Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian | REVIEW

This collection of essays linking the Guardian's founding principles to its 21st-century approach is both history lesson and revealing critique.

★★★★★ 5/5

“The Guardian is not a left-wing newspaper” reads the first line of Capitalism’s Conscience, in case you were in any doubt. This collection of essays edited by Des Freedman, a Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths and founding member of the Media Reform Coalition, marks the paper’s bicentennial by illuminating both the illustrious and ambiguous dynamics within its history.

From examinations of the outlet’s founding mythology to its columnists’ Twitter data, the wide-ranging, well researched, and thoughtful dissection of its consistently liberal-centrist position, so often mislabelled as leftism, will be of interest to ‘Guardianistas’, history professors, activists, and pop culture junkies alike.

The collection brings to life the political economy, and resulting contradictions, of the UK’s most trusted news brand. Freedman’s introduction outlines the particular brand of liberalism that gives the book its title: in short, the Guardian extols liberty while defending the institutions that give rise to inequality, and is ‘against authoritarianism’ but not committed to progressive ideals, functioning as a sort of flipside to The Economist. Readers likely know this instinctively, but chapters such as Aaron Ackerley’s The Political Economy of the Guardian, and Katy Brown, Aurelien Monden, and Aaron Winter’s Liberalism, Populism and Euphemisation present concrete examples of how this has played out from the paper’s Victorian beginnings to its global, 21st-century output.

The opening chapter, Freedman’s radical account of the paper’s founding mythology - that it was a response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 - shows that though the workers’ revolt and suppression sparked a series of events that birthed the Manchester Guardian, there was no mention of the events in its founding prospectus. The paper’s founders, men of the Mancunian merchant class, supported ‘progressive’ ideals that stopped short of worker empowerment: they would preside over the Guardian’s support for abolition and its opposition to the Manchester cotton workers boycotting produce picked by US slaves.

The claim, which appears more than once, that the paper ‘disappoints’ the left is not to wallow, but to point out that this ‘middle-class liberal conflict’ has more often than not dominated the paper’s approach, consistently falling short of the dynamism needed to uphold a vital fourth estate. That the Guardian is the ‘best of a bad lot’ is hardly an accolade, but all chapters give credit where credit is due while making clear that the outlet is very much symptomatic of the British press’ sickly ecosystem.

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The right has a plethora of representative, billionaire-backed nationals in the Mail, Times, Telegraph, and almost every tabloid, which have remained competitive and influential over the last century; the left has the Guardian. The introduction notes Engels’ description of the paper, in his Conditions of the Working-Class in England, as the ‘organ of the middle-class’ while simultaneously relying upon it as a key source of data for his study. Similarly, today’s left relies on the Guardian’s ever-shrinking ferocity for large-scale investigations and whistleblowing: Natalie Fenton outlines its retreat from the phone-hacking scandal, Leveson Inquiry, and resulting regulatory proposals; Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis spotlight the Guardian’s direct collaboration with the MOD post-Snowden.

The collection moves quickly from detailing the paper’s 19th-century trajectory to largely contemporary analysis. Hannah Hamad’s The Origin of the Guardian Women’s Page and Victoria Brittain’s Radical Moments at the Guardian both detail segments with ‘70s and ‘80s heydays, but otherwise, the majority of the chapters are organised around topics relevant to its 21st-century existence: Natalie Fenton’s The Guardian and Press Regulation; Mike Wayne’s The Guardian and Brexit; Tom Mills’ Guardian Journalists and Twitter Circles. This framework allows for examination of our current news ecosystem generally, dissecting industry-wide issues-within-issues such as funding, the digital revolution, and the principle of ‘both-sides’-ism, as seen in Ghada Karmi’s The Guardian and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

This is academic work, but journalists are well represented: Gary Younge, former columnist and editor-at-large, and Victoria Brittain, a former foreign editor and correspondent who discusses the Guardian’s long-extinct Third World Review at length in her chapter (one of my favourites, a potted geopolitical neo-lib history lesson in itself), both give nuanced and honest accounts of their experiences within the Guardian’s various departments (which Younge calls ‘cantons’, and Brittain, ‘fiefdoms’). Also represented from the working world of journalism are Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis of Declassified UK, whose investigative work has found the Guardian in its sights.

The collection does not simply express the limitations of the Guardian project’s advocacy for a fairer society and against corruption. It dismantles the wider cultural idea that The Guardian Is The Left. It is, without doubt, a crucial and unique outlet; not only in its truly exceptional, frequently-cited moments of progressive and deep investigative work but also its unique, if changeable, funding model, which has seen it remain one of the few quality global outlets without a paywall.

Given how many other central, socio-political issues get their own chapter, it’s notable that there’s nothing on climate change or the environment. It would have been ideal to get a sense of whether the publishers felt the paper’s environmental journalism was exemplary, or it was simply one of many undelved areas they would have liked to cover.

Nonetheless, the book’s wide-ranging depth remains perfectly accessible for non-academics (if you’re happy to look up a couple of phrases and geopolitical events).

Freedman’s opening chapter concludes by noting the ongoing relevance of the paper’s founding class politics. If the Guardian does not get to grips with its prime position to work for Britain’s workers, deliver progressive campaigns, and produce urgent, whistleblowing, investigative journalism in the face of commercial and state pressures, it may be rendered obsolete by its new-media counterparts in the first half of the 21st-century.

Whether this process produces something truly radical and sustainable remains to be seen.

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Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian is available from Pluto Press.

Disclosure: I write the Media Reform Coalition’s weekly blog.