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Media History

‘Always protest’? Drag Race, Pathé Newsreels, and Subversion in Mainstream Media

Manchester,,Uk,-,August,24,,2019:,Manchester,Pride,Parade,2019.

RuPaul’s Drag Race sells itself, and has been praised, as a subversive television series. RuPaul, eponymous creator of the drag contest gameshow, has stated ‘true drag will never be mainstream. Because true drag has to do with seeing that this world is an illusion’. British judge Graham Norton recently claimed ‘there’s something dangerous about drag still’. Echoing this, a contestant queen from the syndicated British Drag Race enthused that ‘Drag was always a protest, a political statement’. Drag Race, participants and producers alike insist, is inherently subversive because drag necessarily challenges the gender norms of ‘straight’ society.

Drag Race has also become a mass media phenomenon. A niche show in 2009, its 13th series premiered this year to 1.3 million viewers. Interviewed, like any self-respecting A-list celebrity, by the Muppets and toting both a Simpsons cameo and a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, RuPaul is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. This begs the question, can drag retain a subversive edge in mainstream media?

To consider this, it is instructive to look at one of drag’s first brushes with mass media in Britain. It was during the interwar period that drag first appeared onscreen, chiefly through cinema newsreels. Newsreels – short non-fiction topical films summarising the week’s current events – were included in almost every cinema programme until the 1960s. To leaven the news, they frequently featured variety entertainment; offshoot newsreels such as Pathetone were evencomprised entirely of filmed music hall acts.

A well-established form of music hall repertory from the nineteenth century, drag soon found its way into the newsreel. Bert Errol amazed cinemagoers by changing into high drag before their eyes in 1922. West-End comedian Douglas Byng appeared in rudimentary drag singing innuendo-laden falsetto across the 1930s. A 1937 item covered a police pantomime, with multiple shots of officers putting on makeup and dresses. In 1939, six sailors dressed as fairies sang and pranced before King-Emperor George VI during a naval inspection.

This seems remarkable at a time when populist paper John Bull ran editorials attacking London’s queer men for transvestism, castigating them as the ‘painted boy menace’.[1] From the mid-1920s, men wearing women’s clothes and makeup became tantamount to being queer.[2] In the 1930s, it is estimated 40 percent of Britons went to the cinema once and 25 percent twice or more a week.[3] To make drag palatable for the mainstream, newsreels had to ensure conventional manliness remained unchallenged and any association with queerness was muted.

As such, newsreels usually placed drag in establishment settings. Byng was a fixture of London’s fashionable set, always filmed in high-end venues like the Paradise Club, laughing with elites more so than at them. Likewise, Errol’s wife helped him change into drag, making sure audiences knew he was a red-blooded heterosexual, wig and high heels notwithstanding. The police officers and sailors returned to their uniforms, drag but a brief interlude (the naval fairies lasted but twenty seconds onscreen) from their ‘manly’ public service. Ensconced in marriage, elite society, and ‘masculine’ professions, queens could not truly send up the establishment when they were often performing from the heart of it.

Moreover, newsreels always framed drag as comedy. Ian Green has argued comedy allows latitude for contentious topics. Yet, because comedy resolves in laughter, it curtails earnest critique.[4] David Sutton likewise concludes comedy as a genre is ‘the appropriate site for the inappropriate, the proper place for indecorum’.[5] Comedy is establishment-condoned critique, safely dissipated in laughter. All the above acts, awash with puns and gags, aimed to make cinemagoers laugh, not challenge their gendered assumptions. Far from a challenge to the status quo, then, interwar drag acts could only enter mainstream media as safe entertainment bereft of queer connotations.

This is not to say drag culture could not be subversive. For queer men to wear women’s clothes and attend drag balls was certainly a brave and subversive act in the interwar period, one that provoked the British establishment.[6] The interwar life of Quentin Crisp is representative of the defiant subversion that came from wearing cosmetics.

Yet, as Jacob Bloomfield has shown, drag onstage was not inherently controversial and remained a staple of popular theatre.[7] Similarly, filmed drag acts obviated controversy in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In fact, looking at newsreel drag items reveals a legacy of conservatism for drag acts in the mainstream.

The producers of Drag Race would like to make their show the heir to the counterculture of drag balls and gay bars. Yet, in many respects, itis the mainstream heir to newsreel variety acts. Like newsreels, Drag Race is foremost comic entertainment, more inclined to jokes than politics. What little gender discussion there is occurs in the fleeting moments between farcical gameshow skits. The only challenges presented are to the competing queens’ dignities.

