Bad News at the ‘Observer’

Colin Legum

  • Powers of the Press: The World’s Great Newspapers by Martin Walker
    Quartet, 401 pp, £15.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 7043 2271 4
  • Goodbye Gutenberg: The Newspaper Revolution of the 1980s by Anthony Smith
    Oxford, 367 pp, £3.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 19 827243 X
  • New Technology and Industrial Relations in Fleet Street by Roderick Martin
    Oxford, 367 pp, £17.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 19 827243 X
  • News Ltd: Why you can’t read all about it by Brian Whitaker
    Minority Press Group, 176 pp, £3.25, June 1981, ISBN 0 906890 04 7

The press, in common with the rest of the mass media, is everywhere under political attack – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly – while at the same time it faces such severe economic pressures as to raise real doubts about its future. Many great newspapers and magazines have disappeared altogether, and only a very few new ones (not many of them improvements on the old) have taken their place. Most towns in Europe and North America are now served by only one newspaper, emphasising a trend towards monopoly of newspaper ownership and, with it, a return to the age of tycoon proprietorship which had begun to decline after the war. Most countries have seen a drop in newspaper readership (especially among serious newspapers); the ratio to ‘entertainment’ of column space devoted to serious (especially foreign) news has decreased, resulting, inter alia, in a substantial decrease in the number of foreign correspondents employed in overseas posts by national newspapers. The growth in the number of Communist regimes and the rise of the Third World has seen the expansion of a government-controlled press in all but a few countries of which India, Mexico and Nigeria are examples. And this is by no means the whole liturgy of woes that can be recited by those who believe in the value of a free and independent press.

The decline in the influence and independence of the mass media is just one aspect of a general malaise affecting our democratic institutions. While it is possible to quantify the degree to which the press has lost independence, it is impossible to produce similar evidence to support the view that the press is losing its influence – especially since it is hard to discover how much influence the press has ever really had in shaping the political process. New political ideas and movements have never arisen from the mass media, although the media may have been important in spreading knowledge about these developments. At its best, the press has been able to influence opinion, but it has never enjoyed the power to determine the course of events, or the way people think. Nonetheless, one of the popular myths about the press is that it enjoys independent power – for example, the power to influence the outcome of elections. If this were really so, how could one explain how Britain has ever returned a Labour government, given that the overwhelming majority of newspapers are anti-Labour; or how Harry Truman was able to win his Presidential election when only 4 per cent of American papers (measured in terms of readership) supported him? There was a newspaper poll in the Forties which showed that a majority of Daily Express readers thought that the paper was pro-Labour – and that at the height of Lord Bea-verbrook’s career.

The fact is that newspapers can influence opinion only when it is already flowing in a certain direction, or, perhaps, on issues remote from the reading public’s own experience: they cannot alter strongly-held opinions formed in work-places, pubs, homes and in such places as the City. (The British pub is arguably more influential than the press in forming opinion on domestic policies.) Even the heavily-controlled press of Communist or other single-party countries has been unable to mobilise support for their regimes, let alone inculcate their value systems into the habits of their readers: if this were otherwise, a movement like Solidarity could never have won the prominence it did in Poland, nor would the Hungarian revolt have occurred. Newspapers like to persuade themselves and others about the supposed ‘power of the press’, but these pretensions should not be taken too seriously.

In relation to its readers, the press has only two effective functions: to inform and to entertain. It can help to clarify ideas and, by providing or witholding information, it can promote or block a proper understanding of major events. A different kind of relationship, however, exists between newspapers and the national Establishment. On this point Martin Walker quotes approvingly the views of Wilbur Schramm: ‘Prestige papers are shaped, to an important degree, by what the leadership in the country wants to know and wants known. The leadership in the country is also shaped, to an important degree, by what the papers tell them.’ Walker amplifies this notion of conspiracy by suggesting that there is an endless and complex process of feedback between politicians and editors, with today’s paper provoking a response which will become news in tomorrow’s edition, as politicians react to a newspaper’s editorial comments. Nothing in my experience as a journalist over a period of 46 years would support the Walker-Schramm suggestion of a cosy collusion between the Establishment and the prestige press – it is just another popular myth about newspapers.

