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A regulator with teeth: are you crazy?

There is no ahistorical code of ‘press ethics’ which can come out of this farrago, writes James Turley (first published in the Weekly Worker)

What is going to replace the Press Complaints Commission?


Talk about a hostage to fortune – as soon as this writer detects a “momentary let-up” in the phone-hacking saga,[1] we get a new crop of developments.

Another senior News International figure, former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner, has now been taken into police custody. Meanwhile, even with parliament in recess, Ed Miliband continues to needle at the government for full disclosure of its meetings with News International big-wigs, having offered such disclosure on the part of the Labour Party. The political calculation is clear – Murdoch and co will have spent a lot more time over the past couple of years with Cameron and his allies than Labour figures. (Starry-eyed hacks used to suggest Blair had a kind of ‘political alchemy’ – but you cannot get more alchemical than turning the humiliation of media ostracism into a political advantage.)

And after the carnage in Scotland Yard a couple of weeks ago, it is now the turn of another dubious institution to see heads roll. Baroness Buscombe, the odious Tory peer who heads up the Press Complaints Commission, has been pressured into announcing that she will not seek to extend her contract, and in all probability will leave her post in the autumn. The PCC’s role in the phone-hacking affair has been frankly embarrassing: it even went so far as to chide The Guardian for its irresponsible victimisation of the NotW. Let us say that subsequent events have not shown this stance in a very positive light.

A crisis of the PCC is an inevitable result – that it has not already been comprehensively tampered with, or even abolished in favour of statutory regulation, has in part to do with the more spectacular events (the decapitation of the Metropolitan Police, the Murdochs facing cross-examination by parliament) and the Westminster summer holiday. Buscombe may well be the last establishment mediocrity to chair this craven creature of the media barons.

Its obsolescence is highlighted on another front by the vindication in court of Christopher Jefferies, the idiosyncratic landlord repackaged by the gutter press as the psychopathic murderer of architect Joanna Yeates. The press routinely gets away with doing such numbers on the perpetrators of high-profile crimes. The problem in this case was that, er, he did not actually do it. Jefferies has just won libel damages from practically the entire tabloid press – including the Mail and Express. On top of that, The Sun and Daily Mirror were found guilty of contempt of court, and levied (rather pathetic) fines.

There is much to say about this remarkable case – if ever libel law did not act just as a means for the powerful to silence opposition, it was surely here – but, for present purposes, what is of note is that it was the criminal and civil law that stood up to the Fleet Street lynch-mob, and certainly not the PCC. Given that it is controlled by the people who make money out of such stories, how could it? In a sense, poor old Peta Buscombe is to be pitied; she has only administered her institution in the manner in which it has operated since its creation. Alas for her, this cosy arrangement has been shot to pieces by events.

The bottom line of all this chaos is that it has put a question on everyone’s lips: what is the future of press regulation? Numerous answers are proposed – David Cameron and other politicians have called, at one end of the scale, for statutory regulation, by Ofcom or some new body; others propose a new, more muscular model of self-regulation, which would entail a new PCC-type body with the ability to levy fines and otherwise discipline its members. Popular among news organisations is the ‘lope on more or less as before’ strategy, on the basis that it is the least unpalatable of all the choices.

In fact, there are fundamental problems with all the so-called ‘options’ on offer here. Statutory regulation simply hands a great swathe of powers gift-wrapped to the state. The implications are pretty ominous; we need only cast our minds back to the BBC’s battle with Blair over the death of David Kelly, which led to the corporation’s humiliation and exacerbated its tendencies towards cosiness with the establishment. Given all that we have learned about the close personal links between the media barons and the political elite, meanwhile, it is naive to imagine that this will put an end to the power of the former.

The National Union of Journalists leadership seems to favour the second option: a “self-regulatory body [which] should provide for serious penalties for media organisations which broke the code … as well as offering a reliable mechanism to deal with complaints from the public.”[2] NUJ president Donnacha DeLong has expressed admiration for the ‘Irish model’, which broadly conforms to this idea. The union is also keen to push its own members’ code of conduct as the basis for beefed-up ‘self-regulation’.