Like Pathe’s producers, RuPaul has espoused a profoundly conservative view of ‘true’ drag. Through transphobic comments, he has stressed drag as the exclusive province of gay men. Thus, much as newsreels removed any ‘controversial’ association with queerness, so Drag Race has placed strict limits on what drag represents and who can perform it.  

A look at the history of drag in newsreels reveals that to project drag through mass media is not inherently subversive. Whether in Pathé or on BBC3, being produced as mainstream entertainment severely curtails any potential for real subversion of societal norms such as gender. Former drag performer Paul O’Grady, carping in 2017 about Drag Race, contended that his drag persona Lilly Savage ‘belonged in a pub, especially a gay bar, where you could rant and rave’.  Considering drag’s relationship with popular media, perhaps it is only in niche subcultures that subversion can truly flourish.

Conner Scott is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research seeks to explore the role of British newsreels in everyday life, and how they (re)presented the cinemagoing public to itself on a weekly basis between c.1919-c.1939.


Cover image: Manchester Pride Parade 2019. A group of five drag queens representing BBC’s ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ on pink stage, Manchester, 24 August 2019. Used courtesy of Goncalo Telo for non-commercial, educational purposes. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/manchester-uk-august-24-2019-pride-1489347011

[1] Matt Houlbrook, ‘“The man with the powder puff” in Interwar London’, The Historical Journal 50.1 (2007), pp. 147-49.

[2] I use the term queer as it was the most common self-identity of interwar men who had sexual and emotional relationships with other men and avoids the anachronism of gay. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London, 2005), p. xiii.

[3] Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London, 2002), p. 2.

[4] Ian Green, ‘Ealing: In the Comedy Frame’ in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds), British Cinema History (London, 1983), p. 296.

[5] David Sutton, A Chorus of Raspberries: British Film Comedy 1929-1939 (Exeter, 2000), p. 60.

[6] See Matt Houlbrook, ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender and History 14.1 (2002), pp. 31-61; Houlbrook, Queer London.

[7] See Jacob Bloomfield, ‘Splinters: Cross-Dressing Ex-Servicemen on the Interwar Stage’, Twentieth Century British History 30.1 (2019), pp. 1-28.

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Girls’ Culture and the Girl’s Own Paper during the fin de siècle

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In an increasingly interconnected world, the mass media has impacted how many of us perceive ourselves. Growing up in the 2000s, aspects of my own identity have been shaped by my engagement with popular culture as a young girl. Reading magazines such as Girl Talk and Mizz, I developed a gender-based identity defined by popular representations of what it means to be a girl. 

Featuring fashion advice, celebrity gossip, and real-life stories of readers, girls’ magazines of the 21st century are loaded with gender assumptions that mark them as quite different from boys’ reading material. As a historian interested in gender issues, I am drawn to explore how understandings of gender roles have shaped ‘modern’ society and, in particular, how the media has defined gender-based identities in Britain.

It was in the final decades of the 19th century that girlhood began to be regarded as an important stage in life, one with its own distinct culture, located in between, but separated from both childhood and adulthood.[1] This point of view formed part of a reaction to popular anxieties about ‘modernity’ and its potential to create social and moral disorder, with gender considered a category through which this disorder could manifest itself. The image of the ‘New Woman’, associated with growing independence and new opportunities for women in the 1890s, challenged the accepted ideal that the primary responsibilities of women and girls were in the home. Importance was therefore placed on girlhood, a time during which young women were taught the acceptable boundaries of their gender.

Starting out as a penny weekly in 1880, the Girl’s Own Paper is just one example of the numerous periodicals of the fin de siècle which stressed gender dichotomies to its readers.[2] As the most popular and longest running periodical of its kind, the Girl’s Own is an important historical source for understanding how modern girls’ culture has evolved.

Containing nonfiction articles, stories, and a regular correspondence section, in its pages the Girl’s Own crafted its own vision of acceptable girlhood. Between 1880 and 1900, several articles in the paper expressed the need for girls to follow the traditional obligations of their sex. Readers were encouraged to live by traditional feminine values and were exposed to advertisements for household products, soaps, sewing materials, and other domestic necessities.[3]Stories also explicitly warned girls that to follow in the footsteps of the ‘New Woman’ would inevitably lead to unhappy spinsterhood.[4]

In an ever-growing market of gendered periodicals, however, the Girl’s Own also accepted the need to discuss more progressive ideas on girlhood in order to remain popular with readers. By the turn of the century, an increasing number of informative articles appeared on matters such as higher education and work opportunities. The justification given for such articles was that these were a response to the large number of girls requesting advice on ‘new departures, new training, and new careers’.[5]

