Capitalism’s Conscience gives a range of critiques of The Guardian and its liberal world view, outlining and explaining why it so often betrays the left, finds Michael Bailey
After several years of excuses, I recently got around to boarding and tidying the loft. In doing so I came across various boxes of past schoolwork long since forgotten about. Among the many exercise books, naïve drawings and mediocre school reports, was a folder of Guardian cuttings that dated to the late 1980s. Perusing the clippings reminded me of a life-changing encounter I had with one of my then A-Level teachers who kindly gave me his copy of the Guardian one day and suggested that I start reading the newspaper to improve my understanding of current affairs. After convincing my parents that their buying a quality broadsheet would help me get to university, and though they occasionally complained about the paper having too much news, being too opinionated, lacking humour or being too large to read on the bus, the Guardian became the family’s daily newspaper, albeit for the duration of my time at sixth form. And despite my abandoning two degrees and not much caring for university life by my early twenties, the Guardian’s investigative journalism, foreign news, social commentaries and cultural reviews continued to play a formative role during my early political education.
Rediscovering those Guardian cuttings from my late teenage years also provided an occasion for reflecting on the newspaper’s contemporary history. A few agonising hours later, I decided to throw the many bits of paper in the recycling bin, partly because I can just as easily read the Guardian’s coverage of past events online, but mainly because of my growing disappointment with the newspaper’s reportage of late, for example: the relentless hostility that many of its senior journalists and commentators showed towards Jeremy Corbyn and the newly energised Labour left; the newspaper’s conspicuous ideological shift in its coverage of the Middle East; the associated censoring of dissenting voices who are too critical; its opportunistic exploitation and treacherous betrayal of Julian Assange; finally, its willingness to promote false-flag narratives and the careers of useful idiots for Western reasons of state. Consequently, while I don’t support a formal #BoycottTheGuardian campaign, like the former Labour MP Chris Williamson, I chose to stop regularly buying the newspaper a couple of years ago and to support a handful of alternative media platforms and independent journalists instead.
Much of this disillusionment is echoed in Des Freedman’s latest book, just published by Pluto Press to coincide with the Guardian’s 200th anniversary in May 2021. Suitably entitled Capitalism’s Conscience, the volume comprises a wide-ranging collection of essays that critically explore the Guardian’s paradoxical history as a title that ‘is read by people on the left and has a reputation for identifying with left-wing positions’ but, when everything has been considered, ‘is the home of a vigorous liberalism that consistently … disappoints its critics on the left’ (p.viii). Just as James Curran demythologised Whiggish accounts of the Victorian free press as a cornerstone of democratisation in the seminal Power Without Responsibility, similarly, Freedman and his contributors problematise the widely-held assumption that the Guardian is best understood as one of the UK’s first and last bastions of independent journalism, ‘free from commercial and political interference’.
Unsurprisingly, this quintessentially liberal view of the Guardian’s core values and purpose is exemplified in the oft-quoted ‘centenary essay’, first published by the paper’s then proprietor and longest serving editor, C.P. Scott, in May 1921:
‘Character is a subtle affair, and has many shades and sides to it. It is not a thing to be much talked about, but rather to be felt. It is the slow deposit of past actions and ideals. It is for each man his most precious possession, and so it is for that latest growth of time, the newspaper. Fundamentally it implies honesty, cleanness, courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and the community. A newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. “Propaganda”, so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair. This is an ideal. Achievement in such matters is hardly given to man. Perhaps none of us can attain to it in the desirable measure. We can but try, ask pardon for shortcomings, and there leave the matter.’i
But ought we, as it were, ‘there leave the matter’? After reading Capitalism’s Conscience, arguably not. For a start, Freedman’s opening chapter on the founding of the (then weekly) Guardian by the religious nonconformist John Edward Taylor, in the wake of the 1819 Peterloo massacre in Manchester, is a timely reminder of how Britain’s ruling elites have long sought to contain radical social forces using a combination of physical coercion and violence, statutory and judicial censorship, or opportunistic and perfidious cooperation. More specifically, whereas liberal historians have tended to emphasise Taylor’s valiant efforts to bear witness to the atrocities of Peterloo and his unyielding agitation for parliamentary reform, following John Saville and Edward Thompson’s criticisms of middle-class radicals from this period, Freedman draws our attention to Taylor’s self-professed unease with working-class revolutionaries and the prospect of another civil war. And though he was undoubtedly radicalised by the events of Peterloo and the government’s subsequent attempts to censor ‘seditious publications’ that sought to challenge the ‘Old Corruption’, the reality is that Taylor equally disapproved of bourgeois militancy and the idea of universal suffrage.
