Proposal for a Momentum Media Fund

We need socialist media, and part of the refounding of Momentum should be establishing a media fund to support and develop it.

27 min read

The last five years have been a clear demonstration that the British left’s lack of media power is a basic obstacle to us even reforming society - let alone achieving a socialist transformation of it. The constant, daily barrage from the established media eventually toxified virtually the whole Labour Party - the Labour left especially. Any future leader drawn from the Labour left will get ‘the Corbyn treatment’.1

The radically different treatment the media can give to a leader drawn from the party right is meant to teach us one thing above all: not to dare pick another socialist leader for another generation or two. On Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015, you could almost hear the media collectively sigh at the prospect of having to spend years teaching us that all over again. The media barrage is partly about drilling it into swing voters that, no matter how much they might like our policies, voting Labour is Simply Not Allowed. But it’s also about disciplining and demoralising dedicated supporters with a relentless war of attrition to wear down our collective will and stamp out any embers of optimism or enthusiasm.

Two things unify the established media in this country above all: fundamental hostility to socialist politics, and determination to fight it by any means necessary. If the liberal and conservative wings of the media play different (but ultimately interconnected) roles in that campaign - well, so much the better. After all, anything too uniform might look like propaganda. Why attack socialism in one way when you can attack it in several? We shouldn’t really be surprised by this. We live in a capitalist society, and the owners of the British media are some of the biggest capitalists in it. Whereas what ‘worlds of labour’ there once were have long since been smashed, deliberately, by our opponents. We have to build new ones now.

The more surprising thing is how little we on the Labour left have thought about doing things to rectify our collective lack of media power - except in terms either of individual behaviour or state media policy. We lament the state of the media and then we conclude we need to do some mix of: (i) post on social media, (ii) individually subscribe or donate to socialist media, (iii) make socialist media ourselves, or (iv) come up with socialist media policies and push for Labour to adopt them. Then, when the longed-for day of the Landslide Socialist Majority finally comes, we’ll use the power of the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport to transform the media landscape at a stroke, realising all our utopian designs.

I’ve been as guilty of limiting my approach to these methods as anyone else. And I’m certainly not saying we don’t need them. Far from it: they each have a valuable role to play. Give money to New Socialist and other good socialist media, if you can. But those methods are ultimately not going to be enough on their own.

What we need alongside them is for the institutions of the labour movement to channel some of their budgets into socialist media. In this article, I’m going to set out:

  • why collective, organised, institutional support for a socialist media is essential, especially given the crisis in the news industry
  • a brief history of the British left’s presence in the media
  • what I hope will seem a very concrete proposal for doing it in a novel and democratic way - one that I hope can prefigure - albeit in small form - the democratic transformation of the news media as a whole: a vital socialist priority.

My proposal centres on Momentum, as the largest membership organisation of the Labour left. The election of its new National Coordinating Group on a platform of improving, expanding and democratising the organisation - in part by refounding it and giving it a new constitution - presents us with a major opportunity. Below, I will set out how we could set up a democratic Momentum Media Fund. Momentum would channel a constitutionally-fixed proportion of its income into the fund and members would vote on which media organisations (or similar projects) to allocate the money to.

Why do we need there to be organised institutional support for socialist media? The simplest answer is that we won’t get the media we need otherwise. Socialist media face major barriers to raising the funds to do good work. The fact we already have some good new organisations doing some excellent work on small budgets doesn’t disprove that. On the contrary, it gives us a glimpse of the impact more funding could have. As I said at the beginning, the last five years have proven in abundance that we still lack anything like the media power we need. What’s more, socialist media are mostly operating in a digital market where almost all kinds of established media find it increasingly difficult to pay the bills. What’s true for the established media is even more true for socialist media, which can’t rely on attracting advertising, or the support of billionaire patrons and philanthropic foundations, as capitalist media can.

The Crisis in the News Industry

The news industry has been wracked by a severe and intractable commercial crisis for over a decade now. The Government commissioned the Cairncross Review into it last year, but while the Review’s liberal analysis could register the financial symptoms, it couldn’t fully explain them, or offer an acceptably neoliberal remedy.2 It had to effectively concede there is still no sign of the holy grail - a ‘sustainable business model’ capable of saving the bulk of the industry, let alone returning it to the profitability of its heyday. That’s because there isn’t one, for reasons I will explain. Instead, radical, democratic solutions are necessary.

