Owners and Editors

David Astor

The sight of the last editor of the Times leaving his job was disconcerting. Why was he going after only a year? Was it political disagreement? Or to do with overspending? Or with the style of the paper? Why had he not appealed to the ‘independent national directors’ introduced to arbitrate in such matters? There was no explanation. But, whatever was happening, the position of editor of the Times, as well as Mr Harold Evans personally, was taking a knock.

In the Thirties, there were a number of editors to whom this could not have happened. They may have been right or wrong as political guides, but they were a power in the land and had secure arrangements with their publishers. J.L. Garvin, a gifted Irishman, edited the Observer (of which my father was proprietor) and wrote signed leaders for thirty years. He could not be removed from his post without the agreement of a private tribunal on the composition of which he had a 50-50 say. Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, which was thought to have changed a generation of intellectuals from Liberals to Socialists, enjoyed a uniquely privileged position within his firm. Arthur Mann, editor of the Yorkshire Post, personally precipitated the Abdication crisis and had the fullest confidence of his publishers.

The most powerful editor of those days was Geoffrey Dawson of the Times. He ended up in disgrace after suggesting the sell-out of the Czechs. Before that episode, which turned him into an old man, he had long been the chief inspirer and supporter of Baldwin’s moderation in home politics. He worked within an agreement defining his editorial rights which he himself had drafted. And the editors of the Guardian (with C.P. Scott’s tradition of owner-editor) and of the News Chronicle were equally well-treated. There were, of course, other editors who were little more than the mouthpieces of Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere. However, the question remains: why did the editors of the more serious papers of that period have such independence and security, whereas now the editor of the Times can be treated like a football manager?

The favourable position of those editors did not depend on their papers not having individual proprietors. Newspapers owned by trusts did not yet exist. Only the set-up of the New Statesman, with a special structure devised by J.M. Keynes to prevent takeovers, differed in any way from the ordinary commercial pattern. Nor was their position buttressed by outside support, such as that of the independent directors of the Times, approved by the Department of Trade, who were supposed to guarantee Mr Evans’s well-being. The strength of those pre-war editors depended, I believe, on three factors, all of which were then taken for granted, but are now changed.

First, the publishers and editors of serious newspapers used to share a political outlook – whatever it might be. The proprietors and editors of the Times had a common view; so had Keynes and Kingsley Martin, and so on. They therefore had a common purpose: to produce an influential publication reflecting that view. Second, serious journalism was regarded by those promoting it as a branch of politics and literature, rather than of commerce. They believed it called for outstanding intellectual gifts. Editors should, therefore, be men who might have been Cabinet Ministers or leading advocates or successful authors, and should be capable of attracting outstanding writers and contributors. To obtain the services of such editors (Dawson was, after all, a fellow of All Souls), and to enable them to function effectively, they had to be given genuine authority over the whole editorial process. This explains why it was the publishers who created the privileged positions of their editors: it was an essential part of achieving their common purpose.

The third condition was the most fundamental: the economic situation. In those days, individuals or groups of individuals could publish newspapers at relatively small financial risk. Almost twice as many newspapers as now were being published in Britain. Since then, rising costs have wiped out half the country’s regional newspapers. Those that survive enjoy an area-monopoly and often belong to a large London-centred group. To avoid being accused of abusing their monopolistic local positions, these papers have mostly become extremely cautious editorially: there are few, if any, provincial editors today of the stature of Arthur Mann. The position of the London-produced national papers is both better and worse. Better, in that there are still competing newspapers which offer readers a choice. Worse in that production costs in Fleet Street are so extravagantly high that giant corporations have had to be called in to rescue some of Fleet Street’s most famous names.

The Times and the Observer have lost many millions of pounds in the past decade. Four enormous corporations – headed by the late Roy Thomson, Rupert Murdoch, Robert Anderson and ‘Tiny’ Rowland – have been involved in their rescue. And without the intervention of firms of this size, these papers would already be dead.

It is unlikely, however, that giant corporations can play the role of publishers of papers of this kind without touching the primacy of the editors. They may leave their editors more or less alone for a while, but that is very different from the positive relationship that derives from a shared outlook between editor and proprietor. In the world of commerce and industry there is no position comparable to that of a newspaper editor: the nearest equivalent would be in the administration of the arts – for example, the director of an opera house. Tycoons are not likely to make suitable promoters of free political argument at a high level, which is the opera that the Times, the Observer and other such papers have provided.

What will happen to these newspapers? As their troubles are economic, there is no use looking for purely moral remedies. A newspaper owned by its staff, for instance, would face the same economic nightmares as any other. One obvious possibility is that these terrific economic pressures will result in more closures and amalgamations (vide the New York Herald Tribune). And if this happens, the resulting political imbalance of the press – it would probably become more markedly right-wing – would be likely to produce a demand for licensed and subsidised papers to correct the balance. They would be the printed equivalent of BBC programmes: but, like the BBC itself, they would not be free to campaign politically. They would not be licensed to try to bring down their government, as the Washington Post brought down President Nixon. The only way of maintaining a genuinely free press would be to lower by technological means the cost of producing a newspaper. If existing newspapers and would-be newspapers were allowed to use the new printing technologies already available, and to employ only the number of people that these technologies require, the economic problems of newspaper production could be transformed out of recognition. However, present trade-union arrangements are so lucrative that the print unions are most unlikely to agree. They have so far blocked any significant progress. If all this leads to a decline in the number and quality of newspapers, their combative role may be taken over by a variety of broadsheets. And if this happens, we will be back where the free press began in the mid-17th century.