Britain’s press has been partisan since the arrival of mass democracy. Inevitably this has benefited conservative politics, with one historian noting how the press barons were happy to use their papers as “instruments of political warfare” ahead of the 1945 general election.
Indeed, this was so obvious as to be openly admitted by the proprietors themselves. When responding to questions from the Royal Commission on the Press in 1947, Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, said his intention in buying the paper more than three decades earlier had been, “to set up a propaganda paper and I have never departed from that purpose”. The emergence of men like Beaverbook, particularly between the wars, and the growing political muscle of the titles they oversaw, ran side-by-side with the emergence of universal suffrage. This may have been a new democratic age, but the instruments necessary to find a national audience remained, for the most part, confined to the elite.
They didn’t have things entirely their own way however. While the likes of Beaverbrook and Viscount Northcliffe, who once owned the Daily Mail and the Times, represented an immense concentration of power, the labour movement was building weapons of its own. One was the Daily Herald, first published in 1912, which would later become The Sun in 1964. The Herald’s mission was simple: to counterbalance the increasingly conspicuous power of the media oligarchs and further the interests of working class people. After 1922 it became the official paper of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) – who would retain a minority share in it for a further four decades. For eight years it was even edited by Henry Lansbury who would later become leader of the Labour party.
As well as being a socialist publication, the Herald was also a successful one. By 1945 it had a daily circulation of 2m – more even than the formidable Daily Mail. Yet despite such a large readership its politics were far from unique on Fleet Street. There was also the Daily Worker, predecessor to today’s Morning Star. Briefly banned by then prime minister Winston Churchill during the early years of the war, by the end of the conflict its circulation had risen to 100,000. No Herald, Mail or Express, perhaps, but it had twice the readership of the Financial Times. From Labour’s perspective there was one problem though: it was the official organ of the British communist party.
Then there was the Daily Mirror, whose politics were more a function of commercial interest than creed or ideology. Nevertheless, they too backed Labour in 1945, as they have in every election since.
While a far cry from today – two of Britain’s four biggest papers backed Labour prime minster Clement Attlee – the odds were still against Labour when it came to the press, something which only became clearer after the shock of their victory set in. A year later the party’s attorney general, Hartley Shawcross, told a packed audience that a “small handful of newspaper proprietors…are terrified of the advent of socialism in this country and are determined that the Labour government shall not be given a fair run”. Shawcross’s world may have been one of outdoor toilets, rationing and Rita Hayworth movies but in this respect, at least, it sounds strikingly familiar.
Nevertheless, such prominence for socialist arguments, and journalists, meant this was the apogee for the left in British media. Much like the welfare state Attlee’s Labour bequeathed future generations, such influence endured however brief the highpoint. When Labour prime minister Harold Wilson won four elections in the decade after 1964, the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror was the country’s most widely read newspaper. The Sun, successor to the Daily Herald, initially did likewise – its continued support for the party a promise made by one Rupert Murdoch when he acquired the paper in 1969. That covenant wouldn’t last, however, and by 1974 the paper had endorsed the Conservatives.
Today, things look rather different. Not only is Britain’s press dogmatically right-wing – as it has been for the last 30 years – but the industry itself is in turmoil. The year Attlee entered Downing Street, the now defunct News of the World had an astonishing seven million readers every Sunday. Today, Britain’s most widely read title is the Metro – a free-sheet that enjoys a fraction of that. The Sun, which had a circulation of 4m in 1987, will soon fall below the psychologically significant 1m mark, possibly even this year. Even with Facebook and Google swallowing ad revenues some outlets will survive, but most will simply disappear.
It should not be presumed, however, that just because the revenue model of right-wing print media is imperilled – and, for the most part, is failing to replicate its historic influence online, that this is good news for the left. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Rupert Murdoch can own papers for reasons other than profit. Indeed, this has already happened with the latter’s ownership of the Sun – a paper which loses millions every year but which is retained for reasons of status and political influence.
But the present conjuncture does offer a historic opportunity. Paul Mason recently argued that Labour should start its own newspaper. While such a proposal is certainly interesting, particularly as rivals ebb – and there is a precedent with the the Daily Herald of the 1930s – the costs of entry are too high and the returns, both economic and political, too low. What is more a risk of such scale is not necessary: according to a 2018 study by OFCOM, BBC broadcast and online news, as well as Facebook, have become the primary sources of political information for much of the public. While print was competitive a decade ago, that is no longer true. Even among older people it is now trailing far behind.
Which means that alongside arguing for BBC reform, both the Labour party and labour movement should commit to taking content creation and news seriously. In the last election the Leave.EU Facebook page, fusing genres of news, gossip and humour, enjoyed higher engagement than the official Labour page. Such an approach, of well-resourced, journalistic Facebook pages offering digestible stories from a left perspective, should be widely embraced by not only the Labour party, but the TUC and unions. One criticism might be that this is at odds with media impartiality, but that is historically ignorant and such efforts would merely revive the impulse behind the Daily Herald for a digital age. Now, as then, all that would be required is a measure of editorial independence, such as board of trustees, and regulation by Impress – a far more onerous standard than what applies to the tabloids.
In time, additional efforts like podcasts and content for Instagram and YouTube would also be needed, but for now it is Facebook where the masses are – particularly those older voters with whom Labour struggled last December. Such content should be unashamed news and comment – both local and national. It should not aim to be explicitly party or union related, but rather advance a perspective for working people which is absent in the country’s print and broadcast media. Almost as importantly, it should be fun.
In recent years, the claim has been that the left needs its own media – and that outlets like Tribune or Novara Media can fill the gap. While this is partly true it should be accepted that generating a significant cultural space – and at a national level – must be a focus for any political party or trade union. Rather than simply amplifying the work of such organisations, which should also be done, these would attempt to create the equivalent of a ‘front page’ for tens of millions of people. If politics is downstream from culture, which I believe it is, this is now imperative.
70 years ago, Welsh Labour party politician Nye Bevan claimed the press was “pumping a deadly poison into the public mind, week by week”. Those words no longer apply to just the papers, but social media and broadcast too. Unless the labour movement is serious about creating a meaningful counter-weight both its national profile and political power will continue to wane. There is still time.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor.