Newspapers of the Consensus

Neal Ascherson

  • The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain. Vol. II: The 20th Century by Stephen Koss
    Hamish Hamilton, 718 pp, £25.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 241 11181 1
  • Lies, Damned Lies and Some Exclusives by Henry Porter
    Chatto, 211 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2841 0
  • Garvin of the ‘Observer’ by David Ayerst
    Croom Helm, 314 pp, £25.00, January 1985, ISBN 0 7099 0560 2
  • The Beaverbrook I Knew edited by Logan Gourlay
    Quartet, 272 pp, £11.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2331 1

Readers who had encountered its first volume would have known that Stephen Koss’s work on the British political press was monumental. Now it has become his monument in another, brutally unexpected sense, for Stephen Koss died suddenly soon after the completion of the second volume. The outrage felt by everyone who had known or read him had something to do with his youth, but more to do with the cutting-off of his gifts. These included an almost superhuman capacity for tracking, retrieving, devouring and assimilating information in less time and from more sources than was previously thought possible. Koss was the archive-cruncher of his age. But he had another gift, which was to make the imparting of densely-packed information stylish, readable, often mockingly witty. Because of this, Koss is always present in his own work, an energetic, high-spirited, sceptical presence who gives off pulses of his own enjoyment. The old cliché about authors living on in their books is freshened up here: Koss bounces about this second volume like a cowboy, suddenly coming into view to crack a whip or wave a hat or whoop whenever the slow-moving herd of facts threatens to come to a halt.

The book can be heavy going, for all Koss’s talent as a herdsman. It is useless to read it unless the reader already has quite a close knowledge of British party-political history, or a general history of the period open at his or her elbow. Koss, as in his first volume about the rise of the Victorian political press, does not provide a narrative of events but only refers to them as he pursues the theme of how the press affected or was affected by these events. If you do not know what Balfour’s view of Tariff Reform was, or that Free Trade Unionism had nothing to do with the TUC, or how Lloyd George dished Asquith in 1915 and 1916, the sections of the book dealing with how the press treated these things will be incomprehensible. Koss has no time to stop and help you. Matters become easier as the book approaches the present day. This is partly, of course, because Koss is moving into the zone lit up by our own memories. But I think it is also because his own herdsmanship improves: he writes with even more spirit and bite, and expresses more opinions. Perhaps, as he nears the present, there is more to be opinionated about. No period in the history of the British press, since the ending of the ‘taxes on knowledge’ in the mid-19th century, has been as lurid and alarming as the years which began with the fall of the News Chronicle in 1960 and have brought us to the reign of Murdoch, Maxwell and Tiny Rowland.

Most proprietors today would shriek and clap their hands over their hoary old pudenda at the proposal that their newspapers should be financed and controlled by political parties. And many liberal-minded people would shriek with them. What press freedom could survive? Koss means to overturn this prejudice. He leaves aside the question of what we mean by the freedom of the press anyway, but contends that the quality of newspapers has declined as their links with political parties have dissolved. An immense and irrevocable disintegration has taken place. ‘The primary function of political journalism was to inspire confidence in a system of which it was, by design and consent, an integral part. Gradually, as the system lost confidence in itself ... the political press lost its bearings, its justification and whatever efficacy it may have had.’ Today there is political journalism without party, which Koss compares to ‘Christianity without dogma’. Under the old party managers who created the political press, a journalist was expected to share the views of his employer, but there was some guarantee that the main issues of the day would be discussed responsibly. As the links between the parties and Fleet Street gradually fell away, and as the prestige of Parliament and of parliamentary government declined, the press was unable to invent any credible constitutional role for itself. Its power, once fairly accurately understood, is now the subject of paranoid exaggeration by politicians and of unreal boasting by tycoons. Such is the Koss view of the decline and fall of the political press – a view too nostalgic towards what were, after all, tame newspapers.

