nationwide current affairs show concluded:

It is the shop stewards that spontaneously produce by far the most articulate, fully oppositional reading of the programme. They reject the programmes attempt to tell us what ‘our grouse’ is and its attempt to construct a national ‘we’. This group fulfils the criteria of an oppositional reading in the precise sense that it redefines the issues which the programme presents. Its members are critical of what they see as significant absences in the discussion of economics. More than that, however, their critical reading also involves the introduction of a new model, outside the terms of reference provided by the programme: at one point they explain Nationwide’s implicit ‘theory’ of the origin of wealth – in terms of classical economics – then explicitly move on to substitute for it a version of the labour theory of value. [62]

Class is decisive first of all because of workers’ economic position in society. The experience of being at the wrong end of a system of wildly unfair distribution makes it obvious that there’s a gulf between ideology and reality. Nothing is going to convince a worker at Telecom or ICI or British Gas that they live in a classless society when their boss earns their monthly wage in a day. The day to day experience of work makes things even clearer. Most work is repetitive and oppressive, and though the contract of employment is legally a ‘free’ one, every time the boss haggles over a pay rise, tries to lengthen the working day or cut the workforce, workers are confronted with evidence that their contract with their employer is a contract with an enemy, not an equal. The fact that workers everywhere sooner or later try to organise into trade unions to defend their conditions shows that the experience of work under capitalism always leads to some consciousness of exploitation.

The current mood of revolt against the establishment identified in John Maples’ memo shows that for workers everyday existence in a crisis ridden system can lead to deep distrust of ruling class propaganda. But individuals’ experience of exploitation doesn’t mean they automatically throw off all ruling class ideas at once. In his memo John Maples points out that, although the majority of the population are sick of the Tories, some still have ‘right wing views on crime and immigration, deep disapproval of “scrounging” on social security … deep fear of loony lefties’ and ‘distrust of politically correct, liberal minded “do gooders”.’ There may well be an element of wishful thinking here, but there is no doubt that it is possible to hate the boss, be a union member at work, and still accept some of the ruling class’s backward ideas about society in general.

Under capitalism workers always hold in their heads contradictory ideas about society. As Gramsci put it, ‘The active man of the masses works practically, but he does not have a clear, theoretical consciousness of his actions, which is also a knowledge of the world in so far as he changes it.’ So there are ‘two sorts of consciousness’, that ‘implicit in his actions’ and that, ‘superficially explicit, which he has inherited from the past and which he accepts without criticism’. Gramsci goes on, ‘The unity of theory and practice is not a given mechanical fact, but a historical process of becoming’. [63] Whether workers see themselves as atomised individuals competing in the market for houses and jobs, and are therefore vulnerable to ruling class ideas, or whether they see themselves as part of a class united by common interests depends crucially on whether they have experience of collective action in the real world.

Capitalism periodically forces workers to take this kind of action to defend their conditions, and this is the second reason for Marxists’ insistence on the importance of the working class. It is not simply that workers have the collective power to fight back effectively, but that in the process of fighting back workers dramatically change the ideas they hold about society. In 1968 dockers from east London marched to parliament in support of the racist Enoch Powell who had been sacked from the Tory front bench after his notoriously bigoted ‘rivers of blood’ speech. The dockers’ action was supported by some other groups of workers and some dockers came close to beating up anti-Powell demonstrators. Much of the left drew gloomy conclusions:

In Britain very many trade unionists have more sympathy with the police force and racialism than with student demonstrators. The only work stoppages in recent times which were meant politically were the racialist demonstrations of dockers and meat packers in support of Enoch Powell … Can it be that the most effective militant workers in Britain are to the right of the powerful Conservative Party? [64]

Yet in the years that followed, British workers were involved in a series of huge struggles against the ruling class, culminating in the miners’ strike of 1973 which brought down the Tory government. The London dockers were central to this wave of resistance and in 1972 organised a strike which led to a massive demonstration to Pentonville jail forcing the release of five of their number who had been imprisoned for picketing offences. The outlook of the dockers changed so much in this period of struggle that by 1977 they sent their banner and a large contingent to support the Grunwick strikers, a group of Asian women who were fighting for union recognition at a factory in west London. The dockers were joined by postal workers, car workers and miners who travelled from Yorkshire to support their fellow workers.

As well as changing workers’ ideas, the strike wave of the early 1970s gave them the confidence to take on the media. On the first evening of their unofficial strike in 1972:

Dock stewards turned their attention … to Fleet Street, knowing that if they could shut the papers they would have a massive and immediate impact. But the initial response was cool. The papers appeared the next morning, and played down the significance of the jailings, trying to kill the dockers’ campaign with silence. The following day docks stewards visited virtually every father and mother of chapel (shop steward) in Fleet Street, aided by leading print union activists. At last they met with some success. Within two days Fleet Street was closed down. [65]

In the next few years of heightened struggle, socialists and activists in many different industries went one step further and set up their own rank and file newspapers. They wanted to drive the struggle forward by giving a voice to the most militant workers. By 1973 there were at least 20 such papers, amongst them papers produced by and for miners, bus workers, teachers, building workers, dockers and journalists. [66]

Even at the top of the unions there was a feeling that media lies had to be tackled. The following motion from the ACTT (the TV and cinema workers’ union) was passed unanimously at the 1975 TUC congress. Despite the bureaucratic language, the anger shines through, and so does the conviction that anti-union propaganda could be effectively countered:

Recognising the over-simplification and distortion which characterises the manner in which the majority of the media discuss and report economic issues and aware that this over-simplification and distortion frequently expresses itself in savage attacks on the objectives and methods of trade unions engaged in free collective bargaining, Congress calls on the General Council to instigate the production on a regular and ongoing basis of a counter-critique, deliberately written to correct and counteract the distortions of the media and to provide for shop floor trade unionists a straightforward and effective refutation of anti trade union propaganda. [67]

Faced with this level of suspicion and hostility throughout the working class movement it is clear that the media on its own was not capable of heading off the wave of militancy and restoring ‘order’. For that the ruling class had to rely on the political and industrial leadership of the movement itself. The role of the British trade union leaders, the Labour Party and the Communist Party in heading off working class militancy in the mid-1970s has been analysed in detail elsewhere. [68] All three groups in different ways helped to disorientate the militants, enforce the Social Contract and ensure that in the end workers paid for the crisis.

In this situation sections of the media started to change tack, recognising aspirations for change, even occasionally supporting strikes, but working to channel bitterness into the ‘safe’ hands of union leaders and the Labour Party. At the same time, they led a witch-hunt of rank and file militants. No doubt the media reinforced reformist ideas, but its attempt to witch-hunt the left was not decisive. The influence of the Communist Party and the much smaller revolutionary groups grew in this period. The problem was that the Communist Party, which dominated the shop stewards’ movement, offered no political alternative to that of voting Labour.

It was the domination of reformist ideas inside the working class movement and the lack of a credible revolutionary alternative that was the key to ensuring the safety of capitalism in the 1970s, not simply the media. Recent events in Italy have shown once again that mass action can transform the political climate – whoever runs the media. Last year academic commentators were complaining of Berlusconi’s unshakeable hold over the country’s imagination: ‘TV is the breeding ground of a new dictatorship, stable and appealing … able to condition people’s lives even in their own homes’. [69]

The fears of many on the left in Italy increased when legislation forced the PDS to give up control over RAI 3, its once loyal TV station. But despite his continued domination of the Italian media, at the end of last year Berlusconi’s influence evaporated under the pressure of a general strike and the biggest demonstration Italy has ever seen. [70] As if to rub home the point that a mass movement can break the hold of the most powerful propaganda, Italian trade unions produced a sticker that was to be seen on almost every lapel on one of the huge demonstrations, ‘Look Berlusconi, we are your audience.’