The Guardian and the capitalists
Elsewhere, Freedman questions the much praised manifesto that Taylor published announcing the first edition of the newspaper. The Guardian’s current editor, Katherine Viner, describes it as ‘a powerful document’ but Freedman suggests that it was, at best, politically cautious and deliberately vague so as to attract the support of Manchester’s new order of businessmen and social critics. Even Viner acknowledges that the paper ‘got too close to the Manchester cotton merchants who paid for the advertising that supported the paper.’ Of course, this dependency on advertising revenue was true of all the respectable licensed press, which reflected the rising tide of laissez-faire liberalism and a trenchant belief in the unfettered forces of the free market. Additionally, like many of his contemporaries, Taylor also believed that an enlarged, capitalist press would better compete with the popular radicalism of the so-called pauper press.
Far from being on the ‘people’s side’, Freedman thus argues that the early years of the Guardian’s history is a litany of egregious judgements, many of which stemmed from the newspaper’s political economy, not least its reliance on King Cotton. For instance, Taylor’s fear of the mob was evident in the paper’s support of employers and local authorities that occasionally deployed local garrisons and militias to suppress workers agitating for better pay and work conditions. ‘We believe that all the mills … are now in a state of defence so that if they should be attacked the rioters will have reason to regret their temerity.’ii Nor did the Guardian support the decade-long campaign that eventually resulted in the 1847 Factory Act which limited the daily working hours of women and young people in textile mills to ten hours. Rather, an editorial thought it, ‘A law positively enacting a gradual destruction of the cotton manufacture in this kingdom.’ iii A few years later, the working-class Manchester Advertiser described its rival title as inter alia ‘the foul prostitute and dirty parasite of the worst portion of the mill-owners’iv and ‘the cotton lords' bible’. And the newspaper consistently opposed the Anti-Corn Law League, prompting Asa Briggs to note astutely that ‘its hero in 1846’ was not Richard Cobden but Robert Peel, the then Conservative leader. v
Writing about ‘The Chartists’ for the New York Daily Tribune in August 1852, Marx understood all too well the duplicity of the British bourgeoisie during this period of social upheaval. Indeed, he might just as easily have been portraying the ‘Conductors of the GUARDIAN’:
‘… the men of the Manchester School, the Parliamentary and Financial Reformers … are the official representatives of modem English society … they represent the party of the self-conscious bourgeoisie, of industrial capital striving … to eradicate the last arrogant remnants of feudal society. This party is led on by the most active and most energetic portion of the English bourgeoisie – the manufacturers. What they demand is the complete and undisguised ascendancy of the bourgeoisie … But the British bourgeoisie are not excitable Frenchmen. When they intend to carry a parliamentary reform they will not make a February revolution … During all the time from 1846 to 1852, they exposed themselves to ridicule by their battle-cry: Broad principles and practical (read small) measures. And why all this? Because in every violent movement they are obliged to appeal to the working class. And if the aristocracy is their vanishing opponent, the working class is their arising enemy. They prefer to compromise with the vanishing opponent rather than strengthen the arising enemy …’ vi
By the late 1850s, the anti-protectionist Tories, aristocratic Whigs and reformist Radicals had come together to form the Liberal Party. Meanwhile, the working-class radicalism that had characterised the preceding decades had greatly abated. But if Taylor and his supporters had good reason to be satisfied with the ‘cause of reform’ and ‘the internal prosperity of this country’, ‘Foreign Politics’ remained a ‘subject of anxious observation’. However, rather than supporting liberal advances elsewhere in the world, as per the above-mentioned manifesto, the Guardian promoted an explicitly racist view ‘in dealing with the population of India’ when mutiny broke out in 1857. For example, one editorial was resolute in its conviction that the British army and her majesty’s government have ‘unfaltering confidence in our right to rule over the native population by virtue of inherent superiority’. Likewise, though there were some abolitionists among its ‘Little Circle’ of businessmen, the Guardian opted to champion the slave-owning Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-65) on the spurious grounds that ‘the breakup of the US would hasten the end of slavery’. Two-hundred years later, the Guardian readily admits that its support for the secession of the South ‘led to a loathing of Abraham Lincoln that today seems petty and shameful’.vii
Ever mindful of the newspaper’s tradition of ‘gentleman liberalism’ and its contemporary reverberations during his twenty-odd years at the Guardian, former Editor-At-Large, Gary Younge, recalls a number of workplace incidents that usefully illustrate Katy Brown et al’s analysis of the newspaper’s ‘uneven coverage of racism’ and its duplicitous ‘articulations of liberal racism’ (pp.274-5).
