The Socialist 17 March 2021 |
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Can the capitalist media prevent socialist change?
This is the first in an occasional series of socialist answers to the big questions.
Mitie strikers at Sellafield with copies of the Socialist, 7.6.19, photo Robert Charlsworth (Click to enlarge)
James Ivens, Socialist Party national committee
Have you ever found yourself shouting at the TV because the talking heads just keep missing the point? They let the establishment off the hook; they ignore ordinary people or blame them for society's problems.
Have you found yourself thinking 'if only other people thought like me'? You're not alone in feeling alone.
Four-fifths of Britain's online news market is controlled by five big firms, the Media Reform Coalition calculates. The same proportion of the print news market is controlled by just three. And they do not share your priorities.
Net profits in the media average 23%, according to a 2011 Ernst and Young study. This is around twice the average return on capital - more in line with banking than 'normal' sectors.
For interactive media, including social platforms, it's a whopping 35%! Why? These super-profits are a result of the special power wielded by some sections of capitalists due to their role in wider society.
Financiers have become the real rulers of the world under capitalism. Banks can decide the fate of whole industries by, say, opening or closing lines of credit. They use their power to dominate the other capitalists and command a bigger share of the loot.
Media barons have a certain power in the world of ideas. By controlling what and how information is reported, they can attempt to influence public moods and developments in markets and politics. Obviously they try to do this in a way that protects extraction of profits.
There is also state media in most capitalist countries. This is not neutral, however, any more than the police or the courts.
It defends the interests of the system as a whole. The BBC has been a far more reliable liar for the government than even the Tory press during the pandemic.
Social media, meanwhile, offers bosses marketing opportunities of an unprecedented scale and effectiveness - huge reach. This is a key reason for its exceptional profitability.
Some liberal commentators have even blamed social media for the rise of right-wing populism and reactionary leaders like Donald Trump. They blame 'bubbles' and 'echo chambers' - in effect, seeing ordinary users as empty vessels who accept anything poured into them.
So how does this explain the rise of reactionary movements before the internet? And what about the hours and hours each day which people spend in real life with work colleagues, family members and friends?
The truth is that falling living standards, alienation from traditional political parties and impasse at the top of society force people to seek alternative ideas. Any given form of media is just one road network people travel in that search, not the engine that propels them.
The Sun, owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch, infamously declared "It's the Sun wot won it!" after the 1992 Tory election victory. Following Jeremy Corbyn's defeat in December 2019, many blamed the establishment media's campaign of lies.
This is an important factor - but the media's control of events is overstated. People's experience of reality limits what ideas take root. In fact, the media is only one source of ideas - real events themselves provoke them.
Corbyn's anti-austerity leadership made Labour 'two parties in one'. While his pro-worker policies were very popular, Labour administrations in local government carried on with brutal cuts and sell-offs.
Corbyn accepted a confused position on the working-class vote to leave the capitalist EU. And he seemed incapable of standing up to the Blairites in his own party - could he really resist the banks and billionaires if he took power?
Working-class people heard positive promises from Corbyn, but felt real attacks continuing in his name. This turned the soil for the capitalist media, including liberal outlets like the Guardian, to sow their lies.
The smear campaign decried Corbyn's lack of 'charisma' while depicting him as antisemitic, a Stalinist and even a terrorist. Some working-class voters repeated these talking points.
Pollsters and journalists on safari in working-class communities found false confirmation of their own prejudices, that workers are gullible and reactionary. They caught the sense but missed the meaning.
There was class fury at falling living standards and being taken for granted. There was suspicion of a party seen to be complicit in it.
There was frustration that nothing ever seems to change. Had they really talked to working-class people about these things, as the Socialist Party does, they might have learnt all this.
People felt angry, alienated and disoriented, and needed a way to explain and express it. The hypocritical slurs of the capitalist media were the most widely available tools.
'But,' you might ask, 'won't that always be the case in a capitalist society? And doesn't that make it impossible for socialists to break through?'
Under mass pressure, it is possible to win reforms that improve press freedom. But in a society ruled by billionaires and the market, with huge costs for operating mass media, 'freedom' primarily means freedom of the rich to print what they want.
In September 1917, just weeks before the working class took power in Russia, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin estimated that the three main nominally socialist parties "command from three-quarters to four-fifths of the votes." However, "the circulation of the newspapers they publish is certainly less than a quarter, or even less than one-fifth, that of the whole capitalist press."
This shows the limits of capitalist media influence. It's also a warning that the capitalists can regain control of ideas unless there is revolutionary change. The working class needs to take the means of producing and distributing news, and political and economic power as a whole, out of the hands of the capitalists so they can be democratically organised.
In capitalist society, workers' media can supply explanations and demands that truly correspond to working-class anger and needs. But most important is that it not just propagate alternative ideas to the many who are receptive. It must act as an organiser, to turn them into facts on the ground, to convince the broadest sections of the working population.
From 1983 to 1987, Militant - forerunner of the Socialist Party - led Liverpool's Labour council in a struggle against Margaret Thatcher. Not just the Tories and their press, but also the Labour leadership and newspapers which supported it, slandered Militant again and again. The Catholic Church even threatened to excommunicate congregants who voted Labour!