Advertisements for leisure pursuits also allowed for a more ‘modern’ vision of girlhood to be represented. Products were marketed as being suitable for ‘lawn tennis, badminton, and croquet wear’, activities associated with modern representations of girlhood which distinguished fin de siècle girls from older generations.[6]

In 1890, however, readers were reminded to ‘enjoy your lawn tennis; but remember the obligations of your sex and your self respect’.[7] This phrasing summarises well the tone used in the Girl’s Own between 1880 and 1900, as traditional ideas on girlhood and femininity were renegotiated alongside the opportunities of modern life. The author cautioning readers to ‘remember [their] obligations’ demonstrated both tolerance for the new opportunities available to girls, such as new leisure pursuits like lawn tennis, and an awareness of the simultaneous opening-up of new educational and professional fields. Nevertheless, it was also stressed that these new opportunities should be enjoyed in moderation. An image of the ideal reader was thus created within the magazine which embodied the Christian, and traditionally feminine values of the magazine’s publisher but which also considered the demands of its readership. 

Many girls engaged in the correspondence of the magazine, and anticipated a reply from their ‘dear, faithful friend’, the editor.[8] This was yet another way in which the magazine acted as a tool with which its consumers formed understandings of their own lives and of the world around them. Experiences and understandings at such a fundamental life stage—girlhood—shaped the readers’ worldview on their way to adulthood. 

In today’s society, the mass media still acts as a vehicle with which individual identities are shaped and connected. More than a hundred years on, possibilities have increased exponentially, not only through the printed word but also because of the endless opportunities which the internet provides. The rise of social media is reflective of an increasingly globalised society, in which individuals can connect on deeper and more meaningful levels than earlier printed periodicals could provide. Yet, these older forms of communication remain important and relevant sources. They can teach us much about how our society has evolved, and how gender ideals which still exist today have been negotiated and understood in the past.

Laura Neilson is a recent graduate of the University of Sheffield, holding an MA in Modern History. She is particularly interested in gender history, and in making history accessible to the public.

Cover image: Masthead illustration for the Girl’s Own Paper in an 1886 edition. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] K. Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the periodical press, 1850-1918 (Ashgate, 2012), p.9; S. Mitchell, The New Girl: Girls’ Culture in England, 1880-1915 (Columbia University Press, 1995), pp.1-3.

[2] D. Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Routledge, 2013), p.18.

[3] “Multiple Classified Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd September 1881, p.3.

[4] “Varieties”, Girl’s Own Paper, 6th October 1894.

[5] Lily Watson, “What is the London County Council doing for Girls?”, Girl’s Own Paper, 27th February 1897, p.4.

[6] “Multiple Display Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd January 1880, p.4.

[7] S.F.A Caulfield, “Some Types of Girlhood; or, Our Juvenile Spinsters”, Girl’s Own Paper, 4th October 1890, p.5.

[8] “A Dip Into the Editor’s Correspondence”, Girl’s Own Paper, 16th June 1883, p.6.

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From Popular Culture to Culture War: Free Speech and the British Press

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In recent years, debates about ‘free speech’ have become ever-present in politics and the media, central to what has been called a ‘culture war’. Responding to this situation, a recent volume that assembles a diverse group of commentators, activists and academics – including a chapter from myself – focuses on what it calls The Free Speech Wars.

It examines how speech has and has not been controlled both historically and today, and the ways in which the concept of free speech has been weaponised or deployed as a bad faith argument by those wishing to commit harm. In the introduction, the volume’s editor, Charlotte Lydia Riley, summarises some of the insights the book offers, arguing:

“that free speech is often only available to those who are already powerful; that the people who shout the loudest about their speech being denied are still, at the end of the day, the ones whose voices carry the furthest. Freedom of speech is an essential right and a powerful duty, but it is not the only thing that matters”.

My own chapter explores these themes by examining one particular case study: the British press. This is an important subject as the press has both a vested interest in the debate due to the criticism the industry receives for its own harmful practices, and because the press is a major platform in which arguments about free speech take place and where ideas and rhetorical slogans are crafted and popularised.

The notion of freedom has been central to how the British press has presented itself ever since the emergence of what are recognisable as ‘newspapers’ in the seventeenth century. At that time it was undoubtedly an existential concern, given the efforts of the British state to censor what could be printed.[1] Famous figures such as John Wilkes became symbols of the need to fight for free speech, and the press has long presented itself as the ‘Fourth Estate’, with a supposed duty to hold the powerful to account.

