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Murray McDonald:The hidden history of the Guardian newspaper

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50,000 editions of the imperialist, warmongering, hate-filled Guardian newspaper

By Murray McDonald.

There have been 50 000 issues of what was then called the Manchester Guardian published since John Taylor founded it in 1821. Commemorating that anniversary current editor Alan Rusbridger has been talking about the paper’s radical record, since it first championed the victims of the Peterloo Massacre.

What the Guardian forgot to say was that Taylor launched his paper to undermine the working class leaders of the reform movement; or that Taylor refused to use either word ‘Peterloo’ or ‘Massacre’, thinking them too inflammatory (see 1. The Guardian and the Peterloo Massacre, below).

In fact the Guardian has never been all that radical a newspaper anyway, generally steering a middle course between popular opposition and establishment reaction. Recently critical of Tony Blair’s administration, the paper was his first and greatest cheer-leader (see 2. The Guardian and Radical Opinion, below).

Over the years, much of the newspaper’s venom has been reserved for opposition movements. The Guardian had a particular contempt for anti-imperialist movement, pouring scorn on Third World nationalists like Lumumba and Nasser, advocating military intervention across the globe (see 3. The Guardian and imperialism, below).

In particular, the Guardian was violently opposed to Ireland’s freedom fighters, supporting the occupation by British troops in 1969, internment without trial, and blaming the Civil Rights movement for the deaths on Bloody Sunday (see 4. The Guardian and the Fenians, below).

When Women Suffragettes fought for the vote, Guardian editor C.P. Scott denounced them as fanatics, just as the Manchester Guardian opposed giving the working classes the vote before (See 5. The Guardian and the Vote, below).

And when Abraham Lincoln fought a Civil War against slavery, the Manchester Guardian rallied to defend the southern Slave-Owners (See 6. The Guardian and the American Civil War, below).

Though it has become, in the words of one regular columnist, the newspaper of the New Establishment, the Guardian has always been the paper of the Middle Class (see 7. A Middle Class Newspaper, below).

The Guardian has been deeply hostile to the working class, especially when they have taken matters into their own hands (See 8. The Guardian and the Working Class, below)

That is all ancient history now, but it is interesting to reflect how in more recent times the Guardian succeeded in becoming the agenda-setting paper it is today. Its radical reputation today stems largely from the collapse of political opposition in the 1990s. As the political parties moved closer to the centre ground, the Guardian had grand ideas of becoming itself the focus of a new opposition. Above all, it was the campaign for military intervention in the former Yugoslavia that found the Guardian setting the political agenda. Reporting the civil war there, the Guardian honed the arguments for ‘humanitarian intervention’: demonising the enemy, talking up the humanitarian crisis, and pushing for military action. (see 9. The Guardian’s war against the Serbs, below).

Though it has balked at this government’s attacks on civil liberties, the Guardian pioneered New Labour’s caring authoritarianism. It was the Guardian that first made the case for greater government control of our private lives and opinions (see 10. The Guardian and Civil Liberties, below).

Of course, trawling through the archives to uncover reactionary editorials does not tells us much more than finding admirable ones does - but it does tell us that the Guardian’s radical record is a myth. Looking at the historical record only really reminds you that in the past, people had very different ideas from us, and that the Manchester Guardian reflected the prejudices of its middle class readership.

After all, a newspaper’s editorial line is a lot less interesting than the quality of its reporting - of which the paper is rightly proud. It is only in our current, and odd political hiatus that the newspapers’ role as opposition could be given any credit - or that readers would put up with so many sanctimonious comment pieces.

Under the editorship of Alan Rusbridger, though, the Guardian has indeed become an influential voice, doing more than sum up the middle class prejudices of our times. It has become the self-appointed guardian of our morals. But looking at the paper’s record, it is hard to see why.

1. The Guardian and Peterloo

Celebrating the 50 000th edition of the Guardian, today’s editor Alan Rusbridger linked the paper to the outrage over the Peterloo Massacre of reformers at St. Peter’s Fields in 1819, which the first editor, John Taylor ‘helped to make a national scandal’. In fact, the Manchester Guardian was founded to defeat the radical reform movement in words, as the Cavalry had in deeds.

Eleven people were killed and 500 injured when mounted police charged the reform meeting in Manchester and John Taylor did cover the hearings in the new Manchester Guardian. But Taylor was no supporter of the reform movement.