‘Liberal racism does not see itself or liberalism as being racist, instead evoking illiberal racism to justify its self-appointed not-racist position. In fact, it treats liberalism as the antidote or bulwark against racism. Yet, at the same time, it weaponizes liberalism and liberal tropes, such as freedom of speech, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, against racialized groups, something most notable in the case of Muslims. In doing so, it not only denies the racism often core to liberal practice, but justifies the lack of action on structural inequalities and the continuity of less overt forms of systematic and coded racism’ (p.280).
Relatedly, Alan MacLeod is unequivocal in his criticism of the paper’s reporting of the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ to have swept much of the Latin American continent of late. Indeed, he convincingly demonstrates how the Guardian has repeatedly sought to manipulate public consent for (ongoing) attempts to bring about pro-Western regime changes in, for example, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia and Columbia. MacLeod also points out that the newspaper’s recent ‘demonising’ of Global South movements is at odds with the Guardian of thirty years ago when it employed the likes of Richard Gott and Hugh O’Shaughnessy as correspondents.
In another chapter about the Guardian’s coverage of foreign affairs, Victoria Brittain reminds us of a time when ‘visionary leaders of movements across the world sought out the Guardian in the 1980s knowing they could tell their own stories in the paper’s Third World Review’. And though Chris Searle was surely right when he described the TWR as ‘the buried conscience of the Guardian that surfaces every Friday’, equally, he acknowledged that its very existence was ‘a formidable achievement’. Despite its worldwide popularity, Brittain concludes that the TWR’s politics became too irksome for the then editor Peter Preston, who would receive weekly complaints from the Foreign Office, the World Bank, the US Embassy, among others. Publication ceased in 1989 without any meaningful consultation or explanation.
In a timely chapter on Israel-Palestine, the Palestinian intellectual and activist Ghada Karmi reflects on the Guardian’s coverage of the conflict since the Balfour agreement. To begin with, she argues that ‘the very term that conventionally describes what is happening between Israel and Palestine as a “conflict” is misleading’ because it ‘promotes the false concept of two, roughly equivalent, parties fighting it out’ (p.73). The recent atrocities in Gaza are a stark reminder of the ‘settler colonial nature’ of Zionism and the media’s reluctance to question ‘a skilfully promoted narrative presenting the settlers as the authentic indigenous people from ancient times, and the Arab inhabitants of Palestine as late and illegitimate arrivals’ (p.74). Furthermore, whilst recognising the difficulties of reporting the conflict objectively, and though she and several of her activist friends have published articles in its pages in the past, Karmi laments that ‘it has become more difficult’ to ‘obtain a Guardian platform for the Palestinian voice’ in recent years (p.86). What Karmi fails to mention, however, are the altogether more troubling instances of journalists who, to quote Jonathan Cook, ‘have run foul of the Guardian’s unwritten but tightly policed constraints on what can be said about Israel’. Cook himself is one such journalist who has meticulously documented the many instances when his investigative reports about the Middle East were ‘edited’ (that is to say, censored) because they were too critical of Israel, which eventually led to him being dropped by the Guardian. Other notable examples include Antony Loewenstein, Nafeez Ahmed and Nathan Robinson.
The reaction to Corbynism
Younge’s autobiographical reflections also segue with some of the book’s other chapters that are mostly concerned with matters closer to home. Though philosophical about the newspaper’s liberalism and the ‘scuppering role’ it played when confronted with Corbynism, Younge also hints that his perceived support for Corbyn left him ‘isolated and marginalised’ (p.49). On the other hand, even if he ‘understood the disappointment from a huge section of the readership’, he ‘found much of the vitriol and sanctimony that came with it disproportionate’ on the grounds that the newspaper contained ‘more supportive opinions and coverage than virtually any other mainstream outlet’ (p.52). Maybe. But this should be understood in a context where the rest of the corporate media are far more dreadful and set a very low bar when it comes to journalistic impartiality and integrity.