This ‘decline’ did not happen as a steady evolution. Koss shows that the political press ‘continued to rise after 1901, though increasingly in uncharted directions’. This was not a response to reader demand: newspapers at the opening of the century were no longer read for their political content as they had been a few decades before. But political allegiance revived in the press with the stimulus of the Boer War and the rise of the Labour Party. This by no means implies that a new guard of idealists marched forward to found papers dedicated to causes. It meant, rather, that ‘the task of party managers was first to stimulate newspaper investment and then to see to it that proper value was obtained for their supporters’ money; in both areas, their interventions grew more direct and more frequent.’ Party whips were expected to acquire shareholdings in newspapers. Lloyd George’s Liberals invested in Reynolds’ News; other Liberals funded the Westminster Gazette; the Conservative Party helped to pay for the Manchester Courier and the Daily Express. The Tory whips offered the Observer £1000 in 1910 to produce a special edition they could hawk around the provinces; the plan came to nothing, but J.L. Garvin, the new editor, had nothing against it. The Sunday Times, passing through ‘shabby and boring years’, was owned by ‘mystery men’ who turn out to have been the chairman of the Tory Party, a German financier called Hermann Schmidt, Basil Zaharoff the arms dealer, and the very Dr Jameson who had led the Raid on the Transvaal in 1895. The Labour Party was led by Keir Hardie into the first performance of that apparently endless pierrot show, ‘the founding of a truly socialist daily paper under democratic control’.

At the same time, the ground which had supported a whip-financed political press was breaking up even before the First World War. Northcliffe and Max Aitken, later Beaverbrook, were both on the scene by 1914 – despotic, destructive, uncontrollable tycoons of a new sort. As ‘the system lost confidence in itself,’ especially during the great constitutional crises of 1912-14, the ruling élite found itself uncertain about the very function of newspapers. Asquith said irritably that the Liberal press was written ‘by boobies for boobies’. Lady Lilias Margaret Bathurst, proprietor of the Morning Post, told her editor that ‘the public are marvellously ignorant and will swallow anything.’

The outbreak of war accelerated the breakup of old relationships and patterns of press behaviour. On the one hand, the press lords – Northcliffe especially – ran amok: Northcliffe would bring down Kitchener, force the Government to adopt conscription, ruin Asquith and replace him by Lloyd George. In retaliation, the wartime governments adopted cruder methods of control. It was Lloyd George, whom Northcliffe and Max Aitken had helped to power, who proclaimed as his press policy: ‘If they can’t be squared, they shall be squashed.’ His squaring was famous: Aitken became Lord Beaverbrook, Northcliffe was sent off on a mission to Washington. Squashing was the fate of, for example, the Daily Chronicle, which became improperly critical and in 1918 was bought over by Lloyd George henchmen.

By 1918, as peace returned, the press and the way politicians looked on it had changed profoundly. The proprietors were seen as ‘press lords’, robber barons who might at any time raid the palaces of power, intriguers without responsibility. In 1918, Northcliffe informed Lloyd George that he would consider ordering the Daily Mail and the Times to support him in the ‘khaki election’ if he were first shown a list of the proposed next Cabinet. Rothermere – described by one who met him that year as ‘a perfect specimen of the plutocratic cad’ – was brought round with the offer of a viscountcy. But ‘squaring’, even on the Lloyd George scale, would never again secure the reliable support of a newspaper for a party. In any case, the old pattern of loyalties had been smashed with the wartime death-blow delivered to the Liberal Party by itself. The Liberals had been the most skilled and persistent patrons of the political press. Now, as the party fell to bits, its newspapers began to float freely.

This freedom was not well used. In the war, the popular press had learned the art of lying and smearing in the name of patriotism. The art was developed. Political journalism declined further as politics itself declined, and as Parliamentarism fell into discredit during the years of economic depression. Grave lectures at the Institute of Journalists warned against the debasement of standards: ‘the public will ultimately lose its respect for the press and return contempt for contempt,’ said the ex-editor of the Daily News in 1928. The press lords turned their attention to the world beyond the English Channel, and soon revealed fresh depths of imbecility. Mussolini made a specially good impression on Fleet Street. Rothermere, the greatest ass of them all, put the Harmsworth Press at the disposal of Oswald Mosley. ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ cried the Daily Mail.

Koss writes: ‘It was one thing for the press to assert its political independence, which no one could seriously dispute, but quite another for it to act responsibly upon its claims. In the years that preceded the Second World War, newspapermen were usually left to their own devices, which were to prove more discreditable than any previously imposed on them by party managers.’ He is talking here mostly about the voluntary suppression of news, and of ‘unpleasant truths’. This collusion and censorship were found both at home, as in the abdication crisis, and abroad, in the treatment of the European dictators. Stephen Koss observes, rather mercifully, that the unwillingness to confront Fascism arose, not only from the nursery politics of some press lords, but because, ‘rightly or wrongly, inflammatory journalism was considered to have been one of the principal causes of the previous war. That harrowing memory cast as long a shadow in Fleet Street as in Downing Street.’

