Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Guardian of our Free Press (1975)

From the February 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is as well to start by resolving the deliberate ambivalence of the title of this article. The Guardian might have been in italics as we will be dealing largely with the role of its editor, Mr. Hetherington, as the leader of the Editors’ Union (or words to that effect) in the war between them and the combined might of the National Union of Journalists and the government (in the person of Michael Foot) over the proposed law to enforce the closed shop in Fleet Street — including editors. And in this context, Hetherington has adopted the role of the guardian of the freedom of the press. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard The Guardian, as Max Beloff punned in a recent issue of Encounter magazine? And if one word might have been in italics, the last phrase could equally have been in inverted commas. For the freedom of the press is to a large extent an optical illusion, whether Hetherington realizes it or not, even before the government puts its Foot in it. (The Guardian having decided to afflict us all with a plague of puns of sickening puerility, no apology is required either from a Tory Professor or a Socialist propagandist.)

First, let us be clear that freedom of the press is regarded by Socialists as very much a good thing. Democracy is the reverse side of the Socialist coin, and freedom of the press is an integral part of democracy. Socialist society will not be one where all you can read is state-controlled propaganda masquerading as news compiled by the trained monkeys on typewriters of Pravda and Izvestia. We can at once concede that the kind of capitalist democracy we have here which gives us a choice of rags ranging from The Guardian to The Sun, is preferable to dictatorship.

And there is something more important which we readily concede — because it is obvious, some people affect not to see it. The very fact that you are reading this journal; and are doing so without the slightest fear that a copper will nab you; and that unheroic specimens like the present writer can churn this stuff out with never so much as a tremor — all this shows that we have at least a modicum of freedom of the press. Socialist propaganda can hardly begin to breathe in the “communist” dictatorships until that amount of freedom is won. They have, of course, in their samizdat, the underground press, the embryo of a free press (though by no means necessarily a Socialist one). But by its very nature, this can only hope to reach the tiniest minority of the working class.

Censors Possible
The row between the editors (and with them the managements) and the NUJ is based upon the fact that if, or rather when, the closed-shop law comes into effect, all journalists, including editors, are to be compelled to belong to the NUJ. This, unsurprisingly, is something the editors regard with horror. Up to now, the editor has either been the actual boss of the paper (as in the case of Hetherington’s predecessor C. P. Scott); or he has been the boss’s representative, rather like the Pope being the Vicar of Christ (except that the Pope is reasonably secure from interference from his boss, while the editor is not always so comfortable. But more of this anon). And of course it becomes pretty difficult for the boss when he has to join the same union as his underlings.

The idea of having to attend a meeting of the NUJ chapel (union branch) is anathema to editors. They fear (not without cause, it must be said) that this will make the editor subservient to the majority vote in the chapel meeting. And, say the Hetheringtons, this will mean that the usual vocal minority of agitators and “Marxists” (but the editors don’t use inverted commas; a Hetherington wouldn’t recognise a true Marxist if he tripped over Karl’s beard) would use their power to control the paper. And bang goes the freedom of the press.

There is something in what they say. How much freedom of the press we enjoy, we will deal with shortly. But, though the Socialist Party has always supported the cause of unionism as an essential protection for the working class (while making it clear that the real job of a Socialist is to agitate and educate for the ending of class society) there can be no doubt that, in many cases, a closed shop could lead to a clique using its power to dictate what goes in the paper — and what doesn’t. The implicit and explicit power of censorship which now resides with the editor and his proprietor could pass to a group of IS types or Communists.

— and Actual
One inkling of the sort of anti-free speech attitude that could lead to was shown a few years ago over the visit of a white South African cricket team to these shores. During the winter in which the Hain campaign was being built up there was a cricket Test series going on in Apartheidland between the Springboks and the Aussies — fully reported of course in Hetherington’s Guardian which was at the same time running the Hainites for all it was worth. But The Observer didn’t print anything, not even the scores. Why not? Had the paper decided it was improper to report racialist sport — and after all the Aussies were in some ways as bad as the Boers for their racialism?

No. The Observer chapel had decided to indulge in some censorship off its own bat — if you’ll excuse the phrase. Observer readers were not permitted to decide whether or not they wanted to read the stuff. Some ignorant little commissars had decided for them. Little Big Brothers are watching you; and that is no good at all for the freedom of the press. Censorship is an evil no matter who wields the blue pencil — even fully paid-up members of the NUJ. Who should have been thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Censorship is traditionally the weapon of the rulers against workers; it is dangerous and deplorable when the latter use it themselves. This foretaste serves to justify the fears of the Hetheringtons of how a clique could take advantage of closed-shop conditions.

But having said all that, it remains true that the freedom of the press which the rulers of Fleet Street have boasted about has been severely circumscribed. If these editors and managements really cared about freedom, they would have opened their columns to their opponents and thus showed that they believed in it. In practice, they have almost totally denied freedom to Socialists to print even a letter putting their views. Like the BBC, the press has done its best to keep a blanket over Socialist views. So whose freedom are you worried about, Mr. Hetherington? Are you really afraid of censorship in principle? Are you not the censor yourself? (To be scrupulously fair, The Guardian did print a quite decent notice of the SPGB’S 70th birthday: the only paper that did. One tiny swallow. And summer nowhere in sight.)

It is worth referring before concluding to a contribution in the Lords’ debate on the matter from Lord Devlin, former Chairman of the Press Council (that sham tribunal if ever there was one). He said: “The man who had the power to let in or keep out must be free and independent and professionally pledged to make his choice primarily in the public interest  . . . That is the editor  . . . The freedom of the press depends on the . . . tradition that he is independent. He can be dismissed but he cannot be told what to do.” Only a top judge with an IQ of a million can possibly pack so much twaddle in so small a space. Only a Devlin could emit such crass poppycock as to say that an editor cannot be told what to do by a Beaverbrook and in the same breath admit he can be told: Put your hat and coat on and eff off out of your fine job with its fat salary. In other words, the press is just another part of the business of capitalism and exists primarily not “in the public interest”, but in the interest of the owners. Who are, indeed must be, concerned with circulation and profits. So that “independent” editors can be hired and fired by those who own the show just like less exalted members of the working class.

Whether the editors will be able to wring concessions in the Foot bill is not clear at the time of writing. What is always clear is that there is no happy solution to the problem of freedom of the press under capitalism, however much the Hetheringtons on the one hand and the NUJ chapels on the other delude themselves.
L. E. Weidberg

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