On February 17th Peter Oborne, one of the UK's most respected journalists, resigned from the Daily Telegraph and publicly condemned its practice of placing advertisers interests above those of the truth. As a Conservative liberal, Peter Oborne is concerned that our famed and cherished 'freedom of speech' is being undermined by business interests.
Freedom of expression is routinely and uncritically heralded as our society's proudest achievement to be defended at all costs. It is always assumed that, essentially, we possess this freedom, and it is only necessary to preserve it in one way or another. In truth, under capitalism there is no such thing as free expression nor a free press, for capital decides everything.
“There is no such thing, at this date of the world's history, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job.
“If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell the country for his daily bread. You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press. We are the tools and vassals of the rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
John Swinton (Chief Editorial Writer at the New York Times in the 1860s) at a meeting of journalists on free speech, 1880
“The coverage of HSBC in Britain's Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril...A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.”
Peter Oborne, Why I have resigned from the Telegraph, 17th February 2015
The straightjacket of capitalist property
In November 2014 the mysterious so-called Guardians of Peace hacked into Sony Pictures demanding the cancellation of its film The Interview. This demand, backed up by vague threats, was at least partially successful, as we all know. This notorious incident predictably sparked a tidal wave of righteous indignation that our ‘cherished’, ‘inalienable’ and ‘most noble’ universal value of free speech could be successfully undermined from outside, from a dark and ignoble place where the light of Western reason does not reach - North Korea. Leading politicians, journalists and broadcasters and not a few Hollywood execs were all unanimous on this score, each equally aggrieved that the artists at Sony Pictures should suffer a tragic fate not unlike that of a North Korean citizen.
Framed in this way, the ‘debate’ then turned on the pivot of whether or not Sony was right to be intimidated, or should have put safety concerns aside for the greater good of artistic freedom - always assuming the film was nothing short of a labour of love for its auteur creators. At no point did any commentator venture to question whether we really have freedom of speech in our society, nor whether Sony Pictures, a multi-billion dollar corporate behemoth dedicated to profit and with the market share to drown out the voices of independent studios, really in any way represents our ‘freedom of speech’ today.
As Lenin succinctly summed up:
“Freedom in capitalist society always remains just about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners. The modern wage slaves, owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, are so much crushed by want and poverty that "democracy is nothing to them," "politics is nothing to them"; that, in the ordinary peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participating in social and political life.” In addition to the general conditions of class society i.e. the masses’ poverty of time and income, “in practice the capitalists, the exploiters, the landowners and the profiteers own nine-tenths of the best meeting halls, and nine-tenths of the newsprint, printing presses”.
To that we may add that at least nine-tenths of the film and television production facilities and distribution channels are similarly privately owned by vast monopolies.
Private property is not just a right to something, but at the same time a denial of the right to that something for all others. The subordination of everything in our society to commodity production, to the buying and selling of goods and ideas, leads to the cumulative concentration of this private wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and thus the exclusion of the vast majority from the benefits of the ‘inalienable’ right to private property. Because bourgeois legality leaves aside all concrete matters of wealth and time, and moreover enshrines their inequitable distribution by defending the right to accumulate vast wealth, the freedoms to speech and association that it enshrines for all are in practice denied and mutilated for the vast majority.
Technically, we all have the right to express ourselves (leaving aside things such as publishing violent pornography, etc), but in practice we find we do not have the economic resources to do so, and we are too bogged down in our hand-to-mouth existence to have the energy to do so anyway. Even being in, say, a musical band, involves a struggle for survival too burdensome for most to endure, and modern society is like a vast graveyard of artists starved of the necessary oxygen to ply their trade. In this way the market represents a far more efficient and subtle form of censorship and control than any clumsy state ever was.
The biggest enemies of free speech
Both Sony Pictures and their film The Interview are very useful case studies for freedom of speech in capitalist society today. Of course, the overwhelming majority of society has no actual freedom to produce a film and have it distributed; if we wish to do so, we must go to those with the resources. But, you will say, the market and its freedom give us choice, and thus we can ‘shop around’ for a studio who will make our film. But when we look closer, we find that the market in the film industry is not so free after all: the top 7 film studios have captured 88.3% of the market; the top 12, 96.4%. Sony was the fourth highest grossing studio of 2014, taking in $1.2bn, or 12.2% of the market. These studios do not represent different artistic institutions constantly experimenting with various up-and-coming talents, but are vast capitalist enterprises unconcerned with originality or giving a voice to the voiceless. Those more willing to experiment, occupy niches or express the real lives of the masses are starved of capital and constantly teeter on the brink of bankruptcy or irrelevence - positions 162 to 29 on the ‘Studio Market Share’ league table all capture less than 0.1% of the market.
