The image of the British Left suffered an unfortunate blow in 2008 when the Google Streetview camera van drove past the offices of The Morning Star – the world’s only English-language socialist daily newspaper – the day after they had been gutted by a catastrophic fire.
“I think it’s been updated now,” says Morning Star editor Richard Bagley. “But for a while if you went to the address on Streetview you had the door hanging off, loads of smoke damage, the windows smashed and the company secretary with his head in his hands on the curb!”
The offices are in better shape today. Down the road from the Stour Space gallery in Hackney Wick, two smart red five-pointed stars sit above the door of a squat brick building, bookending the legend: William Rust House. Inside is a life-size brass relief of the eponymous one-time editor, done in jagged Vorticist style.
The newsroom holds a dozen state-of-the-art iMacs, a Palestinian flag and a pinup front-page from the paper commemorating the late trade union leader Bob Crow: “LOVED by the workers, FEARED by the bosses”. According to a whiteboard, James is ‘Worker of the Week’. Journalists drift in as the morning proceeds, a little sun-damaged from spending the previous day covering a march through central London by the People’s Assembly, an umbrella group for left-wing activists sponsored by the union Unite.
The paper has survived worse than fire in its time. When the USSR collapsed in the early nineties, it nearly took the Morning Star with it: since 1974 the Soviets had been funding the paper through buying thousands of copies a week and shipping them to Moscow.
The cash dried up not long after the Wall came down, causing a financial coronary at the Morning Star. Their building on Farringdon Road had to be sold and staff went unpaid. Bagley’s father, who started at the paper in the days when it was called the Daily Worker, left at this time because he needed to support his family. “Personally for him it was a very difficult time as well, seeing it all be torn apart,” recalls Bagley. “There was a lot of division, in-fighting, factional splits and acrimony. It was a very difficult period”.
Strikes by journalists in 1998 and 2009 again brought the Morning Star to the brink of closure. Pay was notoriously bad, the then-editor John Haylett writing in 2009 that “Every Morning Star staff member is told bluntly at interview: ‘The wages are crap. We work at the paper because we are politically committed to its aims’.”
Things have changed since then. Starting salaries are just over £20,000, with plans to increase in coming years. The staff wouldn’t give much away about their levels of political commitment, joking when asked that “some of us are more socialist than others”.
Funding comes from selling papers (cover price £1, circulation 15-20,000) and from fundraising from supporters. This includes jumble sales and second-hand book auctions, and, in September, a group of readers from Merseyside doing a sponsored cycle-ride from London to Paris. The paper is owned by the People’s Press Society, a cooperative with shares owned by readers.
Bagley points out that this is one reason why the Star’s editorial policy is different to other national dailies. The People’s Assembly march is a case in point. Unite paid for a free giveaway of the Morning Star at the demonstration, for whom it was front-page news. According to the organisers, 50,000 people marched through London on 21 June, though it was barely covered elsewhere in the press. Why?
“I think it possibly reflects the make-up of people in the media and what their outlook is personally,” is Bagley’s answer. “It’s also kind of like: ‘We don’t want there to be an alternative projected; that’s last century, left and right don’t exist.’ There’s a buy-in to this idea that this is it now; we’ve got this model, this is it, and nothing else is valid.”
For the same reason, Labour politicians who advocate nationalisation will be “gone for” by the newspapers. Says Bagley: “I mean the press is owned by oligarchs and pornographers. And the ‘hooray for the Blackshirts’ peeps at the Daily Mail”.
Since Bagley’s brought up the Mail’s Blackshirts connection, it seems fair to ask him about the support the Morning Star gave to Soviet repression in the twentieth century. The Morning Star backed the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, which saw tanks on the streets of Budapest and thousands killed.
The Morning Star masthead, with its red star insignia, would be illegal across much of eastern Europe (Estonia, say), much as Swastikas are forbidden in Germany. But this doesn’t much bother Bagley, who believes in the power of branding: “It’s just our logo. It’s not a Soviet star. And we’re not in Estonia anyway. I mean we’ve had that logo since 1966 – it’s our logo.”
A related legacy is a certain trigger-happiness with the word “fascist”. Bagley makes out the 2010 Conservative election campaign was “fascistic” for including “big slogans”.
With such loaded terms in play, politics can become a moral activity, rather than an intellectual one. Editorially, this moral preoccupation comes out in a tendency to commentate-as-you-report, with phrases such as “disgusting work capability assessment privateer Atos” used unflinchingly in the main news section. Bagley contends that this is simply doing more overtly and honestly what other papers do covertly. “We’re not ashamed to show who we are,” he says; which is why the front cover bears an explicit statement of the paper’s aims: “for peace and socialism”.
The paper’s stance follows the policy document of the Communist Party of Britain, Britain’s Road to Socialism, and the decision to do so is endorsed every year by shareholders in the People’s Press Society. Is this preferable to having to answer to the Barclay brothers or Rupert Murdoch? “I don’t get a phone call saying ‘this is your command today’,” Bagley clarifies.
“The broad thrust is that there needs to be an anti-monopoly alliance involving small shopkeepers, labour communities and trades unions, encountering the weight of the corporations and global pressures. That’s a comfortable place to be for a newspaper.”
What is striking is that, despite everything, it’s possible to feel extremely comfortable reading The Morning Star. Bagley’s view that we have a political monoculture is a valid one, and it’s worth giving serious time to his proposition that “under the guise of austerity, a lot of the advances made in the last hundred years are just being rolled back, because they’re not seen as required”. The typos and flagrant bias make you less angry than the stories it is actually reporting on do.