Newspapers of the Consensus

Neal Ascherson

  • The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain. Vol. II: The 20th Century by Stephen Koss
    Hamish Hamilton, 718 pp, £25.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 241 11181 1
  • Lies, Damned Lies and Some Exclusives by Henry Porter
    Chatto, 211 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2841 0
  • Garvin of the ‘Observer’ by David Ayerst
    Croom Helm, 314 pp, £25.00, January 1985, ISBN 0 7099 0560 2
  • The Beaverbrook I Knew edited by Logan Gourlay
    Quartet, 272 pp, £11.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2331 1

Readers who had encountered its first volume would have known that Stephen Koss’s work on the British political press was monumental. Now it has become his monument in another, brutally unexpected sense, for Stephen Koss died suddenly soon after the completion of the second volume. The outrage felt by everyone who had known or read him had something to do with his youth, but more to do with the cutting-off of his gifts. These included an almost superhuman capacity for tracking, retrieving, devouring and assimilating information in less time and from more sources than was previously thought possible. Koss was the archive-cruncher of his age. But he had another gift, which was to make the imparting of densely-packed information stylish, readable, often mockingly witty. Because of this, Koss is always present in his own work, an energetic, high-spirited, sceptical presence who gives off pulses of his own enjoyment. The old cliché about authors living on in their books is freshened up here: Koss bounces about this second volume like a cowboy, suddenly coming into view to crack a whip or wave a hat or whoop whenever the slow-moving herd of facts threatens to come to a halt.

The book can be heavy going, for all Koss’s talent as a herdsman. It is useless to read it unless the reader already has quite a close knowledge of British party-political history, or a general history of the period open at his or her elbow. Koss, as in his first volume about the rise of the Victorian political press, does not provide a narrative of events but only refers to them as he pursues the theme of how the press affected or was affected by these events. If you do not know what Balfour’s view of Tariff Reform was, or that Free Trade Unionism had nothing to do with the TUC, or how Lloyd George dished Asquith in 1915 and 1916, the sections of the book dealing with how the press treated these things will be incomprehensible. Koss has no time to stop and help you. Matters become easier as the book approaches the present day. This is partly, of course, because Koss is moving into the zone lit up by our own memories. But I think it is also because his own herdsmanship improves: he writes with even more spirit and bite, and expresses more opinions. Perhaps, as he nears the present, there is more to be opinionated about. No period in the history of the British press, since the ending of the ‘taxes on knowledge’ in the mid-19th century, has been as lurid and alarming as the years which began with the fall of the News Chronicle in 1960 and have brought us to the reign of Murdoch, Maxwell and Tiny Rowland.

Most proprietors today would shriek and clap their hands over their hoary old pudenda at the proposal that their newspapers should be financed and controlled by political parties. And many liberal-minded people would shriek with them. What press freedom could survive? Koss means to overturn this prejudice. He leaves aside the question of what we mean by the freedom of the press anyway, but contends that the quality of newspapers has declined as their links with political parties have dissolved. An immense and irrevocable disintegration has taken place. ‘The primary function of political journalism was to inspire confidence in a system of which it was, by design and consent, an integral part. Gradually, as the system lost confidence in itself ... the political press lost its bearings, its justification and whatever efficacy it may have had.’ Today there is political journalism without party, which Koss compares to ‘Christianity without dogma’. Under the old party managers who created the political press, a journalist was expected to share the views of his employer, but there was some guarantee that the main issues of the day would be discussed responsibly. As the links between the parties and Fleet Street gradually fell away, and as the prestige of Parliament and of parliamentary government declined, the press was unable to invent any credible constitutional role for itself. Its power, once fairly accurately understood, is now the subject of paranoid exaggeration by politicians and of unreal boasting by tycoons. Such is the Koss view of the decline and fall of the political press – a view too nostalgic towards what were, after all, tame newspapers.

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