Rebellious media: history gives us hope
I was recently invited to be a speaker at the upcoming Rebellious Media Conference in London – a celebration of the role of alternative media in bringing about social change. With all of the tickets sold and Noam Chomsky delivering the keynote, it looks likely to be significant. Chomsky is known for showing how the current structure of the media business can serve to squeeze out radical viewpoints. But this is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, throughout history élites have consistently sought to stifle those media sources that challenge them. But history also provides myriad stories of resistance and resilience to inspire campaigners and radical journalists today.
One of my favourites is a story set in the early 19th century, when taxes on newspapers were levied in such a way as to put radical media outside the purchasing power of ordinary working people. The mark of having paid the 4d tax was a ‘stamp’ of approval from the government. Although this led to the closure of some newspapers, a new publication was set up in defiance of this unjust law, illegally priced at 1d: The Poor Man’s Guardian.
Photo: Spartacus Educational
The first issue – published in July 1831 – declared: ‘We will try, step by step, the power of RIGHT against MIGHT, and we will begin by protecting and upholding this grand bulwark and defence of all our rights – this key to all our liberties – the freedom of the press.’ The paper constructed its own stamp, whose logo incorporated the phrase ‘Liberty of the Press’ and was emblazoned with some timeless words: ‘Knowledge is Power’. Early on, the publication set out its stall: ‘it is the cause of the “rabble” that we advocate, the poor, the suffering, the industrious, the productive classes... we will teach this “rabble” their power.’
The by-lines of the first few issues of The Poor Man’s Guardian reveal the contortions to which the editors went to test the law. The publication called itself a newspaper, then a ‘newspaper’ (in inverted commas), before by the time of the fifth edition claiming that the publication was ‘leant to read without deposit for an unlimited period: Charge One Penny’.Despite 740 people coming to trial for selling such unstamped publications, the newspaper reached as many as 20,000 people each week. At his trial, the proprietor Henry Hetherington accused the judge of ‘holding a dagger at my throat, but he shall strike it in before he wrests the pen from my hand, or prevents me from publishing a penny paper for the people every week, which I will do in defiance of this odious law, be the consequences what they may.’ Sales of the publication trebled.
Ingenious methods were found to smuggle editions of the newspaper from the printers to the distributors, including concealing copies in piles of clothes, apple baskets, hat boxes and even coffins. This latter ruse was foiled when neighbours alerted the authorities, concerned at the number of deaths that appeared to be taking place at the newspaper.
The final death knell for The Poor Man’s Guardian rang in 1835 when the presses were seized. But despite its short life the paper was phenomenally successful. Although by some estimates there were more than 500 unstamped publications between 1830 and 1836, most survived only a few months.
The Poor Man’s Guardian resourced the movements pushing for a more radical Reform Act, in so doing helping to foster the class consciousness which later led to the rise of the Working Men’s Associations – better known as the Chartists – of which Hetherington was also a founder. The paper also contributed to a more immediate success: the resistance and persistence of newspaper workers who disregarded the law showed an unpopular policy to be prohibitively expensive and embarrassing to implement. In 1836 the government finally reduced the stamp duty on newspapers to 1d.
Tim Gee’s book ‘Counterpower: Making Change Happen’ is available at the New Internationalist online shop. He will speak at the Rebellious Media Conference from 2.15pm – 3.45pm at the Institute of Education on Saturday 8 October.