The reality is that the behemoths such as Sony are not independent, private individuals whose free speech rights are at risk. In reality, these monopolies are the biggest enemies of free speech. Their dominant position, which they owe not to their outstanding contribution to culture, but to the science of profiteering, allows them to exclude, drown out, rob and fleece the ‘speech’ of countless thousands of artists and journalists who don’t ‘toe the line’. How many decent scriptwriters have been rejected, or had their ideas stolen; how many promising bands have been denied airtime, record deals and performance spaces; and how many journalists ignored, by the big shareholders and their bureaucrats?
Furthermore, the scale of these film studio monopolies and the costs of their blockbusters have certain implications. Far from needing their freedom of expression to be protected, these monopolies are directly involved in the very centre of power and its propaganda in the West. One less reported outcome of the hack into Sony was a series of emails between its executives, in which it was revealed that a CIA agent had not only looked over the script of The Interview, but that, possibly under CIA pressure (and certainly with its approval), the script was altered - not by the film’s artistic leaders, but by Sony executives! This was the all-important change of the film’s assassinated antagonist to being North Korea’s head of state Kim Jong Un! Previously the plan had been to use a pseudonym for obvious reasons; but as the Daily Beast reports, Marisa Liston, Sony’s senior vice president of national theatrical publicity, wrote in a leaked email that the film’s directors, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg “mentioned that it was a sony [sic] executive that told them to not use a fictitious name, but to go with kim jon-un [sic]” after “a former cia agent and someone who used to work for Hilary [sic] Clinton looked at the script”.
The Daily Beast also reports other leaked “emails that show that a senior U.S. State Dept. official consulted with [CEO of Sony Pictures] Lynton on the content of the movie, and Ambassador Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, provided advice on the film”. Z Magazine adds that in other leaked emails “Michael Lynton reveals that he checked with “someone very senior in State,” who confidentially, gave him the go-ahead for the filmic representation of the assassination of a living head of state—the first in U.S. film history.”
Monopolies, censorship, and the state
The very scale, expense and certainly the subject matter favoured by major Hollywood studios requires high level collaboration with the state itself. Action film formulas are, as we all know, a favourite for these studios because they present easy-to-swallow, immediate excitement and offer an illusory escape of individual heroism for a population forced to live passive lifestyles. But such films are highly costly and tend to feature military hardware. Consequently, they require the equipment and ‘help’ of the US military to get made, and so,
“Blockbuster films made at major studios are required to pass the censors before they receive military support...The Pentagon and every branch of the Armed Services now help major studios shape, alter, influence, and censor films for U.S. audiences. They have no hope of getting such government largess unless they first submit their scripts to Strub [head of US Department of Defence Entertainment Liaison Office], who openly admits that, “sometimes they require script changes as a condition of providing support.
“Strub also explains the real goals of military/media collaborations: “any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to us.” In fact, “The Marine Corps’ film office in Los Angeles contains a floor-to-ceiling shelf of files on films that asked for assistance but were never made, “most too expensive to produce without military assistance.” In addition to vetting scripts before supplying the hardware, Strub’s office carefully monitors the “creative” process once the film is in production. No on-set deviations from the content stipulations are allowed, a process that circumscribes independent improvisation or creative input that might emerge in the collaborative process that is film production.” (Karen Andersen, Z Magazine 28.1.15)
Thus when people describe US action films as like propaganda for US imperialism, they are more correct than they know. It is not just a question of a general, amorphous ruling class ideology penetrating the heads of filmmakers (though it is that too). Clearly the CIA and the Pentagon are directly involved in censoring and writing films to project the ideology they want. Their efforts at doing so are facilitated by the monopolisation of the film industry such that they can establish cosy relations with the few men who control Hollywood.
