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.

The British certainly like to give the impression that the breed is still with them. It is not the faceless Cavenham Foods multinational that is starting up a news magazine, but the tearaway, free-living, much-married millionaire, Sir James; and it is Sir James, moreover, who appears on our television screens defining the limits of his editors’ freedom. We do not read of attempts by anonymous senior executives at News International to suppress comment or sack editors who have infringed unwritten company policy, but of swashbuckling, tough-talking Rupert. It is Robert Maxwell, not his BPCC, who is perpetually on the touchline of any new take-over deal. Moreover, it was the unacceptable face of Tiny Rowland, rather than the unacceptable face of Lonrho, which was largely responsible for getting Observer journalists (and other concerned parties) hot under the collar a couple of years ago when he stitched up a deal to buy the paper off an old friend. Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote at the time: ‘I am not going to ask that Mr Rowland’s ink should print on Mr Rowland’s newsprint such words as might induce fits in Mr Rowland. I do not know whether, if I did write such words, they would actually reach you, but they are not going to be written.’ Well might he have worried. For it is clear that pressure has come from that very quarter to the effect that Mr O’Brien’s weekly column should be seen altogether less frequently, if at all, in the pages of the Observer. It is to the credit of the still surviving editor, Donald Trelford, that he has resisted that pressure, even though he is not said to be among O’Brien’s most ardent admirers.

Tiny, Sir James and Rupert are just a few of the many object lessons in recent years as to the dangers inherent in the honourable calling of press baronetcy (the squalid little affair of the Isle of Man newspaper magnate, his editor and the Secretary of State for Trade is only the latest of these lessons). As the profits to be made out of newspapers continue to decline, it is only natural one should be sceptical as to the motives of the men who continue to come forward to own them. Not that it has ever been so terribly different. For most of the barons dealt with in this book come across as quite strikingly unpleasant characters: ruthless, unstable, megalomaniac, dishonest, self-important, bombastic, arrogant, vindictive, scurrilous, vain and hyperbolic. Several of them were also mad. Others were content simply to drive their editors mad. Our first baron is James Gordon Bennett Sr (1785-1872), the man who raised the American press from its venal, corrupt impotence to earn such accolades from his contemporaries as ‘vulgar depraved wretch’, ‘obscene foreign vagabond, and leprous slanderer and libeller, a turkey buzzard, rascal, rogue, cheat, common bandit and polluter of the press’. His son, James Gordon Bennett Jr, was an altogether less admirable figure – a megalomaniac profligate who decadently controlled his newspaper from France, having been horse-whipped out of the United States for urinating in his fiancée’s grand piano.

The tone is set for the ensuing chapters, which alternate between America and Britain. We come across barons who hire thugs to beat up rival newsboys (Chicago in the 1840s – but it was still happening in Chicago in 1910 and in the Sydney of Murdoch’s childhood), barons who died in asylums, barons who purchased 13-year-old girls for £5 in order to expose alleged wrong-doing (London, 1885 – John Pilger was using the same technique for the Daily Mirror in 1982); barons who lived on giant soundproof yachts (Pulitzer in 1907, Scripps in the 1920s); barons who helped start wars and stirred up riots; barons who drank a gallon of whisky every day and beat up their children; barons who forced business concessions out of politicians by offering: ‘Look, you can have a headline a day or a bucket of shit every day – what’s it to be?’

Not unnaturally, their newspapers tended to display many of the same characteristics. There is certainly no depth to which the Sun sinks today which has not, in the past hundred and fifty years, been exceeded to an extent which makes the Sun look like a quarterly journal of structuralism. Mr Brendon quotes the Platonic Murdoch intro (a real example, from his San Antonio News): ‘A divorced epileptic, who told police she was buried alive in a bathtub full of wet cement and later hanged upside down in the nude, left San Antonio for good this weekend. The tiny half-blind woman, suffering from diabetes, recounted for the News a bizarre horror story filled with rape, torture and starvation.’ But this is mild stuff. The elder James Gordon Bennett sealed the success of the New York Herald with his powerful treatment of the murder of a prostitute, which included his own detailed description of the corpse as it lay in the mortuary. Hearst’s Chicago Tribune journalists did a nice line in blackmail – planting a smallpox sufferer as an assistant in a department store, ‘discovering’ her, and then extorting advertising against threats of exposé.

More revealing in a way, and more central to the theme of this book, is the development of the role of the press – its claims to constitutional significance and its pretensions to political and ethical responsibility – as expressed through the motivation and personal vanity of its proprietors and the influence (rather than, in most cases, power) which they grew to exercise. Already, in the early 1830s, Thomas Barnes, editor of the Times, was privy to official secrets and consulted about ministerial appointments. His successor, Delane, claimed that the paper resembled the Church of the Middle Ages: ‘executor of the public will, informer of the public understanding, enlightener of the people’s consciences, check against the abuse of power, monitor against the vices’.