Across its history, the capitalist production of news has largely been premised on its enclosure in a physical commodity - the newspaper or news magazine - which you had to buy in order to access the journalism inside. Hence the competitive importance of journalists getting ‘exclusives’ or ‘scoops’.3 In the UK, as in most other capitalist countries, newspapers have traditionally provided the bulk of investment in journalism, accounting for 50% as recently as 2017 according to a report for Cairncross.

But the internet has - over the last two decades, and particularly since it went mobile in the 2010s - destroyed even the short daily window of exclusivity newspapers still enjoyed in the 1990s.4 Today, a site can have an article ready in minutes on anything ‘newsworthy’ their rivals publish. ‘Exclusives’ ripple out through social media immediately. The screenshot leaps over the paywall. Online, most people don’t need to pay to get their news - so they don’t pay.

There are other reasons why it’s difficult to get people to pay but this is both the most fundamental and the most overlooked. Putting it more theoretically, you could say that the free transmission of information online contradicts a fundamental requirement of private production - that production and the commodities it produces are privately enclosed. Consider the devastating impact online file sharing had on record labels in the
2000s. The difference with news is, you can’t assert intellectual property rights over a report about something that has happened.

This account obviously oversimplifies things slightly.5 For instance, it ignores TV and radio news, which are funded by advertising, cross-subsidy or the state - though as I’ve said, print news is the most important source of investment in journalism. However, another reason most people won’t pay for news is a widespread lack of trust in what they would be paying for. Trust in the British news media has fallen demonstrably in recent years - especially among those on the left, for obvious reasons. And our press was already the least trusted in Europe to start with.

The result is that more than nine in ten people in Britain don’t pay for news online. Half say nothing would persuade them to. Those figures haven’t changed much in a decade. That’s the reality of the ‘news market’ online for the foreseeable future. The few digital success stories cater to elite and business customers, and are priced accordingly. In other cases, billionaire ownership means not having to worry as much about running at a loss. Clearly, neither of those are strategies open to socialist media.

Newspaper sales are propped up by the ingrained preference of older, more affluent demographics for print over digital reading. Without them, a number of publishers would not be viable businesses. The extreme dependence of the national press on keeping those remaining readers has led it to become even more reactionary - relative to the wider population - than it was already. The recent eclipse of The Sun by the Daily Mail as the UK’s highest-selling daily newspaper is one indicator of this rightward shift. The Sun is not necessarily less right-wing than the Mail, and certainly no less reprehensible, but the shift is still a meaningful one: from an ostensibly ‘apolitical’, popular neoliberalism to a more ‘serious’, aggressively reactionary politics.6 The Times is increasingly just a British newspaper version of Fox News, in smarter clothes and a more authoritative voice. This presentation and tone has its political effects, lending risible claims a specious credibility.

What about advertising? In the mid-twentieth century it generated over half of newspapers’ revenue; four-fifths in some cases. Classified ads used to bankroll the local press. That was when newspapers and magazines were a critical bottleneck between advertisers and the public. But they aren’t that bottleneck online - it’s search engines and social media who are. That’s why in 2019 Google and Facebook took 80% of online advertising in the UK. And while that might help explain the news media’s seemingly limitless appetite for stories damaging to Google and Facebook, those stories won’t bring back the advertising custom they’ve lost. Rupert Murdoch’s ‘rivers of gold’ have run dry. The inability of ‘new media’ like BuzzFeed, Vice and Huffington Post to make much money from advertising has led these businesses - about which venture capital was once so enthusiastic - to disappoint investor expectations, miss revenue targets, and lay off staff.

In summary, then, we have a shift away from print and towards online news which is also for most people a shift from paying for news to not paying for it. Alongside that, we have an implosion in news media advertising revenue.7 The combined effect has been a catastrophic collapse in news industry profits. What were often still hugely profitable enterprises only a few decades ago are now increasingly ailing businesses. Even some of the most ‘prestigious’ are only able to survive because of billionaire largesse. The reasons I’ve given should give enough of a sense that the commercial malaise is structural, and only likely to intensify.

