Media Freedom by richard barbrook

The Totalitarian Media

The contradiction between the democratisation and bureaucratisation of the state haunted the struggle for media freedom. During the 1789-99 French revolution, the Jacobins pioneered a new definition of the freedom of communications, which extended this right beyond the small number of journalist-printers. Ironically, this more democratic form of media freedom was developed during a period of emergency rule, which had been imposed to fight against royalist uprisings and foreign invasions. According to the leaders of the Jacobins, the establishment of a dictatorship in the short-term was needed to create the conditions for the foundation of a democratic republic in the long-term. As a consequence, the rights of particular individuals could be justifiably violated by the state in the interests of the whole Nation-people. Using this argument, the Jacobin government abolished the media freedom of the journalist-printers and introduced tight state supervision over all newspapers and other publications. Although censorship had been tyrannical under the absolute monarchy, the republican government believed that the suppression of publications advocating the return of the old order was completely legitimate. As well as these restrictive measures, the Jacobins also used the media for the political and moral education of the people in republican values. In their view, the civil war had been primarily caused by the ignorance of the benefits of democracy among the population. Therefore, alongside the organisation of popular festivals and public education, the Jacobin government subsidised the dissemination of republican propaganda by newspapers and book-publishers.

After the overthrow of the Jacobin government, its supporters were convinced that the experience of these emergency measures had laid the basis for a completely new model of media freedom. According to Babeuf and other radical Jacobins, the freedom of communications for all citizens could only be achieved by the nationalisation of all printing presses. Although they would no longer possess the economic right to own a printing press, the citizens would be able to determine the opinions expressed in the newspapers and books published by the state by exercising their political right to vote for their own parliamentary representatives. Thus, instead of media freedom being restricted to a limited number of journalist-printers, all citizens would indirectly have their views expressed in the state-owned media by their elected government. However, this new form of media freedom anticipated the limitations of the Fordist media. In Babeuf's utopia, citizens could only be consumers of the publications of the nationalised printing presses.

Despite its democratic aspirations, this new form of media freedom was also restricted by the Jacobin belief in the need for a revolutionary dictatorship in the short-term to create a democratic republic in the long-term. During the 1848 French revolution, Blanqui and his Jacobin supporters called for all political power to be temporarily transferred into their own hands. According to these Jacobins, a revolutionary dictatorship was needed to educate the French people in the values of republicanism. Under the old order, the views of the majority of the population had been corrupted by false ideas, especially by reading newspapers owned by the bourgeoisie. As a consequence, they were incapable of electing a new government in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Inspired by Babeuf, Blanqui and his followers advocated the nationalisation of all printing presses. Under Jacobin control, the state-owned newspapers and book-sellers would produce propaganda in favour of the construction of the new society. Thus, in Blanqui's vision, the citizens would abdicate their media freedom to a temporary revolutionary dictatorship, which would determine the content of all newspapers and books in their long-term interests. In the name of democracy, the media was to be controlled by a caste of unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats.

Although Babeuf and Blanqui influenced revolutionary movements across Europe, these two radical Jacobins were never able to put their version of media freedom into practice. In contrast, after the 1917 revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to implement the Jacobin model of media freedom within the Russian Empire. Inspired by Babeuf and Blanqui, Lenin claimed that the old order had ideologically corrupted Russian people, who were consequently incapable of deciding who should control the new republic. Therefore, in his view, a short-term revolutionary dictatorship was needed to create the conditions for the establishment of participatory democracy in the long-term. Crucially, the Bolshevik leader believed that the primary task of this dictatorship was the elimination of incorrect ideas among the Russian workers and peasants. Therefore, after their seizure of power, the Bolsheviks systematically suppressed all opposition newspapers, including those run by Marxists and anarchists. Alongside these repressive measures, they also greatly expanded their own media to indoctrinate the Russian people in their own ideology. During the early-1920s, the revolutionary dictatorship published national and local newspapers, established the first radio stations within Russia, created a national film industry, organised revolutionary festivals and distributed posters by radical artists. Following the advice of Blanqui, the Bolsheviks were determined to educate the population in the values of the new social order.