Of course, there are papers which, at different times and under various editors, have colluded with the government in this way – for instance, when Geoffrey Dawson was editor of the Times in the 1930s: but, at that time, there were other national papers which took a totally different view of, for example, the rising Nazi threat. One need only recall the editorial line taken on this issue by Walker’s own paper, the then Manchester Guardian, by the Observer (still under the old-fashioned imperialist editorship of J.L. Garvin), by the News Chronicle, the Daily Herald, the Yorkshire Post, and by Winston Churchill in his column in Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard. There was no evidence of collusion between these papers and the ‘national Establishment’ – a concept itself open to serious question – which, at that time, was deeply divided.

If one were to accept the Schramm-Walker view of prestige papers shaping their policies to a large extent by ‘what the leadership wants to know and wants known’, how then does one explain the decision of the most prestigious of all American papers, the New York Times, to leak secret papers on Vietnam at a time when America’s ‘national Establishment’ was still broadly in favour of prosecuting the war? And while it undoubtedly suited the interests of the Democratic Establishment for the Washington Post to expose the Watergate Scandal, this was hardly pleasing to the Republican Establishment. So far from these papers telling their readers what the leadership wanted known, it was a case of the papers telling the leadership what their readers were feeling about two major current issues. There are other examples (all too rare perhaps) of national newspapers taking a strong stand against both ‘the Establishment’ and current popular opinion, as when the Observer delivered its withering attack on Eden’s Suez adventure, or when it stood alone in attacking the Labour Government’s proposed Central African Federation in the early Fifties. What is clearly true is that the national press throughout the Western world favours the status quo. While newspapers will, on occasion, champion particular reforms – sometimes even major reforms – they never put themselves on the side of those advocating radical changes in the economic or political system. There is no single major British newspaper, for example, which favours nationalisation on the scale envisaged by the Labour Left – nor even one that favours the less radical idea of abolishing public schools.

It is possible to explain the absence throughout the West of any militantly radical newspaper of national importance by the relatively small number of people who believe in such ideas: it is much harder to account for the fact that there is no paper in Britain which supports the Labour Party in the way that the Guardian supports the much smaller Liberal Party. It is a puzzling anomaly that while even the diminutive Communist Party can succeed in producing a daily paper reflecting its views, the combined Labour Party and TUC have not found it possible to do so ever since Odhams Press contrived to put the Daily Herald out of business in the Sixties. Is it not strange that the Trade Unions, who rail so angrily against Fleet Street (not always without good reason), and who are not exactly short of financial and technical resources, should have failed all these years to invest in establishing a press of their own? The absence of a major paper of the Left is one important reason for the undoubtedly widely-held view that the established press is anti-working-class – a view that was expressed in a near-unanimous resolution adopted at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool. Whatever the justification for this feeling, there is unquestionably a strong case for the claim that, without a major paper of the Left, the British press lacks that element of pluralism which is the only ultimate test of a genuinely representative national press. There is no earthly reason why a vigorously-edited Labour paper should not succeed, as the Herald did under the inspiring editorship of Robert Blatchford and George Lansbury – provided only that the Labour movement is sufficiently enlightened to set up a newspaper trust which would guarantee its editors as much freedom as that enjoyed by the editor of the Economist, say, or the Guardian or, in its better days, the Observer.

It is yet another symptom of our ailing democracy that the collective leadership of the TUC (felt by its critics to be capable of holding the nation to ransom) and the Labour Party should lack the qualities shown by the pioneers of their movement who, with fewer resources, helped create a successful newspaper. Instead of doing something about the lack of a paper to support them, we have griping resolutions at party conferences and the deplorable spectacle of some of the print unions themselves undermining press freedom by refusing to allow publication of editorials critical of the unions: those self-same censors are among the loudest to complain about the control exercised over editors by powerful proprietors.

One important advantage of the Trade Unions running their own papers is that they might be able to foster a more co-operative attitude towards the introduction of modern print technology. We are at the dawn of a new technological age: what Anthony Smith describes as ‘the third revolution in communication’ – the others were the invention of writing and of printing. The computerisation of print through electronic technology opens up the possibility of an abundance of information becoming universally available. While computer setting reduces costs, it also introduces opportunities for a further series of changes which, in the long run, must inevitably change the whole nature of the medium. At the same time, it raises fundamental issues. The central theme of Goodbye Gutenberg is that ‘the social function of the newspaper is changing, as is the whole culture of journalism and the concept of daily disseminated information. For the new electronics offers something quite different from a new production method – it provides for a series of changes in all of the relationships of which the industry is composed. It alters the demarcations between craftsman and organiser, between investor and regulator, between professional and production worker.’ The initial capital cost of installing computer setting is extremely high, but once it has been introduced (as is now happening at an accelerating speed), the new production methods will make it easier for small-scale enterprises to operate, thus opening up possibilities for a much greater variety of newspapers and magazines to be produced relatively cheaply. This democratisation of print will, however, leave unresolved a number of serious problems which at present impede the freedom of the press, from the cost and means of distribution and the rising price of newsprint to the ownership and control of national newspapers, the battle for advertising between the quality papers and those whose chief function is to entertain, and the relationship between newspaper proprietors and their editorial staff.