Marxists’ stress on class and class struggle does not mean ignoring discrimination or oppression. Sexism and racism need to be challenged wherever they arise. But time after time it is during mass struggles that prejudice is most thoroughly broken down. The crucial role played by women in the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984–1985 forced miners to change sometimes backward attitudes. By the end of the strike women were treated as equals in the struggle and the naked pinups that had been run in the union’s Yorkshire paper disappeared by the popular demand of men and women. Anyone who believes the power of the media cannot be bucked should note that it was media lies that inspired many of the women to organise in the first place. Isabell helped start a women’s action group at Yorkshire Main colliery:

It started because I couldn’t stand the TV making out that the wives weren’t behind their men. I was so angry and frustrated for a week that in the end Brian [Isabell’s husband] took me round the wives of some other militants in the pit. Ten of us sat up half the night talking about what to do and five of us decided to go and picket Thoresby in Nottinghamshire that night. Brian made my snap for a change! And he made us a banner. We called ourselves an action group because everyone says they support the miners but we want to be active. [71]

The experience of the strike did more than just overcome sexual prejudice amongst the men. Many of the women involved gained a new pride as they discovered their abilities to organise, speak in public and defend the picket line. Even more important, both women and men began to question the key institutions of a society that had openly turned against them, the police who arrested pickets, the courts that convicted them, and the press which lied about picket line violence. As one miner’s wife explained, the power of the press had evaporated:

I have lost faith in the newspapers I once read. The Sun and the Daily Mirror are banned from this house now. They are banned from most homes in this village. They have told lies, half truths and peddled propaganda. [72]

Class is the central contradiction in capitalism that no amount of ideology, however sophisticated, can completely hide. Workers are most vulnerable to ruling class propaganda when they are passive and demoralised, though even then most remain sceptical. But when workers start to fight back in large numbers, the class nature of ideology becomes obvious. Then workers start to throw off ruling ideas and look for new ideas that can take their struggle forward.

Inside the media

How does the ruling class try to ensure it gets its message across in the media? For most of the left, it’s automatic. Ownership equals control: ‘money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalise dissent, and allow the government and the dominant interests to get their messages across to the public’. [73]

In fact it is not that simple. The media employs real people living in a messy world. Establishment control relies on a delicate balance between intervention and wider social determinants. The state and media managements are prepared to intervene directly. When necessary, they censor programmes, plant stories, rig statistics and bribe journalists. In his recent book about Scargill, The Enemy Within, Seumas Milne points out that a number of national industrial correspondents are in regular contact with MI5, and that there was a direct intelligence input into the the 1990 Maxwell funded media campaign against Scargill. [74] In 1985 it emerged finally that M15 had been routinely vetting recruits to the BBC. [75] Censorship is widespread, particularly at times of ‘national crisis’. During the General Strike in 1926 no representative of organised labour was allowed on air. Even Ramsay MacDonald was banned. [76] During the Second World War the BBC was told not to include the Internationale in the popular Sunday evening concert of Allied national anthems [77] and during the Gulf War an absurd list of pop songs were banned from the air, as were pictures of soldiers ‘in agony or severe shock’ or patients ‘suffering from severe disfigurements’. [78]

Censorship continues in ‘normal times’. There are more than 40 documented cases of programmes on Northern Ireland being cut or banned outright since 1988 alone. [79] At least five Panorama programmes on subjects as diverse as Tory party funding, fraud in Westminster Council and arms trading with Iraq have been pulled, delayed or cut in recent years. [80] When The Cook Report set up a sting operation on parliamentary lobbyist Ian Greer Associates, which showed the lobbyists believed they could ‘deliver’ Michael Portillo and John Major for commercial interests, the programme sank without trace. [81]

The government also uses backroom pressure to ensure media chiefs stay in line. After one meeting with top BBC officials about coverage of the Falklands War, MPs who had been present were telling tales of ‘blood on the walls’ and ‘roasting them alive’. One of them, Alan Clarke, bragged, ‘It is good for people in these sort of positions to be roughed up … it’s quite funny, those sort of self satisfied creeps on big salaries and fixed contracts, when they have a nasty time’. [82]

However, if the media is too obviously controlled or manipulated, it can become fairly useless for the ruling class. In Eastern European countries, for example, before the upheavals at the end of the 1980s, state run broadcasting was regarded as a joke. People either ignored TV and radio altogether, or where possible tuned into foreign stations. In Italy Berlusconi’s blatant control of large sections of the media became a focus for opposition: in the words of BBC correspondent David Walter, ‘Berlusconi’s domination of the media, which was such an asset to his campaign, has now become a liability’. [83]

The strength of the media in many ‘advanced’ countries is that it appears to be ‘free’, ‘independent’, ‘neutral’ or at least ‘balanced’ when it is really none of those things. Direct censorship and state control have to be used sparingly if this illusion is to be maintained. Instead the ruling class rely on a number of other mechanisms to ensure their values and priorities prevail.

The market

We have seen how market forces historically concentrated ownership and control of the press into the ‘safe’ hands of big business. The market continues to strangle dissident voices. In the 1980s a group of well known radical journalists tried to launch an ‘alternative’ national weekly called News on Sunday to challenge the agenda and perspective of the established press. Despite the backing of various trade union leaders and sections of the Labour Party, the paper failed. Though the editorial board made generous political concessions, they failed to raise the kind of investment capital from big business necessary to compete with the media giants.

Advertising and the growing practice of media sponsorship provide useful extra discipline when necessary. An article in the Economist on the American media explains the process: ‘Projects unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine … stations have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of the corporations.’ The journal cites the case of public TV station WNET which lost its contract with Gulf and Western ‘as a result of a documentary called Hunger for Profit about multinationals buying up huge tracts of land in the Third World’. Gulf’s chief executive wrote to the station saying that producing the documentary ‘had not been the act of a friend’, and that the programme was ‘virulently anti-business, if not anti-American.’ The Economist concluded, ‘Most people believe WNET would not make the same mistake today’. [84]

Institutional filters

Chomsky describes how the internal organisation of media institutions amounts to a kind of permanent, institutionalised censorship:

… conformity is the easy way, and the path to privilege and prestige; dissidence carries personal costs that may be severe, even in a society that lacks such means of control as death squads, psychiatric prisons, or camps. The very structure of the media is designed to introduce conformity to established doctrine. In a three minute stretch between commercials, or in 700 words, it is impossible to present unfamiliar thoughts or surprising conclusions with the argument and evidence required to afford them some credibility. Regurgitation of welcome pieties faces no such problem. [85]

The journalists’ agenda is set not just by their own newsroom but by a whole range of ruling class institutions that ‘produce’ news. The best research on this process is from America. Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information noted that ‘one of the best means of controlling news was flooding news channels with facts’. [86] In 1979-1980 the US airforce (in an interlude of openness since closed down) revealed that its PR exercises included 140 newspapers, 3,200 news conferences, 50 meetings with editorial boards and more than half a million news releases. [87] The late 1970s saw a massive increase in state and corporate spending on PR. By 1983 the US Chamber of Commerce had a PR budget of $65 million. It is estimated that the corporations in America employed 150,000 professionals as political and media lobbyists: [88]

They provide the media organisations with facilities in which to gather; they give journalists advance copies of speeches and forthcoming reports … they write press releases in usable language, and they carefully organise their press conferences and ‘photo opportunity’ sessions. [89]

The ruling class bureaucracies also use their control of access to news as a means of disciplining journalists. The Gulf War was an extreme case because the authorities seemed to have such complete control over the flow of information. Accreditation was only given to journalists who promised to be obedient. All reports had to be approved by the army and journalists were not to travel to the combat zone unattended. The few brave souls like Robert Fisk who tried to do a bit of independent reporting were treated as outcasts by the authorities and the rest of the press pack. One London News editor admitted that it was desperation to keep on the right side of the military authorities that persuaded news organisations to pull reporters out of Baghdad at the start of the war. [90]

But in fact similar kinds of discipline are at work all the time. In Britain the ‘lobby system’ allows ‘acceptable’ journalists access to ‘unattributable’ information from 10 Downing Street. More informal access to high level briefs can only be earned by unquestioning loyalty. During the Falklands War, for example, Thatcher gave exclusive briefings to an ‘inner circle’ of Tory news editors.