Yet the context has changed immensely in the intervening centuries. From a time when a small number of journalists and publications were truly radical voices speaking to a relatively small number of readers, by the end of the nineteenth century a mass press had emerged.

With readerships reaching into the millions, owned by wealthy figures such as the press barons, and with links to powerful interests in the spheres of politics and business, the press itself – particularly the largest and most influential newspapers – now wielded immense power. Moreover, the majority of the press remained resolutely right-wing politically, which remains the case today.

With such large circulations, newspapers were able to set the agenda and pressurise politicians. This mass press was also a key element in the emergence of a ‘popular culture’, as important as books, films or music. Newspapers played a vital role in crafting notions of ‘common sense’ and a political and cultural language for their readers.

This new state of affairs begged the question – who would hold the press itself to account?

The central character of debates about press freedom changed during the twentieth century, with the 1960s serving as a pivotal moment. Beforehand, debates about free speech and the press tended to focus on notions of morality, respectability and obscenity, and the tone of newspaper’s critiques of authority figures. Afterwards, debates about press freedom tended to centre on the press’s representation of disadvantaged groups, whether this concerned stereotyping and discrimination or issues of privacy and intrusion into the personal sphere.

The longstanding demonisation of migrants and ethnic minorities in the pages of many of the most high-profile British newspapers, especially the tabloids, is one obvious example. Another is the News of the World’s notorious practice of phonehacking, also likely utilised by other newspapers. This targeted not just celebrities, but also regular members of the public who had been thrust into the public eye, such as the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The press duly wheeled out all of the old arguments about free speech, the freedom of the press and the Fourth Estate. Newspapers presented themselves as the victims, ignoring the ways in which they had used their power and influence to harm others, their unethical – and even illegal – practices, and their frequent disregard for factual accuracy.

Although the phonehacking scandal led to the closure of the News of the World and some brief jailtime for a small number of perpetrators, most of those involved escaped censure and the Sun on Sunday was quickly launched by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK to replace the News of the World. Most damningly, the new industry regulator, IPSO, was again set up as a vehicle of self-regulation like its predecessors – and has been chaired by figures from News UK such as former political editor of the Sun, Trevor Kavanagh.

Murdoch has been central to another factor in ‘free speech’ becoming a central focus of much of the British press. His media organisations straddle both sides of the Atlantic (and far beyond). Much as Fox News has hosted reactionaries utilising notionally liberal values such as freedom and ‘free speech’ to provide cover for their regressive and discriminatory views and activities, so too have Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK – the Sun, The Times, and the Sunday Times.

This is part of a broader press environment where culture-war rhetoric has flourished, with constant alarmist articles about ‘snowflakes’ and PC culture, no-platforming and other supposed attacks against free speech on university campuses, and disingenuous claims that calling out racism, misogyny and homophobia is now the real bigotry and a threat to freedom – all of which are examined in The Free Speech Wars.

The history of the British press across the last century and a half has exemplified a broader societal shift from popular culture to culture war – and although the manner in which notions of free speech have been utilised has changed, they remain potent rhetorical tools. Free speech is a vitally important issue, especially at a time when authoritarianism is rising around the world and journalists in many countries are targeted with violence. The press is also clearly home to a diverse range of voices, including on the issue of free speech.

But the appeals to free speech offered by the press in Britain need to be treated with suspicion given the industry’s long history of hypocrisy over the issue and the various ways it has sought to weaponize the concept to justify its commercial imperatives and unethical behaviour. You can read my full chapter in the book for a more detailed account of how this unfolded.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

The Free Speech Wars is available now from Manchester University Press.


Cover image: A pile of newspapers secured with an iron chain.

[1] K. Williams, Read All About It!: A History of the British Newspaper (London, 2010), chs 1-3.

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‘Fear or Fetish? The Fetishisation of Lesbians in Cold War America

Cover_of_Lesbian_Love_by_Marlene_Longman_-_Illustrator_McCauley_-_Nightstand_NB_1523_1960

In the 1950s, American society saw a huge rise in anxieties regarding gender norms and sexuality. Homosexuals were demonized through the Lavender Scare – a moral panic focused on gay and lesbian US government employees – and ideas of the nuclear family were promoted in the fight against Communism. Yet, throughout this period, there was also an influx of highly erotic lesbian fiction and magazines aimed at heterosexual men with overtly sexualised lesbian themes. This sexualisation remains prevalent today and continues to have detrimental impacts upon the lives of lesbian woman,[1] and yet its origins have received little attention in historical debate.

