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.


What do we do now? Join us on Monday 16 December at Rich Mix

What do we do now?

After knocking on so many doors, the movement built in support of Jeremy Corbyn needs to stay present particularly where people feel abandoned or under attack

Election 2019: The latest attack on travelling communities

The Conservative manifesto includes yet another attack on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. We can resist at the polls - and by responding to the public consultation, says Beth Holmes

We stand with Jeremy Corbyn

Letter: We stand with Jeremy Corbyn – just as he always stood with us

Organisations and individuals including Kehinde Andrews, Hanif Kureishi, Ahdaf Soueif, Gillian Slovo, Robert Del Naja and Anish Kapoor urge BAME and migrant communities to vote for Labour


Election 2019: Tackling tech giant tax avoidance

Conrad Bower reports on the main parties’ manifesto promises to address ‘aggressive’ tax avoidance by multinationals like the ‘Silicon Valley Six’

Election 2019: Battle lines drawn in Sheffield Hallam

Sam Gregory of Now Then magazine reports on the candidates vying for votes in a key Lib Dem-Labour marginal

Jo Swinson at the BBC leaders debate

Election 2019: Anti-semitism and phoney solidarity

The faux-concerns from the party’s opponents does little for Jewish people, argues Oscar Leyens


Football’s Race Stain

Racism marred the Manchester derby this weekend. This blemish on the game is an echo of our Prime Minister’s words, says Remi Joseph-Salisbury.

Another World is Possible

Election 2019: The end of neoliberalism in sight?

If elected, the next Labour government can finally depart from the neoliberal consensus and deliver a major shift in wealth and power, argues Adam Peggs

Small change

Simon Hedges shares his famous-on-Twitter analysis of the state of the left today


Election 2019: Transatlantic socialism rising

As Sanders and Corbyn head to the polls, Peter Gowan describes a new spirit of international collaboration on the left

Jeremy Corbyn and front bench holding copies of the 2019 manifesto

Election 2019: An ambitious, agenda-setting and credible manifesto

The 2017 Labour election manifesto was good but the 2019 version is the document we’ve really been waiting for, argues Mike Phipps

Brian Eno: Why I’m backing Labour in Kensington

In 2017, Labour won Kensington by just 20 votes. Brian Eno explains why he's backing Emma Dent Coad in the seat - and why voting Lib Dem is ‘voting Tory without admitting it’


Cartoonist from 1888 depicting John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism, grabbing land on every continent. Public Domain.

Election 2019: Education and Empire

Following Labour’s manifesto pledge to educate the public on the histories of empire, slavery, and migration, Kimberly McIntosh explains the dangers of colonial nostalgia in the national curriculum

Support our election writer’s fund

The stakes could not be higher during this election. Help us cover what's really happening