Additionally, whilst they concede ‘that there are genuine concerns about antisemitic hate speech within the Labour Party’, a 2018 Media Reform Coalition report authored by Justin Schlosberg (with Laura Laker) nevertheless demonstrates that the Guardian (and the BBC) recorded the highest number of inaccurate and imbalanced accounts surrounding Labour’s handling of the controversy. This analysis is further borne out in Schlosberg’s chapter about the Guardian and Corbynism. Suffice to say that, just as the Guardian has belatedly acknowledged that its portrayal of Abraham Lincoln was ‘petty and shameful’, history will almost certainly judge the newspaper’s representations of Corbynism in a like fashion.
The chapters by Tom Mills and Mike Wayne similarly expose the Guardian’s ‘extreme centrism’ during the last few tumultuous years. After examining metadata scraped from the Twitter networks of 25 leading Guardian and Observer columnists, Mills concludes that, just as politicians are often accused of living in a Westminster bubble, the two newspapers’ commentariat are ‘highly insular’ in terms of their following patterns (p.227). More specifically, they tend to follow centrist politicians, indeed, we learn that Jess Philips, David Lammy and Tom Watson were the most followed MPs amongst the columnists sampled between 2017-19. For Mills, ‘All this appears to substantiate claims from the left of a centrist bias on the comment pages of the Guardian and Observer’ (p.227). Drawing on the theoretical insights of Antonio Gramsci, Wayne carefully reconstructs the socio-political events and debates leading up to and surrounding Brexit. In doing so, he shows how the Guardian (aided and abetted by organisations such as Another Europe is Possible and Love Socialism, Hate Brexit) cynically weaponised the 2016 EU referendum to drive a wedge between Corbyn (known to be an EU sceptic) and the paper’s Remain readership and, ultimately, Labour’s electoral base in areas that voted overwhelmingly to Leave.
The paper’s ‘complex lineage’ (p.ix) and the aforementioned criticisms notwithstanding, it’s equally important to point out that nearly all the book’s contributors recognise that the Guardian has many redeeming qualities, both historically and in the present moment. Aaron Ackerley notes that the paper maintained its opposition to the Boer War even though its sales and advertising revenue dropped. Apart from its early pro-Zionist phase, Karmi concludes that ‘the Guardian’s coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been the fairest and most balanced of all the mainstream British press’ (p.89). Though conscious of its tendency to reinforce patriarchal ideals about domesticity and femininity, Hannah Hamad pays homage to the early years of the Guardian’s women’s page. Compared to most other UK newspapers, Mike Berry commends much of the Guardian’s coverage of the 2007-08 financial crisis, which can be largely attributed to the paper’s Economics Editor, Larry Elliot. While she ultimately accuses the paper of reneging on its promise to enact Leveson’s recommendations on the regulation of the press, Natalie Fenton acknowledges that the inquiry would not have happened had it not been for the Guardian exposing the phone hacking scandal in the first place. And one could cite numerous other instances where the newspaper has dared to challenge the powerful. Such praise is important precisely because it establishes issue-by-issue benchmarks with which to judge the newspaper, indeed the media generally, in future years.
The Guardian and the security state
Which brings us to what is arguably the book’s key chapter about the Guardian’s work on the early WikiLeaks information, the Edward Snowden files and the subsequent fallout. Its authors, Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis, begin by noting that the Guardian alone ‘remained uncowed’ following ‘considerable efforts’ by the British security services to control these revelations (p.154), which culminated with two GCHQ technicians overseeing the destruction of the computer hard drives that were used to store the leaked NSA files at the Guardian’s offices in London. Again, credit where credit is due.
However, the authors go on to argue that, following Alan Rusbridger’s departure as editor and several of its senior investigative journalists, the Guardian became more compliant with government D-Notice requests asking the media to stop publishing classified information for reasons of national security. Indeed, a current Guardian journalist is quoted as saying that ‘they’ve got rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way’ (p.158). Kennard and Curtis also suggest that the newspaper began to foster a closer and more sympathetic working relationship with the security establishment, as demonstrated with the appointment of Paul Johnson (then Guardian Deputy Editor) as a D-Notice committee member (between 2014-18), and the security services ‘likely feeding’ a series of exclusive interviews with the then heads of MI5, MI6 and the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner and other ‘officially sanctioned’ exposes (p.157).