Yet Labour's vote, membership and active participation continued to rise. How?
The city was building thousands of council homes and creating thousands of jobs - bricks-and-mortar proof of whose side it was on. What's more, it was doing so under the ongoing democratic control of Liverpool's working class.
Trade unions, campaign organisations and local Labour branches elected delegates to the District Labour Party, which debated and decided all the council's policies. The council mobilised mass demonstrations - and de facto city-wide general strikes - and won millions of pounds from Thatcher.
When the bosses' press told workers that the council was their enemy, they could say 'what do you mean? We control the council!' Workers could feel their collective power and thrash out independent class ideas, breaking free of the isolation which leaves individuals unarmed or demoralised before the capitalist media lies.
The most important next step towards such a movement today is a new, mass party of the working class - a kind of workers' parliament to facilitate collective political engagement. The only newspaper consistently explaining and organising for this is the Socialist - the weekly paper of the Socialist Party.
Why we need working-class, socialist media
The capitalists try to use their control of the media to distract and disorient working people. If the workers' movement is to challenge that, it needs its own media.
Newspapers, websites, podcasts and more run by trade unions and workers' parties could help counter the one-sided reportage of the bosses' media. They could cover the strikes and working-class campaigns the capitalists ignore or distort.
The Socialist Party's publications already carry this out. Just turn to the workplace pages on 6-7. If you want know what's going on in the workers' movement, read the Socialist.
Unlike the establishment press, our pages are not filled by professional journalists reporting from outside or subject to the editorial control of the rich. We enlist the talents of the true experts in class struggle: working-class fighters.
On the panel on page 2, you will read that "the Socialist is written, read, sold and bought by ordinary workers, trade unionists, young people and Socialist Party members. We want you to write for the Socialist." The by-lines each issue are proof.
Our paper has to be a platform for real working-class struggles and voices. But as the publication of a revolutionary party, it has a further job. All of our media - leaflets, periodicals, books, podcasts and broadcasts, websites and social media channels - lay out the Socialist Party's views and proposals to the working class.
How else could the working class see and judge us? Establishment parties can rely on the bosses' media to do much of this for them. We can't.
The liberal sections of the capitalist media, with greater resources than we have, do often gather useful information on the evils of capitalism. But we cannot simply bemoan problems and leave it at that.
We have to lay out reality plain for all to see, and state what we think needs to happen to solve society's problems. What's more, we have to explain the connection between problems in everyday life and the mouldering system of capitalism.
When the capitalist media - liberal or conservative - 'editorialises', it does so with the aim of patching up or perfecting the existing system. But most reports pretend to be 'neutral'. In the capitalist media, really this means a stylistic disguise for defence of the status quo.
We are undisguised campaigners for the working class and socialism. Our publications systematically advance practical demands - working-class struggle for resources, control and socialist change. The Socialist's 'What We Stand For' column on page 3 lists the Socialist Party's main policies, and we add to this with articles on specific issues.
We want to report and learn lessons from every workers' struggle, however small or large, so the party and the class can gain the full benefit. And we have to point from the most localised scraps and injustices, step by step, towards the general crisis of world economy and politics.
But change doesn't happen just because we think it's a good idea. Our media aims at reaching working-class and young people looking for ideas to fight back, to give them weapons in their campaigns, and organise them into a united force for change.
All of our media plays a part in this task, but we still emphasise the newspaper. On picket lines, at demonstrations, in workers' movement meetings, referring to a website or podcast leaves people with nothing.
A physical publication, with a price showing it has value, is an indispensable tool. We sell the Socialist wherever workers struggle. The regular rhythm of a newspaper's production also helps guarantee the party takes action, tests our ideas among workers, and contemplates the results.
But while the newspaper is central, it is now just one of many forms of media. The balance between these forms will change with our work.
Podcasts were barely on the radar ten years ago. Now we run our own, Socialism, followed by thousands. During the first pandemic lockdown, the Socialist Party broadcast weekly social media videos to help counteract the bosses' lies and workers' isolation.
Social media has become a crucial instrument. But it's still owned and controlled by the capitalists - who duly switched it off during the 2011 Arab Spring.
The Myanmar military has done the same in its current coup. This underlines the need for retaining physical media too.
Whatever its form, our media - like our party - lives and breathes the working-class struggle. Sometimes this can make it harder to reach people. But whenever struggle breaks out, our publications get big take-up and engagement.
The capitalist media relies instead on dominance of markets and passive consumption of news. So key to our media's independence from the capitalists and their influence is funding.
Public sales have been sporadic during the pandemic. This will change.
Subscriptions are vital to ensure stable income too. And May Day greetings - groups of workers donating and sending solidarity messages for International Workers' Day (1 May) - make an important financial and political contribution.
A newspaper and media founded on the ideas, activity and financial support of the working class can be far more sustainable than some of the dying capitalist outlets. But we're not after a permanent place alongside the capitalist cacophony. Our media must organise a mass, working-class movement and party for revolutionary socialist change.
"The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser.
"In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour."
Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution
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