Josh Levin, the owner of a chain of cinemas in the US, joined the media industry’s self-congratulatory chorus about freedom of expression when defending his chain’s decision to screen the film:
“It isn’t very often, frankly, in this country that such a high profile potential abridgment of people’s free expression is in the zeitgeist [that presents] an opportunity for us to all, as a country and as a people, stand up and say we will not tolerate people being bullied out of free expression.”
The reality, as we can see, is directly contrary to this - giant media monopolies, such as Sony, have monopolised the airwaves and function as outlets for subtle state propaganda served as entertainment. The hue-and-cry about freedom of speech plays a role not unlike the name Ministry of Truth when given to the propaganda ministry in Orwell’s 1984. All those liberals who see the debate purely in terms of what ‘limits’ should be placed on free expression for the sake of security do little more than distract attention from the real point: that the free expression of Sony Pictures et al. is only the free expression of its major shareholders and the US state at the expense of everybody else’s free speech.
Free speech and monopoly capitalism
The collusion of the state with the heads of giant monopolies is of course nothing peculiar to the film-industry, but is a natural and inevitable product of monopoly capitalism. This collusion and censorship is applied much more directly in our so-called ‘free press’ than in the entertainment industries for the obvious reason that it is here that ‘free speech’ can be most effectively curtailed.
There is a multitude of ways in which the British government censors the press - in particularly by classifying information as a national security issue. It is common knowledge that the state has lost no time in exploiting the so-called ‘War on Terror’ to arrogate to itself more and more draconian powers to keep secrets and censor the press. However the aim of this article is not to deal so much with the state’s direct and explicit censorship of the press, which is the only restriction on free speech that liberals understand. Instead, this article is devoted the showing how the capitalist control of society and its means of communication prohibit real free expression for the masses and that this is achieved precisely through the greatest liberal freedoms of expression, association and private property. Suffice it to say that as Marxists we entirely reject the state’s attack on civil liberties.
A far more subtle and pervasive form of censorship is exercised by the state, not against the press, but in collaboration with it. The Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee is “composed of representatives of the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, and the Foreign Office, and of the newspapers, periodicals, and broadcasting news organisations. The chairman is a civil servant, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Defence. The press and broadcasting members select one of their number as chairman of their side of the committee. He acts as their spokesman at meetings of the committee and provides a point of day to day contact for the permanent secretary of the committee (the D Notice secretary), who is normally a retired senior officer from the armed forces.” (See source here)
This permanent committee is an example of the subtle shaping of reporting and journalistic opinion through gentlemanly intimacy - and as such requires the monopolisation of the media into the hands of a few powerful press barons who can easily be met with and leaned upon. The D Notices this committee releases are not legally binding on the editors, yet the latter choose to obey them in almost all circumstances. The interests of the major media owners and the rest of the ruling class coincide in all important respects.
Thus in most cases direct censorship is unnecessary, clumsy and looks bad; far better instead to rely on shared interests, outlooks and ‘friendship’. This strategy was cynically summed up in a 2014 Parliamentary debate on the future of the BBC’s World Service, in which the decision to hand over control of this radio station to the BBC from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was defended. Up till now, this radio station was directly controlled by the British state’s foreign office in order to ensure it was used ‘correctly’ to promote the interests of the British ruling class; in defending the loss of this direct control, the parliamentary report was obliged to admit that the FCO is only relinquishing control in order to make the promotion of British ruling class interests more subtle:
“The FCO's reluctance to be seen to influence the World Service is understandable, but we believe that it would not be in the interests of the UK for the BBC to lose sight of the priorities of the FCO, which relies upon the World Service as an instrument of 'soft power'. The Chairman of the BBC Trust will meet the Foreign Secretary annually to discuss the performance of the World Service. We asked the Foreign Secretary whether he would "hold the BBC's feet to the fire" in protecting the interests of the World Service, and he replied: "I will always do that". We also note that, although there is no express provision under the new Agreement between the BBC and the Government for quarterly meetings between the FCO and the BBC World Service at Director level, Lord Williams was confident that meetings in future would "probably be as regular as they have been in the past"...We will continue to speak up for the BBC World Service and its role in projecting the values and interests of the UK across the world. We urge the Foreign Secretary to do the same. We are encouraged to hear that frequent contact between the BBC and the FCO is likely to continue. We were pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary say that he would always "hold the BBC's feet to the fire" in protecting the interests of the World Service. We urge him and his successors to honour that commitment.”
