A new exhibition at the British Library highlights the political interests served by the mainstream media, acting as propaganda for the ruling class. These capitalist mouthpieces will never tell the truth. We must build the revolutionary press.
Since the invention of the printing press, the news has had the power to educate and mislead people in equal measure. In the British Library’s new exhibition, Breaking the News (open until 21 August), the lid is lifted on the tendentious history of the bourgeois press.
The exhibition opens with video interviews with the residents of Grenfell Tower who, five years on, have seen precious little in the way of justice. Though the mainstream media were quick to descend on the community for interviews and features after the tragedy struck, victims’ concerns relating to corruption and safety violations were sidelined.
“You are the mouthpiece of this government,” one former resident said: “You are the people who make this possible. You are the ones who validate it. You are just as culpable.”
This neatly encapsulates the burning anger many feel towards not just the political establishment, but their lackeys in the mainstream media.
Though journalism is often presented as a noble crusade to speak ‘truth to power’, the exhibition reveals how profit is the bottom line motivating those in charge of the media monopolies.
The carefully curated spin of the press means that the coverage of big stories in fact lands further from the truth.
Though Britain makes a great song and dance about ‘free speech’, in contrast to declared pariahs such as Russia, the exhibition lays bare this assertion.
The press was and remains a tool in the arsenal of the ruling class, through which political censorship has been used in order to defend its own interests.
For example, in 2013, Edward Snowden leaked top-secret intelligence documents to the Guardian, detailing extensive mass surveillance. Despite the fact that the information had already been shared, the British state insisted on a ‘purely symbolic’ act of intimidation, demanding that the computers which had been used to store the data were destroyed.
The damaged memory disks and hard drives, displayed in the Library, communicate the message beyond a doubt that the ‘free press’ is only free so long as it doesn’t undermine the interests of the ruling class.
Of course, this was only a symbolic gesture. Far more nefarious is the way Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and many other whistleblowers, were pursued and prosecuted by the US state for their leaks of confidential information detailing US war crimes, privacy violations, and the like.
The exhibition, to its credit, does not present this as simply a one off. Though the means may have changed, the aims to censor and subvert ideas that threaten the status quo have precedence.
For instance, the 19th-century Chartist movement brought with it a huge proliferation of workers’ newspapers. Affordable papers and pamphlets carried the political slogans of the Chartists to the masses. To prevent this, the government introduced an increased taxation on papers.
Far from preventing the spread of the workers’ press, however, it simply accelerated it, as illegal papers were printed en masse. Some printers tried all sorts of ways to get around the increased tax.
Unfortunately, Breaking The News does not exhibit any of the Chartist papers. But it does display one pamphlet, the Political Handkerchief, printed on cloth to get around the stamp tax.
Eventually, the government was forced to renege their decision, realising that their efforts were in vain. Much to their dismay, it had become impossible to ban the revolutionary ideas of the Chartists and the class anger they contained.
The exhibition also exposes the role of the press in influencing elections, sometimes through outright fabrications.
The 1992 cover of The Sun – proudly proclaiming Rupert Murdoch’s contribution to the Conservative victory over Kinnock’s Labour – is a major feature of the exhibition. The headline declares: It’s The Sun Wot Won It.
Less known, but perhaps even more scandalous, is the 1924 Zinoviev letter, published by the Daily Mail four days before the 1924 election.
This false document, supposedly written by Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International at the time, claimed that Anglo-Soviet relations under a Labour government would be used to incite a revolution in Britain.
The front cover of the Mail read “Civil War Plot by Socialists’ Masters”. The Conservatives decisively won the election.
Displayed next to the Daily Mail is a telegram from Zinoviev, which describes the letter as a ‘gross falsification’ and a ‘clumsy election manoeuvre’. But as they say in the business: Why let the facts spoil a good story?
Thirst for ideas
We need not over-emphasise the power and sway of the press, however. Under the white-hot heat of the class struggle, the rejection of the mainstream media’s ‘official line’ and falsifications begins to assume a mass character.
Nothing proves this more than the experience of the English Revolution. The growing revolutionary mood in society was often expressed through radical religious ideas, which were proliferated through thousands of political pamphlets.
As state censorship grew weaker in the early years of the English Civil War, more and more unofficial printing presses sprung up, reflecting the thirst for ideas capable of changing the world.
The truth is that every newspaper is partisan. The bourgeois papers, however, shamefacedly attempt to conceal their real agenda beneath a thin veneer of impartiality.
But despite the fact that the whole exhibition reveals this, the British Library cannot resist one exhibit entitled ‘the partisan press’.
The exhibit is printed to show how so-called ‘extreme’ political newspapers can distort the truth to suit their own agendas. This reveals the liberal limitations of the exhibition itself.
Far from Marxists needing to obscure the truth from workers, it is our duty to tell the truth.
As Leon Trotsky once wrote: “The truth is always revolutionary. To lay bare the truth of their position before the oppressed is to lead them to the highroad of revolution.”
From the English Revolution to the Chartists, the masses always seek to find their own political expression; their own independent class voice. The more this reflects the struggle of the working class, and formulates the tasks ahead, the more it will reverberate and find a wider echo.
As the crisis of capitalism deepens, we must make haste in building the revolutionary press, capable of acting as a tribune of the people.
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