In reality, this is a miserable compromise. We should not forget that the PCC itself was the result of a previous attempt to give self-regulation of the press some bite; the Irish Press Council itself is a somewhat more nightmarish version, with equal representation given to various establishment notables – former ambassadors, political bureaucrats, lawyers and the like – and the industry itself (with one poxy seat for the unions). If the PCC had had equivalent power in the last five years, remember, it would not have punished Murdoch, but the investigators into phone-hacking!

That leaves the favoured option of the barons – ‘keep calm and carry on’. In fact, ironically enough, this is truly the least worst of the possibilities – no further power is accrued to the state. Seeing as the PCC is obviously little more than a mechanism for the press money-men to, as the vernacular puts it, cover their asses, it is in fact preferable that it should not have any real power to discipline dissenting journalism – which, as The Guardian investigation has shown, is the closest the press gets to self-regulation anyway.

Yet the status quo ante is utterly discredited for good reason. On the left, we should not be satisfied with a ‘return to normalcy’ in any form, which would mean the return to the cosy lash-up between the political, bureaucratic and media elites that has subverted what passes for democracy for generations.

The reason these answers fall short is that they are answers to the wrong question. When the bourgeois establishment asks what to do about press regulation, it is in reality asking how it can manage this crisis in a way that does not threaten – or, ideally, strengthens – the ruling class’s ideological hegemony. By adopting the given form of the debate, the NUJ – and, implicitly, those organised left forces in the NUJ which have manifestly failed to challenge that form – is in fact absorbed into a fundamentally bourgeois discourse, which is rigged in favour of bourgeois outcomes.

Our question is the inverse of the bourgeois one – how can we make sure that the ruling class does end up the weaker for all this? What is the working class approach towards the press? Clearly, the NUJ – despite its political naivety – has a role to play here. While its argument that a strong NUJ chapel in Wapping might have prevented the disastrous abuses of the Wade-Coulson era is quite overblown, there is nonetheless the potential for a conscious collective life among journalists that could set the terms of the trade in its professional form. That the union has at least ‘seized the day’ and made itself a real presence in the phone-hacking affair is an encouraging start.

Yet to truly weaken the hold of the bourgeoisie on the press and media more generally, it is necessary both to attack politically that hold at its root and to build up the political presence of our own side. The former means breaking up the media oligopolies and destroying the advertising cartels that prop them up; the latter means having our own media and journalistic practice completely separate from that of the bourgeoisie.

Posed by both tasks is the party question – we need a political organisation that can fight for fundamental change in the state and economy in order to challenge the Murdochs of this world in a fundamental way. We also need an organised political division of labour in order to develop our own press into something of a genuinely mass scale and readership. The labour movement in this country once had the Daily Herald – European social democracy in its highest phase published in almost every language to many millions of readers. The Herald was the largest-circulation paper in the world at its peak. In the dissemination of ideas, and the development of a distinct cultural life, the organised working class has potential power without equal.

Codes of conduct of the NUJ-style 10 commandments variety are ultimately of limited use here. We communists have no problem with hacking David Cameron’s phone – provided that something politically useful results from this ‘crime’, rather than cheap tittle-tattle. Trotsky put it best in Their morals and ours – the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are themselves justified. Let the masses judge whether their press fulfils this maxim – not judges, bureaucrats or the flunkies of bourgeois press barons.

Put another way, there is no ahistorical code of ‘press ethics’ which can come out of this farrago – but there is a communist ethic, of unflinching and ruthless war on exploitation and oppression, which has quite as many applications in the newsroom as on the barricades. We are not out to restore the honour of the press, or faith in parliament, but to transform both institutions beyond recognition.

james.turley@weeklyworker.org.uk

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Notes

  1. ‘Politics of press freedom’ Weekly Worker July 28.
  2. www.nujppr.org.uk/site/page.php?category=news&id=5125&msg=NEWS&finds=0
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Weekly Worker series on miners’ strike

For the 25th anniversary of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 the Weekly Worker is running a special series. Here is the first of these articles:

Britain: before and after the election

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Miners cheer Arthur Scargill as he announces the NUM executive decision to make the strike official, April 12 1984. Photo: Peter Arkell

During this key class battle, the scenes in some pit communities came to resemble Northern Ireland, with a militarised police force confronted by miners using some of the semi-insurrectionary methods of Belfast and Derry. The National Union of Mineworkers fought a strategically important war on behalf of all workers – yet they were abandoned by the Labour and trade union bureaucracies to fight alone. Defeat followed, with dire consequences. The outcome of the Great Strike of 84-85 is a determining factor in the shape of class relations today.

Yet, for sections of our movement, the strike has become the equivalent of a commemorative mug. It is something to be put on a mantelpiece, ignored until an anniversary rolls around and it is time to mouth some platitudes. The rich lessons taught by that momentous 12 months are forgotten – to the huge detriment of our class’s combativity.

Our faction within the ‘official’ Communist Party threw itself into the strike with enthusiasm and no small degree of elán. In the course of it, we went from an isolated handful of young comrades organised around a quarterly theoretical journal – The Leninist – to a monthly newspaper that had won influence amongst a thin, but important layer of advanced miners and their supporters. Over the coming year, we will feature TL reprints from that time. We begin with extracts from a major article by James Marshall in The Leninist of August 1983, when it was still a theoretical journal. The full text is available on our website. This assessed the battle plans of the newly re-elected Thatcher government and – crucially – the state of readiness of our side as a “strategic struggle” loomed.


1. The election

Future historians might well look back upon the June 83 election as a milestone on Britain’s path to social revolution. For, while the Tories secured a massive post-1945 record majority of 144 seats, this has revealed and exacerbated the deepening crisis of reformism.

This crisis and the consequent dangers for social stability were referred to, if in oblique fashion, even as the election campaign was in progress. Former foreign minister Francis Pym expressed his fears for parliamentary democracy if the Tory victory were to turn into a landside.1 While he concentrated on the possibility that a landslide might create divisions on the Tory backbenches, it was clear that he was referring to the ramifications which would flow from a collapse of the Labour Party as the alternative party of government ….

And Arthur Scargill and Ken Livingstone, eager to secure leadership of any future extra-parliamentary mass movement, quickly threw their hats into the ring and called for opposition to Tory attacks using mass actions rather than parliamentary rhetoric. Scargill vehemently argued that “we should undoubtedly need to take extra-parliamentary action, and that includes the possibility of political strikes” ….

1.1. The crisis of Labourism

The Falklands factor, the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the inept bunglings of Michael Foot did, of course, contribute to the parliamentary debacle suffered by the Labour Party, resulting in its lowest share of popular support since 1918.2 But if we were to concentrate on these questions alone, we would be failing to see both the deep-seated nature and fundamental cause of Labour’s crisis.

In a period of deepening economic crisis of capitalism the Labour Party goes from being a man attempting to ride two horses at once to being a man attempting to ride two horses which are determined to go in opposite directions. This analogy rests on the role played by Labour’s right and left. In ‘normal’ times the right must present to the capitalist class the acceptable face of alternative government; while the left rallies the support of the militant working class for ‘their’ government, which, despite carrying out rightist measures, is still ‘theirs’ and therefore must be supported.

Now during a period of crisis the complementary roles of these two wings of reformism become increasingly difficult to harness ….

1.3. Dangers and possibilities

The re-election of the Tory government, because it comes at a time of deepening capitalist crisis, represents the greatest post-World War II threat to the working class. The only things the Tories could offer the working class were a continuation of mass unemployment, draconian anti-trade union laws, a massive increase in arms spending and the equipping of the forces of coercion – the police and army – to deal with popular upsurges.

The Tories, being committed to the success of British capitalism, must attack the working class. This, combined with the erosion of the Labour Party’s position as the alternative party of government not only means that leading Tories, including Thatcher, confidently talk of their being in government into the 90s, but – what is more important – the period unfolding before us promises to be one of greatly heightened class struggle. While this prospect poses great dangers for the working class, it also offers great possibilities ….