The shadowy world of big business and bourgeois politics
A general world outlook is forged in the shadowy world in which the powerful move. A very good example is the opaque Bilderberg Group, in which “120–150 political leaders and experts from industry, finance, academia and the media” meet annually and decide what matters in the world.
“Most editors of the "establishment" Press in Britain, Europe, and the United States have attended Bilderberg Conferences. Some are even members of the international steering committee which governs Bilderberg.
“Included among them are William Rees-Mogg, [former] editor of "The Times", Frank Giles, [former] foreign editor of the "Sunday Times", and Andrew Knight, editor of "The Economist". The biggest newspapers in Europe are represented: Germany - "Die Zeit" (Theo Sommer); France - "La Monde" (Michel Tatu); Italy - "La Stampa" (Carlo Sartori); Denmark - "Berlingske Tidende" (Niels Norlund).
“From the United States, Hedley Donovan, Henry Grunwald, and Ralph Davidson of "Time" have attended Bilderberg Conferences. So have Osborn Eliot, former editor of "Newsweek", and Arthur Sulzberger of the "New York Times". Joseph Kraft, James Reston, Joseph Harsch, George Will, and Flora Lewis, prominent political columnists of sound reputation, have all at one time or another participated in the conferences.”
We are often given the impression that the press is in constant struggle with the government, always exposing embarrassing scandals and harassing its representatives. But this is an illusion, most of these conflicts are based not on substance but in manufactured superficialities, and the general line of interest of the ruling class is not diverted from nor questioned. An example would be that of the current crises in Ukraine and Iraq - government ministers will be ‘harangued’ by BBC or Sky News as to why they’re not intervening more forcefully. Somewhere in the echelons of power, out of all the debates between the movers and shakers of the ruling class, it is decided that the only debate that matters on this issue is whether the UK is intervening with sufficient force. Thus the TV news stations and newspapers focus any government criticism in this way and this way only.
In truth “newspapers like The Times or Le Temps speak the truth on all unimportant and inconsequential occasions, so that they can deceive the public with all the requisite authority when necessary” (Leon Trotsky, My Life). Recent British history has furnished no shortage of examples of this, most notably in the conscious manipulation of footage of the Battle of Orgreave in the miners strike, where the BBC reversed the video to give the impression that miners had attacked police officers - the exact opposite of the truth.
Where scandals do emerge and secrets are revealed, as is increasingly the case in Britain, this is either a result of unavoidable accident, or is an outcome of the splits and struggles amongst different sections of the ruling class. Veteran American journalist Max Frankel gives a very good account of the cynical and calculated way in which layers of the state manufacture and use secrets in their ongoing struggles for influence,
“practically everything that our government does, plans, thinks, hears and even contemplates in the realms of foreign policy is stamped as secret and treated as secret. And then it’s unraveled by that same government, by the Congress and by the press in one continuing round of professional and social contacts and cooperative and competitive exchanges of information.
“The governmental, political and personal interests of the participants are inseparable in this process. Presidents make secret decisions, only to reveal them for the purposes of frightening an adversary nation, wooing a friendly electorate, protecting their own reputations.
“The military services conduct secret research in weaponry or to reveal it for the purpose of enhancing their budgets.
“Appearing superior or inferior to a foreign army. Gaining the vote of a Congressman or the favor of a contractor.
“The Navy uses secret information to run down the weaponry of the Air Force. The Army passes on secret information to prove its superiority to the Marine Corps.
“High officials of government reveal secrets in the search for support of their policies or to sabotage the plans and policies of a rival department.
“Middle range officials of government reveal secrets so as to attract the attention of their superiors or to lobby against the orders of those superiors.
“Though not the only vehicle for this traffic in secrets, Congress is always eager to provide a forum, the press is probably the most important.
“And in the field of foreign affairs, only rarely does our government give full information to the press for the purpose of simply informing the people. For the most part, the press obtains significant information bearing on foreign policy only because it has managed to make itself a party to confidential materials … transmitting these materials from government to other branches of government as well as to the public at large.
“And that’s why the press has been wisely and correctly called the Fourth Branch of Government.” (http://www.thirteen.org/).