Of the reform leaders Taylor wrote scathingly in the Manchester Gazette

‘they have appealed not to the reason but the passions and the suffering of their abused and credulous fellow-countrymen, from whose ill-requited industry they extort for themselves the means of a plentiful and comfortable existence. “The do not toil, nether do they spin,” but they live better than those that do.’ (Manchester Gazette, 7 August 1819, in Ayerst, The Guardian, 1971, p.20)

Pointedly, Taylor never used the inflammatory word ‘Peterloo’, except in a footnote, and even then in quotation marks; and he refused to use the word ‘massacre’, preferring the more neutral ‘tragedy’ (Ayerst, p.19). The dramatic catchword Peterloo was coined by The Manchester Observer described by a Home Office report as ‘the organ of the lower classes’ designed to ‘inflame their minds’.

The Manchester Observer was closed by the crippling cost of police prosecutions (Stanley Harrison, Poor Men’s Guardian, 1974, p.53). Two months later a group of Manchester textile merchants grabbed the opportunity to take the political initiative out of the streets. Eleven subscribed £100 each (around £6,800 in today’s money) to start Taylor’s paper.

In its prospectus, the Manchester Guardian promised to promote the ‘just principles of Political Economy’. The intended readership was ‘amongst the classes to whom, more especially, Advertisements are generally addressed’. Such people would value ‘the commercial connections and knowledge of the conductors of the Guardian’ (Ayerst, p. 23-4).

The Manchester Guardian paid the stamp duty, putting it, at seven pence an issue, beyond the pockets of working people. Real radicals challenged the stamp duty, publishing papers that flouted the law, like Henry Hetherington’s, launched in 1830 and pointedly titled The Poor Man’s Guardian. The Manchester Guardian attacked rival papers that evaded the stamp duty.

The working class Manchester and Salford Advertiser dubbed the Guardian ‘the foul prostitute and dirty parasite of the worst portion of the mill-owners’ (21 May 1836).

2. The Guardian and Radical Opinion

‘His strongest claim is that he has systematically rethought the basis of Labour’s appeal and project in the light of modern imperatives and realities... In short: we think Tony Blair should be elected as Labour’s new leader.’ (The Choice for the Future, Guardian leader, 2 July 1994)

Today’s Guardian has been critical of Tony Blair’s shaky premiership. But it is easy to forget that the Guardian was the original ‘New Labour’ paper. Its success mirrored the growing appeal of Tony Blair’s Labour Party from 1994 onwards. When he won the election the Guardian editorialised ‘the moment when Britain at last gave itself the chance to construct a modern liberal socialist order and, by so doing, caught the mood of the troubled western world’ (2 May 1997).

Throughout much of the first Blair term, the Guardian was his greatest cheer-leader, over the Kosovo War, the Human Rights legislation and anti-harassment laws. According to one account, editorial meetings did not start until Number Ten Press Officer Alastair Campbell rung to tell Rusbridger what was going to be in the paper.

But then the Guardian always was a lot less radical than its critics thought. In 1982, a right-wing faction broke away from the Labour Party, the SDP (Social Democratic Party), protesting its drift to the left. The SDP was Blairism before its time. Three of the Guardian’s four leader writers joined the SDP, as did columnist Polly Toynbee, journalist Mary Stott, senior political columnist Peter Jenkin and labour editor John Torode. Most of them stood as candidates (and lost) in the 1983 election, or served on the SDP’s national committee. For a while the paper was divided between SDP supporters and a few token ‘public school trots’ (Guardian, 25 January 2006).

Of course, many on the paper had been influenced by the radicalism of the 1960s. But as battle lines hardened, most Guardian writers recoiled from ‘picket- line violence’ and northern Ireland’s freedom fighters. Increasingly, the paper’s radical credentials were earned with strident articles about far-away places like Chile, or South Africa - while cautious realism decided editorial policy on domestic issues.

In the 1950s the paper so loathed Labour’s left wing champion Aneurin Bevan ‘and the hate-gospellers of his entourage’ that it called for Attlee’s post-war Labour government to be voted out of office (Manchester Guardian, leader, 22 October 1951). When the left wanted a second front against Hitler in the Second World War, the Manchester Guardian opposed it on Churchill’s advice (he hoped Hitler would save him the trouble of defeating the Russians, David Ayerst, The Guardian, 1971, 549).

The Chartists, the Suffragettes, the Irish Republicans, Abraham Lincoln and the General Strikers were all attacked in the pages of the Manchester Guardian. As much as it has made a reputation for criticising the powers-that-be, it has always been more afraid of popular opposition.