W.T. Stead, editor of the Northern Echo at 22, was driven by an evangelical desire to ‘secure the final overthrow of the Powers of Darkness in high places’. He formulated a ‘government by journalism’ in which the press would take over the functions of the Commons. The editor received a daily (instead of septennial) mandate from the people, who ‘elected’ him every time they bought his newspaper, which, unlike Parliament, was in permanent session. He could inform the public, utter the views of the dumb masses, conduct missions, expose abuses, judge grievances and right wrongs. He proposed that each newspaper should have its own Whip in Parliament, with journalistic ‘major-generals’ throughout the country, who would be the ‘interrogators of democracy’ and would keep their editors abreast of public opinion. ‘He seemed to visualise,’ says Brendon, ‘that at the centre of this journalistic network there would be a Victorian edition of God’s Englishman in a bushy red beard and a shabby check suit.’ Nor was Stead alone in such pretensions. Pulitzer imagined that his World was the most important teacher and moral agent in America. He believed it should determine who should be elected President and ‘should be more powerful than the President’. More plausibly, he argued that by the mid-1880s the extension of the plutocracy, the tyranny of the great corporations, the ominous unrest amongst the labour unions and political corruption posed problems which could not be solved without the help of the press. And then there was Hearst, who believed newspapers to be the ‘greatest force in civilisation’. Not only do they ‘form and express public opinion, suggest and control legislation, declare wars and punish criminals’, but, as representatives of the people, they ‘control the nation’. Beaverbrook, though he despised Hearst’s methods, had a similar notion, and set out to demonstrate ‘the efficacy of the weapon of the Press: when skilfully employed at the psychological moment no politician of any party can resist it.’

Yet this modest degree of influence was apparently not enough for many barons. Horace Greeley ran for President, Hearst ran for Governor. Northcliffe ran for Parliament: Cecil King simply wanted to run the country. Beaverbrook was the only one to achieve political high office, though he tried to resign it as soon as he had gained it and finally quit 18 months and 14 ‘resignations’ later. Why these men should aspire to such power when they already believed themselves to be more powerful than politicians and more representative of the people is a question Mr Brendon does not get to grips with. He makes some attempt to do so with Northcliffe, but in such an abbreviated and muddled way that we are really not much the wiser. Northcliffe’s anger with Churchill, we are told, must partly have stemmed ‘from a baffled awareness that he was having little impact on events’ (‘he’ presumably meant his newspapers). Yet in the very next paragraph we learn that there was only one occasion on which Northcliffe ‘seriously tried to lead public opinion’: the (impotent) attack on Kitchener for not supplying the Army with enough high explosive shells. ‘Nevertheless,’ the next paragraph goes on, ‘ministers were intimidated by Northcliffe’s dictatorial behaviour and out of their own weakness came his strength... they tried to enlist his support by showering him and his family with honours.’ So in what sense did Northcliffe have ‘little impact on events’? Mr Brendon says only one in six houses took a Northcliffe newspaper – ‘scarcely the whole country’ – and that Northcliffe merely echoed public sentiments. Northcliffe’s brother. Cecil, gave him the credit for getting rid of Asquith. ‘In fact,’ says Mr Brendon, ‘Asquith lost his office as a result of political intrigue’ (yes, but ...), ‘itself the product of widespread dissatisfaction’, which, it turns out, was ‘fomented by Northcliffe and other press magnates’. So Northcliffe apparently did have some impact on events. But what sort of impact? Where did it land – on the politicians? On the one family in six who read his papers? On the public as a whole? Or was it a case of politicians fearing an influence that was really illusory? Mr Brendon doesn’t help us much with questions of this kind. Instead, he has concentrated on packing detail, colour and fact into a collection of 25 powerful, capricious, axe-grinding egoists.

We end up on the uncertain ground of Mr Murdoch, whose newspapers, Mr Brendon notices, always seem to be the best or the worst. That is certainly the ominous pattern which the current newspaper industry is settling into. The latest ABC circulation figures show that only the Sun, the Guardian and the Times managed any increase in their sales during the last six months. The competition at both ends is notoriously fierce and getting fiercer. At the bottom end it is very, very fierce indeed: we get increasingly frequent glimpses of this. Bingo was one of the first manifestations; the coverage of the Falklands war another; the recent Press Council report on the Ripper scrummage another. The last affair gave an insight into newspapers not so much fighting for stories as fighting for their lives: editors spurring their men on to stampede the doorsteps of the bereaved, steal photographs, write blank cheques; and then lying their way out of (or, as it happened, into) trouble. ‘Middle ground’ papers such as the Mail were down there with the best of them, quite prepared to spend more or less unlimited sums providing they weren’t found out. So the centrifuge of market forces separates out the two extremes of British journalism with things not looking too rosy for anybody in between. Mr Brendon hints at this trend and sees quite clearly the danger of losing even such variety as exists in the British press today: ‘It is true that the energy which the press barons unleashed to turn their newspapers into a profitable private business could seldom be harnessed to make them also a disinterested public service. But safety lay in diversity. Between them they created the amazingly rich variety of newspapers which was such a distinctive feature of British and American life before the coming of today’s monopolistic companies.’