The commodification of information
In a bourgeois society, news and information are traded as commodities, and like all other commodities, the rich and powerful command far greater purchasing power than others. What does and doesn’t emerge as a story or scandal will frequently be a result not of free journalism and investigation but an outcome of cynical horse-trading amongst the powerful. The picture of the truth that we get is in this way distorted and delayed by the competing interests of the powerful.
It is interesting to consider how it is decided which news stories are ‘hot’ and from what angle they are to be spun. It cannot escape the notice of a close follower of the news that certain stories tend to dominate the headlines out of proportion with their actual importance, obvious examples being the enormous importance attached to the deaths of westerners over others and the obsession with essentially non-political one-off accidents such as the garbage truck which lost control in Glasgow recently. But not only this. As already mentioned, a clear line or framing of the debate exists across news outlets on all important issues, and serves to circumscribe in advance how the various crises of the capitalist world are thought of. Given the bourgeois press is not one state-controlled monopoly but a complex of competing enterprises and journalists, how is this general ‘line’ this arrived at?
The starting point for any answer must be the private ownership of the of the media by a few individuals at the centre of capitalism’s power sources, hence their presence on the Bilderberg Group, which in reality is just the best known of many similar secretive clubs.
In these clubs and in conversations between leading bourgeois figures a sort of narrative and set of shared goals are worked out. We have to bear in mind that this state of affairs has not suddenly emerged - that there is always an established history and context of certain prejudices, interests and general outlook amongst the ruling class which has developed over the centuries. All bourgeois individuals have grown up in a society already dominated by these tried-and-tested ideas, and they find them to be more-or-less useful in expressing their interests. Those new ideas which help express any new needs and interests of the ruling class will be voiced by this class’ more prescient thinkers, and will stick precisely because they are useful.
The pressure and manipulation of the invisible hand
Evidently the vast majority of articles and news items are however neither written nor edited directly by the likes of Rupert Murdoch. The transmission belt for bourgeois ideology into society is the struggle for careers and influence amongst the middle-class, especially its upper layers. Taking capitalism for granted, middle-class careerists seeking to climb the media’s greasy pole cannot afford to question, at least not openly, the terms under which this struggle for influence is conducted - i.e. the ownership and domination of the media by the big bourgeoisie.
Self-interest is an extremely sensitive instrument, and the ambitious journalist can quite easily pick up on the prejudices, egos and interests that he or she needs to massage in order to get along, or at the very least, the issues and points of view that must be avoided. To pick just one example, in 2001 Sam Kiley resigned as The Times’ Middle East correspondent, after which he reported to the Guardian that,
“Rupert Murdoch's influence over editorial policy at his most prestigious British title, the Times, is so great that journalists are censored by executives frightened of offending their proprietor
“Mr Murdoch's friendship with Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, and Mr Murdoch's extensive Israeli investments led executives to extensively rewrite copy.
"Middle managers flew into a hysterical terror every time a pro-Israeli lobbying group wrote in with a quibble or complaint, and then usually took their side against their own correspondent," he wrote.
Mr Kiley wrote that he was asked not to describe the killing of Israel's opponents as "assassination", and was directed to use less emotive phrases such as "targeted killing" instead.”
All journalists and editors are constantly and acutely aware that their freedom to write and to edit depends entirely on the all-pervasive power of the owner to relieve them of their duties as and when they wish, and as a result self-censorship is routine and unquantifiable. Of course in all this nobody’s freedom of expression has in any way been violated, and the surface appearance gives the impression of a ‘free society’. But behind the scenes real power is exerted through the subtle and hidden threat of joblessness hanging over all journalists should they express themselves a little too freely. Additionally, an even more subtle control on what is said is derived from the class background and outlook of most journalists. Even when writing ‘freely’, the middle or even upper class background of leading journalists colours their worldview and causes them to prioritise certain stories and interpret others in certain ways.
Under the control of media moguls, the press is subordinated to the dual needs of profit making and ideological indoctrination. Advertisers want papers to be sensationalist, superficial and eye-catching, and insofar as the owner uses the press to further their political agenda, superficial sensationalism is directed to support this agenda. Sometimes, these dual imperatives conflict, and the media is obliged to report on existing stories that may to some extent harm the interests of the owners, however a suitable spin on and limit to such stories is quickly found. But often these dual imperatives of profit making and agenda pushing coincide, which is not coincidental - dissenting views usually require more explanation, more factual proof and more thought and as such anything which ‘goes against the stream’ tends to be a harder sell as well.
