In comparison with its modern rivals, capitalism is the most attractive form of socioeconomic organization for conservatives. Capitalism has moved the democratization of society in a conservative direction, because at the same time that the differing wealth and income of individuals ensures that their purchasing power varies, each is a consumer able to make his or her own purchasing decisions. This clement of choice and the need to shape and cater to it have helped to lead to a major shift in political culture, so that in modern Britain, unlike during the late 1940’s, there is now little confidence in central planning and state collectivism. Capitalist pressures and possibilities have changed society, leading to a major expansion of the middle class. The percentage of the labor force composed of manual workers fell from 75 in 1900 to 47 by 1974 and 36 in 1991. A capitalist, consumerist, individualist, mobile, predominantly secular and urban, property-owning democracy developed in Britain, and society was far more atomistic than its predecessors. The young, determined not to be younger copies of their elders, were more willing to try different foods, to holiday in different places, to move away from parental religious preferences, to go on to higher education or to purchase property.
Many conservatives, disturbed by these shifts, seek to blame capitalism for the secularism and collapse of deference that worry them. In Britain, a major battle was fought in the late 1980’s and early 90’s between those who supported shopping on Sundays and those who wished to restrict it. Some conservatives condemn advertising in general and the Americanization inspired by capitalist concerns such as McDonald’s. Yet, the alternative to capitalism is a controlled economy, either ostensibly socialist or socialist in its methods and assumptions, and such a situation is not in the interest of conservatives, especially if they are of a democratic bent.
The modern press, indeed the media in general, takes an important role in this debate. There is a long tradition of unease among conservatives about the liberal traditions of the press, one that has not been assuaged by its capitalist rationale. Partly, there is disquiet about the extent to which news and opinion are both commodities, a situation that unsettles those who like to see them in terms of immutable truths. Partly, there is grave concern about the influence of the media and the possibility that opportunities for the dissemination of news and opinion will be controlled, deliberately or otherwise, in a hostile fashion.
Yet, again, it is first necessary to look at the alternatives. A central feature of a country with a capitalist press is that newspapers have had to compete with each other; the alternative, a formally or informally controlled press, is far less attractive to democrats. The capitalist press is best understood in a competitive light, though at present there is a worrying tendency toward monopoly positions for commercial, rather than ideological, reasons.
Newspapers have also had to compete with other means of conveying news. These means can essentially be divided into two types. First, there have been other capitalist agencies, both those involving the culture of print, such as magazines, and, more recently, those using different technology, such as radio and television. In contrast, there are the far less readily grasped noninstitutional and noncapitalist agencies for formulating and disseminating news. These can essentially be described as community agencies: families, kindred, localities, confessional and economic groups.
The relationship between the two is obviously not one of simple competition. Community agencies can serve for the assessment and transmission of news received from elsewhere through the first type of agencies. And yet, there is and was a basic tension. Though local communities can influence, through their values, the impact of the news from external agencies on the local recipients of it, they play a more limited role than in the creation and discussion of local issues—local being understood as a specific group and not necessarily a geographical term. In contrast, external agencies mediate between localities and the outside world, in particular creating or sustaining expectations, hopes, and interests that are not those of the locality. External agencies therefore offered and offer a source and means for independence, individualism, and, on at least the local level, democratization. Knowledge is not so much freedom, but rather a cause of the demand for freedoms.
Early modern England was, in its practice and ideology, by modern standards, inegalitarian, religious, hierarchical, paternalistic, patriarchal, male-dominated, and both reverential of and referential to the past. The culture of print represented a potential threat to this cultural, social, and political order and threatened directly the religious sphere. The printing of vernacular Bibles had given concerned individuals an opportunity to consider God themselves and to defy traditional teachings from the zealous perspective of scriptural authority.
The modern religious world in both America and Britain is in large part a product of the collapse of monopoly control over the dissemination of the Christian message and the accompanying decline in ecclesiastical authority. This can be, and is, assessed in different ways by conservatives—a Catholic will have a different view from a Protestant’s—an indication of the folly of assuming that conservatives will necessarily share the same positions.
Scholars have focused on the political and social, rather than the cultural, implications of the press. Politics was a sphere of activity that suited the technology of print with its capability for producing new stories rapidly. The press could make politics if not immediate at least diurnal by publishing fresh accounts, offering new angles on current controversies and creating new issues.