Even the best media commentators tend to miss the way class and privilege help to keep media workers ‘loyal’. Trade unionists in the media have always found professionalism and snobbery a problem. In 1907 one NUJ pioneer, Frank Rose, vented his frustration in a letter to the Clarion:

If the average journalist will shed the silly notion that he is a superior sort of special creation, and accept the bitter fact that he is just a working man, he will make it easier … He can put as much professional side on as he chooses, but he will keep going down industrially until he substitutes common sense for vanity. [91]

In the first half of the century many journalists were drawn from the upper ranks of society. During the First World War soldiers complained of the upper class attitude of the ‘gentlemen of the press’: ‘They would visit the front now and then, as many staff officers did, but it could only be as afternoon callers from one of the many mansions of the GHQ, that haven of security and comfort. When autumn twilight came down on the haggard trench world, of which they caught a quiet noon day glimpse, they would be speeding west in Vauxhall cars to lighted chateaux’. [92]

For the average war correspondent it was all a kind of sport:

Through his despatches there ran a brisk implication that the regimental officers and men enjoyed nothing better than ‘going over the top’; that a battle was just a rough jovial picnic, that a fight never went on long enough for the men. [93]

Many journalists reporting on the the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia were so upper class they simply couldn’t understand what was going on. As the Times admitted 35 years later:

The idea of a campaign in the interests of the majority of workers was so foreign to Wilton [their correspondent] that he never understood it … More unfortunately still, the idea was equally foreign to Steed [the foreign editor], Dawson [the editor], Northcliffe [the proprietor]. [94]

Things have changed, but privilege still helps to keep the journalists in line. This is how one explains the mentality of a colleague on the Sun: ‘He knew, and others like him knew, that life on the Sun might have its repugnant side … but it also pays more bills than any other job he is likely to get. His spinelessness, and the apparent cynicism and indifference of the Sun’s journalists to that sewer they are daily asked to swill, has a connection with his bank balance’. [95]

Most journalists are still recruited from outside the working class and, at least in the national media, paid way over average wages. A producer on national TV for example can expect to earn at least £30,000 a year. Senior broadcasters earn over £100,000. Consequently, they tend to inhabit an establishment world, rubbing shoulders with lawyers, City dealers and politicians, and often barely coming into contact with workers. The distinction between the personal, professional and political often becomes blurred. Robin Oakley, the BBC’s chief political correspondent, for example, recently went on holiday with Tory Lord Archer aboard the latter’s yacht. One of the leader writers for the Daily Mail is a chief adviser to Lady Porter. [96]

The crucial point here is not simply that such proximity encourages party political bias (although it undoubtedly does), but that top journalists share general ruling class assumptions about the world. They are impressed by officialdom: ‘reporters operate with the attitude that officials ought to know what it is their job to know. In particular, a news worker will recognise an official’s claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent piece of knowledge’. [97] They see economic affairs from the perspective of the stock exchange, not the dole queue. They analyse NHS ‘reforms’ with the eye of the trust administrator, not the nurse on the ward or the patient on the waiting list, and, most important of all, the range of political opinion that they are prepared to consider begins and ends at Westminster.

Charles Curran, a former BBC director general, may have thought he was being ironic when he admitted that ‘the BBC is biased in favour of parliamentary democracy’, [98] but in fact his comment neatly sums up one of the ruling class’s key ideological manoeuvres. A ‘bias in favour of parliamentary democracy’ is in fact crippling to objective reporting, because what little debate there is in parliament does not begin to reflect the reality of most people’s lives. Unlike the population at large, the Westminster parties are united in their confidence in British justice, their respect for the royal family, and their belief in market forces. Parliament seems like an alien world to most of us, and yet any opinions not represented there are regarded as beyond the pale by the news media.

The ‘bias in favour of parliamentary democracy’ allows journalists to disguise the very strong class line that they take at times of crisis. They link parliament with ‘the people’ to create a fictional consensus which they use to marginalise dissenters. Research by the Glasgow Media Group in the 1970s showed again and again how striking workers were treated as troublemakers, while directors who had closed down whole factories forever were unfortunate victims of circumstance. [99] Reporting on last year’s signal workers’ strike was particularly misleading. Journalists obediently and uncritically spouted Railtrack’s line and repeatedly interviewed scabs. The media barely mentioned that Railtrack had promised to sack any strikers who spoke to the press and helped give the impression of ‘a drift back to work’ towards the end of the dispute, when in fact the total number of scabs never exceeded 70. [100]

Far from being ‘independent’ from Westminster and Whitehall, the media is locked into a mutually supportive role with parliament and with the political establishment. Journalists’ obsession with the parliamentary process allows them to ignore the fact that there is political life outside Westminster, that most of the decisions that affect our lives are in fact taken elsewhere in corporate executive meetings, in quangos or in Whitehall. The result is that ‘balance’ extends only across the narrow spectrum from Major to Blair. The media largely colludes in concealing the world of the boardroom, the civil service or the CBI – where real decisions are made. Meanwhile the views and experiences of millions of ordinary people are hardly ever sought by journalists who are encouraged to regard themselves as part of an elite, and who often unthinkingly accept that role.

None of this means, however, that the media simply churns out pure ruling class propaganda. Just as media commentators ignore the contradictions in society as a whole, they miss the possibility for conflict and contradiction in the media itself. The media has to bridge the gulf between ruling class ideas and people’s experience. Straight lies normally make bad propaganda. The media has to partially ‘reflect’ people’s experiences, even if in a distorting mirror.

Different types of media play different roles. Raymond Williams has argued that the specific ideological role of the press is to deal with the controversy and anxiety caused by social change through the rapid transmission and discussion of news’. [101] The press does help to ‘normalise’ alienating experience and to popularise ‘safe’ and cynical responses to a turbulent world. But at times of ideological ferment this can be a difficult trick to pull off. In the 1980s the Tory tabloids confidently pushed a right wing populism and attacked the left. Today even the Sun has lost its way. Some of its more notorious journalists have left the paper. Those who remain are finding they have to reflect working class resentment against the establishment. Most of the time they frame attacks on the government in terms of their bungling incompetence, but recently even they have been running editorials condemning handouts to the rich.

The ‘qualities’ are partly used to pass information and opinion within ruling circles. This means they do carry some accurate information. The Financial Times is often the most reliable source of information about strikes apart from Socialist Worker. [102] The broadsheets can also be a forum for airing differences within the ruling class. As divisions have deepened, embittered groups and individuals like the Al Fayeds have used the pages of the press to attack and expose others, in the process deepening the sense of crisis itself.

The local press deals with issues that local people know about. Although editors try and concentrate on official openings or beautiful baby contests, when it comes to a local strike or a campaign against cuts they often have to be supportive in their reports, if not the editorials. And because they are less remote, local papers are more open than the rest of the media to popular pressure. A Yorkshire journalist witnessed popular pressure in action during the miners’ strike of 1984–1985:

Police had viciously attacked a picket of a scab’s house and badly hurt a number of miners and their wives and even children. I knew some of the victims personally and they made me promise to report events as they had happened. I suggested they go down to the paper’s offices themselves to make sure. They thought that was a good idea, so they marched into the building demanding that the police’s brutality was reported, and promising to picket the place if it wasn’t. I got a grilling from the editor, but he ran my story next day, on the front page, verbatim! [103]

The main ideological function of broadcasting is forging the illusion of national unity. Sir Michael Swann, then chairman of the BBC, told the Annan committee in 1976:

An enormous amount of the BBC’s work [is] in fact social cement of one form or another. Royal occasions, religious services, sports coverage, and police series, all reinforce our sense of belonging to our country, being involved in its celebrations, and accepting what it stands for. [104]

Though placing itself in close association with the establishment and centres of power, broadcasting has to seem ‘unofficial’. To be effective it has to make concessions to change and sometimes even voice criticism of the establishment.

