Printers and Press Freedom: A Labour History of the Newspaper Industry in Modern Britain

Category: Research Projects


The Daily Herald was founded as a strike sheet by the London Society of Compositors in 1911.

The Daily Herald was founded as a strike sheet by the London Society of Compositors in 1911.

A picket's car outside of the News International printing plant during the Wapping Dispute. © Nic Oatridge

A picket's car outside of the News International printing plant during the Wapping Dispute.

© Nic Oatridge

The earliest critiques of press freedom in modern Britain, which in liberal historiography was attained with the repeal of ‘taxes on knowledge’ in the 1850s, stemmed from socialist printers and publishers in the late 19th century.  By demonstrating how the market economics of the newspaper industry militated against fair and free expression, these printers and publishers articulated ideas that did not gain currency in academic circles until 60 years later, when cultural Marxism entered its heyday and exercised a formative influence over the then infant discipline of media and cultural studies.  While this tradition of thinking has informed a healthy scepticism of free market economics - captured in James Curran’s phrase that in the 19th century the market replaced the state as the official censor of the press - the story of the worker has been largely forgotten and neglected.

In this project, then, I will trace the role of print workers in conceptualising their own ideas of ‘press freedom’, highlighting in the process how they acted on these ideas through two channels of instrumental action: work place pressure through trade unions and the creation of 'alternative economies' of print.  These two channels of action were rarely pursued in tandem, since ‘alternative economies’ – comprised at various times of anarchists, ethnic minorities and women - were as much a reaction to the organised labour movement as they were the capitalist economy as a whole.  The project will conclude with a consideration of what the defeat of the printing unions at Wapping in 1986 has meant for press freedom today, as well as how ‘alternative economies’ of print have shaped ideas about information-sharing in the digital world.


Members involved in this research

Dr Christopher Hill


Research Projects