The Tyrant’s Foe, the People’s Friend

The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account … Our business was founded on the idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society. (Rupert Murdoch ‘We are sorry’ 16 July 2011).

I keep above my desk a copy of a woodcut of an old-fashioned printing press, to remind me of the mission which inspired radical journalists in the 19th century. If you look at the founding principles of News on Sunday (see my earlier post), you can hear the echo of that radical slogan. In its first editorial, the new tabloid described itself in 1987 as ‘a paper committed to equality, justice and freedom’.

That vision of a press with a mission never died out. In its title, the Guardian claims that inheritance and in today’s paper stresses the importance of being the only British daily owned by a trust.

That independence – and the power it gives us to do sustained investigative journalism – is increasingly rare in a media world dominated by global media companies and billionaire proprietors.
(Guardian 16 June 2011).

The Guardian then goes on to urge readers to subscribe – a fair point, perhaps, if we want to see this kind of journalism survive.

Back in 1987, News on Sunday came out with similar references to its independence: We’re not owned by a Murdoch or a Maxwell … We don’t kow-tow to anyone.

Amazingly, from the point of view of today, when it launched in 1843, the News of the World laid claim to such radical credentials – even referring to the Rebecca Riots in west Wales, in which poor farmers rose up against the oppressive tolls imposed by road owners. From those events, another inheritor of the radical tradition took its name – the Welsh investigative magazine Rebecca (1973-1982).

In his book Media and Power, James Curran discusses the way radical journalism was hijacked by the popular Sunday newspapers of the mid 19th century, which ‘pursued sales maximizing strategies that led to the partial incorporation, and cumulative attrition, of radical popular culture’.

Thus, it is argued that the template of modern popular journalism was first established in the 1840s and 1850s by popular Sunday newspapers which combined the moralistic entertainment tradition of gallowsheets and other street literature with the rhetoric, stripped of real substance, of the radical movement press. (Curran, 2002).

News on Sunday was the last attempt to revive the tradition on a large scale and its failure meant that no-one would ever try again to launch a radical national newspaper. (Watch this space for more on the history of its rise and fall.)

Does the web offer a new space for radical journalism? Rebecca – inheritor of the tradition – was relaunched as an investigative website last year and has a good current angle on Murdoch and co. It – like the Guardian perhaps – will depend on subscribers for its survival.

James Stewart

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About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism. http://staff.glam.ac.uk/users/1713-jstewart
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