Media Freedom by richard barbrook

The Republic of Letters

The origins of the mass media are inextricably linked with the beginning of social and economic modernisation in Europe. The emergence of the media wasn't simply the result of the development of innovative techniques of working or the invention of new forms of technology. Long before the end of the medieval period, the principles of printing and the printing press had been known in China without causing a social upheaval. In contrast, the first experiments of the Gutenberg printers had a dramatic impact in Europe because of wider political and economic changes occurring within the continent. Under the divine rule of kings and priests, the public hadn't been allowed to discuss political or religious controversies. But, when the struggle for democratic liberties started, the demand for media freedom could be articulated for the first time. Above all else, the early radicals championed the rights of individuals to print their own views without interference from the monarchy or the church.

During the early modern period, the need for the protection of the rights of individuals had been created by the spread of the money economy. In medieval Europe, the countryside was organised as a patchwork of landed estates held together by familial relationships. But, over time, this feudal system slowly started to disintegrate with the emergence of capitalism. At the centre of this social change, there was a profound transformation in the nature of property. Instead of being enmeshed within familial relationships, land and other goods were turned into commodities: the absolute and unconditional property of specific individuals. In turn, the growth in individual ownership of property paralleled the dominance of the money economy over social production. As more and more necessities were produced only for exchange, so society itself became constructed through money. As the influence of the extended family declined, so the social division of labour was created through commodity exchanges. Therefore, with the demise of feudal social relations, atomised individuals increasingly satisfied their collective needs through the spontaneous and reciprocal interconnections created by market competition. As daily life became organised through the market, information about economic and political changes from outside the enclosed world of the village or town was needed to foresee the future movement of prices and the supply of commodities. For the first time, the ordinary people needed to communicate across space and time in their everyday activities. In early modern Europe, the pioneers of the media were ready to fulfill this new social need by reporting important political and economic events in their newspapers and journals.

The media weren't only developed to facilitate the functioning of the new economic system. Crucially, the development of the media was also closely connected with the emergence of political democracy on a national scale. Under feudalism, private wealth and political power were simultaneously combined in the hands of the monarchy and aristocracy. In contrast, in early capitalism, a clear separation between the private world of individual property-owners and the public sphere of the constitutional state was established. Over time, individual private ownership slowly became the only legitimate form of property. The abolition of feudal property relations created a dialectical separation between the private and public spheres of human existence. On the one hand, the social production of necessities was increasingly privatised by the individual property-owners. On the other hand, the rise in individual commodity production undermined the private control of the state by the absolute monarch.

When social production was organised through market competition, an impartial legal framework was needed to regulate the monetary relations between individuals. In everyday circumstances, isolated producers were linked together in civil society by an endless series of reciprocal business deals. But, when there were disputes, the state had to act as the impersonal interest of the system by arbitrating between litigants through the legal system. By turning the state into an impartial umpire of civil society, political power could no longer be directly connected with the economic relationships between individuals. Instead the dominance of some individuals over others was established through the impersonal relations of exchange, which were backed by the impartial sanctions of the law. Thus the laws of the constitutional state had two dialectical purposes. On the one hand, the legal system defended private autonomy by protecting individual rights, including from arbitrary actions of the state. On the other hand, the law also punished individuals for damaging the interests of the state, which protected the interests of civil society as a whole. The creation of the constitutional state was designed to regulate this separation between the private sphere of individuals in civil society and the public sphere of citizens of the republic. Under the rule of law, the constitutional state became the expression of the private interests of the atomised individuals within civil society in a public form.

According to the bourgeois revolutionaries, a constitutional state could only be established by the participation of individual property-owners within political decision-making. In their view, each individual was not only an egoistical, self-sufficient property-owner, but also a moral, social citizen. In the early modern period, critics of the absolute monarchy created their own meeting-places for public discussions of political issues, such as cafs, freemasons' lodges and salons. Rejecting the hierarchical world of the court, individuals debated as democratic equals within these institutions. By using their reason, the revolutionaries tried to find solutions to their collective problems. Inspired by the classical Greek cities and medieval Swiss villages, Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that this form of direct democracy should be used to run the constitutional state. In face-to-face debates in an agora, the individual members of civil society would discover the 'general will', which expressed their collective interests. But, in practice, it was impossible to apply the direct democracy of a village or small town to the emerging nation states, such as Britain, France or the USA. Because of their size, political decisions couldn't be taken by a public meeting of all citizens. As a consequence, Tom Paine and other revolutionaries advocated the creation of a representative democracy. In their view, the 'general will' of a large country could be formed by the representatives of local particular interests discovering their common interests in parliamentary debates. Instead of personally attending the agora, individual members of civil society would participate in political decision-making by electing representatives to express their views in a parliament.