3. The Guardian and imperialism

Reading the Guardian today, one might get the impression that the paper is anti-war. But that is not true. When the bombing started in the first of America’s wars against Iraq in 1991, the Guardian adopted the tone of Winston Churchill:

The simple cause, at the end, is just. An evil regime in Iraq instituted an evil and brutal invasion. Our soldiers and airmen are there, at UN behest, to set that evil right. Their duties are clear ... let the momentum and the resolution be swift. (leader 17 January 1991).

In the lead-up to the war, the Guardian reported stories of grotesque Iraqi atrocities, atrocities that Matthew Engel agreed ‘in other circumstances would seem absurd, but here seemed all-too believable’ (1991). In fact they were just absurd, manufactured by the military. After the event, journalist Maggie O’Kane conceded ‘this is a tale of how to tell lies and win wars, and how we, the media, were harnessed like beach donkeys and led through the sand to see what the British and US military wanted us to see in this nice clean war.’ (Guardian 16 December 1995)

The first Gulf War was lauded as a re-birth of Great Power solidarity at the UN Security Council. Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait ‘has done more than anything else to reawaken the sleeping giant and galvanise the Security Council into action’ wrote Hella Pick. Pick deplored the fact that the Soviet Union had been allowed to veto the Great Powers’ military actions, giving too much power to nationalists in the Third World:

The liberal use of the veto, especially by the Soviet Union, has made a mockery of the council’s main task of maintaining peace and security. Its impotence opened the way for the Third World majority in the General Assembly to dominate the UN, exploiting the East-West divisions and imposing their own agenda on the world body. (The Gulf Crisis - the first Sixty Days, Guardian Collection, October 1990, p 57)

Hostility to Third World nationalism has been an enduring theme at the Guardian over the years. In 1973 they accused Middle Eastern countries of ‘using the Arab Oil weapon’ (Putting the West over a Barrel, 15 October). When Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 the Guardian was outraged. ‘It was a heavy day for the world when the canal that has for so long been an international interest passed under a violently nationalist government’ (Leader, 28 July 1956, probably written by David Mitrany).

‘The government is right to be prepared for military action at Suez’, because Egyptian control of the canal would be ‘commercially damaging for the West and perhaps part of a plan for creating a new Arab Empire based on the Nile (Leader, 2 August 1956). Helpfully, the editor suggested that there might ‘be a way of reconciling Egypt’s interests with the rest of the World by creating a new international authority for supervising the canal without ownership. It could collect revenues on behalf of the Egyptian government’ (Guardian, 31 July 1956).

The Guardian’s hostility to Third World nationalists could be crass. In 1961 the popular Congolese president was taken prisoner by United Nations troops who handed him over to his enemies. ‘Lumumba is not blameless for the problems in the Congo’ lectured the Guardian even as his corpse was being mutilated (Leader, 19 January 1961). More importantly, they lectured those ‘shouting slogans in Leopoldville’ that ‘Criticism of the United Nations Operation in the Congo and of the men in charge of it has nearly all stemmed from ignorance of the facts’ (Guardian Leader, 23 Jan. 1961). But it was the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold who conspired to foment ethnic rivalries in the Congo leading to Lumumba’s assassination (Ludo De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba, Verso, 2001).

The Guardian did support moderate nationalist regimes, and found it difficult to argue with the formation of the non-Aligned movement in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955. Still, anti-western rhetoric there was deplored, as were any ‘pious hopes’ (Leader, 26 April 1955). The suspicion remained that this was ‘a phoney non-aggression, designed to lull the countries of Asia until they can be organised as parts of a Communist empire’ (Leader, 18 April 1955).

In fairness, Manchester Guardian did have important reservations about the growing appeal of popular imperialism in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. It was a Guardian journalist who exposed the rifling of the Mahdi’s tomb by British troops in Omdurman, who stole his head (Ayerst, The Guardian, 1971, p 267). When British troops starved the families of the Boers in the world’s first concentration camps, in 1900, it was Emily Hobhouse who exposed the atrocity in the Manchester Guardian (Ibid., 285).

The reason that the Guardian was so out of step with Empire jingoism was only partly out of sympathy for its victims. Like many middle class liberals of the time it was the popularity of jingoism that really offended. One story that has entered the paper’s legends is that pro-war protestors surrounded the Manchester Guardian’s offices in 1900, while a brass band paid for by the Manchester Courier marched around it playing The Dead March in ‘Saul’ (Ayerst, 280). The Relief of Mafeking gave rise to a number of stories of ‘Mafficking’ mobs, many of them turning out to be apocryphal, but all sharing the common thread that common people get to insult their liberally-minded betters under the cloak of patriotism. Empire was a cause that won working class people to the Tories and away from the Liberal Party, feared the Guardian.