The result has been a disaster for newsroom employment. Cairncross estimated that, between 2007-17, full-time journalism jobs in the UK shrank by about a quarter - from roughly 23,000 to 17,000. US data shows newspapers shed half their newsroom staff between 2008-19, leading to a 23% fall in overall newsroom employment. Corporate chain owners have been laying off journalists for far longer than the last decade or so - the process goes back to the 1980s and 1990s. Many areas are now ‘news deserts’ with no local media.

The job market for journalists - particularly younger, casualised workers - was already dire, but now coronavirus is causing new damage. In May, BuzzFeed announced it would shut its UK and Australian news operations. The Guardian is now planning to cut 180 jobs, including 70 in editorial. More cuts are happening across the industry. Needless to say, unionising in this environment is both vital and extremely challenging. Meanwhile, there are already noises about the press wanting some kind of bailout or Government help.

You might not care about the crisis the established media is in, given what the media has done to the Labour left over the past five years. But it isn’t Times columnists ‘enjoying the wages of falsehood’8 who’ll be first to lose their jobs - they’ll be among the last to go. It’s much more likely to be an overworked reporter at a local newspaper churning out several articles daily, or a junior journalist on an insecure contract, who’ll bear the brunt.

The British left’s weakness in the media

The successful media offensive against Labour during Corbyn’s leadership has to be seen for what it was: the left getting totally outgunned in the media by the right’s institutions and journalists, with supporting fire from liberal journalists who wanted ‘their party’ back. This inequality of arms is a problem we have to tackle. But the really deep problem is how little theoretical or practical priority the labour movement has ever given to addressing this long-standing, fundamental weakness.

First, some uncomfortable truths about the history of the British labour movement. The Labour Party has never bought or set up a newspaper in its history, except the short-lived Daily Citizen (1912-15). The TUC did own a stake in the Daily Herald between 1922-64, but then sold it to a commercial publishing conglomerate called IPC, which relaunched it as The Sun, decided it was too similar to their other big title - the Daily Mirror - and sold it in turn to Rupert Murdoch.

Since its rise in the late nineteenth century, the organised British labour movement’s efforts to build a workers’ press have been poor, on any international comparison. Mike Davis has pointed out that “the emergence of mass socialist parties toward the end of the nineteenth century would have been unimaginable without the dramatic growth of the workers’ press (ninety socialist dailies in Germany alone) and the counter-narrative of contemporary history that it presented. Vorwarts, L’Humanité, Het Volk, Il Lavoratore, El Socialista, Arbeiter-Zeitung, Vooruit, Avanti!, the New York Call, La Vanguardia … these were the great editorial flagships of international socialism.”9 None of his examples were from Britain.10 In 1965 Perry Anderson reported that “anyone who has ever travelled in Scandinavia and spoken with Social-Democratic leaders there will recall the pungency of their comments on the British labour movement’s inability to muster enough will or imagination to produce its own national newspaper.”11 The biggest left-of-centre paper in the postwar period was the commercially-run Daily Mirror.12

There had been a flourishing, radical, working-class press in the first third of the nineteenth century, one that remained central to the mid-century Chartist movement.13 But by the end of the century, it had become a marginal presence. The rise of advertising, the cost of ever-larger printing presses and the falling cost of paper put mostly local and small-scale radical titles at an increasingly steep competitive disadvantage against mass-market commercial titles able to take advantage of increasing economies of scale.14 As a result, they either steadily lost ground or went ‘upmarket’, becoming more ‘bourgeois’ in editorial orientation.

In the absence of subsidies from the labour movement to counteract creeping commercialisation, right-wing press barons came increasingly to dominate the British newspaper market. It appears never to have occurred to Labour’s leaders that the commercial newspaper market systematically disadvantaged the left, and that they ought to intervene in some way to counteract it. Nor did they think to use subsidies to at least protect some ideological pluralism, as for instance happened in Sweden and Norway.

