Media Freedom by richard barbrook

The Nationalisation of the Media

Although it was based upon active participation, the implementation of the eighteenth century model of media freedom was restricted. The journalist-printers were only a minority of the population. The publications of the artisan presses were few in number and very expensive. The right of free speech in print couldn't be exercised in practice by men without property and all women. Out in the countryside, most people couldn't even read or write. In contrast, after the industrialisation of printing, the majority of the population had access to media products for the first time. Aided by the development of primary education, better transport and the postal services, the mass circulation newspapers soon created a nationwide readership for their publications. Because of industrialisation, individuals could now obtain large amounts of printed entertainment and information at cheap prices. However the greater availability of printed material could only be achieved through the exclusion of the majority of citizens from participation within the media. Because large amounts of capital were needed for industrial production, individual citizens could no longer express their own opinions in print. Within the electronic media, the disappearance of the right of freedom of communications for individuals even became embodied within the new technology. Except for a small number of station owners, the majority of the population could only buy radio receivers. Thus, in both newspaper publishing and radio broadcasting, there could only be a one-way flow of communications in the Fordist media.

Even though it was impossible for most individual citizens to own a printing press, the mass circulation newspapers still enjoyed the media freedom won by the journalist-printers. Yet, despite the revolutionary origins of their immunity from state control, the industrialised media quickly abandoned any connection with left-wing politics. Under the control of joint-stock companies and banks, the mass circulation newspapers were unsympathetic to the emerging socialist movements. In order to win a large readership with a low cover price, these publications relied upon advertising from capitalist businesses and bribes from corrupt politicians. As a consequence, the mass circulation newspapers either promulgated right-wing politics or printed only scandal and trivia. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, some owners of popular newspapers used their publications to campaign for imperialist foreign adventures and against progressive social policies. For example, the American mass circulation newspapers helped to provoke a war with Spain and the British press denounced any concessions to the trade unions. When radio broadcasting was developed, the new electronic medium was even more dependent upon those with power and wealth. Unable to sell their programmes directly to listeners for technical reasons, commercial radio stations could only fund themselves with revenue from advertising. In the USA, the most popular radio network was owned by a cartel of receiver manufacturers and financed by the leading Wall Street bank. Not surprisingly, the majority of its programmes were devoted to promoting the products of its advertisers and airtime was only available to right-wing politicians.

Because the output of the industrialised media was dominated by advertising and conservative politics, left-wing activists soon became disillusioned with the model of media freedom established by the bourgeois revolutionaries. Therefore, in its place, they tried to create a new form of media freedom, which would allow radical views to be expressed in print and over the airwaves. For the bourgeois revolutionaries, media freedom had been founded upon the absence of state controls and the private ownership of printing presses. In their view, the political right of freedom of communications rested upon the economic right of private property. In contrast, left-wing politicians believed that the political right of free speech in the media for all citizens was being blocked by the economic right of private property exercised by the owners of mass circulation newspapers and commercial radio stations. Therefore they began advocating increased state controls and the end of private ownership within the media. According to some of the Left, the state had become the protector of democratic liberties, rather than its greatest enemy.

Ironically, this demand for the nationalisation of the media was a consequence of the development of market competition between private property owners. As the traditional feudal hierarchies collapsed, the state emerged as the defender of the collective interests of the atomised individuals within civil society. Externally, the state protected the people from incursions by foreign enemies. After successive wars, individuals from various villages or towns were transformed into citizens of specific states, which were particular territorial spaces forming separate national markets. Internally, the state also protected the members of civil society by providing the legal framework for market competition. By becoming an impartial umpire in civil disputes, the state slowly developed its own institutional autonomy from the personality of the king. After the bourgeois revolutions, the deprivatisation of political power was accelerated. Under the post-revolutionary constitutions, the state was controlled by elected representatives, who could make laws to protect the interests of all citizens from miscreant individuals. Thus, by combating both external and internal enemies, the state emerged as the collective expression of the public interest of the competing members of civil society. Enclosed within the boundaries of a specific state, the inhabitants of different villages and towns had been transformed into citizens of a single Nation-People, with its own particular institutions, customs and language.

According to left-wing radicals, the collective equality of citizenship of the Nation-People provided the antidote to the selfish privileges of the private property-owners. In their view, the contradiction between political and economic rights could only be ended by the nationalisation of all private property. Then, as the embodiment of the 'general will', the state would guarantee a reasonable standard of living for all citizens in return for participation in work and political activities. However the radical statism of the early socialists was simply a logical conclusion of the growing autonomy of the state from civil society within contemporary capitalism. As the struggle for democracy was won, a distinct caste of professional politicians and administrators had emerged to administer political power. Because the citizens weren't able to rule themselves in an agora, the collective needs of the individuals within civil society could only be fulfilled through the actions of the state. Over time, the autonomy of the state bureaucracy slowly increased, especially in periods of national emergency. In the name of protecting the interests of all citizens, the government was able to override the rights of particular individuals. Crucially, with a monopoly over the administration of political power, the politicians and bureaucrats could increasingly run the state in their own interests. Thus, far from guaranteeing the political rights of all citizens, the demand of the Left for the nationalisation of all private property would have completed the process of emancipation of the state from any form of popular control.


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