Early broadcasting assumed a basic confidence in national institutions. In the Empire Day broadcast of 1935 a mother was heard explaining to her daughter, ‘The British Empire, Mary, is made up of one big family.’ Mary asks, ‘You mean a family like ours, mummy?’ and mother replies, ‘Yes darling, but very much larger’. [105] In its first years BBC TV concentrated heavily on national ceremonies. Outside broadcasts of the trooping of the colour, the coronation, the cup final or the national exhibition were, in the words of Jonathan Dimbleby, ‘the most valued jewel of the BBC television crown’. [106]

These visual, ritual displays of national corporate identity were never criticised on air. The accompanying news service was restrained and formal, avoiding anything contentious. By the early 1960s, however, the BBC had to change tack sharply. The Suez crisis and the Profumo affair had raised serious questions about the political and moral standing of the British ruling class. Commercial TV was appealing over the BBC’s head to a newly prosperous and confident working class with programmes that reflected working class life and a brash, journalistic approach to national news.

The BBC responded with programmes like Tonight and That Was The Week That Was which accepted divisions in society and tried to define themselves as on the side of the audience and against the powers that be. Satire became fashionable and its target was the establishment. A TW3 sketch looking back over 1962 summed it up as ‘a year in which principles went by the board. A year of incompetence. A year of mendacity. A year of lying’. [107]

Since the royal family started to implode in the late 1980s broadcasting has had to play down national ritual and now tries to construct a sense of communal identity around pop culture and soaps. Soaps have dealt with issues some of the establishment would rather have kept under wraps. The Sun periodically attacked Eastenders through the 1980s for its positive portrayal of gay characters, for example. [108] And soap producers take care to employ some writers from working class backgrounds. One of them, Jimmy McGovern, has pointed out that management filter out anything that might offend the advertisers. Despite being set in Liverpool, Brookside barely mentioned the miners’ strike or the rebellion of Liverpool council in 1984–1985.

At times of social struggle, however, broadcasting has had to incorporate some genuinely radical voices. In 1969 LWT hired the French Maoist Jean-Luc Godard to make British Sounds, an experimental documentary about the need for revolution in Britain, though the film was later banned. At the BBC a few left wingers like Jimmy McTaggart, Tony Garnett and Ken Loach had a chance to make some more challenging drama in the Wednesday Play. Plays like Lena O My Lena and Cathy Come Home presented a shockingly real picture of working class life and raised searching political questions about poverty and class.

For broadcasters the balance is always a delicate one. They have to please their political and commercial masters, while maintaining the illusion of independence. They have to seem to be abreast of change without ever encouraging it. As Ken Loach said about his years directing at the BBC:

The reaction from the BBC was split … On the one hand they liked the fact that we were getting good audiences and winning some public interest, but they were also very nervous … about their relationship with politicians and beyond them. [109]

The outcome of this balancing act can be unpredictable. The aim is to promote confidence in our ‘open society’ and to resolve controversy within the boundaries of ‘common sense’. But broadcasters have not been able to hold back change. They haven’t been able to restore confidence in national institutions as one by one they have been discredited. And just occasionally they produce programmes like Cathy Come Home, Death on the Rock or Spitting Image at its best, which confirm or deepen the public’s feeling that things are very wrong.

Increased concentration and commercialisation can sharpen the contradictions inside the media. Commentators, however, play down the potential conflict between the media’s commercial and ideological roles:

Making money is not incompatible with indoctrination … the purpose of the ‘entertainment’ industry, in its various forms, may be profit; but the content of its output is not by any means free from ideological connotations of a more or less definite kind. [110]

In fact market forces can conflict with the ideological role of the media. While at a time of real danger they will pull together, most of the time individual capitalists do not necessarily put the overall interests of their class before those of their own business, and in the media this can cause special problems. While competition for advertising and investment discourages ‘anti-business stories’, the associated competition for ratings or circulation has encouraged the press to expose sleaze and attack Major. Though this has not created the Tories’ problems, it has helped to generalise the Tories’ crisis. There is no doubt, for example, that the Daily Mirror’s campaign to keep the pits open in 1992 helped to mobilise support for the NUM’s massive demos. At a time when the press itself recognises that ‘the image of politicians, the monarchy, and even the judiciary’ has ‘never stood so low’ [111], stories that expose the authorities simply make good copy.

The ruling class itself is aware of the dangers of allowing market forces free reign in the media. That is why there is a debate about deregulation in broadcasting. Free market Tories see the media primarily as a money spinner, and so support privatisation. Others do not trust the private sector with the BBC’s unifying ideological role, currently defined in terms of reflecting ‘all the dimensions of both popular and minority culture that make us different as a nation’. [112] The recent unpredictable behaviour of the press, the growing power of Murdoch, and the antics of Berlusconi in Italy must have underlined their fears.

The drive for profit in the media creates another more serious problem for the bosses – class struggle in the media itself. The transformation of the media into a central, highly profitable sector of the world economy has led to the rapid introduction of new technology and to a whole series of attacks on the conditions of media workers. Working life for journalists has become more repetitive, routine and stressful, and less well rewarded. Despite their privileged position, journalists are being treated more like workers than ever before. The resentment this causes can combine explosively with the political nature of a lot of journalists’ work.

When the Mirror introduced new management as part of its shift to the right in 1992, there was uproar amongst staff. Paul Foot, who was involved, described what happened:

Montgomery, the new managing director, came from Murdoch. Everyone was frightened for their jobs and conditions, but also fearful that the editorial line might change – we were comfortable with Stott [the current editor]. We had an enormous meeting in the newsroom and voted 360 to two not to work with Montgomery. The place was packed and there was a tremendous atmosphere, we were all fired up by the huge miners’ demonstrations that had happened that week. We occupied the newsroom until we thought they could never get next day’s paper out. [113]

Unfortunately, persuaded by editor Stott (who was soon sacked), they left too early, and a lightweight Mirror appeared the next day.

In 1985 journalists took political strike action with more success. The BBC had attempted to ban a Real Lives programme featuring Republican Martin McGuinness. The National Union of Journalists called a 24 hour protest strike and won almost total support from broadcasters. The Times reported, ‘The walkout by journalists and technical staff represented the most serious industrial action ever undertaken in British television, and attracted more support than has ever been won by a pay claim or a call for conventional industrial action’. [114]

On the very day of the strike the BBC announced the programme would be broadcast with minor amendments.