Though Britain lacked a major labour or socialist press, in the postwar period organised labour was strong in the media.15 But in the 1980s it was dealt two mortal blows. First, the infamous defeat of the print unions at Wapping by Rupert Murdoch. Second, the Thatcher government’s less-remembered reforms to TV production, which undermined broadcasting unions by encouraging outsourcing to independent producers. These, plus other changes like Murdoch’s 1981 takeover of the Times and Sunday Times, broadly led to an upward transfer of power within media institutions, away from journalists and producers, and towards editors, managers and owners. That upwards transfer inevitably meant a shift to the right, with socialist journalists generally first out the door. By the 1990s, a reactionary press and increasingly neoliberal broadcasters were policing the New Right hegemony. In response, New Labour pursued a strategy of accommodation. Rupert Murdoch effectively became the twenty-fourth member of Blair’s cabinet.

We can sum up this historical arc by saying that, across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, processes of concentration, centralisation and commercialisation so thoroughly reshaped the production of news and consolidated capitalist power over it that, whereas in the early nineteenth century newspapers were a source of radical working class strength, by the twenty-first they were the opposite.

Meanwhile on TV, instead of being an impartial antidote to the right-wing press, broadcast journalists are often led by its agenda and its framing of stories. That doesn’t prevent the press regularly attacking broadcasters for left-wing or liberal ‘bias’, but the accusation boils down to TV and radio failing to echo the press closely enough. The right’s dominance in the press helps them apply more pressure here than the left can. The fact social media has created a space for some limited pushback by the left is just another reason for the press to view it as the root of all evil. The truth is, broadcast news is often just a diluted version of what the press sells in concentrate, packaged in a superficially ‘impartial’ form which helps cement the impression of an authoritative, widespread ‘consensus’. Nor is this limited just to broadcast news: a similar process can take place in other genres.

While things are bad, don’t make the mistake of assuming they can’t get much worse. In 2018, we only narrowly avoided Rupert Murdoch taking over Sky News and turning it into ‘Fox News UK’ because of a long campaign by a coalition of groups led by Ed Miliband to persuade the regulator to stop him. Now Murdoch is back, again, with Times Radio.

Since the financial crash, a socialist politics that dares to speak its name has gradually re-emerged, forcing liberal newspapers formally committed to pluralism and broadcasters regulated for impartiality to include more radical voices. Unfortunately, TV is increasingly shaped by the commercial priority of creating an entertaining spectacle of shouty controversy modelled on US cable news, over informing viewers.

Socialists will only ever be occasional guests or insecure tenants in the established media. There’s no substitute for building our own media, guided by our own aims and our own conception of what journalism should be; one directly accountable to the movement, instead of to the Government, advertisers, billionaires or undemocratic trusts.

The internet has reduced the financial barriers to news production and distribution - one factor facilitating the revival of a socialist media in the last decade. It’s no longer necessary to own huge printing presses, buy vast quantities of paper and ink, and organise physical distribution in order to reach a big audience. The Guardian, for instance, reaches far more people online now than it ever did in print. Its problem is that its large online audience is far harder to monetise than its small print readership.16 But if we can find collective ways to channel funding into socialist journalism, in a range of digital forms, there will be far more of it, and it could have a huge reach and impact - especially if we can make it free for everyone to access.

We can’t wait for Labour to seize this opportunity. Right now Keir Starmer appears more interested in appeasing the right-wing press than fighting it. The likelihood that Labour will break the habit of a lifetime under his leadership and begin to invest in building a socialist media seems low. But we should also be honest: the Corbyn leadership also failed to break with Labour’s customary neglect of this task. During his deputy leadership campaign, Richard Burgon suggested Labour publish a free newspaper. But given the shift from print to online, the costs of newspaper publishing, and the enormous reliance of free newspapers on advertising, I’d argue he was suggesting the wrong answer to the right question.17

A Momentum Media Fund

What could Momentum do? Even on its relatively small budget, I believe it could make a vital and groundbreaking intervention. The Forward Momentum slate which just won all 20 of the member-elected seats on Momentum’s National Co-ordinating Group was elected on many pledges. One was a commitment to lead Momentum through a democratic, member-led ‘re-founding’ process, resulting in a new constitution. This would be the ideal time to launch this intervention.