Much as it has decried popular nationalism in the Third World, the Guardian is uncomfortable with it in the first. It is better that military intervention is done in the name of the ‘international community’, so there is no danger of unpleasant Jingoism. The failure of the Coalition of the Willing to secure an international mandate made it difficult for the Guardian to endorse the Iraq war in 2003. But even if they had doubts about a military mandate, they still shared the prejudice that the problem in the Middle East was Saddam and his ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’:

‘It is not credible to argue, as Iraq did in its initial reaction to Mr Powell [at the Security Council], that it is simply all lies. ...Iraq must disarm.’ (Guardian Leader, Thursday February 6, 2003)

Of course, we now know that it was all lies, and Iraq could not give up weapons it did not have. When the war looked like a success, Guardian veteran Hugo Young wrote about Tony Blair’s gamble:

For a political leader, few therapies compare with military victory. For a leader who went to war in the absence of a single political ally who believed in the war as unreservedly as he did, Iraq now looks like a vindication on an astounding scale. (13 April 2003)

If the Guardian today is less appreciative of Britain’s role in Iraq, that has less to do with principled opposition, and more with the failure of the project.

4. The Guardian and the Fenians

If they had got to the obituary page, younger Guardian readers might have been surprised to learn that journalist John O’Callaghan resigned from the paper in 1972 in protest at its editorial support for repression in northern Ireland. ‘The Guardian leaders made excuses for internment,’ he wrote, and damningly:

‘If a couple of British papers and a broadcasting channel had shared the Sunday Times’s occasional scepticism about the performance of the British army in Northern Ireland, the slaughter in Derry on Bloody Sunday might have been averted.’ (21 April 2007)

Thirteen civil rights demonstrators were shot dead by the British Army on the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in northern Ireland. But the Guardian thought it was the Civil Rights activists who were to blame:

‘The organisers of the demonstration, miss Bernadette Devlin among them, deliberately challenged the ban on marches. They knew that stone throwing and sniping could not be prevented, and that the IRA might use the crowd as a shield.’ (Guardian, 1 February 1972)

Lord Widgery’s 1972 enquiry was widely seen as a whitewash - but not by the Guardian. ‘Lord Widgery’s report is not one-sided’, it led. Indeed they questioned Widgery’s view that trouble could have been avoided if the army had kept a low-key attitude: ‘To ask anyone to keep a low-key attitude if persistently stoned is to ask superhuman behaviour.’ (20 April 1972) The demonstrators had been protesting against the introduction of the internment of political prisoners without trial. The Guardian did not support their cause.

‘Internment without trial is hateful, repressive and undemocratic. In the existing Irish situation, most regrettably, it is also inevitable. ... To remove the ringleaders, in the hope that the atmosphere might calm down, is a step to which there is no obvious alternative.’ (Guardian leader, 10 Aug. 1971)

Indeed, the Guardian supported the initial decision to send British troops to northern Ireland, after Derry rioters succeeded in fighting of Ulster’s paramilitary police for days.

British soldiers could ‘present a more disinterested face of law and order’ (Guardian leader, 15 Aug. 1969), but only on condition that ‘Britain takes charge’ (Guardian leader, 4 Aug. 1969). The Guardian even offered some useful advice, in case the soldiers did not know how to put down the protestors: ‘a curfew in the troubled areas seems essential’ to ‘separate those determined to make trouble from those who are drawn in unwillingly’ (leader, 16 Aug. 1969).

In fact the Guardian always had a knee-jerk reaction against rebellion in Ireland. The paper rubbished the Fenians, patriots who fought to free their country from British rule in the nineteenth century as ‘silly and infatuated traitors in Ireland’ (Manchester Guardian 21 October 1848). It called for the introduction of Martial Law - ‘better than the midnight legislation of Tipperary’. Its editorials were so rabid that the Irish of Manchester organised a demonstration outside its offices (David Ayerst, The Guardian: Biography of a Newspaper, 1971, p 111)

When James Connolly and Padraig Pearse, heroes of Ireland’s Easter Rising in 1916 were executed, editor C.P. Scott wrote: ‘it is a fate which they invoked and of which they would probably not complain’ (4 May, 1916, quoted in Ayerst, The Manchester Guardian, 1971, p.392)

The paper did support the more acceptable, constitutional nationalism of the Home Rule movement in the 1880s. Similarly the Guardian’s current, Republican-sympathising line was only adopted after Sinn Fein leaders broached an end to the armed struggle.