The resistance of the print unions to the introduction of computerised setting is admirably described by Roderick Martin in New Technology and Industrial Relations in Fleet Street. He provides a reliable account of the crises which threatened most of Britain’s leading papers in the mid-Seventies, and of the abortive efforts to overcome them, resulting in a change in the ownership of several papers – mostly for the worse. Within a relatively short period the structure and ownership of an important section of the British national press was transformed. A short-lived flutter of public interest in what was happening in Fleet Street led to the Government’s appointing a Royal Commission on the Press. But even its tepid proposals for reform were mostly shelved – yet another instance of the failure of our system to respond to a major crisis in one of our democratic institutions. Although the economic difficulties which hit Fleet Street in the mid-Seventies have now seemingly disappeared, Martin rightly points out that ‘the cycle of boom and slump is likely to continue in the future, with the booms reaching lower peaks and the slumps lower troughs as the secular decline for newspapers, both as sources of information and as advertising media, continues. New technology is likely to remain the most effective means of achieving lower production costs, especially with the increased reliability and lower prices of computers that have occurred since 1975. The next crisis is likely to come with Fleet Street in a weaker position than in 1975, with continued competition from commercial television and radio for advertising revenue, the expansion of regional and local newspapers and the growth of electronic data transmission for the provision of up-to-date news and information.’

Some of these problems are discussed by Brian Whitaker in News Ltd: Why you can’t read all about it. While it is mainly an account of the attempt of the Liverpool Free Press to provide a radical local newspaper (which richly deserved to succeed), it is also a trenchant statement of the radicals’ case against the claim that something amounting to a free press really exists. It is possible to agree with a number of the basic criticisms offered by Whitaker without agreeing with his analysis or conclusions – which is the position taken by Tom Hopkinson in his foreword to the book:

It is a mistake for minority press writers to attack objectivity and impartiality on the grounds that objectivity is a ‘recent invention, a pseudo-scientific myth, and not even the most diligent journalist can hope to be objective.’ I understand the resistance some feel to a word which has been so much abused as ‘objectivity’. But dislike of a word does not justify abandoning the principle it denotes... The strength of many minority papers is precisely that their reporting has been more true, more objective than that done by newspapers with fifty times their staff and fifty thousand times their resources.

While Martin Walker’s survey of 12 of the world’s leading newspapers (ranging from Western Europe and North America to Japan, Egypt, Australia, South Africa and the Soviet Union) supplies some important information, neither he nor any of the other authors whose books are under review here address themselves specifically to what seems to me to be one of the essentials of an independent press: editorial freedom, a factor which entirely depends on the relationship between journalists and their proprietors – whoever the proprietors might be. It is in the very nature of proprietorial control that those who pay the piper will insist on calling the tune, and this is the source of a seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the proprietorial interest and the editorial interest in the running of newspapers. A free press has to guard not only against the impositions of the state, but against its editorial judgment being shaped or circumscribed by its mainly rich, private or corporate ownership.

Newspapers are owned for a variety of reasons: their profitability (not always illusory); the sense of power or status such ownership confers; and, more benignly, the opportunity it gives to influence public policy and public opinion. Whatever the proprietorial interest, the owner has the power to shape the general character of a paper and its policy, and to that extent to limit the freedom of journalists. Since 99 per cent of journalism impinges hardly at all on policy, the actual extent of this control is in practice very limited: yet it is the very limited area directly affecting a paper’s policy which is so crucially important. As long as the final arbiter of a paper’s policy is its proprietor, its independence is limited by his interests in much the same way (though perhaps less crudely) as it is in a state-controlled press. However, because of the plurality of ownership and the diversity of their interests, the public in democratic countries have a real choice about what to read (fortunately not confined to newspapers) and easy access to a wide range of information sources. On a different level, though, the press in Western democracies is free only in the sense that any person or group who can afford to run a newspaper is able to do so. This important freedom is not to be derided – in the Communist world and most Third World countries, the Liverpool Free Press would not even have been allowed to get off the ground, and although it failed, other radical papers (for example, the Militant) have not. Nevertheless, what we are concerned with here is a situation in which, increasingly, only multimillionaires – often large corporations which can write off their tax losses on the newspapers they own – can afford to run major national newspapers. This is obviously an unhealthy trend in a democratic society. The important question, then, is how to stop the erosion of even that degree of press freedom which we still enjoy.