I propose the new constitution should include a clause which says that, in future, between 10-15% of all donations, membership fees and affiliate fees should be paid automatically into a reserved ‘Momentum Media Fund’ (MMF). Each year, Momentum members would get to vote on which media organisations to give the money accumulated in the MMF to - like a kind of ‘participatory budgeting’ for media production. Here’s how it could work in practice.

First, media organisations wanting to participate would need to meet some basic conditions, namely to:

  • Get a minimum number of nominations from Momentum members - say a few hundred, submitted through a digital democracy platform.
  • Publish a manifesto explaining what they propose to use the money for, and a short report at the end of each year detailing how the MMF money received was actually used.
  • Publish a publicly-accessible account of its legal form, and disclose any financial interests.
  • Pledge to make everything funded by MMF money freely available to everyone. (An outlet like Tribune which publishes a subscription magazine alongside its free website and podcasts could just pledge to use MMF money exclusively for the latter.)
  • Pledge not to take any advertising money.
  • Commit to either (i) abiding by a ‘code of media conduct’ developed and maintained by Momentum through a regular, member-led process, or (ii) joining the more progressive of the two existing press regulators, IMPRESS, established to meet the fairly reasonable criteria set out in the Leveson Report. It’s debatable which of these options would be better or more practical, but there is a tremendous opportunity here for institutions funded by the MMF to uphold far higher standards of accuracy and complaints-handling than the established media does.

Second, to ensure some pluralism, each member’s vote could be divisible into quarters, so for instance you could give ½ of your vote to Outlet 1, ¼ to Outlet 2, ¼ to Outlet 3. But you could still just give your whole vote to one outlet if you preferred.

Third, votes would be added up and however much money has accumulated in the MMF over the past year would be divided up on a straightforward proportional basis. Voting could take place alongside elections to Momentum’s executive body, however that’s constituted after the refoundation process.

How much would this system raise? Here’s the maths. At its peak, Momentum membership was around 40,000. Let’s be positive and imagine that wherever Momentum’s current membership is, it could reach that figure over the next year or two. Then suppose that, on average, members give the ‘one hour’s wage a month’ Momentum asks for on joining, at an average of around £8. 40,000 members giving £96 each annually equates to a budget of £3.84 million a year. That figure (which ignores occasional donations and affiliate fees) implies an annual MMF of between £384,000-576,000, depending on whether 10 or 15% of Momentum income is reserved.

That amount would represent a massive new investment in socialist media. For the sake of illustration, if the money ended up being split between seven different projects, each would get £55,000-£82,000. (For reference, New Socialist’s current revenue, annualised, is around £20,000.)

The idea is to get a virtuous circle going. First, Momentum members fund socialist media through the MMF. That allows funded media to do more of the work ordinary Momentum members want them to do. That work then helps encourage more people to join Momentum, and existing members to increase their donations, helping Momentum grow its membership and budget. In turn, that means more money going into the MMF and therefore into socialist media.

If Momentum could reach 100,000 members - not impossible when you consider half of Labour members polled in January said they have a favourable view of Momentum, or that 135,218 members voted for Rebecca Long-Bailey in April - then the MMF could be generating something like £1m to £1.5m of investment in socialist media a year. Compared to the editorial budgets of established media organisations, that’s still a small amount of money. But it’s a start, and the fact all the output would be freely available means its reach could be wide. Ultimately, if Momentum’s model is successful, it’s not impossible to imagine trade unions or the Labour Party establishing similar schemes under socialist leadership.

But what contribution would this media make to developing and expanding Momentum? How would that part of the virtuous circle I’ve suggested be connected to the rest? Well, consider first what socialist media could do with more resources.

Socialist media needs more resources

Paradoxically, most people probably don’t realise how small the budgets socialist media are working with because of how much good work they manage to do on them. But the reality behind that is often one of self-exploitation: of working other jobs to pay the rent while sacrificing leisure time, or only being able to work part-time, in order to do work which serves the wider movement. That creates a danger of burnout, as well as a danger that voices from affluent backgrounds - who can more easily afford to work on low or no pay - become overrepresented, while working-class and diverse voices find it harder to break in.

