Solidarity and News of the World hacks

Now it’s sunk in a bit, I thought I’d take a crack at analysing the anarchist debate around the News of The World’s demise in a bit more depth.

Submitted by Rob Ray on July 15, 2011

What’s important to note first is the likely outcome of what’s going on. Unless the Murdoch empire collapses entirely as a result of the British phone hacking storm crossing the Atlantic, what isn’t going to happen is the end of Murdoch sunday red-tops, let alone reactionary rags in general. What Murdoch's actually doing is reigning in costs and making a grand gesture at the same time.

The actual job count to go is about 200 out of a permanent workforce of 3,000, plus freelancers. "Redeployment" under these circumstances, certainly in my experience of newspaper downsizing, will mean a number of the most competent story-spinners who haven't been directly implicated in the scandal moving over to an enlarged Sun newsdesk (unless it's already been renamed a news command hub or something) and everyone being expected to increase their output to make up for the loss of other roles.

This is basically what's quietly been going on in the rest of the industry for years. In Archant’s county holdings for example local freesheets, city and rural editions often run off the same desks where there used to be totally separate and competing teams for each.

From a straightforward tactical perspective, it might count as a qualified win in the long term for the left, because it reduces the clout of a basically reactionary news product as journalists are left with less time to research the stories. The quality will fall, so people will stop buying it (basically the same malaise as has been killing newspapers across the board for decades now).

But while some of the worst offenders will go along with this troupe (and it’s fairly certain they would have gone anyway) most of the people dumped will be the ones duplicating roles within the Sun (consumer affairs or whatever) and freelancers whose choice of specialism and techniques is frankly anyone’s guess. When looking at how we react and frame our responses, it’s important to remember that a lot of innocent people will suffer for the sake of Murdoch’s tactical battles with the political elite, for not much actual gain.

And this is part of what should inform thinking around the issue, rather than personal feelings about the brand’s reputation over the years. Because first and foremost in the left’s reactions to Rupert Murdoch’s decision to close has been a feeling of “good riddance to bad rubbish” with a secondary argument of either “but obviously we’re not cheering on job losses” or “these people knew who they were working for.”

Such a reaction is pretty understandable. Notable in all the plaudits of the NoTW’s glorious history as recounted by stable mate (and likely successor) the Sun was a strap of front pages showing its greatest hits. These consisted exclusively of royal event coverage, sex scandals and crime. There was not one investigative piece (and remember the NoTW always considered this its raison d’etre) which could conceivably be said to have made Britain a better place.

More often than not, the paper has been a baleful influence warping political, economic and social life in the favour of a super-rich class led by Murdoch himself. Profumo and Kinnock, as pointed out in an excellent (if optimistic) piece by Newsnight’s Paul Mason, were naked threats to destroy anyone who got in their way. Its editorial line has been a reaper cutting down the left for decades.

And certain journalists at the paper were obviously complicit in this process far beyond the mere ditching of basic journalistic ethics than went on with phone tapping. A serious and well-deserved dislike of these people is thus likely to clash with the idea of solidarity against job cuts. As is noted* by Red Marriot:

Whatever claims anyone may make for the impartiality of their views on 'journalists are just wage slaves doing a job' - I think one's views will inevitably be determined largely by one's life experience and situation.

If you've had the press door-stepping you, or smearing you or acquaintances publicly, denouncing your strike action or protest etc, you may be less likely to be sympathetic than if you've grown up with people who become journalists or whose relatives/acquaintances are, or you're from a culture that breeds journos. (Of course some have had both experiences.)

But the argument 'only doing their job' has to presumably draw a line somewhere; scabs, cops, judges, bailiffs, torturers? Politicians?


Solidarity is a two way street. Should the striking miners in 1984-5, subjected to a year's worth of daily press lies and distortion, have simultaneously supported the journalists churning out this vicious crap out and seen them as 'comrades'?

But this rubs up against comments made by various others, who point out that a notable percentage of the miners (for example) were racist, or sexist, or homophobic, but they did back the strike of minority ethnic women at Grunwick, and they did back the struggle of printers at Wapping despite these "comrades'" roles in printing anti-miner diatribes just a few years before ...

Not because they liked or respected them, but because the old NUM shock troops had proper class politics.

Such class politics have historically been founded on the principle that solidarity only works if it is offered without expectation of reciprocation – it is the victorious response in game theory to the classic prisoners’ dilemma.

What has characterised discussion around News International then can be recognised as part of an age old debate over where exactly our conception of solidarity stops and there is some solid reasoning on both sides of the argument.

On the anti side, there's the concept of punishment for those who have chosen the wrong side in the class war, of withdrawing solidarity to a (generally hated) foe as a lesson in the battle for hearts and minds. On the pro side, there is the idea of super-cooperation, where it is only in a situation where solidarity is without limit that the working class can break the cycle of competition and individuality.

This is a live issue which is only going to get more potent. In recent years cops have been active in their own struggles against cuts, something which anarchists have tended to think is beyond the line on the grounds that such roles are intrinsically bound up in repressive behaviour. Broad left types on the other hand often include them in the pantheon of good causes, with the Morning Star regularly running front pages backing both the Police Federation and the Prison Officers Association.

The anarchist argument on police officers is pretty clear-headed. Realistically, a key part of a police officer’s role is to “keep the peace,” a euphemism for holding down any movement which threatens the state’s primacy. For revolutionaries, the only way in which a police officer can contribute to creating a better society in the long term is to refuse the baton when asked to repress protest, so effectively they must resign their duties to be on our side. In which case, what point solidarity with their fight against job cuts?

But "they're bad guys" is a slippery road to go down. It opens out rapidly to jobs which include not only journalism, but teaching (“mind-jailers”), the humanities (historians blinkering debates, economists making up pretend solutions to crisis), everything from public sector work to construction (who builds the condos of the rich that displace the poor?). Most jobs are riven with contradictions - journalism as much as anything - and policing each one over its worthiness for solidarity is problematic at best, downright destructive at worst. Worse still, if we are to start picking and choosing who deserves solidarity, how can we argue to a teacher whose line was crossed by a teaching assistant that “you should show solidarity next time?”

This is a difficult issue, and one I’m not sure is entirely solveable (certainly in terms of creating a formula to be applied consistently) not least because the reaction of any mass of people is, as Red points out, always going to be driven so heavily by personal experience. But when we debate this subject, we need to do so in a clear-headed way. We must be aware of the trade-off if we withdraw solidarity, as much as we must be aware of how the public and we are likely to feel about offering solidarity to people who frankly may not deserve it.


* In this thread, which has some useful insights but got binned after some heated exchanges.