Whether the Labour Party goes to the right or to the left is, for revolutionaries, only a secondary question. What is fundamental is the inevitable effect the crisis will have of weakening the hold of reformism on the working class. It will throw millions into political action for the first time and shatter previously held reformist prejudices, opening up the possibility of mass revolutionary politics. Undoubtedly this will affect the Labour Party, pushing it one way or another, but, whichever way it jumps, its hold over the working class is jeopardised – a maintenance of respectable rightism can only mean the masses will look for new organisations, new answers; and paradoxically a shift to the left likewise inevitably opens the masses up to these very same new organisations and new answers.

2. The first term

…. Because of the militant record of the late 60s and the 70s, and the ability of the working class to resist successfully measures designed to force down wages and attempts to chain the unions, whether from Barbara Castle or Robert Carr, there were many who were brimming with confidence at the prospect of a showdown with the newly elected Thatcher government.3

But such a view was soon shown to be based on a foolish misreading of the last decade, the fallacy that the miners had in 1974 swept the Heath government out of office in semi-revolutionary fashion and above all the failure to take into account the changing economic conditions. For, whereas the 60s battles took place at the end of the boom, and those of the 70s in a time of stagnation and transition, the 80s saw the emergence of the early but unmistakeable signs of a looming general crisis of capitalism. In the 60s the capitalist class could afford to placate the working class with not inconsiderable increases in living standards. This course had become impossible by the 80s, and, far from a general increase in prosperity, the needs of the day led to attacks on working class living standards, pitiless speed-ups and a staggering growth in the number unemployed ….

The miners exemplified above all others the crisis of the working class. During the 70s they had justly earned the reputation of being the most powerful, most determined and best organised section of the working class. So, with the retirement of the dearly beloved (by the bourgeoisie) Joe Gormley, and the election of Arthur Scargill with a massive 70% first-preference vote, the stage seemed set for decisive confrontation.4 But this was not to be, for the divisive productivity deal, which set pit against pit and area against area, plus the government’s refusal to be drawn into an early, and for them premature, battle, meant that not only did one strike ballot after another show that the miners had no inclination to fight, but even when the NCB closed pits in Scotland and South Wales attempts to launch solidarity actions collapsed in disarray and despondency ….

But we must note that, despite the near universally bleak last four years, the working class has only been forced to retreat – it has not suffered a defeat of a strategic nature along the lines inflicted by the Tories in 1926, when trade union organisation was decimated and thousands of militants were blacklisted ….

6.1. The class war

… A fierce clash is therefore well on the cards, and it is to meet such an eventuality that the Tories have not only passed through parliament anti-trade union measures, under both the ‘wet’ Prior and the ‘dry’ Tebbit, but have also assiduously prepared the forces of coercion to ensure that the law can be imposed.

For, while the Tories have exploited many of the undemocratic procedures in the trade union movement, using them as a cover to introduce anti-trade union legislation, the key question at the end of the day is the ability of the state to enforce its will. The Tories have not forgotten the fiasco of Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, and the humiliating reversal they suffered at the hands of the working class, organised in defence of the Pentonville Five. The fact that they were forced to release the imprisoned dockers from jail, using the shadowy figure of the official solicitor in the face of a growing general strike threat, made a deep impression on the ruling class.

This and the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, especially the failure to keep the Saltley Gates power station open despite a massive police presence, not only led to near hysterical editorials in the bourgeois press about Britain becoming ungovernable, but years later, under the Thatcher government, to the measures which would, they hoped, ensure that there could be no repetition ….

The fact that during Thatcher’s first term the mailed fist was reserved for the nationalist population of the Six Counties, rioting youth and Argentineans should in no way make us complacent, for this was unquestionably not the result of Tory concern for the sensibilities of British workers, but a reflection of the fact that at no point did British workers raise the struggle to a stage which required either extensive or significant use of the new-style forces of coercion against them ….

