Rebellious Media: History gives us hope

Tim Gee looks ahead to this weekend's Rebellious Media Conference by telling the story of a radical newspaper from the past.

October 6, 2011
4 min read

I will be speaking at the Rebellious Media Conference in London this weekend – a celebration of the role of alternative media in bringing about social change. With all of the tickets sold and Noam Chomsky delivering the keynote, it looks likely to be significant. Chomsky is known for showing how the current structure of the media business can serve to squeeze out radical viewpoints. But this is not a new phenomenon. Indeed throughout history elites have consistently sought to stifle those media sources that challenge them. But history also provides myriad stories of resistance and resilience to inspire campaigners and radical journalists today.

One of my favourites is a story set in the early 19th Century, when taxes on newspaper were levied in such a way as to put radical media outside the purchasing power of ordinary working people. The mark of having paid the 4d tax was a ‘stamp’ of approval from the government. Although this led to the closure of some newspapers, a new publication was set up in defiance of this unjust law, illegally priced at 1d: The Poor Man’s Guardian.

The first issue – published in July 1831 – declared: “We will try, step by step, the power of RIGHT against MIGHT, and we will begin by protecting and upholding this grand bulwark and defence of all our rights – this key to all our liberties – the freedom of the press.” The paper constructed its own stamp, whose logo incorporated the phrase ‘Liberty of the Press’ and was emblazoned with some timeless words: ‘Knowledge is Power’. Early on, the publication set out its stall: “it is the cause of the ‘rabble’ that we advocate, the poor, the suffering, the industrious, the productive classes…we will teach this ‘rabble’ their power”.

The by-lines of the first few issues of the Poor Man’s Guardian reveal the contortions to which the editors went to test the law. The publication called itself a newspaper, then a “newspaper” (in inverted commas), before by the time of the fifth edition claiming that the publication was ‘leant to read without deposit for an unlimited period: Charge One Penny’.

Despite 740 people coming to trial for selling such unstamped publications, the newspaper reached as many as 20,000 people each week. At his trial, the proprietor Henry Hetherington accused the judge of “holding a dagger at my throat, but he shall strike it in before he wrests the pen from my hand, or prevents me from publishing a penny paper for the people every week, which I will do in defiance of this odious law, be the consequences what they may”. Sales of the publication trebled.

Ingenious methods were found to smuggle editions of the newspaper from the printers to the distributors including concealing copies in piles of clothes, apple baskets, hat boxes and even coffins. This latter ruse was foiled when neighbours alerted the authorities, concerned at the number of deaths that appeared to be taking place at the newspaper.

The final death knell for the Poor Man’s Guardian rang in 1835 when the presses were seized. But despite its short life the paper was phenomenally successful. Although, by some estimates there were more than 500 unstamped publications between 1830 and 1836, most survived only a few months.

The Poor Man’s Guardian resourced the movements pushing for a more radical Reform Act, in so doing helping to foster the class consciousness which later led to the rise of the Working Men’s Associations – better known as the Chartists – of which Hetherington was also a founder. The paper also contributed to a more immediate success: The resistance and persistence of newspaper workers who disregarded the law showed an unpopular policy to be prohibitively expensive and embarrassing to implement. In 1836 the government finally reduced the stamp duty on newspapers to 1d.

Tim Gee’s book ‘Counterpower: Making Change Happen’ is now available. He will speak at the Rebellious Media Conference from 2.15pm – 3.45pm at the Institute of Education on Saturday 8 October.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.


3