Susan Stebbing on the control of the media

Rereading Susan Stebbing’s Thinking to Some Purpose I have come across these comments on the control of the media. Stebbing was writing in 1938 and her book was published in 1939, yet this passage has a depressingly up-to-date feel to it. In what precedes it she has commented on how the owners of newspapers have an almost unlimited power over the opinions of their readers:


‘Almost,’ but not quite, for the owners are themselves to some extent controlled by the big advertisers who are relied upon to provide the main revenue of the newspapers. The advertisers would not advertise in a newspaper that tended to undermine ‘the confidence of the public.’ The advertisers want the readers to be ready to spend their money; the newspapers want the advertisers to spend large sums in advertising their goods.

That the Press should be thus controlled constitutes a serious obstacle to our obtaining the information we require in order that we should think to some purpose about public transactions. I have used the word “controlled” because, in the ordinary sense of the word “free,” our Press is remarkably free, notwithstanding the laws of sedition, blasphemy and libel. These laws affect the Press neither nor more less than they affect the private citizen. Books, pamphlets, journals, supplements to newspapers, can be and are in fact published which criticize and condemn the Government of the day in a manner that would not be tolerated in many countries. This we all know, and are apt to congratulate ourselves thereon. But here lies a peculiar danger for the majority of readers. We tend to believe that we have a ‘free’ Press because we know it to be legally free. But the Press is in fact controlled by a comparatively small number of persons. The danger lies in the fact that the majority of people are not aware of the ownership. Consequently, when they see different newspapers providing the same news and expressing very similar opinions they are not aware that the news, and the evaluation of the news, are alike determined by a single group of persons, perhaps mainly by one man – a Press Lord. Accordingly, the readers mistakenly believe that they have been provided with independent testimony whereas they have been provided only with repetitions.

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