This encouraged political pressure, a process facilitated by the opportunities of using the legal system to harass opposition papers and by the willingness of governments to subsidize favorable papers. The former was most successful in the 1710’s and early 1720’s and again in the 1790’s. The government campaign against the Jacobite press during this period was reasonably effective. Of the six Jacobite papers listed in Thursday’s Journal in October 1719, only two remained three years later. Jacobite newspapermen, such as George Flint and Nathanael Mist, fled to France to avoid fresh spells in Newgate prison. In 1746, the newly launched Jacobite National Journal ended when the printer was removed to London’s Newgate. The French Revolution led to new activity. The Argus, a paper that had defended such radicals as Tom Paine and was content to link its fortune “to the Revolution of France,” was ended when its printer Sampson Perry fled to France to avoid trial for libel. The presses were used for the True Briton, launched with government sponsorship in 1793. The printers of the Manchester Herald and the Sheffield Register fled abroad to avoid trial in 1793 and 1794, and their papers came to an end. A threatened government prosecution led to the end of the Leicester Chronicle in 1792. James Montgomery, the conductor of the radical Sheffield his, was imprisoned for political libels in 1795 and 1796. In 1799, compulsory registration of printing presses was introduced.
Government payments to the press in the 18th century varied, but in the early 1730’s, Sir Robert Walpole’s ministry was probably spending about 20,000 pounds annually, slightly more than the annual cost of an infantry regiment. When in retirement. Lord North, Prime Minister 1770-82, told the French Ambassador that he had never seen a British government strong enough to be able to ignore what was said in print, and that it was necessary for ministries to reply to printed criticism, failing which they would swiftly become unpopular.
Aside from money, government could also provide other inducements, some of which are familiar today. Ministerial newspapers could hope to receive advertisements from departments of government, assistance at the Post Office, and benefits to other aspects of their business. An active searcher of government patronage, John Walter of the Daily Universal Register, which later became the Times, was appointed printer to the Customs Office in 1787, after failing to obtain the profitable printing contract for the Stationery Office. News was also provided. Samuel Buckley sought to obtain for the Daily Courant “such foreign news as is proper to be printed; this indulgence would add much to the circulation of a paper calculated and carried on entirely for public benefit.” Thomas Bradshaw, who as Secretary of the Treasury had played a role in ministerial propaganda, claimed in 1773 that “a newspaper can never be supported without the insertion now and then of a secret.”
The situation today is in some respects more serious, although the means by which governments can use formal legal restraints to coerce the press are far weaker in most countries in the “free world.” Precisely because of regulatory devices, many of them designed to control what have been seen as the excesses of capitalism, the possibility is now stronger for close relations between parts of the media and government or political parties, most obviously in France and Italy. Unfortunately, technological developments and the efforts to create multimedia empires only encourage regulatory supervision and government interference.
The media are undergoing centralization, not least because it is financially easier to make money by arranging mergers and creating quasi-monopolies, rather than by creating and investing in new concerns. Yet, the relentless pace of new technology and the extent to which so much of it is amenable to individual use threatens to subvert any corporate structures based on current technology, while the porosity of international frontiers to foreign transmission also weakens both monopoly control and regulatory regimes, as can be seen clearly in Europe and possibly will be increasingly seen in North and Latin America.
For conservatives the situation is a challenging one, but any uniform response is unlikely because of the ambiguous and differing approaches to issues of regulation and to the ideology and practice of unrestrained capitalism. Furthermore, the regulatory context not only differs but affects conservatives differently because of the histories of their respective countries. American conservatives have had less experience of powerful state control than their counterparts in Europe, and the threat of socialism is less of an issue in America. Equally, many American and British conservatives find it hard to understand the degree to which in much of Continental Europe conservatives struggle to control, not to dismantle, state concerns and regulatory institutions. In France, Italy, and Germany, state control is not identified with socialism.
Whatever our doubts and concerns, the modern situation in America and Britain is certainly better than one in which the state simply controls the media in the name of the people. Yet, there are also many reasons to avoid complacency. Much of the rubbish circulated in various branches of the media demonstrates both a lack of standards and an obsession with political correctness.
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