Down among the press lords

Alan Rusbridger

  • The Life and Death of the Press Barons by Piers Brendon
    Secker, 288 pp, £12.50, December 1982, ISBN 0 436 06811 7

It invented atrocity stories, manufactured interviews, published fake pictures, perverted real incidents. It conducted the most sustained campaign of jingoism in the history of its country. When a battleship was sunk it shrieked: ‘War Sure.’ By the time hostilities commenced in April the paper’s streamer headlines were five and a half inches high. Headlines no longer told the news; they sold the news.

No, as it happens, we are not talking about the Sun. We are talking about William Randolph Hearst’s Journal. The war is against Spain rather than Argentina, and it is April 1898 rather than April 1982. But we might just as well have been talking about the Sun. Like the Journal, it is a paper that makes up stories, manufactures interviews that never took place and perverts real incidents. Day by day during the Falklands war there unfolded in its pages the most brutal, crude and unedifying journalism to have been seen in this country in – well, let us say in the lifetime of its unlikeable editor, the 35-year-old Kelvin MacKenzie.

This book invites comparisons between different ages of journalism, so perhaps, for old times’ sake, we could just recite again some morsels from the Sun’s coverage of a war in which more than a thousand people died. It was the paper that celebrated the torpedoing of a ship carrying 1,200 men with the headline ‘GOTCHA.’ It was the paper that paid £5 (plus a can of non-Argentine corned beef) for every ‘anti-Argie’ joke sent in by readers. It was the paper that sponsored a missile with ‘Stick this Up Your Junta’ inscribed on its side. It was the paper whose sponsored missile downed an Argentine bomber and which boasted of this in terms of an ‘exclusive’. It was the paper that caused vital signals to be delayed in their transmission from the Invincible while its reporter on the spot sent back stories about naked Page Three girls being sent to the troops. It was the paper that marketed ‘Stick it Up Your Junta’ tee-shirts. It was the paper that accused other papers of treason and treachery when they expressed doubts about the course of the war.

The Sun is a tinyish part of the News International Empire, which, in turn, is part of a world-wide conglomerate of radio and TV companies, airlines and minerals. ‘The paramount commitment of such organisations,’ according to Piers Brendon, ‘is to profits, and they are disposed to apply only commerical criteria to what is a trust as well as a business. This can warp and dehumanise the organisation of a newspaper and reduce its contents to universally acceptable blandness.’ Well, as the foreign editor of the Beast would say to his own proprietor, Up to a Point. For there is one name that we have not yet mentioned in this tale of the tiny subsidiary unit of a soulless bureaucracy intent on promoting the capitalist order in general and the interests of its parent company in particular. The name is Murdoch. Plain Rupert Murdoch, for all the offers of titles that habitually come the way of newspaper proprietors. Mr Murdoch, who appointed Kelvin MacKenzie to revitalise the flagging Sun, who ordered, ‘I want a tearaway paper with lots of tit,’ who was on the phone to Mr MacKenzie every day during the Falklands crisis as the Sun moved swiftly to corner the market in patriotism. No, Mr MacKenzie need never fear that he will be accused of producing a paper of ‘universally acceptable blandness’. Not while Rupert’s still around. And while Rupert’s still around (and Sir James, and Robert, and Tiny – and maybe even Victor: ‘I have the papers in which to give my views, but I think the House of Lords will be better’), reports of the ‘death of the press barons’ are somewhat exaggerated.

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