Just before and after the last war there was the beginning of a healthy trend away from baronial newspaper ownership, as in the case of the Guardian, the Economist and the Observer. Whatever the defects of the various trusts under which they operated, they were infinitely preferable to more recent developments. The public trust idea remains the most promising way forward in a democratic society, provided it does not preclude the right of private and co-operative forms of ownership as well. Sweden and France have pioneered other ways of helping to maintain a diversity of newspapers by various forms of subsidy. The obvious danger of government subsidies for the press is the risk of insidious state intervention, or the favouring of some newspapers over others. These are issues which, as yet, have hardly entered the domain of public discussion in this country, except for a largely and deservedly forgotten plan devised by the Labour Party some years ago.

One would have thought that the Fleet Street crisis of the mid-Seventies and the advent of entrepreneurs such as Lord Matthews (whose property company now controls the Express), Rupert Murdoch and ‘Tiny’ Rowland of Lonrho would have been sufficient cause for the public and Parliament to take a more serious interest in the state of the press than the lame-duck exercise undertaken by the Royal Commission on the Press, or the lamentable efforts of the Monopolies Commission, which, while declaring that the transfer of ownership of the Observer, to the Lonrho group, might operate against the public interest, nevertheless agreed to the sale, proposing safeguards which were so palpably ineffective that Lonrho itself was forced to improve the Commission’s proposals under pressure from the Observer staff.

In the case both of Times Newspapers and of the Observer the proposed safeguards for their sale – to Murdoch and Rowland respectively – included the appointment of independent directors, carrying specific responsibility for preserving the character of the papers and to protect editorial independence. This is a bogus idea invented by Lord Shawcross. As every working journalist knows, the only effective way of providing a basic element of editorial independence is to ensure that the editor is himself independent of the proprietor – an idea unacceptable to proprietors, who naturally insist that at the end of the day they must have the right to hire or fire their editors whatever intervening stages might have to be gone through. So either the editor must trim his policies to accommodate the wishes of his proprietor, or he must risk being dismissed, unless, of course, he chooses to resign – something that happens quite frequently.

By the time a dispute between the proprietor and editor reaches the point where it must be referred to the boardroom the hostility between them will be such that the outcome can hardly ever be in doubt. Any naive notion to the contrary ought finally to have been dispelled by the cavalier treatment of Harold Evans, whose editorship of the Times was terminated after less than a year. He was removed by Murdoch with hardly a cheep from the independent directors. So much for their value as watchdogs of the public interest. Harold Evans’s downfall was in large part due to the fact that he did not enjoy the confidence of all the members of his senior staff, but they have no say whatsoever in the dismissal of their editor, and the existence of a body of Times journalists opposed to Harold Evans was little more than a useful pretext to justify Murdoch’s decision to get rid of him. It is not relevant to this particular discussion to consider whether Charles Douglas-Home, his successor, was a good choice. (I happen to think he was.) The point is that any editor of the Times will survive only so long as he can manage to stay in step with Rupert Murdoch.

The guarantees given about the appointment and dismissal of the Observer’s editor were better in some respects than those given by Murdoch – especially as regards the quality of the independent directors. But Rowland made it abundantly clear that he will insist on having the final say in the appointment of the editor. The point is that once a proprietor appoints an editor who generally reflects his opinions and views, the need for overt proprietorial interference is lessened: the editor simply becomes the instrument of the proprietor and acts as mediator between his interests and those of the staff. In Fleet Street, the editor is king – so long as he has the king-maker behind him. In such circumstances, he is the final arbiter of what gets into the paper and what is kept out; of how to treat a particular story or article; and in shaping editorial policy.