6.2. Organising the offensive

…. It is because many old organisations of the working class are incapable of meeting the offensive against working class living standards and rights, let alone the tasks of revolution, that we must seek changes in them, and create new ones.

The first term of Thatcher’s government, and even the last Labour government, showed all too clearly that the trade union movement had great difficulty in even maintaining the living standards of their members in work, but what about fighting unemployment, women’s oppression and racism? Thatcher’s second term will undoubtedly expose the weaknesses of the existing trade union structure, its inability to defend wages, and most certainly democratic rights ….

Paradoxically, in order to have a vision of the future, we must look at the past. In the light of this communists today should not only learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution, but study the history of our own party, with particular emphasis on the struggle to build the National Minority Movement, the National Unemployed Workers’ Union, councils of action and factory councils. It is not a question of re-inventing the past, imposing alien forms, for new organisations will emerge out of the class struggle itself. As this struggle grows more widespread and intense, the new will be ushered in at the call of necessity – the mother of invention.

Surely to expect the TUC and the Labour Party to put up a serious fight against Thatcher would be, on past performance, naive. Most leaders of the official labour movement are content with petitions, protests that are securely confined within ‘moderate’ shackles; for these ‘leaders’, cosy chats with government ministers and schoolboy catcalls and hoots on the floor of the House of Commons are to be preferred to mass political strikes, occupations and other forms of direct militant action which might lead to a challenge to ‘parliament and the rule of law’. It is because such leaders are in the overwhelming majority in the official labour movement – and even most of the left Labourites show great determination not to go beyond rhetoric – that we must seek to construct forms that circumvent the deadly bureaucratic grip ….

We have already referred to the undeniable truth that a strategic struggle is on the cards. The ability of the working class to resist the onslaught, to turn the defence of their interests into an offensive against capitalism, rests ultimately on the state of their revolutionary party – the Communist Party. While it is dominated by Eurocommunist revisionism, there is no chance of the working class acting independently, charting its course to socialism.

Opportunism disarms the workers, delivers us bound and gagged to the altar of capitalist profit. The period ahead demands a relentless struggle against all forms of opportunism, for unless the Communist Party ends its tailism to the official trade union movement, ends its servile attitude to the Labour Party and its infatuation with the reformist, myopic Alternative Economic Strategy, the working class will be like an army with no general staff.5

Resistance can be heroic, but any offensive will prove to be nothing more than a desperate gesture.

Notes

1. Francis Pym was a leading ‘wet’ Tory who held several cabinet positions.
2. The Falklands war was launched in April 1982 by prime minister Margaret Thatcher after Argentina had invaded the British south Atlantic territory. The SDP was a substantial rightwing split from the Labour Party in 1981, later to merge with the Liberal Party to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.
3. Barbara Castle was secretary of state for employment when the unions rebelled against her proposals to reduce their powers in her 1969 white paper, ‘In place of strife’. Robert Carr was the Tory secretary of state for employment in Edward Heath’s government responsible for the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. This severely curbed the right to strike and banned closed shop agreements.
4. Gormley was the rightwing NUM president from 1971 to 1982.
5. The AES was a nationalist reformist programme of demands championed by the reformist trends in the CPGB and sections of the Labour left.

CPGB launches fund drive

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From this issue of the Weekly Worker, we are launching a fund drive to add another £500 in regular standing orders coming into our coffers every month. We have a provisional deadline for this target to be achieved – May 1 – and will be regularly reporting our progress.

It will be clear to most readers why we are launching a special fund campaign at this particular point in time. World capitalism is heading for its deepest, most sustained economic downturn since the 1930s. Almost overnight the leaders of the big powers – the US, Britain, Japan, Germany and France – ditched their free market mantras and rushed to adopt hastily put together Keynesian rescue packages. The whole banking sector has effectively been nationalised or bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Other sectors – car makers, steel and construction – are begging for similar help.

Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “You cannot buck the market” can now be seen by everybody for what is – a barefaced lie. So capitalism faces not just an economic, but a political crisis too.