Meanwhile, just as the Guardian’s relations with Snowden were beginning to falter after he took up asylum in Russia, as seen in an editorial somewhat incredulously pronouncing that Snowden would prefer to ‘come in from the cold’ and ‘to face the music for what he has done’, the newspaper opted to abandon another of its major sources of intelligence (not to mention, increasing audience share and revenue), Julian Assange. First, there was the shameful incident when Guardian journalists, David Leigh and Luke Harding, deliberately published a WikiLeaks’ decryption password, which resulted in the US embassy cables being released against the wishes of Assange.
There then followed what John Pilger has described as a ‘drip-feed of hostility [running] through the Guardian, making it difficult for readers to interpret the WikiLeaks phenomenon and to assume other than the worst about its founder’. For example: the editorial which pronounced the 2016 UN ruling that Assange was been detained arbitrarily as ‘a publicity stunt’; the newspaper’s refusal to give evidence in support of Assange in the ongoing extradition hearing; some of its journalists publishing unfounded allegations that Assange had colluded with cohorts of Donald Trump and the Russian intelligence services apropos the leaking of thousands of Democratic National Council (DNC) emails.
Probably the most disgraceful illustration of the newspaper having turned from guardian to persecutor was the manufactured story that claimed Assange had met with Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort when he was captive in the Ecuadorian embassy, causing Glen Greenwald to accuse the paper of ‘institutionally blinding contempt for Assange’. Indeed, many other journalists, media scholars and political commentators have argued that the Guardian sought purposely to smear WikiLeaks as a credible source of information in order to reassert its own gatekeeper role of speaking truth to power.
Finally, Kennard and Curtis’s concluding judgement, that the ‘Guardian has gone in six short years from being the natural outlet to place stories exposing wrongdoing by the security state to a platform trusted by the security state to amplify its information operation’ (p.164), is a plain reminder of how easily liberal institutions and individuals, whose politics necessarily require them to be deep-seated in elite networks, can be co-opted as state functionaries, unwittingly or otherwise.
The Guardian of today could do far worse than to take inspiration, not from Taylor’s founding prospectus or Scott’s centenary essay, but from one of its early ideological rivals from the 1830s: the Poor Man’s Guardian and its founding editor, Henry Hetherington. Rather than cooperate with state censorship, then in the form of the notorious stamp duty, and despite numerous fines and being imprisoned on three separate occasions, Hetherington remained steadfast and widely admired to the last. His example is an encouragement and a challenge to us all:
‘Defiance is our only remedy; we cannot be a slave in all; we submit to much – for it is impossible to be wholly consistent – but we will try the power of Right against Might; we will begin by protesting and upholding this grand bulwark of all our liberties – the Freedom of the Press – the Press, too, of the ignorant and the Poor. We have taken upon ourselves its protection, and we will never abandon our post: we will die rather.’viii
i C.P. Scott acquired the Guardian in 1907, following Taylor’s death in 1905. It was Scott’s son, John, who transferred the family’s ownership of the Guardian to the newly created the Scott Trust in 1936 to ensure the paper’s financial and political independence. A fuller description of the Trust can be found in the chapter by Aaron Ackerley.
ii John Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974), p.68.
iii The Manchester Guardian, 28 January 1832.
iv Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Pelican, 1975), p.91.
v Ibid, p.130.
vi David McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp.330-31.
vii It should be noted that, in July 2020, Alex Graham, chairman of the Scott Trust, emailed the paper’s staff to announce that there would be an independent inquiry into any possible links between the transatlantic slave trade and the Guardian’s founders: ‘we must acknowledge that as cotton and textile merchants, some of Taylor and his funders’ family businesses would almost certainly have traded with cotton plantations that used enslaved labour … All organisations must understand and discuss their histories, and it is particularly incumbent on media organisations to do so, reflecting on their past and current positions with openness, highlighting mistakes, and facing the future with humility’.
viii Stanley Harrison, Poor Men's Guardians (Lawrence & Wishart, 1974), p.78.
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