Other media workers have often used collective power to challenge the worst excesses of ruling class propaganda. Unofficial political action by Fleet Street print workers helped spark the off the General Strike in 1926. A lockout of the miners had caused anger across the country, and when the Daily Mail tried to run an editorial calling trade unionists unpatriotic and disloyal, the printers refused to print it. The government used this as an excuse to call off negotiations and the TUC had to call the strike. [115] The fact that the printers were so central to the strike forced the NUJ to vote to join it, even though the union was not at the time affiliated to the TUC. More recently, during the miners’ strike of 1984–1985, printers at the Sun refused to print a front page carrying a picture of Scargill that made him look as if he was giving a Nazi salute. Later they forced their management to carry an NUM reply to a particularly scurrilous article about the strike. In October 1993 technicians and production staff at the BBC threatened to walk out if Nazi Derek Beackon was included in a planned round table discussion of a local election called After Millwall. The programme went ahead without Beackon. [116]

Trade union organisation limits the proprietors’ power and encourages everyday journalistic independence. Put bluntly by one journalist, ‘I can’t tell the editor to fuck off if I haven’t got a union behind me’. [117] The best investigative journalism of the 1970s relied partly on strong organisation. The Insight Team at the Sunday Times that exposed the thalidomide scandal and investigated Bloody Sunday was headed by John Barry, who was also father of chapel. They were well organised: ‘The chapel met regularly, and if members didn’t like something the editor was saying or doing, they would haul him in and tell him to explain himself’. [118]

In the 1980s the Thatcherites attacked ‘restrictive practices’ in the media, claiming that union derecognition would promote freedom of expression, and a more pluralistic press. In fact, since the defeat of the print unions at Wapping in 1986 we have seen the opposite, what an ex-editor of the Independent called ‘a return to the industry’s ugly past, dominated by proprietors inebriated with the power that newspaper ownership is thought to bring’. [119] After a brief flurry of new titles, monopolisation has increased since Wapping, and there has been a dramatic lowering of standards, not just in the trash tabloids, but in the Mirror and the Sunday Times. Strong unions gave journalists some confidence to fight their corner, and as Roy Greenslade, one time Mirror editor, pointed out, they also held back monopolisation. Unions ‘regulated proprietors’, he said:

to preserve jobs … [they] did all they could to ensure that no newspaper gained an advantage over another … The threat of industrial action restricted papers in their printing and distribution arrangements.

This uneasy preservation of the status quo didn’t stop the concentration of titles in fewer and fewer hands. But it did significantly slow down that movement, not least because it was difficult to extract the level of profits necessary to wage all out war on rivals. [120]

Protest and the media

The revolution will not be televised.
Gil Scott-Heron [121]

There is a widely held view on the left that the media can always marginalise or criminalise mass protest, and that a ‘softly softly’ public relations approach to the media is the most effective.

This is wrong precisely because the media does have to relate to the real world. To a journalist a PR campaign is just another fax or press conference. Campaigns that involve lively mass protest, however, can actually make news. Individual demonstrations and strikes are sometimes blacked out by the media, but sustained protest and widespread strike action cannot be completely overlooked. M11 campaigners won regular and sometimes sympathetic coverage for their militant protests in 1994 and the miners’ fight against pit closures dominated the news agenda in October 1992. When the miners’ struggle was wound down by the TUC, however, and turned into a lobbying campaign, pit closures were hardly worth a mention on the news. Last year striking signal workers won regular coverage by disrupting the trains. Much of the coverage was hostile, but given the public’s general distrust of the media and their general support for anyone who takes on the Tories, that hardly mattered. At a time of growing discontent any coverage of protest, even hostile coverage, spreads the word and builds support.

TV pictures can sometimes speak louder than words. The voice track of reports on last summer’s demonstration against the Criminal Justice Bill that ended in Hyde Park in London were full of references to ‘a handful of troublemakers’ and claimed that police action was a response to attack. The pictures caught the reality: repeated and brutal police baton charges on overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators. Most people believed their eyes, not their ears. The media started to change its tune, and even the Independent on Sunday timidly condemned police violence.

Despite gloom on the left about the growth of global media systems, they too have helped spread struggles. News of the Russian Revolution in 1917 took weeks to filter out. Most British papers didn’t even have a correspondent there, and when they did, reports were easy to censor. The Times maintained ‘a dark silence’, and other papers carried no real reports, confining themselves to repeating the claim that the Bolsheviks were on the brink of collapse. [122]

But in the modern world Gil Scott-Heron may well turn out to be wrong. Nowadays images of demonstrations, strikes and insurrections from Tiananmen Square to Bucharest, from Trafalgar Square to Haiti, are bounced instantly around the world’s satellite systems. Governments around the world try to limit the flow of information and images into their countries, but international signals are somewhat harder to control. After the massacre of a pro-democracy march in Thailand in 1992:

The military regime ordered all Thai TV channels to operate strict censorship on all footage of bloodshed. However, Bangkok’s fast growing business elite with their Motorolas and their satellite dishes saw the real story, courtesy of BBC TV, CNN and Japanese NHK. Within 24 hours their VHS tapes recorded from the satellite channels were being sold like hotcakes on the still bloodstained streets of Bangkok.
In short, the old techniques of mind control and censorship were rendered useless as the new technology of mobile phones, fax machines, and video were deployed to disseminate information, counter government lies, monitor troop movements and organise further protests and demonstrations. [123]

Protest and struggle in the outside world are also the key to building the confidence of trade unionists and socialists within the media to organise and challenge management’s agenda. It was during the wave of working class action in the late 1960s and early 1970s that journalists first really learnt to fight. A series of disputes at IPC in London and on local papers led to the first national NUJ strike in 1978. That strike of 8,000 local journalists, which involved bitter mass picketing across the country, showed that in a period of militancy journalists can become politicised and fight not just for better conditions, but for a better media: ‘The fight was for wages, but it got massive support because everyone hated the exploitation of young journalists, the petty meanness of many politically unpleasant characters (the true fathers of Thatcherism) and the lack of care about journalistic standards that ushered in the era of the freesheet’. [124]

Media and war: the case of Vietnam

The history of the media coverage of the Vietnam War throws more light on the relationship between media coverage, protest and ruling class policy. Left and right took opposing views of the media’s impact on the war: ‘The general view among the military was that it was the nightly showing of television pictures from South East Asia which undermined popular support in America for the Vietnam War’. [125]

For radical commentators Herman and Chomsky, however, ‘Media failure to report the facts when they were readily available in 1968, and to investigate them further when they were undeniable, by late 1969, contributed to the successful deception of the public, and to the continuing destruction’. [126]

What was the real picture? Daniel C. Hallin’s detailed study of the media throughout the war shows that for the first few years ‘the Kennedy administration successfully managed the news in order to minimise public knowledge of the growing US role in Vietnam’. [127] The government soon ran into trouble, however. As more and more troops were committed, the casualties started to mount, and the body bags started returning. This was difficult to hide. The authorities could not use censorship, because this was a secret ‘undeclared’ war. Paradoxically, they felt introducing censorship would reveal the scale of involvement. Although the media remained ideologically tame, its commercial commitment to the drama of war led to some graphic coverage. ‘First they were satisfied with a corpse,’ Richard Lindley, a British television reporter, said. ‘Then they had to have people dying in action’. [128]

As the death toll mounted, reporters on the ground started voicing some of the troops’ frustrations and criticisms of the campaign. Although these were tactical gripes, they ‘provided the basis for the emergence of differences’. [129]

On the whole, however, the voluntary ideological line held until the Tet Offensive in 1968. Then real doubts started to be sounded in the media in the context of a changing political situation: declining morale in the army, the growth of the anti-war movement, and divisions within the administration – ’with officials divided and communication channels within the administration inoperative, the media became a forum for airing political differences rather than a tool of policy’. [130]

It was still a very limited forum, that ‘remained open primarily to official Washington, despite the rise of political protest’. [131] The anti-war movement was still vilified, even by supposedly liberal media figures. Reports of demonstrations were introduced with outrageously loaded throwaway lines like, ‘Meanwhile, Hanoi was having paroxysms of joy over the demonstration in this country over the war in Vietnam,’ or, ‘While Americans fight and die in Vietnam, there are those in this country who sympathise with the Vietcong’. [132] Despite the fact that they represented a rapidly growing section of the population, anti-war activists were almost never given a platform by the media:

Their fate was frequently like that of a demonstrator at a campaign rally for Democratic vice-presidential candidate Edmund Muskie in 1968. Muskie had offered demonstrators a deal: if they would stop heckling, he would let them select a representative to address the crowd for a few minutes. Their representative appeared on TV for perhaps five seconds, long enough to say, ‘We’re here to make our voices heard.’ Then the story cut away and returned to its major theme. [133]

But the important thing was that dramatic scenes of anti-war demonstrations did make the TV, and reports, however hostile, made the front pages. On 16 October 1967, for instance, when anti-draft demonstrations were held around the country, CBS led its broadcasts with a series of four film reports from different parts of the country. [134] As Todd Gitlin commented, ‘The journalistic premium on clash and theatrics was wrestling with the journalists’ political interest in moderation’. [135]

Fired up by the US government’s growing involvement in Vietnam, the widening of the draft, and the inspiring resistance of the North Vietnamese people, the anti-war movement grew dramatically. By April 1965 some 400,000 people were demonstrating in New York, 100,000 in Washington and 75,000 in San Francisco. In the San Francisco Bay area a ‘stop the draft’ week saw attacks on thousands of demonstrators by police with clubs and guns.