When constructions of homosexuality have been looked at during this period, historians have tended to focus on the political sphere. David Johnson, for example, focuses much of his attention on how anxieties regarding sexuality permeated political culture and the lives of elites.[2] Therefore, little attention is given to popular culture and perceptions of the ‘ordinary’ American citizen. Focusing primarily on political culture also means that Johnson’s narrative mainly looks at how the Lavender Scare impacted wider cultural perceptions of homosexual men.

Consequently, the sexualisation of lesbians by heterosexual men and how this came to the fore with such force during this period has not received necessary attention.

At the end of the war and throughout the 1950s, American society took a conservative turn, with ideas of gender and ‘family’ becoming all the more important as a way to distinguish America from the Communist East. Women were particularly impacted by this growing interest in conformity. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the full-time housewife became synonymous with ideas of American freedom.[3] Anything that deviated from this ideal was therefore seen as a threat.

At the same time, ideas of homosexuality were changing and ‘the lesbian’ was fashioned as an immediate danger. Lesbianism began to be framed as a sickness, but crucially it was a sickness that could be cured – if only a man could show them a “good time”.

Simultaneously, we see the crisis of masculinity. At numerous occasions during this period, historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the issue, arguing that World War II had ushered in an uneasy sense of vulnerability and a loss of a clear sense of self for many men that continued throughout the 1950s. This sense of a decline in manhood’s mastery over others, combined with ideas that lesbians could be ‘regained’ by patriarchal concepts of heterosexuality, meant that ‘the lesbian’ was constructed as an opportunity for men to prove themselves. The post-war into the Cold War period therefore set up the perfect conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could flourish.

This resulted in an influx of pulp fiction and men’s magazines, through which these themes were reflected. Stories of lesbian orgies, threesomes and lesbian nymphomaniacs were extremely popular amongst heterosexual men during this period. Within these novels, lesbians are presented as deviants, yet deviants who are often regained by heterosexual, familial norms after experiencing life changing heterosexual sex.

Cover of The Third Sex by Artemis Smith (1963 Edition).

The message is therefore clear. If men show lesbians a good time by reasserting their masculinity, these women will once against fit within the Cold War ideals of conformity – everyone’s a winner.

Men’s magazines took a similar approach. Stories and images of two women looking for a man were extremely popular. What we can learn from 1950s and 1960s America is that sex sells, but lesbian sex sells better.

This had very real life consequences for lesbians, as men encroached on their space in the search of sexual encounters. Analysis of interviews and testimonies show that this repressive context led to a thriving underground lesbian movement and a vast number of lesbian bars being established. Heterosexual men often took advantage of these lesbian spaces, going there in search of lesbian women to have sex with –further demonstrating how they were constructed as an opportunity in the eyes of men.

Ultimately, the period between 1947 up until the stonewall riots of 1969 provided the ideal conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could and indeed did flourish. Sexualisation of lesbians is still widespread within our society today and lesbians continue to face challenges of not only being seen as a sexual fantasy but also having their sexuality presented as merely performative and something that can be “regained” by heterosexual masculinity

In numerous recent insight reports, PornHub revealed that ‘Lesbian’ was the most searched for and most viewed category across numerous American states, with 75 percent of the American audience being male. These statistics demonstrate that lesbianism continues to be framed within the male gaze. Sexualisation is not the same as acceptance and therefore it is important that we continue to address its roots in order to hold both society and ourselves accountable today.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People  project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Cover of Lesbian Love by Marlene Longman (1960).

[1] See Ofcom’s ‘Representation and Portrayal on BBC TV 2018’ report regarding the representation of lesbian women on television. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/information-for-industry/bbc-operating-framework/representation-portrayal-bbc-tv/research-hub/lesbian-women

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government (Chicago, 2004).

[3] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988).

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“Freewheelin’ to Ban-happy”?: Students and No-Platform in Britain

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Since around the end of 2013 there has been a moral panic around freedom of speech on British university campuses. This emerged after a number of public figures scheduled to speak at various universities and student unions were disinvited due to student pressure and organising – what is known as ‘no-platforming’.

This took place within a broader argument in the British media about ‘censorious students’, consisting not just of debates around ‘no-platform’ but also ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’.

For example, in December 2015 the Editor of the right-libertarian publication Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, used the term ‘Stepford Students’ in an article for the Spectator. He described how, in his view, students had been rebranded as fragile, overgrown children who needed to be shielded from ‘harmful’ ideas and who demanded the right to feel comfortable even at university which should be a space of challenging ideas and intellectual discomfort.