5. The Guardian and Suffrage

The Guardian’s attitude to democracy has always been conditional. Certainly readers of today’s Guardian Women would be surprised to read editor C.P. Scott blaming the Suffragettes for sabotaging David Lloyd George’s efforts to win women the vote:

‘Yet this is the moment chosen by every great suffrage society to employ every engine of misguided fanaticism in order to wreck, if it be in their power, the fair prospects of their own cause.’ (Manchester Guardian leader, 18 November 1911)

Scott’s anger rose because he had tried to broker a compromise with Lloyd George to get some women the vote - though history records that the Prime Minister was not prepared to compromise until after the Great War (see Diane Atkinson, Votes for Women, Cambridge University Press, 1988). Still Scott clung to the belief that Lloyd George would have given women the vote already, if they had not taken direct action.

Emily Wilding Davison - who afterwards died in a protest trying to stop the King’s Horse in the Derby - wrote to the Guardian defending direct action. In his reply, Scott turned the truth on its head to make Lloyd George the champion of suffrage, and the Suffragettes its enemy:

‘The really ludicrous position is that Mr Lloyd George is fighting to enfranchise seven million women and the militants are smashing unoffending people’s windows and breaking up benevolent societies meetings in a desperate effort to prevent him.’

Scott thought the Suffragettes’ ‘courage and devotion’ was ‘worthy of a better cause and saner leadership’, and ‘to compare that with any great popular uprising of the past is too absurd a plea to require refutation’ (quoted in Ayerst, The Guardian, 1971, p 353).

But in fact the Guardian had usually opposed popular uprisings of the past, right back to its beginnings campaigning against the reformers of St. Peter’s Fields (See 1. The Guardian and Peterloo, above) preferring moderate reform. It was not just the campaign for votes for women the Manchester Guardian opposed. It opposed votes for working class men, too, attacking Chartists, Socialists and reformers alike.

In 1848 the Guardian explained the shortcomings of Louis Blanc’s provisional government in France:

‘If the obvious intentions of the government were fully accomplished, the influence of property would be destroyed ... a change of relative positions to which men of property will not submit’. (Manchester Guardian, 22 March 1848)

In November of 1830 the Guardian anticipated the coming reform act. The qualification for a vote ought to be low enough, wrote editor John Taylor:

‘to put it fairly within the power of members of the labouring classes by careful, steady and persevering industry to possess themselves of it, yet not so low as to give anything like a preponderating influence to the mere populace ... the right of representation is not an inherent or abstract right, but the mere creation of an advanced condition of society. Its single object is to promote good government.’ (Manchester Guardian 4 December 1830)

The Manchester Guardian’s 1831 New Year’s message to readers warned: ‘hurried and extreme changes’ are ‘dangerous to the maintenance of public order’; ‘at present there is a degree of excitement’ which ‘has evidently a revolutionary tendency’ but it is impossible that these changes ‘should ever be carried into effect without a civil war.’ (Manchester Guardian 1 January 1831)

6. The Guardian and the American Civil War

When in 1861 the southern Confederacy rebelled against the Union to avoid the abolition of slavery the cotton manufacturers liberalism was exposed as a sham. Their dependency on slave-picked cotton tempted them to support the South. The Manchester Guardian was no exception. They were embarrassed enough to disguise their support for slavery as an endorsement of the Confederacy’s right to self-determination.

Still the Manchester Guardian repeated Confederate propaganda against the liberator Abraham Lincoln, writing that ‘it was an evil day both for America and the world when he was chosen President of the United States’ (10 October 1862). Even on the news that Lincoln had been assassinated, the Manchester Guardian said ‘of his rule, we can never speak except as a series of acts abhorrent to every true notion of constitutional right and human liberty’ (27 April 1865). Among Lincoln’s acts so abhorrent to the Guardian was the Proclamation of Emancipation, 1 January 1863.

By contrast, the Manchester cotton workers set aside their immediate interest in cheap cotton to champion the wide cause of human liberty. In 1862 they filled the Free Trade Hall to support a resolution to that effect (penned by Karl Marx). The Manchester Guardian complained that ‘the chief occupation, if not the chief object of the meeting, seems to have been to abuse the Manchester Guardian’ (quoted in Ayerst, The Guardian, 1971, p155). In fact, the cotton operatives had nobler ambitions, it was just that they knew who their enemy was.

7. A middle class newspaper

‘I write for the Guardian,’ says Sir Max Hastings, ‘because it is read by the new establishment.’ (New Statesman 21 Feb. 2005)

Sir Max’s estimation is right. Under Alan Rusbridger’s editorship the Guardian has become the most important voice of the New Labour establishment. In fact it helped to create New Labour (see 2. The Guardian and radical opinion).

