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.

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