O’Neill characterised this development as a sudden and radical reversal. He argued that it is ‘hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have’ and claimed that in the ‘space of a generation students have gone from freewheelin’ to ban-happy’, from ‘askers of awkward questions’ to ‘suppressors of offensive speech’.

This idea of mollycoddled ‘snowflake’ students caught on and achieved a relatively dominant position in media coverage of free speech in Britain and British universities.[1]

Most of the discussion, though, has been devastatingly ahistorical. As the historian Evan Smith points out in his recent monograph, ‘no-platform’ has a much longer and more complex history than contemporary media discussions acknowledge.[2]

Smith argues that ‘no-platform’ emerged out of a longer antifascist tradition in Britain of denying a platform to fascists in the inter- and early post-war periods through tactics such as heckling and the physical denial of space. Whilst true, we might put these longer traditions aside for the moment to look at the issue of free speech at universities, which became a matter of media interest in the 1960s.

In May 1968, for example, an article in the Spectator compared what it termed ‘liberal’ and ‘revolutionary’ students, and noted there was tension between the two because the ‘liberals’ were struggling with their studies due to their ‘free speech being howled down’ by the demonstrations of the ‘revolutionary minority’.[3]

The next year the Vice-Chancellor of Essex University, Dr. Albert Sloman, expressed his concern at how militant students were killing free speech and complained that important questions were no longer being debated in universities as frankly or as often because visiting speakers were regularly being ‘drowned out’.[4]

During the 1960s and 1970s, rather than Milo Yinnopolous or Tommy Robinson, it was often Conservative MPs like Enoch Powell or Keith Joseph who were being denied platforms. For instance, when Powell was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the Conservative Association at St. Andrews in 1973, he had attracted so much previous opprobrium on other campuses that the Association deliberately printed the wrong date on posters advertising the dinner, only informing students buying tickets what the real date was in order to avoid disruption.[5]

Referring to Powell being prevented from speaking at Dundee University the year before, one commentator, again in the Spectator, complained that students were ‘encouraged to regard themselves as infants whose tantrums will not be held against them’ and that they were ‘pampered…in the most regressive and childlike attitudes and granted exemption from the adult world’.[6]

Here – in 1972 – were almost identical criticisms to those being made today and even the same language being used – of infantilisation, childlike attitudes and the characterisation of students as regressive children who urgently need to grow up.

As Smith documents, 1973 saw protests against Professor Hans Eysenck at LSE (for his research on racial elements in the inheritance of intelligence) and the occupation of a lecture hall at Sussex to prevent the American academic Samuel P. Huntington from speaking. In May 1974, the former Monday Club Chairman Jonathan Guinness was prevente from speaking at Portsmouth Polytechnic with students even barricading a hall and drowning him out until he left.[7] Smith shows how ‘these events were portrayed as an end to free speech on campus and an example of a violent turn within the movement’, with this period an important ‘incubator’ for the idea of ‘no-platform’.[8]

1974 was indeed a particularly important moment as it was the year ‘no-platform’ became an official National Union of Students (NUS) policy rather than a disparate patchwork of policies at various student unions. The NUS conference in Liverpool voted to ‘smash’ the meetings of, amongst other groups, the Monday Club, the National Front (NF) and the National Democratic Party.[9]

There was, however, considerable opposition to the Liverpool motion. Surrey, for instance, disowned the policy of disruption by defending ‘the right of freedom of speech for all’.[10] One NUS-delegate from Manchester argued that right-wing views could be rejected through common sense and believing students did not have the capacity to do so was ‘patronising paternalism’.[11]

At the University of Sheffield, a debate took place on whether to let Brian Faulkner, the Unionist last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, speak. The talk eventually went ahead with the Chairman of the Debates Committee arguing: ‘if he was evil let the man come and show himself to be evil during questioning…students are capable of judging for themselves’, whilst others argued that freedom of speech had to be weighed against ‘other important freedoms’.[12]

In fact, mirroring recent moves, disillusionment with the NUS and policies like ‘no-platform’ even caused some unions to disaffiliate, such as Aston and Manchester in 1976.[13]

The important point here is that there has been, for over half a century now, anxieties and debates about freedom of speech on campuses and so to suggest that, in the space of a generation, students have gone from ‘freewheelin’ to ‘ban-happy’ isn’t really true.  

