A Short Story from the January 1907 issue of the Socialist Standard
GUS: You socialists ought to be grateful for the glorious institution of the free press instead of criticising the great newspapers as you do.
WILL: Grateful to whom? The so-called Freedom of the Press is, in reality, painfully limited; but such as it is, it was granted because absolutely necessary to commercial development. Material interests dictated it; not any love of the people. The capitalist class give us nothing but what it is to their interest to give, either to increase their profits or stave off their defeat, and we know from bitter experience that we have most to fear when our enemies profess a regard for us.
GUS: But can you deny that the great daily newspapers are glorious and beneficient institutions, fearlessly standing out for truth and purity in public life?
WILL: I emphatically and entirely deny every word of it!
GUS: Do you mean to say that the modern press is not free, or that it suppresses or perverts the truth?
WILL: I mean to say that the modern newspaper, by its very nature as a commercial venture, cannot exist except by perverting the truth; and that it is absolutely the slave of capitalist interests.
GUS: You surprise me. Explain yourself.
WILL: With pleasure. Now, newspapers are run by limited liability companies to obtain a profit, are they not?
GUS: That is so.
WILL: To get a profit they must sell; to sell they must please, to please they must suit themselves to the prejudices, ignorance or interests of their supporters.
(Gus opens his eyes)
WILL: They cannot, then, afford to continue any line of policy when it does not pay, or when it is unpopular with the public or with that section of which they have constituted themselves the mouthpiece. To get the largest circulation and the greatest percentage of profit they must say what their readers or supporters want them to say, or else go under.
(Gus looks startled)
WILL: Nor is that all; they have an even more important person to cater for — the advertiser. He is partly satisfied if the journal panders successfully to a large number of the public; but as a manufacturer he has important capitalist interests, and therefore would not support, by his advertisement, any journal that, through a love of truth, attacked his interests in any way.
(Gus looks frightened)
WILL: Further, the various sections of the capitalist party have enormous campaign funds, and the newspapers, being run for profit, must slavishly support their capitalist party interest or forgo their reward. And the journalists who run the papers are the wage-slaves of the proprietors, compelled to utter, not what they think, but what their employers consider will sell best, and will please most the capitalist interest.
(Gus tries to hide himself, Will holds him back)
WILL: Don’t run away, I’ve not done yet. The modern newspaper is thus, in the main, the reflection of the commonest, most superficial and most servile opinions of the public, and at the same time the advocate of the interests of its capitalist owners and advertisers. It is, therefore, against the financial policy of the modern newspaper to enlighten the working class; particularly in any direction that runs counter to capitalist interests. To satisfy its principal clients, the great advertisers and the political leaders, it must expound the views of the ruling class (or of a section thereof) and so doctor these views that the people may easily swallow them. It must, whenever the workers show a tendency to think clearly, carefully draw the wool over their eyes in order to keep them at the tail of the capitalist party and ignorant of the things that should concern them. For the rest, in order to earn its profits, the newspaper must batten on the ignorance and folly of its public.
GUS (who feels that the scales have fallen from his eyes): Well, but how can we alter it?
WILL: Only by abolishing the profit system. But we can help this on by doing all in our power to spread enlightenment among the workers and so show them the utter worthlessness of capitalist journalism; we can help by organising the workers for the overthrow of capitalist domination, and by pointing out that it is their duty to support a press of their own, not run by an individual or company (or profit, but owned and controlled by a genuine working-class organisation for the propagation of definite working-class principles. Thus alone can the education and emancipation of the working class be accomplished, and the freedom of the press from the curse of profit and capitalist domination become a fact.
F. C. Watts