Hatlin argues that it was only after sections of the ruling class came out against the war – Eugene McCarthy stood as a peace candidate in the New Hampshire primaries in 1968 – that ‘the openly condemnatory tone of early television coverage’ vanished, and ‘the standards of objective journalism were applied to all forms of protest’. [136]

But as he himself suggests, the anti-war demonstrations, combined with the mass uprisings in the ghettos of a string of American cities, had helped ensure that ‘dissent in general, inside and outside the “system”, had become a political issue by the Nixon period’. [137] And, crucially, it was the growing protest that had finally convinced key sections of the ruling class to come out against the war. In March 1968 President Johnson heard from a ‘senior advisers group’ which ‘quietly let him know that the establishment – yes, Wall Street – had turned against the war … It was hurting the economy, dividing the country, turning the youth against the country’s best traditions’. [138]

The story shows that the authorities cannot always use the media to mould opinion or contain mass protest in a simple and straightforward manner. Censorship was judged impossible, and though military information was hard to get hold of, the nightly instalment of blood and horror on TV gave weight to the moral stance of the anti-war campaigners. Meanwhile, despite editorial gloss, pictures of their demonstrations helped to build the movement, and the use of the media by the establishment as a forum for debate inevitably generalised doubt and discussion. It was the armed people of North Vietnam and the protesters in the US who ‘lost’ the war for America, but the media unwillingly helped.

The Western ruling classes tried to ‘learn the lessons’ of Vietnam. After the war the BBC’s Robin Day commented in a lecture to a US military institute, ‘One wonders if in future a democracy which has uninhibited television coverage in every home will ever be able to fight a war, however just … blood looks very red on a television screen’. [139]

Since then, in the Falklands and the Gulf, governments and the military have tried to take control of war coverage. The results have been mixed. Censorship succeeded temporarily in hiding much of the bloody reality of both conflicts. But, particularly in the Gulf War, and partly thanks to anti-war campaigners, the existence of censorship became public knowledge. This helped to politicise the war and build opposition to it at home, especially in the media: more than 1,000 media workers attended a series of meetings in central London to discuss and organise opposition to censorship and the war. [140] The best study of the media during the Falklands campaign shows media co-ordination was incompetent: ‘There were conflicts inside the Ministry of Defence, inter-service rivalries … uncoordinated actions by civilian and military censors in the field, not to speak of a lack of clarity over the role of Number Ten in coordinating news management’. [141] At first, the authorities wanted to be very selective about which correspondents could sail with the fleet, but, ‘faced with an outcry from the national press and Downing Street, eventually places were allocated to all the national dailies, the quality Sundays, the Press Association and regional news representatives, as well as BBC and ITN’. [142] Compared to Vietnam, these were short small scale wars, but nevertheless, despite the shameful attempt at military ‘news control’, the reality of combat was not completely hidden. Reports came through of the slaughter of Iraqi civilians in the Amiriya bunker by allied bombers and the loss of HMS Sheffield in the Atlantic. In reality, the authorities were lucky. If there had been more Western casualties the news would have got out. If the Gulf War had continued after the shocking images of carnage on the Basra road had been published, the steadily growing anti-war protest might have mushroomed.

The media in revolution

The dramatic images of armed insurgents bursting into the studios of the Romanian TV station in 1989 illustrated just how powerless the ‘non-coercive wing of the state’ can be when confronted with a popular uprising. But the experience of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 and the May events in France in 1968 tells us more about the media’s role during full scale workers’ revolt. In revolutionary situations the relationship between workers and the media is turned on its head. Where in pre-revolutionary times the media tried to influence the workers, now workers struggle to influence and control the media. When workers succeed in taking over, media institutions can be turned into beacons of revolutionary democracy.

Though it failed to hold on to power, a revolutionary movement of workers and soldiers in Portugal forced out Caetano’s dictatorship in 1974, and began a period of mass working class mobilisation. In the turmoil of an open battle for class power, the media became a crucial battleground of the revolution. Media workers both identified with the rest of the class and recognised that they had special responsibilities.

Workers at the Republica newspaper kicked out the management and started running it themselves. The democracy they set up was thoroughgoing. A message of support from workers at the A Capital paper read:

Information cannot be left in the hands of journalists alone. ALL workers must participate and we must protest any elitist manoeuvres. [143]

In fact the first workers’ co-ordinating committee, elected by and answerable to all 174 workers at the paper, was composed of four print workers, three office workers, two from the dispatch department, one proofreader, one driver and one press operator. This committee had day to day editorial control and initially contained no journalists because, in the words of one eyewitness, ‘most of the journalists now working for the paper are new and it is felt that they should have more time to prove their support for the editorial aims of the paper since they were not present during the struggle to keep it as a broad paper of the workers’. [144]

But Republica workers were not interested in controlling the paper for themselves. As their manifesto made clear, they wanted it to be an instrument of democracy at the service of the working class as a whole. ‘We declare to all Portuguese workers that we are fighting for control over the press by the working class. We declare that the working class should interfere in decisions related to the production of social communications and their distribution’. [145]

In a revolutionary situation this was not just rhetoric. The debates and struggles that led to the issue of the manifesto and the takeover of the paper involved thousands of workers. On one crucial night in May 1975 a debate took place between the occupying workers and various representatives of workers’ parties that turned into a spontaneous mass meeting:

Towards midnight the TV and representatives of other papers were let in. An impromptu debate began from the windows to … a background of jeers, sloganeering and applause from the large crowd in the street … Although it was raining hard, the night was warm. The debate continued till 6 a.m. [146]

Workers at Republica and Radio Renacensa found novel ways of making the media a vehicle for popular democracy. Radio Renacensa technicians, for example, set up microphones on demonstrations and rallies so that the slogans and speeches could be heard across the country. In a similar way media workers in Poland during the period of workers’ uprising in 1980–1981 organised live broadcasts of negotiations between workers’ leaders and the authorities.

During the French ‘events’ of May 1968 millions of French workers were involved in demonstrations and occupations in the biggest general strike in European history. Once again discontent inside the media exploded, and workers themselves tried to take control of sections of the media, and place them at the service of the struggle.

A few days after the great united worker-student demonstration of 13 May, members of the film technicians’ union, who were on all out strike, called together film technicians, directors, actors and students to discuss what they could do. More than 1,000 people responded. A new organisation, the Estates General of Cinema, was set up, born, in the words of its own programme, ‘of a popular movement of opposition and struggle against the economic, social and ideological order – that of capital protected by the state apparatus’. Its main aims were:

… the destruction of the monopolies and the creation of a nationalised industry; workers’ control and a method of production not governed by the law of profit; the abolition of censorship; and the linking of cinema and television ‘independent of the political and financial powers’. [147]

The situation in France did not allow completion of this programme, but the experiment was begun. New film groups were set up, working in collaboration with occupying workers, finding ways of using films as weapons in the class struggle:

It is urgent that we become aware of the absolute need to place in the service of the revolution all the means at our disposal. We must support the strikers. Films must be projected in the factories. [148]

New methods of distribution were organised to ensure that films would be projected in ‘factories and firms, schools and universities, youth clubs and cultural centres, ships, trains, aeroplanes and other means of transport and mobile projection units created in suburban and country areas’. [149]

In a few weeks of revolutionary enthusiasm workers had begun the task of transforming and democratising the film industry. They had shown that, far from being an insurmountable block to social change, under workers’ control the media can become a mobilising focus for the revolution.

