A Different Sort of Tory

Ronald Stevens

  • Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers by Max Hastings
    Macmillan, 398 pp, £20.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 333 90837 6

Something about the British press attracts Canadians. In the 1920s Max Aitken bought the Daily and Sunday Express, turned them into successful popular papers and became Lord Beaverbrook in the process. In the 1950s Roy Thomson bought Kemsley Newspapers, added the Times to his empire in 1966, and was similarly rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords. Conrad Black came on the scene in the spring of 1985, paid £10 million for a minority stake in the Telegraph Group, and later the same year became its controlling shareholder for the modest expenditure of another £20 million. He, too, has acquired a peerage, to the great displeasure of the Canadian Government.

Beaverbrook always claimed that he only wanted to own newspapers to peddle his pet schemes and nostrums: before the Second World War the Daily Express tirelessly advocated Empire Free Trade even though most of the colonies and dominions of the British Empire wanted nothing to do with it. Thomson was equally simplistic. He said he was in the business purely for the money. Black is just as interested as Thomson in the financial performance of his investment (which cannot be giving him much pleasure at the moment). But he also appears to be just as keen as Beaverbrook on using his papers to promote his ideas, some of which – such as his support for British membership of Nafta – are as hare-brained as anything Beaverbrook championed.

He owes his control of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph to the managerial incompetence of Lord Hartwell, who inherited the business on the death of his father, Lord Camrose, in 1954. As Michael Berry he served a long apprenticeship on newspapers in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Manchester and London before joining the Army in 1939. His verdict on himself after this experience was that he was a better sub-editor than a writer, and he demonstrated the truth of this during his thirty-year reign at the Telegraph with the stream of memos which flowed from his fifth floor eyrie every day. They were occasionally constructive, rarely complimentary and almost invariably nit-picking – the work of a man who was obsessed by the small change of journalism. Hartwell’s great merit was that he insisted on a fair and balanced presentation of news, and coverage as comprehensive as money and space allowed. But be was no visionary. Timorous and inhibited by temperament, he wouldn’t countenance any significant departures from the editorial formula established by his father a generation earlier.

His resistance to change did not matter at first: although the Sunday Telegraph was a drain on resources for years after its launch in 1961, the circulation of the Daily was half as large again as it is today and advertising revenue was buoyant. But as the years passed the paper became increasingly dated and Hartwell increasingly set in his ways. Not the least of his deficiencies as an employer was that he never met most of the people who worked for him, and was therefore cut off from the ideas they could have contributed. He would drive to Fleet Street in his Mini every day, go straight up to his office and stay there until it was time to go home. His editors and senior executives didn’t make much effort to keep him in touch. The Telegraph had no pension fund under the Hartwell regime. Only ex gratia pensions were provided, and the amount that an individual would receive was decided when he retired. This had two damaging consequences. First, the fear of an impoverished old age kept people at work long after they should have given up. Even worse, because the amount of each pension depended on the proprietor’s goodwill everyone became more ingratiating and sycophantic with age. Hartwell was always surrounded by mainly second-rate people who told him only what they thought he wanted to hear. Reality rarely managed to break through.

Hartwell took a close interest in the City, but it was gossip rather than expertise that he picked up. He showed how feeble his grasp of financial matters was in 1984, when the freehold of the Fleet Street office was sold to a property company and leased back at a rent of just over £1 million a year. For the seller the purpose of a sale and lease-back agreement is to release unproductive capital, but Hartwell and his managers contrived to leave the Telegraph worse off than it was before. The bulk of the £15 million they received for the freehold was taken up with the cost of modernising the building, which they foolishly agreed to finance and which turned out to be much higher than expected.

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