The UK does not have a free press but people working for it can never admit that
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair
The direct action by Extinction Rebellion (XR) which blocked print plants and stopped The Sun, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Daily Mail from being delivered has caused lots of debate, some of it in good faith and some so bad faith that it could be represented by a priest having sex with a blow up doll dressed as Satan.
I didn’t think that the XR action was strategically smart as it allows commentators at those newspapers and other interested arseholes to paint the activism as pro-censorship. It’s a dumb, heavy-handed criticism, but that’s what the British media specialises in. However, this newsletter is not about that broad question but instead about a specific line of counter-attack by the press and media; the one that argues that XR’s action was an attack on the ‘free press’.
Nick Timothy @NJ_TimothyThere’s a reason nobody reads Novara Media. It’s because it’s shit. https://t.co/Ag2d6EfzEG
The United Kingdom does not have a free press. It has the illusion of a free press, a set of newspapers which unconvincingly cosplay as ‘free’ while all hewing to a broadly agreed set of principles. There is no unapologetically left-wing national newspaper with significant reach. There is no major unapologetically anti-monarchist paper. There is no major paper that campaigns against landlordism.
Why? Because most columnists want to be liked by other columnists, most of whom are centrist at best, live in London, and if they don’t own buy-to-let property themselves know many people that do, secretly hoping they might get honoured one day with at least an MBE.
A ‘free press’ is not simply defined by the state generally not shutting it down or applying state power to ensure it writes or does not write what it wants. The UK government does not need to apply overt pressure very often to the British newspapers — though it has in recent memory (remember The Guardian being required to smash up hard drives by spooks?) — because they are owned, in the most part, by billionaires who already agree with the government’s philosophical and practical positions.
Consider The Evening Standard which, until recently, was edited by George Osborne — a former Conservative chancellor and the possessor of more jobs than Mr Benn — and is owned by Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former KGB agent, who has now been elevated to the House of Lords. Lord Lebedev of Blatant Corruption was rewarded for his contribution to the ‘free press’: A newspaper that will only ever offer cartoonish criticism of the government. When push comes to shove, they get in line.
And don’t swipe back at me with the example of The Guardian and Observer. The fact is that neither of those papers can be described as left-wing any longer. While they allow the occasional left-wing contribution to the comment section, the institutional voice of those papers is comfortable, smug centrism; the vision is of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony stamping on a human face forever.
A free press would be one that had diversity of thought, gender, sexuality, religion, and class background. Instead, we have a press dominated by private school attendees and Oxbridge graduates, garnished by many examples of overt and unembarrassed nepotism (hello, Giles Coren) and dominated by small areas of London.
The fact that someone can easily slip from the Daily Mail to The New Statesman to The Atlantic without changing their ideological positions much — and yes, I’m thinking of a particular individual but there are many examples — shows how narrow the ideological spectrum of the British media really is.
I have written before about how comment writing in the UK is essentially professional wrestling. Yesterday’s hands-in-the-air wail-a-thon was simply large numbers of British journalists maintaining kayfabe — the shared lie that the fiction is truth — which for a long time was religiously stuck to in wrestling.
But with the arrival of the Attitude Era, wrestlers began to engage in a dual role — fiction in the ring, but fact outside of it, discussing out of character the structure of the game and the motivations behind it.
We need British journalism to enter its Attitude Era, but that will never happen, because the people who pay the wages are even worse than the tyrannical Vince McMahon whose family own the WWE.
One last thing: The existence of places like Substack where I am able to publish these genuinely dissenting opinions does not mean the press is free. It simply means agitation against the broken, supine media is possible.