- The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain. Vol. 1: The 19th Century by Stephen Koss
Hamish Hamilton, 455 pp, £20.00, May 1981, ISBN 0 241 10561 7
This is the first of two volumes designed to describe the British press and its connection with politics and politicians from 1850 to 1951. It is a formidable task, and one cannot be surprised that it has never hitherto been successfully achieved, though many attempts have been made. Such success as can be found in press historiography during these years lies more in studies of individual newspapers or particular editors than in any synthesis of the whole story. However, the task is not an impossible one. Professor Aspinall’s notable work Politics and the Press (1949) does it for the period 1780 to 1850, and Stephen Koss pays full tribute to his predecessor. Professor Koss is one of the few American historians of the top rank writing about modern British political history (as opposed to pre-revolution English history). He is producing a work which, to judge from Volume I, is likely to be an essential source of information on the subject for many years to come. It is admirably written, with clarity, incisiveness and wit.
Professor Koss takes as his starting-point the measures which between 1853 and 1861 made possible a cheap press and a vastly increased readership: the abolition of the tax on advertisements, the repeal of stamp duty in 1855 and, above all, the removal of the tax on paper – an episode which produced a clash between Lords and Commons that prefigured the great row about the Lloyd George Budget in 1909. These financial restrictions dated back to 1712. In the early 18th century journalism was vituperative, venomous and virulent, as well as being frequently obscene and licentious. The reigns of William III and Queen Anne were marked by intense political partisanship, and the language used in attacks on government and parliament provoked retaliation. The Stamp Duty Act of that year caused Swift to lament ‘that all Grub Street is ruined.’ This was an exaggeration. The press limped along. Professor Koss quotes the ‘Scotch Lieutenant called Lismahago’ who in Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker says that ‘he would always consider the liberty of the press as a national evil while it enabled the vilest reptile to soil the lustre of the most shining merit and furnished the most infamous incendiary with the means of disturbing the peace and destroying the good order of the community.’ This was in 1771. Five years later Lord North, who, though not perhaps a figure of the most shining merit, had certainly been ‘soiled’ by much journalistic obloquy, increased the tax on paper by 50 and on advertisements by 100 per cent. Pitt put it up even more.
In the first half of the 19th century taxation was reduced but a fivepenny paper was effectively as far away as a sevenpenny one from the level which made newspapers available to ‘the people’. The existence of newspapers was always precarious and often dependent upon political patronage or populist prejudice. The Times itself, greatest and most successful of the press organs in that difficult period, was supported from time to time by the Government. John Walter II, no longer having that support, switched into opposition in 1820 and supported Queen Caroline against George IV. Whether or not his motives were disinterested, his sales more than doubled. There is nothing like sexual scandal and public passion to assist circulation. One can compare the boost given to the News of the World by the Dilke case 66 years later when ‘Three in a bed’ was the making of a Sunday paper which has never looked back from that day to this. The Times acquired during these years such a dominant position, despite paper and stamp duties, that much of the pressure to reduce them came from other journals jealous of the ‘overweening tyrant of Printing House Square’. But the movement was also, and mainly, part of the general spirit of change which had swept away the rotten boroughs and rationalised municipal government. When the duties were at last removed, ironically, no paper flourished more than the Times.
The abolition of the ‘taxes on knowledge’ was one aspect of a general belief in the superiority of English representative institutions of which the ‘Press’, firmly spelling itself with a capital ‘P’ (a usage which Professor Koss equally firmly declines to follow), aspired and claimed to be one of the most important. The expression ‘Fourth Estate’, in this context, is supposed to have been coined many years earlier by Burke, but it now came into regular use. In a book with that title, Frederic Knight Hunt wrote: ‘Where Journals are numerous, the people have power, intelligence and wealth; where Journals are few, the many are in reality merely slaves.’ Professor Koss drily comments: ‘A dubious correlation, it was nevertheless widely posited by reformers of that day.’ There can be no doubt that a new era in the history of the press began in the 1850s, and by ‘the press’ one means the metropolitan press, for it was this that really counted in politics, although there was a great expansion in provincial papers too. The new era was characterised by a vast increase in circulation, and by independence from governmental control. The journals of the day became the allies and, as Koss puts it, ‘sometimes the clients of competing political groups’. It is the tracing of these relationships to which the greater part of his book is devoted.
The outstanding figure in the earlier years of the period was Palmerston, who used the Morning Chronicle as his mouthpiece from 1834 to 1848, when its owner (having acquired a baronetcy for his services to the Whigs) sold it to a consortium of Peelites headed by Lord Lincoln. He tried to make it a condition of sale that the paper should continue to support his former patron, but not surprisingly the consortium, who detested Palmerston, ‘flatly refused’. Until this transfer, the Morning Chronicle accorded to Palmerston what was described by an enemy as ‘slavish worship’ in or out of office. There seems, moreover, to be no doubt, although he denied the fact in Parliament, that Palmerston on occasion wrote articles himself for the paper. Telling Queen Victoria about Palmerston’s close relations with the Morning Chronicle, Melbourne, who was Prime Minister, wrote: ‘In this sort of matter there is much to be said upon both sides. A Minister has a great advantage in stating his own views to the public and if Palmerston in the Syrian affair had not as devoted an assistant as the Morning Chronicle, he would hardly have been able to maintain his course or carry through his measures.’
Deprived of the Morning Chronicle, Palmerston used the Globe as his organ. Whether or not he was personally responsible – and it is the sort of thing he would have greatly enjoyed – the Globe spotted a remarkable resemblance between Disraeli’s eulogy of the defunct Duke of Wellington in 1852 and Thiers’s eulogy of Marshal St Cyr delivered in 1829. With some glee the editor published the two speeches in parallel columns, thus making Disraeli look remarkably silly. Palmerston might appear to be an old-fashioned figure with an air of the 18th century about him, but he was remarkably modern when it came to political methods as opposed to purposes. He owed his position as the dominant figure in English politics, till his death in 1865, at least in some measure to his courting, not to mention bribery, of the press, although of course it was not the sole reason for his success.