But Rusbridger remembers that long night of Conservative rule, from 1979 to 1997, when ‘Guardianistas’ were ‘taunted for their beards and sandals’ (Guardian, 9 June 2007). Then, under Peter Preston’s editorship, the middle classes deserted radicalism to vote for Margaret Thatcher, leaving the Guardian in the doldrums and on the defensive.

Still, the Guardian has never been a Tory paper, always getting its critical stance from the middle classes who were squeezed between the working class mob on one side and the establishment on the other. Founded by textile traders and merchants the Guardian had a reputation as ‘an organ of the middle class’ (Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Progress, 1973, p 109), or in the words of C.P. Scott’s son Ted ‘a paper that will remain bourgeois to the last’ (Ayerst, The Guardian, 1971, p.471).

Today the Guardian Media Group is proud of its ‘unique’ ownership structure, the Scott Trust, securing the Guardian’s editorial independence in perpetuity But the Scott Trust was originally created to secure the dynastic succession and protect the family investment from death duties (Ayerst, The Guardian, 1971). Even today the implied meaning of the Scott Trust is that it is still a family business in an era of corporate raiders. In fact the paper behaves like any other capitalist business,
and a fairly successful one at that.

8. The Guardian and the Working Class

Nowadays working class militancy is an exception, or even just a memory. The Guardian often reminisces about such lost causes, though when those causes stood a chance of winning, the paper recoiled in horror. In the 1970s the paper blamed militant trade unionists, not bosses, for the problems of the low paid. Labour moderate Reg Prentice was quoted approvingly to the effect that socialist planning ‘demands of us a measure of sacrifice of our immediate gains sometimes for the greater good’ (Guardian leader, 2 Oct. 1973).

As so often, it was direct action by ordinary people that upset the hacks at Grays Inn Road in the seventies. When the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupied their yards the Guardian warned ‘this experiment in workers control will have to be abandoned quickly’ (Guardian leader, 2 Aug. 1971).

Back in 1926 C.P. Scott was instrumental in brokering the deal that wrecked the General Strike, getting the Trade Union General Council to sell out the miners for the vague hope of a better deal from Parliament (David Ayerst, The Guardian, 1971, p465). An editorial explained the Guardian’s hopes for an end to
general strikes:

‘Will not the general strike cease to be counted henceforth as a possible or legitimate weapon of industrial warfare? May not the very idea of treating industry as a theatre of warfare come to be regarded as barbaric?’ (Manchester Guardian, 14 May 1926)

The Guardian deplored the way ‘some people like the excitement of it all; they see themselves in command, giving rapid decisions that determine the destiny of nations, making history’ (Leader 4 May 1926). Such a challenge to established authority was unacceptable, and ‘the Government must use all its powers to maintain the major public services ... the army and navy are available’ (Leader, 6 May 1926). As an employer himself, Scott identified with the established order and was particularly offended that newspapers were granted no special exemption by the strikers (Ayerst, p 486). As to Scott’s promises that Parliament might do better by the miners than the General Strike: ‘The general strike has been called off, but the aim for which it was declared in unaccomplished’ (Manchester Guardian, quoted in Ayerst, p 467).

The Guardian did support moderate trade unionism, especially in the late nineteenth century, when hopes that organised labour could be rallied to support the Liberal Party were high. Like many middle class radicals (see Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘The Impact of the Dock Strike’, Outcast London, 1971) the paper welcomed the 1889 Dock Strike because they preferred the working class under respectable leadership to a mob. Defending strikers against the charge of ‘socialistic agitation’ the Guardian thought ‘the cohesion of the men’ was ‘a triumph for the spirit of trade combination which is a very different thing’ (2 Sept. 1889) and preferable to the dock owners’ casual employment contracts: ‘by their present system the dock companies get an inferior class of labour’ (Manchester Guardian, 27 Aug. 1889).

As cotton merchants, the Guardian’s original backers were generally hostile to labour’s claims. Of the 1832 Ten Hours Bill the Guardian doubted whether in view of the foreign competition ‘the framing of a law positively enacting a gradual destruction of the cotton manufacture would be a much less rational procedure’ (28 Jan. 1832). The nineteenth century Guardian dismissed strikes as the work of outside agitators - ‘if an accommodation can be effected the occupation of the agents of the Union is gone. They live on strife.’ (26 Feb. 1873). Wigan Miners on 35 pence a day

‘would be richer men if they earned less money; and considering what is the degree of culture and what are the approved pleasures of their class, we doubt greatly whether higher wages would be any benefit to them’. (Manchester Guardian 10 April 1873)

It seems as if the wheel of history has turned full circle. As organised labour lost its power, the Guardian shed its industrial correspondents. Today its coverage of the working class is oddly reminiscent of its coverage back in the nineteenth century: the masses are a problem because of their excessive consumerism, and the threat the represent to social order.