An unusually clear proof of the screening out of ‘difficult’ stories has come to light recently. Peter Oborne, the highly respected journalist known for breaking the MPs’ expenses scandal, resigned from his post as chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph this month in protest at the newspaper’s systematic suppression of any news which may harm the interests of its powerful advertisers; in other words it ‘voluntarily’ censored itself and did violence to ‘free speech’ in a subtle manner that is surely routine throughout the British press. His resignation letter is worth quoting at length:
“Late last year I set to work on a story about the international banking giant HSBC. Well-known British Muslims had received letters out of the blue from HSBC informing them that their accounts had been closed. No reason was given, and it was made plain that there was no possibility of appeal. "It’s like having your water cut off," one victim told me.
“When I submitted it for publication on the Telegraph website, I was at first told there would be no problem. When it was not published I made enquiries. I was fobbed off with excuses, then told there was a legal problem. When I asked the legal department, the lawyers were unaware of any difficulty. When I pushed the point, an executive took me aside and said that "there is a bit of an issue" with HSBC.
“I researched the newspaper’s coverage of HSBC. I learnt that Harry Wilson, the admirable banking correspondent of the Telegraph, had published an online story about HSBC based on a report from a Hong Kong analyst who had claimed there was a ‘black hole’ in the HSBC accounts. This story was swiftly removed from the Telegraph website, even though there were no legal problems.
“Then, on 4 November 2014, a number of papers reported a blow to HSBC profits as the bank set aside more than £1 billion for customer compensation and an investigation into the rigging of currency markets. This story was the city splash in the Times, Guardian and Mail, making a page lead in the Independent. I inspected the Telegraph coverage. It generated five paragraphs in total on page 5 of the business section.
“The reporting of HSBC is part of a wider problem. On 10 May last year the Telegraph ran a long feature on Cunard’s Queen Mary II liner on the news review page. This episode looked to many like a plug for an advertiser on a page normally dedicated to serious news analysis. I again checked and certainly Telegraph competitors did not view Cunard’s liner as a major news story. Cunard is an important Telegraph advertiser.
“The Tesco false accounting story on 23 September was covered only in the business section. By contrast it was the splash, inside spread and leader in the Mail. Not that the Telegraph is short of Tesco coverage. Tesco pledging £10m to fight cancer, an inside peak at Tesco’s £35m jet and ‘Meet the cat that has lived in Tesco for 4 years’ were all deemed newsworthy.
“From the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, I have been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable. HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is “the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend”.
“Executives say that Murdoch MacLennan [chief executive of the Telegraph] was determined not to allow any criticism of the international bank. “He would express concern about headlines even on minor stories,” says one former Telegraph journalist. “Anything that mentioned money-laundering was just banned, even though the bank was on a final warning from the US authorities. This interference was happening on an industrial scale.
“The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers.
“A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.
“It is not only the Telegraph that is at fault here. The past few years have seen the rise of shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can’t be conveyed across the mainstream media. The criminality of News International newspapers during the phone hacking years was a particularly grotesque example of this wholly malign phenomenon."
Murdoch McLennan’s apparent anxiety and complete intolerance even for negative coverage of HSBC in minor articles reminds us more of a state-censor in a totalitarian regime, examining reports with a microscope should any hint of the truth have sneaked through. True, this censorship is not total, but just in one newspaper, and Peter Oborne has been free to expose this scandal elsewhere - at the cost of his job. But it reveals the subtle, hidden and constant way in which the powerful manipulate the news, all without the formal restriction to anybody’s ‘free speech’ rights.
Peter Oborne can say these things (on a relatively obscure website) thanks to his relative prestige as a journalist. Thousands of other journalists lack that luxury. Stories such as this should not be confused as examples of our freedom of speech, but rather of the bourgeoisie's inability to control its own failing system.
Reality vs propaganda
Nevertheless we must not draw pessimistic and cynical conclusions about the propagandistic power of the press. It is both to the credit of the working class, and a proof of the unfree, distorted character of the media, that in spite of the systematic suppression of such beliefs in the media, big majorities in Britain support the renationalisation of the railways, utilities and banking system and believe that our society is far too unequal and dominated by big business.
