The origins of the working-class press & the closure of the print Independent

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2016 by kmflett


The print edition of The Independent closed on 26th March with a considerable number of job losses. It will now appear on-line only where, reportedly, the NUJ is not recognised for bargaining purposes.

The paper was born out of changes in newspaper technology and arguably, with the development of web based news, was killed off by them as well. Marxists might well attribute to this the dialectics of bourgeois newspaper ownership.

The paper has been through several owners since it first appeared in 1986, the latest being Russian millionaire Lebedev. It was he in all probability he that dictated the paper’s pro-Tory line at the 2015 Election.

The Independent was never of the political left, although its early refusal to print stories about the Royal Family was welcome, and socialists, the job losses aside, may not feel particularly sorry about its disappearance.

However it is surely a moment to reflect how much titles like the Independent rested on the work done by the early working class movement to secure a free press, and indeed the battles of the Morning Star’s predecessor, the Daily Worker, to allow new titles to break the monopolies of press ownership and distribution too.

The Times was first published in the late eighteenth century but its circulation was tiny. It also had a poor reputation from the start. William Cobbett dubbed it the ‘bloody old Times’ for demanding tough sentences for agricultural protesters in 1830 for example.

It took the development of a radical working class press to provide both a mass readership for papers and the means by which the papers could be got to those readers around the country.

The fight for a free press involved not millionaires like Lebedev but ordinary working class people and artisans who were prepared to go to jail, and often did, defending the right to publish.

The law until the 1850s did not allow the publication of a newspaper without a Government tax, dubbed the ‘taxes on knowledge’. The impact was to make papers aimed at working class readers too expensive for them to buy.

There was a war of the ‘unstamped’ press, perhaps particularly the Poor Man’s Guardian, in the 1830s. The paper’s masthead slogans told the story. It proclaimed ‘Knowledge is Power’ and noted that it was ‘published contrary to Law to try the power of Might against Right’.

E.P Thompson noted that around 500 people were prosecuted for producing and selling unstamped working class papers. Distribution was often done by clandestine means to avoid the interference of the authorities.

The result of all this was a reduction in the Stamp in 1836. The movement that had developed underwrote the production and readership of the world’s first great working class paper, the Northern Star from 1838.

The Star, based at first in Leeds and then in London, achieved the first mass circulation of any paper anywhere. Indeed so large was the sale that the early Post Office had to hire extra transport to move supplies in bulk around the country.

When it is considered that this took place at a time when working class literacy was far from a given thing- the paper was often read out to people in workplaces- and before the invention of the telegraph- the Victorian internet that speeded up the transmission of news- the scale of the achievement can be understood.

None of this of course is in the minds of the wealthy owners of the mainstream press of today, as they consider whether print gives them sufficient profit or if they should look on-line for it

This post appeared in the Morning Star on 29th March



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