According to the Bolsheviks, the contradiction between political and economic rights within the media had been resolved through the nationalisation of the media. In Lenin's model of media freedom, the propertyless majority of the population abdicated their political right of media freedom to the minority of professional revolutionaries, who ran the nationalised newspapers and radio stations on their behalf. Crucially, the Bolsheviks derived their claim to absolute political power from their knowledge of the correct revolutionary ideology. Because they had been corrupted by the false ideas of the old order, the Russian workers and peasants were unable to express their long-term interests through regular elections. As a consequence, the revolutionary conspiracy had to use the nationalised media for the education of the population in the correct ideas of the new society. Therefore the majority of the population were excluded from any direct or indirect participation within the media. At the same time, media workers were also prevented from expressing their own opinions in print or over the airwaves. In order to guarantee the ideologically correct content of the media, the Bolsheviks turned all journalists, printers, broadcasters and engineers into employees of the revolutionary state. Thus, by the early-1920s, Lenin and his followers had instituted a new definition of media freedom: the one-way flow of propaganda from the ruling party to the population.

Although it was supposed to be only temporary, the Bolshevik dictatorship soon became the permanent form of government of the Russian Empire. Under Stalin, the few remnants of democratic control over the executive were finally abolished. By the early-1930s, the dictator had created a fully totalitarian system of political rule, which completely dominated the lives of the Russian people. Although he relied on state terror to maintain his rule, Stalin also used the nationalised media to mobilise support for the policies of his regime, especially for the rapid industrialisation of the country. Impressed by the success of the Bolsheviks, revolutionaries from around the world imitated their methods of organisation, including their views on the role of the media. As in Russia, the media were used for the one-way flow of ideology from the revolutionary conspiracy to the people. Thus, when the Bolsheviks set up the Communist International, the first condition of its membership was that all revolutionary newspapers and other media were to be placed under the complete control of the leaders of the local Bolshevik party.

Although imitators of the Bolsheviks triumphed in some underdeveloped or colonised countries, the revival of radical Jacobinism encountered greater difficulties within states with democratic constitutions. Ironically, the extreme-right opponents of the democratic republic applied the methods of the Bolsheviks with greater success than their left-wing opponents. In both Italy and Germany, fascist parties overthrew democratic governments and established totalitarian dictatorships. While the local Bolsheviks had been supported by radical workers, these fascist parties mobilised the discontented members of the petit-bourgeoisie and the peasantry, who were either afraid of losing their private property under the rule of the Left or hoped for jobs as functionaries of the new regime. According to the fascists, the 'general will' of the people couldn't be created by democratic elections. Instead the atomised members of civil society needed to be united into a single Nation-People by a totalitarian dictatorship under the control of a charismatic leader. By submitting to this leadership, the Nation-People would be able to conquer its external and internal enemies, especially those associated with left-wing ideas or from different ethnic groups.

Not surprisingly, the fascists also believed that individuals had to abdicate their political right of media freedom to the charismatic leader of the ruling party, who would express their opinions for them in print or over the airwaves. After their seizure of power in 1933, the Nazis implemented their totalitarian plans for the media through the Ministry of Propaganda, which purged all opponents of the regime from the newspapers, radio stations and the cultural institutions. At the same time, the Ministry also organised the propagation of Nazi beliefs to the German population through the media and the arts. Above all else, the state-controlled media disseminated the speeches of Hitler to the people. By listening together to the Nazi leader on the radio, the fascists believed that individual Germans would be transformed into a unified Nation-People. As in Bolshevik Russia, the totalitarian organisation of the media in Nazi Germany ensured the complete autonomy of the newspapers and radio stations from any form of popular control.


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