9. The Guardian’s war against the Serbs

Before the US and Britain waged war on Iraq in 2003, the Guardian had supported military intervention against the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999. Trying to disguise the fact that the United Nations’ Security Council did not support the attack, the Guardian insisted that ‘The only honorable course for Europe and America is to use military force’ (Guardian, Leader, 23 March 1999). Or more bluntly, Mary Kaldor headlined her piece ‘Bombs away!’ (Guardian, 25 March 1999).

Hugo Young warned ‘armchair critics of Nato’s strategy in Kosovo’ what was at stake: ‘the defeat of Nato by Yugoslavia is a prospect that cannot be contemplated’ (Guardian, 27 April 1999). The moral certainty about Nato was mirrored by a similarly low opinion of the country they were fighting over: ‘a god-forsaken, dirt-poor, hate-ridden blot on the map of Europe’, according to Polly Toynbee (Guardian,18 April 1999).

Plainly, the Guardian’s visceral hatred of the Serbs has a history. It dates back to the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s. The Guardian took sides with the ‘defiant people of Dubrovnik’ (28 Oct. 1991) against ‘Mr Milosevic’s turbulent hordes’ (5 November) in Yugoslavia’s 1991 civil war. They asked Tory historian Norman Stone to explain that Western civilisation was at stake, because Dubrovnik

‘was a funnel for the European enlightenment to enter the Balkans. Now the Balkans, in a semi-savage sense, are getting there own back, wrecking the city and setting back the level of their own civilisation by 50 or 60 years.’ (13 Nov. 1991)

The Guardian editor felt it necessary to explain to Serbs that ‘Blowing limbs and heads off people is wrong’. ‘So is beating up and terrorising civilians.’ (21 Nov. 1991) Unless, that is, the terrorised civilians are themselves Serbs: The Croatian Army’s invasion of the Serb-enclave Krajina, in which 200 000 were made homeless, thought the Guardian, should be ‘welcomed as a hold on Serbian aggression’ (5 August 1995).

When fighting broke out in Sarajevo, the Serbs were ‘bestial’ (Guardian, 8 June 1992). In a leader headed ‘The need to fight to make the peace’, the Guardian explained that the UN Security Council will ‘have to confront the need for force’ (25 June 1992).

Of course, force was just the beginning. We need an ‘open-ended occupation’ (Woolacott, Guardian, 14 September 1996) or a ‘benign colonial regime’ (Borger, Guardian, 7 September 1996).

When Bosnia’s rival ethnicities were made to submit to rule under a United Nations’ Protectorate, the Guardian did not welcome a return to democracy. ‘The West’s mistake was to set too much store by holding the elections in Bosnia long before the conditions were ripe... The West allowed Bosnia’s politicians too much power over the last three years’ (Guardian, 1998, quoted in Chandler, Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton, p. 164).

When war returned to the region in 1999, the Guardian published Daniel Goldhagen’s view that the Serbs are ‘legally and morally incompetent to conduct their own affairs’ (‘Why Nato must take Belgrade’, G2, April 29 1999)

The Guardian’s anti-Serb crusade is so engrained now that it has become a self-contained universe of belief that could never really be dislodged. It is not unique to the Guardian - the cause was actively adopted by quite a swathe of the liberal intelligentsia, and its prejudices have filtered into the mainstream.

The Yugoslav war was important for the Guardian because it was a cause that saw the paper step out of mere reporting to lead radical opinion in a way that seemed actually to shape government policy. It also helped to outmanouever the more cautious militarists of John Major’s Conservative government. Maggie O’Kane demanded that Number 10 Press Officer Alastair ‘Campbell should acknowledge that it was the press reporting of the Bosnian war and the Kosovar refugee crisis that gave his boss the public support and sympathy he needed to fight the good fight against Milosevic.’ (Z Magazine, August 1999)

The Guardian’s campaign against the Serbs was, indeed, the original blueprint for ‘humanitarian intervention’, the policy adopted by Tony Blair when he came to power. All of its basic tenets - action on behalf of victims rather than for national interests; the demonisation of the enemy; war crimes tribunals - were set in play in the war against Iraq in 2003.

