Workers and ‘new media’ | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation

Workers and ‘new media’

Pakistan Press Foundation

Workers and ‘new media’Internet technologies, the possibility of accessing global channels through various platforms, and the mushroom growth of domestic TV channels have indeed mystified not merely our middle classes, but even our intelligentsia is often busy showering praise on ‘new media’ and its empowering potential.

From the viewpoint of the working classes, the exact opposite has happened. With the advent of the multi-channel TV system, the press has been consigned to the backseat; ‘new media’, in the meanwhile, hardly cover working class issues.

Most importantly, when TV was a discredited state monopoly, the press was the main source of news and analysis. In the age of the press, trade unions and working class organisations were at least issuing credible weeklies, even dailies if we take the PPL publications, edited by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, into account.

While even mainstream press has been rendered ineffective by the 24/7 TV model, working class press has almost disappeared. Meantime, launching even a modest television channel is beyond the financial capacity of the working classes given the situation of trade unions and left grouplets.

The costs of launching a TV channel in Pakistan can be roughly $10 million. A TV channel that submitted an application for licence to Pemra back in 2004 quoted $7.99 million as the ‘estimated cost of establishing a channel in Pakistan’. The channel’s projected operational expenditure was $2,672,028 for the first year.

This situation is hardly unique, however. The US, both pioneer and promoter of the advertising-driven TV model, offers interesting lessons.

While TV had been ‘invented’ before WWII, it was marketed after the war. According to media scholar Stephen Whitefield: In 1950, USA had 3.1 million sets, 32 million by 1955 while 10,000 Americans a day were buying their first TV sets. Already by 1953 half of all families owned a set. The TV growth ushered the death of other outlets. “Movie houses closed in droves…In 1951, ninety million Americans were still going every week to the movies. By the end of the decade, weekly attendance down to forty-three million”.

Radio lost much of its audience as did the press, especially magazines. Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Look, Life all had their circulations skidded. In one six-month period in 1954 the newsstand circulation of Life skidded to 21 percent. The only magazine gaining, of course, was ‘TV Guide’. In 1954, it gained 98 percent in circulation.

What about the content? Whitefield observes: “Since dissent seemed to slide so uncomfortably close to disloyalty, since controversy had become a code word for trouble (rather than an inevitable feature of democratic dialogue), official views were rarely and insufficiently challenged on television. When disagreements were presented, the framework of analysis was so narrowly circumscribed that television became a custodian of the cultural Cold War. Its viewers were boxed-in to a tight consensus”.

And who has owned US television? Big media monopolies ever since its birth. A combination of the commercial model and liberating ‘new technologies’ have, in fact, always disempowered the working classes. The history of the British press, as narrated by noted British researcher James Curran, is indeed suggestive: “Market forces succeeded where legal repression had failed in establishing the press as an instrument of social control, with lasting consequences for the development of modern British society”.

This is because: “Direct state censorship of the printed word in Britain was never fully effective” since the “principal challenge to hegemonic control came from an increasingly radical press appealing by the 1830s to a predominantly working-class audience”.

Introduction of libel prosecutions to tame the radical press would backfire. When an editor was prosecuted, his paper would find an even big audience. (“The circulation of the Republican, for instance, increased by over 50% in 1819 when its editor was persecuted”, claims Curran).

Libel in fact became good advertising for radical sheets. “A libeler”, concluded the disillusioned attorney general in 1832, “thirsted for nothing more than the valuable advertisement of a public trial in a court of justice”. The number of libel prosecutions fell sharply: from 167 during 1817-24 to 16 during 1825-34.

To gag the radical press, the government increasingly resorted to ‘taxes on knowledge’: a stamp duty on each copy of a press publication sold to the public. This did not work either as workers would devise novel ways to beat the economic warfare. “Informal groups of working men pooled their resources to buy every week a radical paper. Work people organized through the branches of their unions, clubs and political associations, the purchase of newspapers. Pressure was also successfully exerted on taverns to purchase radical papers through the threat of withdrawing custom”, explains Curran.

Paradoxically, when the ‘tax on knowledge’ was repealed, the radical press did not flourish; instead it dissolved. On the one hand, it was ‘commercialisation’ of the popular press that entailed sensationalism (to maximise sales). It was also during this period that beats such as crime and sports found their place in the press. These are neutral topics.

On the other hand, as Curran explains, “Hoe printing presses were introduced in the 1860s and 1870s and were gradually replaced by rotary machines of increasing size and sophistication in late Victorian and Edwardian England. ‘Craft’ composing was revolutionised by Hattersley’s composing machine in the 1860s and 1890s. Numerous innovations were also made in graphic reproduction during the Victorian period. These developments led to a sharp rise in fixed capital”.

As demand grew, new technologies became necessary. However, workers could not afford new machines. The hike in cost was phenomenal: “In 1855, it required a capital investment of £l 4,000 to re-launch then liberal Daily Telegraph …By the 1870s, Edward Lyod needed to spend £150,000 to re-establish the Daily Chronicle”.

“It was not until 1912 that papers controlled by activists in the working class movement, and financed from within the working class [Daily Citizen, Daily Herald], made their first appearance in national daily journalism”, Curran says. However, these successful ventures were asphyxiated by denying them advertising. “The Daily Herald on its death bed, was read by 4.7 million people, nearly twice as many as the readership of Guardian, The Times and Financial Times put together. It died because its readers did not constitute a market for advertisers”, observes Curran. The history of the US press is hardly different.

What about online possibilities offered by the internet? It requires the level of Queen Antoinette’s ignorance to even raise the question.

In the first place, in a country of 180 million where the internet is available to 25-30 million people, online outlets will be the last medium to organise working class organs. Such is the digital divide in Pakistan that workers have been effectively marginalised. Second, the abysmally low literacy rate (hardly 20 percent if one goes by a recent Unesco study) discourages any online initiatives aimed at the working classes. FM radio station, in terms of costs, is perhaps the only economically feasible option. This is an experiment working classes or activists striving for the cause of workers haven’t ever conducted. The Taliban have effectively exploited this medium. Why not an FM Mazdoor Kissan?

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email:

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