William Rodgers reads the papers

William Rodgers

  • The Market for Glory: Fleet Street Ownership in the 20th Century by Simon Jenkins
    Faber, 247 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 571 14627 9
  • The End of the Street by Linda Melvern
    Methuen, 276 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 413 14640 5

Seven miles high above the Bay of Biscay and bound for Madrid, reading the daily papers is the alternative to a British Airways breakfast at noon. What is news? A kiss, it seems. England has won a Test Match and Emburey is conveying his congratulations to Ian Botham. It is front-page news for the Guardian but back-page for the Daily Express. The popular papers have a problem. Myra Hindley and the Moors Murders is a rich story on which to lead, as full of purple prose today as it was twenty years ago. It should be a good day for sales.

To the Express, the Mail and the Mirror, sales are important. Together they sold over twelve million copies every day in the early Sixties. Twenty-five years later, they sell not much over half of that, and the Express in particular is down on its luck. In the days of Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King, the Mirror was a wonder to us all – slick, successful and serious about its politics. Its journalists and layout men buzzed round Hugh Gaitskell, seeking to burnish the Labour Party’s shabby image. Now, in 1987, Captain Maxwell does his best when not buying up industrial companies or running Oxford United. But it is not the same. The Mirror is cracked and the images confused. It is part of the history of the British press, but may not much belong to its future.

To a grammar-school boy growing up in the North of England forty years ago, the press was an honourable estate. At the centenary of the birth of C.P. Scott, The Making of the ‘Manchester Guardian’ was an ideal anthology for a sixth-form prize on Speech Day. Here were Scott’s lieutenants: W.T. Arnold, grandson of Arnold of Rugby; L.T. Hobhouse, social philosopher and member of a Liberal dynasty; and Herbert Sidebotham, sent on a scholarship to Balliol but as Lancashire as his name. Here was Scott himself, presiding over the paper with robust integrity for almost sixty years and even combining it for a time with membership of the House of Commons. There were other papers, sometimes cheap and nasty; and the most famous paper of all had been nice to Hitler at the time of Munich. But the press was part of the fabric of a free society. It was held in trust for us all.

The truth was rather different. Scott had acquired the Manchester Guardian in 1907 and henceforth it was ‘carried on as a public service and not for profit’. After his death, and with the Manchester Evening News to sustain its revenue, the company was vested in trustees. But the press as a whole had no such luck. As Simon Jenkins has reminded us, the great proprietors bought and sold their newspapers for power, prestige and, they hoped, money.

The brothers Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror while Scott was wrestling with Home Rule for Ireland and the Boer War. Later, as Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere, their proprietorial arrogance and political manoeuvring became a legend. As Scott approached retirement, Lord Beaverbrook was making the Daily Express ‘a paper of prejudice, not thought’. And the Berry brothers, up from Methyr Tydfil, were moving from Boxing magazine to the Financial Times and Daily Telegraph and to peerages as Lords Camrose and Kemsley. Fleet Street was vulgar, tough, unprincipled and competitive, a world away from the austere values of Manchester.

The Guardian has now long since settled in London, in the grey, commercial confusion of Farringdon Road, and the loss of the News Chronicle and Daily Herald has been matched by the arrival of the Sun and the Daily Star. But, until recently, the rules of the game (to be bent, broken and ignored) and the ferocity of the play remained the same. Roy Thomson, benign among proprietors, has come and gone, picking up a peerage in the process. So has Victor Matthews, moving from building-site to Fleet Street and out again in less than ten years. The free or cut-price offers of dictionaries and flower-pots in the 1930s have given way to bingo and cash prizes. As for content, most of the popular papers are as cheap and nasty as ever, apparently as indifferent to a more educated public as they are contemptuous of the Press Council. When it comes to politics, they are happy to use selective reporting to turn news into comment and to exclude fairness from their vocabulary.

By the standards of today – even by those of his later years – C.P. Scott wrote a rather pompous prose. But the message was plain and lasting. ‘A newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news.’ It follows that ‘neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong.’ And so to Scott’s most enduring aphorism: ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred.’

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