Disraeli was Palmerston’s only rival in this field. He had written articles for the Times in the days of Barnes and been ticked off by the editor for extravagance and libellousness. He had a love-hate relationship with Barnes’s successor, Delane (as indeed he had with Palmerston himself), and he never got far in this quarter while Palmerston lived. The newspaper world was not insensible then, nor is it now, to beanos of appropriate splendour: Dizzy and Mary Anne could not compete with the glittering receptions given by the Palmerstons. Everyone knew whom Disraeli meant when he said in a public speech in May 1858: ‘Leading organs of the press are now place hunters of the Cabal, and the once stern guardians of popular rights simper in the enervating atmosphere of gilded saloons.’ But Disraeli never believed in permanent enmities – nor, for that matter, in permanent friendships – and in the end he was on good terms with Delane.
Professor Koss recounts a number of curious episodes. One of the most notable was the abrupt conversion of the Daily Telegraph from the Liberal to the Conservative side in 1876. Till then – surprising as this may seem to the modern reader – the paper had been pro-Gladstone. In a moment of irritation Disraeli said that D.T. ought to stand for Delirium Tremens. Since the paper had described him as a man of ‘disgraceful jibes and sneering sophisms’ his annoyance is understandable. The proprietor was one Edward Levy, who changed his name by deed poll to Levy-Lawson. He had relied on Gladstone for official ‘tips’ and supported him faithfully in the election of 1874, though to no avail, for Disraeli won and Gladstone retired from the leadership – temporarily, as it turned out, but apparently for good and all. Lawson supported Disraeli’s purchase of the Suez Canal shares, and was reproached by Gladstone. But what drove him finally over to Disraeli’s side was the uproar about the Turks and the Bulgarian Atrocities. Goldwin Smith bitterly pointed out to Gladstone ‘the vast increase in the circulation of the Telegraph since it turned Turk’, and the decline in the sales of the Daily News, which took the Gladstonian line. ‘It seems to me a terrible indictment of the public mind,’ he wrote. Henry Labouchere, who had an interest in the Daily News and was proprietor and editor of Truth (the then equivalent of Private Eye or Le Canard Enchaîné), waged a campaign against Lawson, alleged to be an apostate from his name, his religion and his previous politics, in order to secure a baronetcy. Lawson brought an unsuccessful libel action. The two men then came to blows on the doorstep of that highly respectable institution, the Beefsteak Club. ‘London,’ observed Gladstone, ‘is the great focus of mischief: through money, rowdyism, & the Daily Telegraph.’ Lawson was made a baronet by Lord Salisbury in 1892 and a peer (Lord Burnham) by Balfour 11 years later. He died in 1916 aged 83.
His lengthy period in the newspaper world emphasises an important point made by Professor Koss: ‘The longevity of public careers ensured that 19th-century practices would carry over well into the 20th century. Trained in the old school, editors like Gardiner, Spender, Scott, H.A. Gwynne and Geoffrey Dawson remained bound by its precepts.’ This phenomenon is to be found at every stage in the history of the press. Palmerston, who was 21 when Pitt died and who lived for another 59 years, used Pitt’s methods of manipulating newspapers. ‘Russell, Derby and most successfully, Disraeli sought to overtake him. Gladstone and Salisbury saw the late-Victorian press through mid-Victorian lenses, comporting themselves in the Home Rule crisis of 1886-87 as they had in the franchise controversy of 1866-67, a landmark for each of them.’
The rise of the large-circulation press from the 1850s onwards produced an uneasy but close relationship between journalists and politicians. Parliament was the centre of attention. Speeches were reproduced at great length and commented upon in scarcely fewer words. Proprietors exhorted politicians, and both sides believed that the press had – or at any rate might have – great influence on elections. To this day no one knows whether it really did or does, but belief in the possibility was enough. Journalists came, as a result, to have an inordinate conceit, which has not disappeared even now, though few perhaps would go quite as far as W.T. Stead, who wrote of his position as Editor of the Northern Echo: ‘It is the position of a Viceroy ... God calls ... and now points ... to the only true throne in England, the Editor’s chair, and offers me the real sceptre.’ It is interesting to find that even the most high-minded political figures were prepared to go a long way in buttering up editors and proprietors. One would expect Disraeli, Lord Randolph Churchill and Joseph Chamberlain to be as adept at the art as Palmerston was, but not Gladstone and Salisbury, though they, too, were skilled operators in this field – as has already been demonstrated in the case of Gladstone by Colin Matthews in his Introduction to Volumes V and VI of the Gladstone Diaries.
Professor Koss’s volume ends just before the emergence upon the scene of the great newspaper barons of whom Harmsworth and Pearson were the first. It is his contention that a new relationship between politicians and the press was emerging at the end of the Victorian era. It was partly an economic question. Owners of the old school were faced with ever higher costs and were simply not prepared to continue losing money. Adherence to a party line might be a factor in these losses. ‘Their successors were hard-headed businessmen, who began by maintaining that solvency was the prerequisite to influence, and went on to abjure influence as the price to be paid for achieving solvency.’ It was a process destined to culminate in the late Lord Thomson of Fleet’s observation about ‘editorial matter being the stuff between the ads’. There was a social change too. The newly literate public, for whatever reason, turned out to be far less interested in politics than the earlier generation. Sport and sex were the subjects that now drew in the money. We shall have to wait for Professor Koss’s second volume to see how this partial depoliticisation occurred.