It is also not quite accurate to say, as Sarah Ditum did in the New Statesman in 2014, that only recently has the tactic burst beyond the remit it was originally intended for. During the 1980s sexists and homophobes were targeted for denial of platforms and Smith argues that in this period the tactic was recalibrated in the face of these other threats following the decline of the NF, ‘indicating that debate around the repurposing of the tactic by students has endured for nearly 40 years’.[14]

There was another pronounced ‘spike’ of media interest from 1985, and by 1986 it was felt that freedom of speech in universities was under such an acute threat that parliamentary legislation was required to make it the duty of institutions to enforce the right of free speech. In the Commons, the Secretary of State for Education and Science spoke of the ‘considerable public unease’ about the way in which certain people had been denied the right of freedom of speech at universities, resulting in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 which forced institutions to take ‘reasonable steps’ to guarantee freedom of speech within the law.[15]

So, a closer look at the history of ‘no-platform’ in Britain reveals that much of the discussion has remained essentially unchanged for decades. There have certainly been more intense moments where these themes gained greater visibility and traction in the media, but students have not gone from free speech warriors to censors in a generation and a ‘radical transformation’ simply does not accurately characterise changing attitudes to campus free speech.

Hallam Roffey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey


Cover image: University of Michigan Student Walkout at the Ross School of Business, November 16, 2016. Courtesy of Corey Seeman, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cseeman/30895469312/in/photostream/ [Accessed 5 October 2020].

[1] I myself repeated a number of its tropes in what I now view as a somewhat embarrassing series of articles for Spiked and the Telegraph).

[2] E. Smith, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (Oxon, 2020).

[3] Spectator, 23 May 1968, p. 2.

[4] Daily Mail, 14 October 1969, p. 9.

[5] Darts, 23 February 1973, p. 3.

[6] Spectator, 18 November 1972, p. 11.

[7] Daily Mail, 18 May 1974, p. 14.

[8] Smith, No Platform, p, 82.

[9] Daily Mail, 5 April 1974, p. 13.

[10] Guardian, 29 May 1974, p. 5.

[11] Guardian, 5 April 1974, p. 7.

[12] Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 7; Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 1.

[13] Darts, 19 February 1976, p. 1, 12.; Daily Mail, 5 February 1976, p. 9.

[14] Smith, No Platform, p. 113.

[15] B.P.P, HC, 11 February 1986, Freedom of Speech (Universities and Institutions of Higher Education).

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Why You Should Watch ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’

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There’s only one Rupert” announced Donald Trump in June 2017. He was responding to an introduction given for him by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The two men have a relationship stretching back decades, and Murdoch and his media empire played a pivotal role in Trump’s election as US President, particularly via the television network Fox News.

Trump’s statement serves as a refrain in a new BBC documentary, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, which everyone should try to watch before it disappears off BBC iPlayer.[1] It examines the business activities and family – particularly Rupert’s children, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James – of one of the most powerful and influential figures in recent British and global history.

Murdoch and his mass media conglomerate News Corp have for decades wielded enormous political and cultural influence in the UK, the US and Australia. In recent years, aside from supporting Trump, Murdoch’s UK tabloid the Sun played a key role in Brexit while his Australian media organisations have led efforts to undermine recognition of climate change and to resist attempts to combat it, even as the country experienced horrendous bushfires. Leading politicians in both countries have also maintained close connections with Murdoch.

The documentary arrives in the wake of HBO’s critically-acclaimed drama Succession, which uses the Murdoch family as its main source of inspiration while also drawing on other controversial media dynasties such as the owners of the Viacom, the Redstones. Indeed, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty apes the style and aesthetics of Succession.

Rupert Murdoch has long been depicted as an antidemocratic despot whose media organisations subvert the democratic process, coarsen popular culture, and stray into illegality.[2] In the UK, his newspapers having bragged about swaying the outcomes of elections, their use of features such as page 3, and their involvement in scandals such as smearing the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and Phone Hacking offer plenty of supporting evidence.

During protests against News Corps’ attempt to gain overall control of the broadcaster BSkyB in 2010, a campaigner in a Murdoch mask manipulated puppets of the then Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt – the minister presiding over the decision.

Despite Hunt failing to refer the deal to the Competition Commission, the bid was ultimately withdrawn when the Phone Hacking scandal came to light. Subsequently, a raft of texts and emails exchanged between Hunt and News Corp were revealed, with one of the company’s lobbyists having told James Murdoch that Hunt “said we would get there in the end and he shared our objectives”. Hunt had publicly denied any relationship with the Murdochs, reinforcing the impression that they had far too much influence over leading politicians.