Tiny Rowland inherited Donald Trelford as editor when he bought the Observer, and so long as he remains there I have very few qualms about the paper’s maintaining its editorial integrity. But what would happen to him if the paper were to expose, or denounce, one of Rowland’s multifarious operations, as it has done on a number of occasions in the past, not only in Africa but also in the City? It is relevant to recall that shortly before the paper was sold to him, Rowland had stopped all Lonrho advertising going to the Observer because of criticism by John Davies, the City Editor, over the Lonrho-House of Fraser negotiations. Conor Cruise O’Brien was characteristically frank in writing in his column for the paper that it would be absurd for anybody to suppose that he would feel he could write as freely about Lonrho once it owned the paper as he had before. In his evidence to the Monopolies Commission, he trenchantly stated the likely conflict of interest between Lonrho interests and the paper’s editorial independence:

I have some experience of African conditions. These conditions do not include – among black or white or Arab ruling groups – any sensitive respect for or even belief in things like editorial independence and integrity or for inconvenient truth. In all the African countries – and they are many – in which Mr Rowland has interests, the rulers of ruling regimes will expect a newspaper owned by him to be sensitive to their interests by – at least – not printing news or comment which they find in any way inconvenient. And they will in all cases back their expectations and objections with pressure. And people with something to lose in Africa – and Lonrho has much to lose – are not very likely to resist such pressures.

If we were to believe in Mr Rowland’s promise of editorial independence, we would also have to believe, for example, that if the Observer uncovered some scandal in an African country, and the local dictator threatened to confiscate Lonrho assets, Mr Rowland, true to the principle of editorial independence, would allow the Observer to proceed with its exposures, even if that meant the loss of Lonrho’s local assets. One would have to believe, further, that Mr Rowland would adhere to this policy throughout Africa – and in other areas where he has interests – even at the risk of Lonrho’s general ruin. One would have to be very naive indeed to believe any of that. The fact is that if Mr Rowland did believe in editorial freedom, the last thing he would have done would be to acquire a paper like the Observer.

Readers of the Observer will obviously be watching for evidence of the paper’s willingness to express opinions critical of Rowland’s policies and activities, as well as looking out for occasions when events that might affect Lonrho are not reported. In the public mind, the Observer is a Lonrho paper – just as it remained an ‘Astor paper’ long after the family had divested itself of any proprietorial control. The public’s view of the paper will inevitably be affected by its view of Lonrho, perhaps the most controversial firm in the City. The Observer cannot itself improve Lonrho’s image, which is still tarnished in the public mind by Edward Heath’s harsh description of it as representing ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’. The paper’s former editor, David Astor, has said it is hard to see how the Observer can avoid being either dead or unrecognisable within three years because ‘Lonrho ownership will tend to alienate the paper’s present readers, who are politically liberal and addicted to culture.’ One hopes naturally that this prediction will be proved wrong – and it may be, provided Donald Trelford is able to survive as editor without either falling foul of Rowland or compromising the paper’s policy by not printing anything that could provoke an open clash with the proprietor. My own decision to resign from the paper is no reflection on my former colleagues who decided to stay on. I simply felt that my own interest in, and connections with, the Third World were entirely incompatible with the nature of Lonrho’s major interests in that area. I had, moreover, taken the stand that editorial independence is a myth so long as editors are themselves subject to the veto of proprietors. To have stayed on after Rowland had insisted on having the final word on the appointment of future editors would have been dishonest on my part. So I chose to go.

It is disgraceful that great newspapers can still be bought like packets of soap – to recall a famous saying of the late Lord Thomson’s. It is even more disgraceful when they change hands in secret deals made by multinationals without the knowledge of all the members of the board of directors. To this day, nobody, outside of those privy to the deal, knows what actually transpired when Atlantic-Richfield decided to sell the paper to Lonrho without even testing the market to see whether other, more suitable buyers were available – as, indeed, they were. One day, one hopes soon, the full story of this squalid transaction will be told. There was a brief moment in the Sixties and Seventies when one had dared to hope that the age of newspaper tycoonery was passing away for good and that a new era of trust ownership was at hand. But the replacement of the Beaverbrooks and Rothermeres by Matthews, Murdoch and Rowland reflects the increasingly large part that multinationals play in our society. I believe they have a valuable role to play in modern business – but not in Fleet Street. There is surely something seriously amiss in the structure of the ownership of the press when a paper like the old Daily Herald can be turned into the Sun; when the Daily Mirror can be transformed from being a powerful voice of Labour into a strident voice against it; when a paper like the Observer can be bought by a tycoon with large interests in Africa because, as he has said, he admired the paper’s influence in that continent! Our major political parties continue to show comparatively little interest in the future of the press, other than to inveigh against those papers of Which they disapprove, and to bestow knighthoods on those editors who sycophantically acclaim the government of the day.