Conclusion – who’s influencing who?

Politicians move willingly onto the journalists’ agenda, the two engage in light-hearted or more serious banter … and the wider electorate looks on in bafflement. [150]

The media is not all powerful. The more passive we are the more influence it has, but its control is never total. And when workers start to fight back, they can reject outright even its more general assumptions. But in the meantime the attitude of the leadership of the Labour Party and the trade unions plays into the media’s hands and the media, in turn, strives to influence the Labour Party’s aims and methods. A tame Labour Party serves two purposes for the media. First the media point to the Labour Party as proof of its claim that we live in a pluralistic society, that there is political choice. Second, because Labour accepts the basic priorities of national capitalism, private property, the rule of law, the need for immigration controls and so forth, it allows the media to construct the notion of consensus, to present society as fundamentally united.

Meanwhile, the constant efforts of Labour and trade union leaders to distance themselves from militancy and dissuade workers from taking on the Tories through mass action encourages the very passivity on which Tory ideas can thrive.

But even in Labour’s own terms, the new realist drive for respectability in the 1980s was a disaster. The more Labour moved to the right, the more the media attacked them, and the more confidently it supported the Tories. Even in 1992, when Kinnock had scrubbed every mention of ‘socialism’ from the manifesto and promised not to tax the rich, the Sun baited him on election day with the headline, ‘Will the last person leaving the country if Kinnock is elected please turn out the lights’.

By throwing out all vision of social change the party lost the enthusiasm and activism of most of its followers. From a high point of one million in 1952, membership shrunk to less than 200,000 by the end of the 1980s, only a small proportion of them active. [151] By offering no real alternative to Thatcherite values it implied there were none, and so encouraged cynicism and despair. No wonder then, that despite the media’s obsession with the middle class vote, it was largely amongst workers that Labour failed in 1992:

Exit polls indicated that Labour had underperformed amongst three crucial groups: older women, young men and, most telling of all, its own ‘core vote’. Labour won a smaller proportion of the votes of the unemployed than in 1987. It also lost support among council tenants and people on low incomes. [152]

Blair and his supporters are no doubt congratulating themselves on the recent improvement of their media image. Murdoch’s Today now supports them and most of the other papers are at least polite. But has it been worth it? To win grudging acceptance Labour has shamefully capitulated to the media and adopted the agenda of the right wing press wholesale. While the rest of us are enjoying the death throes of the Tories and their discredited free market dogma, Tony Blair is distancing himself from comprehensive education and concentrating his energies on abolishing Clause Four.

And no one should believe the press will stay friendly to Labour. In fact it is not primarily Labour’s move to the right but the unpopularity and incompetence of the Tories that has shifted the media. Outcry and protest over the NHS, the poll tax, pit closures, VAT on fuel, and successive privatisations have forced the Tories onto the defensive, and forced the media to distance itself from them. But the Conservatives are the natural party of the ruling class – while most of the media is relatively polite to Labour now, things can change very fast.

From the revolutionary wave at the end of the First World War to the mass struggles of the 1960s and 1970s every major period of economic and political crisis this century has thrown up mass movements that have shaken the certainties of the capitalist order. Rather than craving respectability and accommodating to media prejudices, socialists need to do two things to counter the media’s influence. First, encourage and support any struggle against oppression and exploitation, and second, use our own independent media – socialist leaflets, papers, literature – to expose the media’s lies and bring together all those who want to see real change. Most of the time a revolutionary paper will only attract a minority, precisely because it makes no compromise with prevailing ideas. When workers move into action on a big scale again, however, it can reach and influence millions.


Thanks to John Rees, Paul Foot, Mike Haynes, Des Freedman, Colin Sparks and Jim Aindow for their advice and suggestions.

1. Tony Benn was quoted by Ken Loach on Face to Face, BBC2, 19 September 1994.

2. From L.H. Lapham’s Introduction to M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (MIT, September 1994).

3. Independent, 5 January 1995.

4. Quoted on The Berlusconi Late Show, BBC2, 26 September 1994.

5. A. Heath, R. Jowell and J. Curtice (eds.), Labour’s Last Chance – The 1992 Election and Beyond (London 1994), p. 44.

6. See for example the interview with Chris Smith in the Guardian, 12 December 1994, in which he says, ‘The information superhighway has the potential to be a revolution on the scale of the printing press,’ and, ‘The superhighway must act to the benefit of the population as a whole’.

7. K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology (Lawrence and Wishart 1989), p. 64.

8. J. Curran and J. Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (London 1988), p. 12.

9. Ibid., p. 19.

10. Ibid., p. 12.

11. Ibid., p. 12.

12. Ibid., p. 26.

13. Ibid., p. 26.

14. R. Negrine, Politics and the Media in Britain (London 1989), p. 72.

15. National Council for Civil Liberties, Censored – Freedom of Expression and Human Rights (London 1994), pp. 48–49.

16. R. Negrine, op. cit., p. 130.

17. S. Barnett and A. Curry, The Battle for the BBC – A British Broadcasting Conspiracy? (London 1994), p. 20.

18. S. Hood, On Television (London 1985), p. 55.

19. .S Barnett and A. Curry, op. cit., p. 13.

20. National Council for Civil Liberties, op. cit., p. 53.

21. All statistics, ibid., pp. 54–55.

22. Guardian, 12 November 1994.

23. J. Curran and M. Guretvitch (eds.), Mass Media and Society (London 1990), p. 124.

24. J. Curran, M. Guretvitch and J. Woollacott (eds.), Mass Communication and Society (London 1977), p. 76.

25. P.F. Lazerfeld and P.L. Kendall, The Communications Behaviour of the Average American, in W Schramm (ed.) Mass Communications (Urbana 1994).

26. J. Curran, The New Revisionism in Mass Communication Research, a Reappraisal, in European Journal of Communication (Sage 1990), p. 150.

27. T. Bennett, Theories of The Media, Theories of Society, in M. Guretvitch, T. Bennett, J. Curran and J. Woollacott (eds.), Culture, Society and the Mass Media (London 1990), p. 40.

28. S. Hall, The Rediscovery of Ideology, The Return of the Opposed in Media Studies, in ibid., p. 60.

29. S. Hall, Culture, Media and The Ideological Effect, in J. Curran, M. Guretvitch, J. Woollacott (eds.), op. cit., p. 334.

30. Ibid., p. 334.

31. J. Fiske, Popularity and the Politics of Information, in P. Dahlgren and C. Sparks (eds.), Journalism and Popular Culture (London 1992), p. 60.

32. R. Wright in Time, 23 January 1995, p. 51.

33. G. Allen (shadow minister for media, broadcasting and the superhighway) in the Guardian, 24 February 1995.

34. Quoted in the Independent, 20 October 1994.

35. There are some useful figures in A. Srebemy-Mohammadi, The Global and Local in International Communications, in J. Curran and M. Guretvitch (eds.), op. cit., p. 118–138.

36. Guardian, 23 January 1995.

37. A. Heath, R. Jowell and J. Curtice, op. cit., p. 58.

38. Ibid., p. 56.

39. Both quoted in C. Lodziak, The Power of TV – A Critical Appraisal (London 1986), p 133.

40. In 1985 62 percent of Britons quoted TV as their main source of news and 23 percent the press. See R. Negrine, op. cit., p. 1.

41. Daily Telegraph, 13 September 1993.

42. Middlemarch peaked at 5.7 million, Boys From the Black Stuff at 4.7 million, The Singing Detective at 3.4 million (all figures from the BBC broadcasting research department).

43. A. Heath, R. Jowell and J. Curtice, op. cit., p. 26.

44. J. Curran and J. Seaton, op. cit., p. 48.

45. Ibid., p. 48.

46. A. Heath, R. Jowell and J. Curtice, op. cit., p. 55.

47. W.L. Miller, Media and the Voters: The Audience, Content and Influence of the Press and TV at the 1987 General Election (Oxford 1991), pp 164–165.