More resources mean (i) more full-time jobs, better pay for contributors, a larger pool of contributors, (ii) more time to research, investigate and edit, and (iii) high production standards across a range of formats (video, audio, graphics, design). Making complex, unfamiliar, ‘radical’ or ‘subversive’ ideas accessible and persuasive to a wide audience is skilled, time-consuming work - we need it to be reasonably paid. So, too, is telling the stories of people marginalised or attacked by the established media, or uncovering stories the rich and powerful don’t want told - which may mean facing down lawsuits, decoding financial statements, or cultivating sources over a long period of time. Some explosive exposés have taken years to uncover and verify. If we want more of these kinds of work, we need to collectively organise funding for the labour and other resources they require.

While I’m not for a second suggesting we should emulate all their editorial values, it’s important to see here that the tabloid press are themselves very effective popularisers - of neoliberal and reactionary ideas. They do this in part by finding (and in some cases even inventing) a steady daily stream of news stories which are selected, and selectively presented, in order to appear to confirm the right’s highly ideological account of reality, making their politics seem like ‘common sense’. This is what has historically made the press such effective promoters of prejudice and moral panics. We ultimately need socialist media presenting a sustained ‘counter-narrative’ of contemporary history to millions of people - that’s going to take a lot of investment.

At the moment, some good work is being done behind paywalls like Patreon, or otherwise made exclusive to paying subscribers, because these are some of the few ways socialists can fund their work. But the subscribe-for-access model radically limits who this output can reach. It forfeits the internet’s most utopian promise - free access to media and culture for everyone - for lack of a form of funding suited to realising that promise. That’s not a criticism of anyone who’s had to use Patreon to fund their work. Instead, it’s our job collectively, as a movement, to give them a way to take down those paywalls while still getting remunerated for their labour.

And that’s exactly what the MMF would achieve. In return for MMF funding, recipients would be required to make whatever they produce with that funding freely available to everyone. So we all get access to everything we’ve collectively chosen to support, not just the work of the organisations we’ve individually voted for. In this way, collective democratic funding is decisively superior to individual subscription.

To illustrate: imagine 10,000 people subscribe to outlet A for £5 a month and another 10,000 people subscribe to outlet B for the same. £100,000 a month is spent in total, but each person only gets access to one outlet - either A or B. If, instead, all 20,000 people pooled that money into a fund and democratically allocate it (in return for the outlets dropping their paywalls), not only would all 20,000 people be able to access both - so, too, would everyone else.

In other words, a paywalled, privately-funded digital media is a needlessly siloed and segregated one. Collectively-funded, freely accessible digital media would reach far more people: not just Momentum members - the wider public. The private enclosure of output that capitalist production requires as its premise is, on the internet, a fetter - one in increasingly clear contradiction with egalitarian possibilities for universal online access to a media commons.

The MMF could add to the diversity of media we already have by enabling new organisations to launch. And none of the organisations funded would have to confine themselves to a narrow definition of ‘media’ either. For instance, Momentum members might decide to vote for organisations offering political education through events, reading and discussion groups, study courses, reading guides. Or they might fund cultural work, which could take familiar forms - like reviews of books, films and music - or unfamiliar, innovative ones.

What socialist media can do for the movement

It would ultimately be for Momentum members themselves to decide which kinds of work they want to fund, through an open process of democratic debate - online, in local groups, in socialist media itself. Socialist media workers themselves would be participants in the debate, no doubt making cases for prioritising different things. Elections would provide clear feedback on what members thought of their work, but it would also be in their interest to develop close contact with members, learn their needs and priorities, and maintain an ongoing dialogue of mutual learning with them, in the best traditions of socialist pedagogy. Fortunately, many socialists in the media do this already. The MMF would give them the resources to do it more, while encouraging them not to lose touch with members, and ensuring that the best at it get the most funding.

What might Momentum members vote for? As an ordinary member myself, and having talked to others, my guess is that, alongside the political education and cultural work many of us see as vital, we’d want journalism in a range of genres. I want to focus on news reporting, for a moment, as an area where I’d argue there is still a far too limited socialist presence. Here, I think members would want a mixture of ‘inward-facing’ and ‘outward-facing’ work.

