Paul Anderson, New Statesman & Society column, 26 January 1996
Forget legal constraints – there’s no press freedom unless you’re stocked at the newsagent’s
The unnoticed bad news of the week is that one of Britain’s biggest retail newsagents, W H Smith, is planning to drop a large number of the small-circulation publications it currently sells. Forget the fiasco of the Maxwell brothers trial and what cannot legally be said about their father even after his death. The biggest threat to press freedom in Britain today is posed not by the Contempt of Court Act, but by market forces.
For W H Smith, it’s simple. There are 100-odd publications which it currently stocks that are no longer worth carrying, for purely commercial reasons. New Statesman & Society, despite its current problems, is not one of them. But my old flame, Tribune, is. As a former editor of that venerable weekly organ of the Labour left, I know that it isn’t exactly a mass-circulation business. It relies on subscriptions for most of its 6,000-odd circulation, but it sells more than 2,000 copies a week through newsagents – nearly all of which these days go through the big chains, of which W H Smith is one of the most important. And those 2,000 sales are near enough to being crucial – don’t I know it – to the continuing survival of the paper. Tribune could not keep going if you couldn’t buy it at the railway station or in the high street.
Which means that Smith’s decision – taken, it seems, because of the competition the big newsagents now face from supermarkets – could be fatal for one of the most important institutions that underpin the pluralism of the British press. Like it or loathe it, long after Aneurin Bevan and George Orwell, Tribune still plays an essential role as a conduit for the opinions of Labour’s grassroots, as a forum for debate and as a school of journalistic talent. And it does so these days without any major subsidies – unlike in the not-so-distant past, when its relationship to the trade union bosses was rather like a drunk’s to a lamp-post.
But it’s not just Tribune: the point is that the imperatives of the supermarket can do disastrous damage to the prospects for any small-circulation serious political magazine. Unless they have the cash to invest in the subscriptions market in a big way – as NSS has had, at least recently – they are, on current trends, doomed to be marginalised and die.
Should we care ? There is an argument that the whole culture of small magazines and j ournals of opinion is irrevocably part of the past, superseded by television, the expanded daily and Sunday newspapers, the booming consumer magazine sector and the development of electronic communications. But a commitment to a critical democratic culture dictates a different point of view – or, rather, an infinite variety of points of view. Tiny, cerebral, awkward publications of all political persuasions are an essential part of any democracy’s intellectual culture, and that they are unsaleable in Safeway should not be a matter of their life or death.
Of course, it’s not the fault of WH Smith. Like any business, it operates to maximise profits. But there is a way of protecting the Tribunes of this world from the ravages of untrammelled market forces without causing much offence to capitalist ethics. After the last war, many continental European countries introduced “right to distribution” legislation to ensure press pluralism after fascism, passing laws to ensure that periodicals of democratic opinion were sold, as of right, in retail newsagents at least in all maj or towns and cities.
Those laws still exist today. A similar law here would make an excellen t addition to the list of no-cost legislation for an incoming Labour government compiled by Chris Mullin, another former Tribune editor. Press diversity is too precious to be thrown away.