In the US, for decades a huge proportion of society, at times even a majority, has favoured what is called a ‘single payer healthcare system’ - in other words, a nationalised healthcare system free at the point of use. All this despite it finding no echo or promotion whatsoever in the media. In Europe, the popular conception of the US population regarding its healthcare is that the American masses do not know what is good for them and foolishly oppose free healthcare - but this is completely false. But the fact that the US media utterly fails to reflect this, that in no mass media outlet does this popular opinion on a crucial issue get expressed, reveals just how unfree the press is under capitalism.
Examples of these distortions can be multiplied at will. As I write these lines three muslims have been murdered in America for racist reasons (no doubt fostered by the media’s obsession with fear-mongering regarding Islam), and yet this is described in the media as a simple murder - one only has to ask how the murder of three white Christians by a Muslim would be presented in the media to know the answer and see the injustice. Actually, only a tiny minority of terrorist attacks and murders in the West are carried out by Muslims, and yet the media systematically gives the impression that ‘all terrorists are Muslims’.
There is a level of bias in the media that is so huge and systematic as to be equivalent to conscious propaganda. In Britain, clear majorities have opposed, for decades, privatisation of the utilities, the railways and Royal Mail, and want to see much higher taxes on the rich to fund social programmes to alleviate inequality; and yet at no point in the past twenty years have any of these mass opinions been expressed by either the media or any mainstream party. This reveals that we do not live in a free or democratic society, but one dominated and controlled by the tiny minority of super rich.
Culture crushed by capitalism
The effects of this process are to narrow and to trivialise our culture. The more unequal our society gets, the harder it is for young people to afford rent and find venues and spaces in which to express themselves, the more commercialised and controlled our cultural output has become. There is a process taking place across the Western world of gentrification which is constantly being remarked upon. It is widely known that this is pricing out working class youth from the cities in which they grew up and is narrowing our cities’ culture. It is common to hear frustrated complaints about endless fancy coffee bars and cupcake bakers catering to the moneyed minority.
An important part of this process is the systematic closing down of independent music venues. "The frequency with which smaller venues are closing is scary," said Krissi Murison, editor of the music magazine NME to The Guardian. To pick a few examples in London from just the past few months: Madame Jo Jos, the famous indie club in Soho, has been shut down, nominally because its bouncers were involved in a fight - but really so that Westminster Council can get expensive flats built on the site; the Joiners Arms, one of the most popular and important gay clubs in London, has just closed, again for upmarket flat developments; the Horse Hospital, an independent set of studios for artists and a venue for screening films, is about to be closed because property prices and rent are too high.
The Horse Hospital has released the following statement which says infinitely more about the reality of ‘free expression’ in our society than all the saccharine celebrations of it we read in the pages of the mainstream press,
“London is devolving rapidly into a culturally bereft corporate wasteland. It is being systematically cleansed of its cultural vitality, diversity and energy.
“People, institutions and future potentials are being priced out of this city which soon will only have a homogenous, thin layer of sanctioned and carefully monitored culture as its defining engine, this spells disaster for everyone. Transformation of all kinds relies on the possibility for the most coherent and powerful radical ideas to become tradition, without room for those ideas to even have a chance to be played out, what hope is there?
“We will continue our fight to stay here, we believe in this, however symbolic it may be.”
With each passing year the music industry narrows further and further. There are now only three major record labels in existence, and two recent studies have demonstrated that mainstream music has become blander and more predictable than ever before - scientists at the University of Bristol have developed software capable of predicting a given song’s success with 60% accuracy. Not only did their algorithm manage to prove that pop music has been getting louder and louder (probably to compensation for its contrived character), but also that, since the early 2000s, pop music has become more and more conservative and predictable, such that the software was able to more accurately predict the success of songs from this period.
The Spanish National Research Council found the same phenomenon with different software. Its analysis of the chords, melodies and types of sound revealed "evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse...In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations - roughly speaking chords plus melodies - has consistently diminished in the last 50 years" (Reuters).
Major music labels have been exploiting the creative talents of musicians for generations. The history of pop music can be seen as a graveyard for artists ripped off by the bureaucrats of the major labels. Garry Shiders, the legendary guitarist of Parliament-Funkadelic, whose songs sold millions upon millions, was entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. And yet, despite writing this hugely successful music, he could not afford his medical bills and so a special fund had to be created to pay the bills, but he died before sufficient money had been raised.