On the one hand, we need reporting, interviews and analysis which inform us, as ordinary members, about what’s going on in Momentum. It’s a basic necessity for accountability, engagement, and informed democratic decisions. If Forward Momentum is now going to transform Momentum democracy, it needs to find ways to ensure ordinary members like me can learn more easily about what’s going on in Momentum, what’s at stake in democratic decisions, who stands for what. New Socialist’s series of interviews with candidates in the NCG elections is one example of the kind of necessary spadework a socialist media has to do. Likewise, if we’re going to transform Momentum’s internal life and make it a more attractive organisation to join and get involved in, we need reporting on that internal life. For instance, what are local groups doing? How are the bigger and more successful ones, like Manchester Momentum, working? What common problems are we dealing with? What can we learn from each other?

On the other hand, we also need more ‘outward-facing’ work. Momentum and its membership have been demonised from day one by the established media. We need more organised capacity to fight back against these smears - including in positive ways, like by telling the real stories of members across the country. This is essential if we’re going to double or triple Momentum’s membership.

Similarly, the established media is always on hand to vilify workers and unions who stand up to management. We need media which tells the workers’ side of the story, or gives them a platform to tell it themselves - especially if we want to build wider solidarity for strike action, or encourage emulation. The same goes for social movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. The solidarity we can show by giving a platform to these struggles and their demands (while entering into an open dialogue with them about their politics) is part of how we build a big, diverse socialist movement.18

We also need media prepared to do the original news reporting the established media finds too unprofitable or politically inconvenient. We need ‘exposures’ and ‘muckraking’, addressing working conditions and workplace exploitation, political and business corruption, abuses of power, miscarriages of justice, crimes of the elite. And we need far more reporting on international struggles of all kinds, making common causes across borders.

In each case, we need this reporting - which has the potential to be far more subversive than your average ‘shocking revelation’ - to be done by journalists whose socialist perspectives frame their stories and build a broader narrative. ‘Scandals’ not as isolated, cases of ‘bad behaviour’ by random individuals, solvable with a mere government review or Parliamentary bill; instead, telling illustrations of the social relations that gird us. Socialist reporting of this kind has an honourable history. In the past it has sown seeds of political consciousness, solidarity and militancy which have grown into movements. We need it to do that again today.

Although I’ve presented the MMF proposal in quite a detailed form, I’m not dogmatically wedded to any single aspect of it - except for the importance of members themselves democratically allocating the money. The central lesson of twentieth century communist ‘party line’ journalism is the danger inherent in giving political leaders- of any kind- direct control over movement media. We can’t repeat that fundamental mistake. Ultimate control must reside with ordinary movement members. Not least because holding leaders to account on behalf of ordinary members is one of the most essential tasks socialist media can fulfil for the movement as a whole.

Aside from that last stipulation, nothing about the MMF proposal as I’ve presented it is absolutely fixed or final in my mind. It’s intended as an initial contribution to stimulate debate, in the hope that our collective intellect can discuss it, improve it, and turn it in some form into reality.

  1. In the 1980s it would’ve probably been called ‘the Tony Benn treatment’, or ‘the GLC treatment’. 

  2. Cairncross’s one significant suggestion was to set up a publicly-funded ‘Institute for Public Interest News’ to disburse grants, Arts Council-style, for the production of ‘public interest journalism’. This was an admission the market can’t deliver the journalism needed to fulfil vital democratic functions, like investigating state institutions. But since the ‘Institute’ would be a state-appointed body, not a democratic one, its appetite to support journalism which really fulfils those functions is doubtful anyway. The Government rejected the proposal. 

  3. The intense competitive pressure on British newspapers to secure ‘scoops’ was combined with heightened labour exploitation, post-Wapping, to push journalists increasingly to resort to a range of illicit practices, nicknamed the ‘dark arts’. Phone hacking is only the most infamous; others included data theft, blackmail and outright fabrication. For more, see Nick Davies, Flat Earth News (2008) and Hack Attack (2014), as well as The Leveson Report, Volume II, Part F, Chapter 4: “Some Practices at the News of the World”, and Volume I, Part E, Chapter 3: “Operation Motorman” - a 2003 investigation by the Information Commissioner into mass breaches of data protection law in which most large-circulation national newspapers were implicated - see this chart

  4. For a slightly romanticised but still useful reminder of what the pre-internet media environment was like, see this Diary piece from the London Review of Books by Rebecca Solnit in 2013 

  5. For more, see a previous piece I wrote for New Socialist responding to Jeremy Corbyn’s 2018 Alternative MacTaggart lecture here, particularly the section on “An alternative account of the crisis in our news media”. 