With the establishment of representative democracy, media freedom became an essential element in the creation of a constitutional state. Because of physical limitations, every citizen couldn't personally take part in the discussions of the legislature in the capital city. But, in their debates in parliament, the politicians were guided by public opinion, which reflected the views of the voters. Crucially, citizens could communicate their opinions to their representatives in the legislature by publishing their own newspapers and books. Thus, although the holding of a national agora was physically impossible, two-way communications was created between politicians and citizens using the printed word. Despite being dispersed across the country, citizens simultaneously expressed their views through their elected members of parliament and through their own publications. Therefore, as a right of citizens, the freedom of communications was an integral part of the formation of the 'general will' of the nation. According to the revolutionaries, individual citizens directly shaped the policies of the state by engaging in reasoned debates over political issues in print.

Because the written text overcame the physical limitations of face-to-face discussions, media freedom was vitally necessary to allow the participation of all citizens within political decision-making. Therefore one of the first tasks of the bourgeois revolutions was the abolition of censorship and other restrictions on the media imposed by the absolute monarchy. Instead, in bills of rights and republican constitutions, the media were promised their freedom from direct government interference. Under the rule of law, newspapers and book-sellers could now print almost anything without the need for prior authorisation. As with other constitutional rights, the absolute freedom of the media was only restricted by the need to protect the rights of other citizens, such as the laws against libel and slander, or to defend the interests of society as a whole, such as the laws against sedition or treason. Even when these laws were defied, the state still encountered great difficulties in punishing miscreant publishers. Because of the need for due legal process, many governments discovered that the bad publicity of court trials often outweighed the benefits of punishing those who broke the law. Except in the most extreme cases, the media had won almost complete freedom from controls over the content of its publications.

By the late-eighteenth century, this participatory form of media freedom had been put into practice. Because hand-operated wooden presses were cheap to buy or hire, individual citizens could print their own publications on their own printing presses. During the early modern period, revolutionary heroes such as Benjamin Franklin or Jean-Paul Marat earned their living by selling their own pamphlets and newspapers to their followers. Not surprisingly, these revolutionaries had a personal interest in preventing any reimposition of censorship and vigourously supported legal guarantees for the freedom of the press. Because they were both journalists and printers, these radicals believed that their political right of the freedom of communications was made possible through their economic right to own their own printing presses as private property. At this moment in history, media freedom was assured by the unity of the social citizen and the private property-owner in one person, who was simultaneously a journalist and a printer. Thus radicals not only sold their publications to their fellow citizens as commodities, but also shaped the policies of parliament by their arguments in print. Just as trade and commerce bound together civil society, so competing newspapers and book-sellers contributed to the creation of the 'general will' of all citizens. In the same way as the division of labour between individuals produced social wealth, so the printing of publications with different viewpoints created a common political culture. The ideological rivalry between different journalist-printers was underpinned by a common consensus to respect the economic laws of bourgeois society.

After the triumph of the bourgeois revolutions, censorship and other restrictions by the monarchy and church were swept away. Instead individual citizens could directly participate in political decision-making by publishing their own newspapers or books. Through their reasoned debates over political issues in print, the atomised citizens directly influenced the policies of the state. Thus the views of individuals were not only indirectly represented in the legislature, but also directly expressed in print. As moral citizens, individuals possessed the right of media freedom to shape the policies of the republic. But this political right could only be exercised through the private ownership of printing presses, which derived from their economic rights as members of civil society. By seizing the land of aristocrats or indigenous peoples, citizens in France and the USA temporarily realised this revolutionary aspiration, which was reflected in the legal protection of media freedom in these countries. Yet, even with the widespread ownership of private property, the female majority of the population was still excluded from exercising many of the rights of citizens, including media freedom. According to the bourgeois revolutionaries, the participation of men in the public sphere of the constitutional state depended upon women looking after the children in the private sphere of the household. Thus, although everyone had the formal right to take part in two-way communications, only male property-owners possessed the means to exercise media freedom in practice. In the republic of property-owners, the exercise of media freedom was confined to male members of the bourgeoisie.


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