Sly Stone is another hugely successful and internationally famous funk musician. His manager took advantage of his vulnerability from drug abuse to convince him to sign over all his royalties to a company he chose, which amounted to stealing his fortune. As a result, Sly has been reduced to having to live in a van!
These two examples are from highly successful musicians; the position is far worse for the countless thousands of struggling underground musicians. The rise of internet streaming as a medium for music has significantly worsened the hand of small musicians, because internet giants like Pandora, Spotify and Google Music can lean upon their extraordinarily back catalogue of decades of popular music to crush new musicians. The internet makes all music immediately available, and in the face of that, any one artist’s output is insignificant, so why pay them fairly? Pandora thus feels confident enough to propose The Internet Radio Fairness Act, or IRFA, which would “cut musicians’ pay by 85 percent—reducing Pandora’s royalty costs from 50 per cent to 10 per cent.” “According to the Huffington Post: “In the third quarter of last year, Blake Morgan’s songs were played on Pandora some 27,900 times. But the New York-based recording artist and label owner said he made only $1.62 from the popular internet radio service.”” (quoted from Joel Ang)
Creativity + copyright = profit
Vast media monopolies use their power, and the respective desperation of musicians and other artists, to buy up the copyrights to all kinds of acts of creation - novels, screenplays, albums etc. They can do this because the independent artists do not feel they can make it in the global market on their own - just using your copyright to prevent your work being stolen or plagiarised costs a huge amount in legal fees, thus they feel the need to sign up with those with the influence and financial muscle to do so. But once these rights are signed away, the owners can do what they want with them. They essentially pirate - legally - from the actual artists.
Again, no one’s democratic rights are formally violated in this process; but in practice, millions of artists are bullied out of their own copyrights and have their own labours of love transformed into someone else’s property. This is another reason why monopolies such as Sony, far from needing our support in the fight for free speech, are the enemies of free speech, for they have hoarded millions of copyrights to control, inhibit and manipulate our society’s artistic output.
If anyone doubts the ferocity with which copyright laws - which exclude society from the use and exchange of its own intellectual products - are enforced, they need look no further than the tragic case of Aaron Swartz, a ‘hacktivist’ so appalled at the way in which universities and academic publishers profit from hoarding knowledge against those who create it, he simply hacked into JSTOR and downloaded its vast database of academic papers. Instead of using this to make a personal profit, he simply took advantage of the internet’s incredible potential for socialising all human knowledge for the benefit of humanity by making this database free to download.
Rather than incur a fine or a banning from academia, Aaron was hounded by the very highest level, the federal prosecutor, and was most likely to face a $1m fine and 35 years in jail! Confronted with this appalling situation, Aaron took his own life in 2013. He is rightly regarded as a hero and progressive in the ‘hacker’ community, not interested in stealing for personal gain, but for humanity’s. The truth is that Aaron Swartz was a fighter for real free speech and was persecuted to the point of suicide for being just that.
Freedom for society; freedom from capitalism
In our society, there is no true freedom of speech, for it is a freedom only for those who command massive resources. Freedom in the lives of the majority is fleeting, illusory and a cruel irony - the freedom to consume what media the capitalists have deemed important or profitable, and the freedom to be exploited, whether as industrial workers, journalists or struggling musicians. A lucky few break through the tiny cracks in the system and these are held up as ‘proof’ of the freedom of the majority.
It follows that the only way to create a truly free society, one in which the majority have equal access to the facilities of the media and in which culture is produced for the sake of genuine human expression, whatever form that may take, is to treat all these facilities - newspapers, TV stations, websites, music venues and the education system - as social goods freely available to all and under the democratic control of the masses.
But not only that. The enormous power of the ruling class stems primarily not from its ownership of the airwaves, but its control over production in general. The long working hours, the general condition of relying on the capitalists for employment so that we may live, and all the social insecurity this creates, inhibits our creativity and confidence, it impoverishes us literally and spiritually. In these conditions, there can be no talk of real freedom of expression. The expropriation of the media empires under democratic workers control as part of a general plan of production to meet social need - that is the demand of those who fight for real freedom of expression!