Protectionism and nationalism is bound to grow. So is the tendency towards war. For the mass of the population the crisis will mean job losses, increased taxes, reductions in living standards and more and more attacks on democratic rights. Inevitably, however, there will be a fightback. Indeed it has already begun.

France’s one-day general strike, the youth revolt in Greece, the overthrow of the rightwing Icelandic government, the street protests in Latvia and Lithuania, the mass demonstrations across Russia and now the wildcat strikes in Britain.

But the existing left is in a sorry state. Divided into numerous confessional sects, ever ready to split over secondary issues, painfully weak in organisational terms, afraid of open debate, politically confused or downright useless. The left needs to change urgently if it is to meet the huge challenge life presents us with. Unity is clearly needed. But not unity around left Keynesian charters, halfway house alliances or lowest-common-denominator talking shops.

We have the name ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’. But, as we constantly emphasise, there is no Communist Party. There is no unity of all Marxists, revolutionary socialists and militant fighters for democracy around a common programme and in the type of fighting organisation the working class needs if it is not only to resist capital, but supersede it.

So our appeal for funds is inextricably linked with qualitatively upping our campaign to rearm the working class. Crucial to this is, of course, the Weekly Worker. A paper recognised as an invaluable asset by wide sections of left opinion – and not only here in Britain, but internationally too.

Yes, like all workers, our readers and supporters will be facing financial woes over the coming period, as this huge crisis of global capitalism plays itself out. Most won’t have easy cash to casually throw our way. But we have never relied on easy cash. No, we rely on political understanding and political determination.

We must push the idea of a single Marxist party to the very top of the agenda of working class partisans. Central to this is a radical overhaul of our website. The vast majority of the readers of our press and other materials access us online. The bulk of people who actually contact the organisation with a view to joining come through the web. It is the first port of call for journalists and researchers. In many ways, it is the organisation’s most high-profile public face.

Its current design and technical format have served us well – but now, after nearly seven years, they are in need of a radical overhaul. A number of comrades with the requisite skills have been involved in making our site more flexible, responsive and easily navigable. Of course, much of this work has been donated gratis; but costs have been incurred and will continue when the new format is launched.

We want to use our new website to engage in a more proactive way with the comrades who visit it. We are trying to shift many of these comrades from sympathetic, but passive imbibers of our politics to active involvement. This will involve a drive to encourage them to take hard copies of the paper to distribute amongst their contacts; to actively participate in the campaigns our organisation is centrally involved in and take the step of actually becoming members of the CPGB.

It was with this in mind that our leadership – meeting on February 1 – agreed to launch the new category of ‘associate member’ of the CPGB. This replaces the class of ‘supporter’, which again served us well enough in its time, but has now become too hazy, ill-defined and lacks any real obligations for the people who fill out the application box regularly featured in these pages. Associate members will have limited, but real rights in the organisation – and duties, of course. More details of this will be available as we report on the progress of the campaign, but the motivation for launching it is clear.

Given a fragmented left which dogmatically refuses to unite on a principled basis, it is incumbent on this organisation to fight harder for a positive resolution of the crisis that also exists in our movement. Despite its disproportionate influence, the CPGB remains numerically small and – in contrast to some of the more lurid tales cynical lefties swap over pints – chronically under-resourced. However, our drive for extra funds is not just about adding to the political and organisational weight of the CPGB, but setting into motion a unity process that leads to a real party that unites the left on the basis of Marxism.

The extra money will be used to finance work to harden up the embryonic national infrastructure that has emerged over the last few years; to make sure that comrades from our centre in London have the wherewithal to travel and regularly meet our comrades across the country; to provide ourselves with a more sizable office so that we can hold regular educational and other such events. We also intend to publish more books and pamphlets in the forthcoming period and make the serious study, free debates and honest exchanges that take place at our annual Communist University something for the whole of the left.

Our culture dictates that first come the politics; then money is found for the tasks politics dictate. Surveying the damage opportunism has done to our movement – and the lack of any other viable pro-unity project based on Marxism – the CPGB has decided it is time to up our game. We hope readers agree and we will be contacting many of you directly to find out.

Mark Fischer, CPGB national organiser.