48. Ibid.,p. 165.

49. Ibid., p. 136.

50. Ibid., p. 198.

51. D. McQuail, The Influence and Effects of the Mass Media, in J. Curran, M. Guretvitch and J. Woollacott (eds.), op. cit. (London 1977), p. 79.

52. S. Hood (ed.), Behind the Screens – The Structure of TV in the Nineties (London 1994).

53. Socialist Review 183, March 1995.

54. G. Murphy, The Socialisation of Teenage Girls, in J. Curran, A. Smith and P. Wingate, Impacts and Influences – Essays on Media Power in the Twentieth Century (London 1987), p. 216.

55. For a discussion of changes in women’s lives and the family, and the forces that mould them, see L. German, Sex, Class and Socialism (London 1989), especially the chapter The Family Today, pp. 43–60.

56. The argument is best presented in R. Williams, Television, Technology and Cultural Form (London 1974).

57. K. Marx and F. Engels, op. cit., p. 64.

58. Financial Times, 21 November 1994.

59. All figures from R. Jowell, S. Witherspoon, L. Brook, British Social Attitudes Survey 1986/1987 (London).

60. S. Moores, Texts, Readers and Context of Meaning, in P. Scannell, P. Schlesinger and C. Sparks (eds.), Culture and Power, a Media, Culture and Society Reader (London 1992), p. 147.

61. L. Van Zoonen, Feminist Perspectives in The Media, in J. Curran and M. Guretvitch (eds.), op. cit., p. 44.

62. D. Morley, Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies (London 1988), p. 117.

63. A. Gramsci, The Modern Prince (London, 1957), pp. 66–67.

64. Black Dwarf, 12 May 1968, quoted in C. Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London 1982).

65. [No note in printed text.]

66. [No note in printed text.]

67. Glasgow University Media Group, Bad News, vol. 1 (London 1976), p. 235.

68. See C. Harman, op. cit.

69. The Berlusconi Late Show, BBC2, 26 September 1994.

70. D’Allema spoke on the evening of the October strike, ending his speech by saying, ‘The workers’ struggle gives us [the PDS] strength.’ Quoted in L’Unita, 15 October 1994.

71. Quoted in A. Callinicos and M. Simons, The Great Strike – The Miners’ Strike of 1984–5 (London 1985), p. 178.

72. Quoted in Socialist Review 91, October 1986.

73. E.S. Herman and N. Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York 1988), p. 2.

74. S. Milne, The Enemy Within – MI5, Maxwell and The Scargill Affair (London 1994).

75. J. Curran and J. Seaton, op. cit., p. 300.

76. Ibid., p. 128.

77. Ibid., p. 157.

78. Socialist Review 176, June 1994, p. 7.

79. Listed and described in L. Curtis and M. Jempson, Interference on the Airwaves: Ireland, the Media and the Broadcasting Ban (Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom 1993), pp. 63–91.

80. S. Barnett and A. Curry, op. cit., pp. 226, 169, 162 and 164.

81. Index on Censorship, March/April 1995 (Writers and Scholars International), 168.

82. S. Barnett and A. Curry, op. cit., p. 21.

83. Index on Censorship, September/October 1994 (Writers and Scholars International), p. 35.

84. N. Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (London 1989), p. 8.

85. Ibid., p. 10.

86. Ibid., p. 67.

87. E.S. Herman and N. Chomsky, op. cit., p. 20.

88. Ibid., p. 2l.

89. Ibid., p. 22.

90. M. Rosenblum, Who Stole the News? Why we can’t keep up with what’s happening in the world and what we can do about it (Wiley 1993), p. 153.

91. Quoted in C.J. Bundock, The National Union of Journalists: A Jubilee History, 1907–1957 (London 1957), p. 4.

92. P. Knightley, The First Casualty, From Crimea to Vietnam – The War Correspondent As Hero, Propagandist and Mythmaker (Harvest 1975), p. 98.

93. Ibid., p. 99.

94. Ibid., p. 146.

95. Quoted in Socialist Review 95, January 1981.

96. Guardian, 20 November 1994.

97. N. Chomsky, op. cit., p. 8.

98. Quoted in Socialist Review 175, May, 1994.

99. Glasgow University Media Group, op. cit., ch. 7, Down to Cases, contains useful examples of the media’s treatment of strikers.

100. Socialist Review 180, November 1994.

101. R. Williams, op. cit.

102. It was, for example, the Financial Times that revealed at the end of the strike that only 70 signal workers scabbed during the dispute.

103. From a personal interview on 20 February 1995 with a local joumalist in the region who wishes to remain anonymous.

104. J. Curran, A. Smith and P. Wingate, op. cit., p. 172.

105. Ibid., p. 163.

106. Ibid., p. 167.

107. Ibid., p 170.

108. Observer, 19 February 1995.

109. S. Hood (ed.), op. cit., p. 196.

110. R. Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (Quartet 1973), quoted in M. Guretvitch, T. Bennett, J. Curran and J. Woollacott (eds.), op. cit., p. 144.

111. Editorial in the Observer, 30 October 1994.

112. S. Hood (ed.), op. cit., p. 47.

113. From a personal interview with Paul Foot.

114. Quoted in L. Curtis and M. Jempson, op. cit., p. 56.

115. C.J. Bundock, op. cit., p. 100.

116. A brief account of these events is given in Bulletin No. 2 of Media Workers Against The Nazis.

117. From a personal interview with Paul Foot.

118. Ibid.

119. Guardian, Media Section, 27 June 1994.

120. Ibid.

121. Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Arista 1978).

122. P. Knightley, op. cit., pp. 149–152.

123. Index on Censorship, September/October 1994, p. 46.

124. From the Journalist, the official paper of the NUJ, January 1989, p. 9.

125. D.E. Morrison and H. Trumber, Journalists at War, the Dynamics of News Reporting During the Falklands Conflict (London 1988), p. 169.

126. E.S. Herman and N. Chomsky, op. cit., p. 259.

127. This is from P. Schlesinger’s summary of Hallin’s research in P. Scannell, P. Schlesinger and C. Sparks (eds.), op. cit., p. 298.

128. Quoted in P. Knightley, op. cit., p. 410.

129. P. Schlesinger in P. Scannell, P. Schlesinger and C. Sparks (eds.), op. cit., p. 298.

130. D.C. Hallin, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam (Oxford 1986), p. 187.

131. Ibid., p. 201

132. Ibid., p. 193.

133. Ibid., p. 200.

134. Ibid., p. 192.

135. Ibid., p. 194.

136. Ibid., p. 197.

137. Ibid., p. 197.

138. C. Harman, op. cit., p. 175.

139. P. Knightley, op. cit., p. 411.

140. Socialist Review 175, May 1994.

141. D.E. Morrison and H. Tumber, op. cit. Here their findings are summarised by P. Schlesinger in P. Scannell, P. Schlesinger and C. Sparks (eds.), op. cit., p. 301

142. Ibid., p. 301

143. P. Mailer, Portugal: The Impossible Revolution (Solidarity 1977), p. 231.

144. A. Wise, Eyewitness in Revolutionary Portugal (Spokesman 1975), p. 47.

145. From Radical America, vol. 9 no. 6, p. 65.

146. P. Mailer, op. cit., p. 228.

147. S. Harvey, May 68 and Film Culture (London 1980), p. 27.

148. Ibid., p. 28.

149. Ibid., p. 25.

150. Steve Richards from the Guardian, 12 December 1994.

151. C. Kimber, Bookwatch: The Labour Party in Decline in International Socialism 61, Winter 1993, p. 128.

152. R. Heffernan and M. Marqusee, Defeat From the Jaws of Victory (London 1992), p. 142.

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