  6. For instance, it’s impossible to imagine the Mail backing even an obsequious, right-wing leader of the Labour Party in the way The Sun backed Tony Blair. The Mail was always the strongest Fleet Street hold-out against New Labour’s attempts to secure press support. 

  7. For the same story in the US, see the charts in this essay. 

  8. Mary Wollstonecraft’s attack on Edmund Burke in her A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). 

  9. Mike Davis, “Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Proletarian Agency” in Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory (2018), p. 112 

  10. There were a few small socialist titles in Britain at the turn of the century, like Robert Blatchford’s Clarion, a socialist weekly whose circulation peaked at around 40,000, but their circulation was tiny in comparison to the capitalist press. 

  11. Perry Anderson, “Problems of Socialist Strategy” in Towards Socialism (1965) 

  12. The Daily Mirror was the most-read newspaper in the country in the 1960s, but in the 1970s it steadily lost ground to Murdoch’s Sun, which overtook its circulation in 1978. It was always run for profit, and broadly supported the Labour right. IPC sold it to Robert Maxwell in 1984 - a crook who robbed the Mirror’s workers through their pension fund. After Maxwell’s death in 1991, it was gutted by cost-cutting, it launched Piers Morgan’s inglorious career, and its Sunday edition engaged in illegal phone hacking. See Paul Foot, “We need socialist newspapers like never before”, Socialist Worker 10 April 1993. 

  13. For the early nineteenth century, see E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). For the Chartist press, see Dorothy Thompson’s The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution (1984). 

  14. See James Curran, “Capitalism and Control of the Press” in Media and Power (2002). “The period around the middle of the nineteenth century…did not inaugurate a new era of press freedom: rather, it introduced a new system of press censorship more effective than anything that had gone before. Market forces succeeded where legal repression had failed in establishing the press as an instrument of social control”, p. 81. 

  15. For example, a management lock-out shut down the Times for a year in 1978-9. 

  16. The Guardian’s digital strategy is built on attracting advertising and donations. Quite aside from the problems with advertising i’ve already highlighted, these two sources probably pull it in opposite directions, editorially: on the one hand, towards producing more ‘lifestyle’ journalism which appeals to affluent demographics; on the other, towards producing ‘campaigning’ journalism which appeals to the politically-engaged as ‘a cause worth supporting’. And even then, which cause(s)? Socialism? #FBPE? Those sources also leave it vulnerable to (a) downturns in consumer spending, which lead businesses to cut their ad budgets, and (b) audience doubts about whether it’s worth donating. The coronavirus crisis caused a massive case of (a). As for (b), hostility to Corbynism, a retreat from big, impactful investigations, and the triviality of some of its ‘lifestyle’ output may each have played a role. 

  17. Free newspapers rely entirely on advertising and subsidies to cover their costs. But a left-wing newspaper heavily reliant on advertising is, as the twentieth-century history of British press shows, not viable - a contradiction in terms, in fact. Without substantial advertising revenue, the subsidies required from the trade unions and/or the Labour Party just to cover costs would be enormous. Even with it, Evgeny Lebedev’s Evening Standard is now loss-making - and that’s even before 4G’s impending arrival on the London Underground. Free newspapers are easier to distribute in big cities where Labour already does well than across the many smaller towns where it does not. There are alternatives. If the labour movement is going to invest in media, its money would be better spent supporting digital media (which can be distributed easily through social media, WhatsApp, etc.), subscription print magazines or periodicals, or one-off free pamphlet campaigns - most obviously, providing free printed copies of future Labour manifestos. (A hard copy of the 2019 Labour Manifesto cost £6 plus postage from Labour’s online shop.) The question is how should funding be distributed. 

  18. See here for an excellent overview by Bryan Knight of the Black Radical journal ‘Race Today’ (1973-1988), whose practice exemplified many of the functions socialist journalism could perform today.