10. The Guardian and Civil Liberties

In a G2 article about the rise in petty regulations and intrusive warning signs, Stuart Jeffries sets out the problem well: ‘the presumption from our sign tsars is that Britons must have every last thing spelled out because we are uncivilised scum raised by wolves’. But it is an insight he cannot sustain, giving up the argument moments later on the grounds that ‘there is good and bad bossiness’: ‘In our anti-social, post-Thatcherite Britain, in which many people do selfish things in public without expecting to be told to stop, bossiness can be a good thing’. (19 June 2007).

Jeffries’ confusion typifies the difficulty that the Guardian has standing up for civil liberties. They worry about ‘bad bossiness’, like ex-Home Secretary John Reid’s Control Orders on terrorist suspects, because it is political repression. But they want to keep the ‘good bossiness’, like bans on hate speech and on harassment, and intrusive advice on health and diet. What the Guardian has never understood it that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bossiness alike both come from the same low opinion of ordinary people: ‘Uncivilised scum raised by wolves’, or in other words ‘anti-social, post Thatcherite selfish people’. Whichever way you say it, it means that the people are not to be trusted, and the state must take

Quoting Labour’s Douglas Jay - approvingly - the Guardian concluded: ‘the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for the people than the people themselves’ (Leader, 3 July 2007).

Guardian columnists, like David Aaronovitch always objected to the catch phrase ‘political correctness’. They only heard right-wing columnists like Richard Littlejohn making excuses for racism. It never occurred to Aaronovitch that there might be something wrong with empowering college authorities or employers to decide what was and was not acceptable personal interaction.

‘What’s so terrible about the nanny state, anyway?’ asked Anna Coote, surely everyone believes in public health (Guardian, 26 May 2004). When it became clear that the Department of Health had wildly exaggerated the dangers of AIDS among heterosexuals in its campaign to scare young people off sex, Mark Lawson had no problem with that: ‘The government has lied and I am glad’ (Guardian, 24 June 1996). A nervous distrust of what their fellow men and women were doing, or just thinking about doing, was matched by naivety about the authorities. ‘Should we get upset if the police ask us for identity cards’, asked David Walker, only to answer: ‘No’ (Guardian 19 October 2001).

More recently, the Guardian has begun to have doubts about the Home Office’s attacks on civil liberties, represented by the draconian Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, or the anti- terrorist Control Orders. But the difficulty that the Guardian has tacking the government over civil liberties is that it shares all of New Labour’s underlying prejudices about the need to constrain ordinary people. Indeed, the Guardian helped to draft New Labour’s original assault on Civil Liberties, back in the 1990s.

In 1993, after the murder of a toddler Jamie Bulger by two older boys, Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair defined his policy of attacking civil liberties. He would be ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime’. According to the Guardian, Blair ‘rightly berated the left for putting too much emphasis for the cause of crime on social conditions, and too little on individual responsibility’ (22 February 1993). In the mid-nineties, when New Labour was just formulating its new authoritarian agenda, the Guardian shared many of the same fears of social breakdown.

Then Melanie Phillips was the Guardian’s chief commentator on social affairs. She specialised in blood- curdling tales of the collapse of community. The Jamie Bulger case, she conceded was wholly exceptional, but still it was ‘a death of our times’ (Guardian, 22 January 1993). Developing the rhetorical devices that would make Guardian readers wince when Home Secretary David Blunkett adopted them years later Phillips explained

‘Only the ivory-tower middle classes with a bad case of Utopian myopia could delude themselves that juvenile crime isn’t an immensely serious problem... Reality suggests that juvenile offending is up, not down. Community anxiety is understandable. The term ‘“moral panic’“ is misplaced.’ (Bring Back the Voice of Authority, Guardian 5 March 1993)

Nor was Phillips anticipation of New Labour’s ‘social breakdown’ agenda exceptional. In the Guardian’s sister paper, the Observer, David Rose lauded Jack Straw’s ‘holistic and often imaginative’ approach on youth crime, his commitment to ‘restorative justice’, to ‘rehabilitation not purely vengeful justice’ (4 May 1997).

When the government legislation on Anti-Social Behaviour Orders went through, the Guardian supported it. Arguing that similar legislation had led to a fall in crime in the US, Neil Addison wrote in the Guardian’s Law section: ‘Let’s hope anti-social behaviour orders will do the same for our own hell-like neighbourhoods’ (30 March 1999). Only when the authoritarian measures were obvious to all did the Guardian worry that children had been made into ‘the hooded enemy to be Asbo’d’ (Polly Toynbee, 4 July 2007).

The Guardian’s default distrust of ordinary people and its assumption that state authority is for the good makes it hard to sustain a coherent defence of civil liberties today.

By Murray McDonald, July 2007

[email protected]
Tue Dec 11, 2012 4:08 pm
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