There is a long history of fears about the ability of the media to influence politicians and the public. This became particularly acute with the rise of the mass popular press at the end of nineteenth century, which reached much larger numbers of readers than ever before and which refined methods to grab the attention of the public, such as eye-catching headlines and layouts, emotive slogans, sensationalist stories, competitions, and gimmicks. While partly due to elite fears that the newly enfranchised masses could not be trusted to vote wisely, many of the critiques of the popular press were nevertheless well-grounded.

In the US, William Randolph Hearst became notorious for what his critics saw as the debasement of journalism and politics, while in the UK the same charges were levelled at the press barons, Lords Northcliffe, Rothermere, and Beaverbook. While such figures wielded less direct influence over the outcome of elections than they desired, the long-term impact of their newspapers over broader attitudes was significant. Indeed, tabloid values have seemingly taken root across the media and wider society.

The media environment has changed a lot over the last hundred or so years, and throughout Murdoch’s career. However, given the scale and international reach of Murdoch’s media concerns, it is reasonable to suggest that he has achieved a greater level of power and influence than the press barons ever managed.

Assessing the activities and impact of Murdoch is difficult because his modus operandi is secrecy”. As Rodney Tiffin notes, this is at odds with what should be the primary democratic purpose of news organisations: increasing public transparency. Murdoch operates outside of public view, exercising control via face-to-face conversations and phone calls that leave no paper trail.[3]

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty does a good job of surveying what we do know, and some of the insights from interviewees that worked within Murdoch’s media organizations are illuminating.[4]

One aspect of the documentary worth expanding upon concerns commonalities evident across Murdoch’s media organisations. As he stated in 1996, News Corp, “For better or worse, is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values”.

A series of articles published in the New York Times outlines the driving motivation of Murdoch’s activities: conquest. Following in the footsteps of his father, from the start of his career Murdoch used his newspapers to gain political leverage over and intimidate Australian politicians, lending them support in return for political favours and the relaxation of media competition laws. This pattern was repeated as he moved into the UK and then the US.

The undermining of journalistic standards and the creation of workplace cultures that have encouraged and concealed toxic behaviour – and even outright illegality – have been common features across many of Murdoch’s media possessions.[5]

Accompanying this has been a distinctive form of right-wing politics.[6] While at times Murdoch has lent the support of his newspapers to centre-left parties such as New Labour, this has always been dependent on concessions, and his media empire has consistently pushed political positions such as hostility to trade unions, jingoism, hawkish foreign policies, climate change denial, and various conservative social values.[7] Indeed, in recent decades many of Murdoch’s newspapers and television channels have played a key role in the emergence of what has been termed a “culture war”, even including highbrow newspapers such as The Times.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty is a great overview of how the world’s most powerful media mogul has amassed and wielded power, and given recent events it is vital viewing.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley

Cover image: Protester in a Rupert Murdoch mask manipulates puppets of David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, London 2010. Courtesy of 38 Degrees, https://www.flickr.com/photos/38degrees/5887629591/ [accessed 06 August 2020].

[1] Episode 1 is due to be taken down on Saturday 15th August, so best hurry. Edit: This has now thankfully been extended, so you have plenty of time to catch it!

[2] This is a popular image that Murdoch himself is well aware of and has at times been willing to play up to. After first being depicted in the Simpsons –at the time owned by his 20th Century Fox production company – bedecked in a prison jumpsuit as an inmate as Springwood Minimum Security Prison, he later provided his voice for another appearance where he introduced himself as “the billionaire tyrant” – a line he apparently came up with himself.

[3] This has a precedent with previous media moguls; while the press barons Northcliffe and Beaverbrook donated their personal papers to archives, Rothermere ordered his own to be destroyed after he died and one of the papers he controlled, the Daily Mail, continues to deny public access to its internal archives, unlike most other surviving newspapers.

[4] Though this is variable. There are some eye-opening accounts of the illegal practices that were carried out at the Sun and the News of the World, including “darks arts” such as phone hacking, blagging and the bribing of police. Conversely, former News Corp executive Les Hinton’s contribution was largely a hagiography of Murdoch. In keeping with the expected pattern, the Murdoch family declined to contribute.

[5] This includes the covering up of sexual harassment at Fox News, and the macho bullying that occurred at the Sun, especially under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie.

[6] The packaging of this political viewpoint has been overseen by a number of key subordinates, such as the Sun editors Larry Lamb and Kelvin MacKenzie and the Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Lachlan Murdoch has recently displaced James to become the de facto heir to the Murdoch empire, and his political views seem even more right-wing  than his father’s.

[7] For how this played out at the Sun, see: P. Chippindale, C. Horrie, Stick It Up Your Punter!: The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper (London, 1999).

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