The Second World War transformed the political press for a few years. The public was greedy both for news and ideas; newspapers reduced their size, increased their price and put on circulation giddily – a reversal of normal economic laws. As Orwell noticed in 1941, even the popular papers became more radical and more intelligent: ‘all of them print articles which would have been considered hopelessly above their readers’ heads a couple of years ago.’ The suspension of party strife under the Churchill coalition, and the debates about radical social change after the war, began to create a journalism of issues rather than of party affiliations. The Daily Mirror worked consciously and brilliantly for a Labour victory in 1945, but many other papers committed to post-war renewal did not fully understand, and would not have wished, that the mood they encouraged would express itself in a Labour vote.

Koss ends his book in 1947, with the appointment of the first Royal Commission on the Press. In a postscript, however, he follows events into the 1980s and asks some more general questions. The political press he was concerned with finally died and was buried with the fall of the News Chronicle in 1960 – a tragedy which the remnants of the Liberal Party were entirely unable to prevent – and the sale of the Daily Herald’s TUC shareholding in 1964.

What has been, and what is, the nature of this relationship between organised politics and the press? Koss calls it a ‘triangular’ relationship, with the reader-voter as the third side of the figure. But the notion that a friendly press can deliver votes has never been very convincing. Cecil King wasn’t the first person to see that newspapers could accelerate or slow up a trend, but never reverse or create one. The popular press, as Koss notes, encouraged a volatile public opinion which it could provoke and stimulate but seldom guide once the missile had taken off. His two volumes show that the political influence of the press was strongest in two contexts: when newspaper owners and editors used their personal standing to join directly in party intrigues, and – at its best – when party-bound papers enriched and deepened political debate at levels which professional politicians had neither the time nor the capacity to reach.

Since the classic ‘political press’ expired, relations between the political world and the newspapers have grown steadily worse. In the first place, politicians who have failed to register the change which has taken place remain exasperated with the unreliability of papers which generally but not always support them. ‘All over the place! Geese! Geese!’ snarled Churchill about the News Chronicle during the war. Today there is certainly a ‘Tory Press’ in the sense that most daily and Sunday newspapers are hostile to Labour and the trade unions. But it is not ‘Tory’ in the sense that these papers have any intimate link with the Conservative Party, or – the Telegraph excepted – show any long-term loyalty either to the Party or to any faction within it.

Secondly, the expansion of government, which in Britain implies the extension of secrecy, has erected more and more barriers to the collecting of news, just as the mass media as a whole have begun to think in ever more ambitious terms about a ‘right to know’. There is a steadily growing conflict, not so much between the press and governments as between the press and the state. It was James Margach, once lobby correspondent of the Sunday Times, who first told the appalling story of how successive prime ministers had used the security services against journalists, usually after a Cabinet leak. The string of scandals, revelations and trials which began after the Falklands war is now approaching a climax. Once, a prime minister would have used a whip or a party elder to carry private reproaches to an editor. Today, he or she resorts to MI5. It is now common for a government to use methods against Fleet Street editors which, fifty years ago, were reserved for the editor of the Daily Worker.

Third, loss of party control has not diminished the conviction of party leaders that the opinions of newspapers carry weight. They carry weight, it seems, only because politicians suppose them to do so, not because of any noticeable effect on the voters. Ministers can react feverishly to leading articles and political features: Lord Boyle remarked that ‘the Cabinet, increasingly as the years go by, tends to be most concerned with the agenda that the press and media are setting out as the crucial issues before the nation.’ This is nice for editors. But it defies rational explanation. Koss calls this sort of influence ‘a quasi-meteorological power’, a weather-forecasting function to which politicians become addicted. The one thing that party leaders dread is silence. Any voice from the street outside, however fatuous, is better than no voice.

The last consequence of the death of Koss’s political press is the New Bullying. Northcliffe and his like ran vicious slander campaigns against individuals, but their victims were much of their own weight: generals, Cabinet Ministers, party chieftains. Press bullying today is different. It arises from the dogma of ‘consensus’, which in its turn is another aspect of the whole system’s loss of self-confidence. Newspapers which once cheered or booed the rival teams as they contended now conceive the football ground itself to be in need of defence. Evil men are crawling forward, determined to tear up the weedy old turf. Scargill, Benn, Ken Livingstone, even the pathetic Peter Tatchell, are harassed and hounded with a venom and persistence which have no justification and no precedent. Well, perhaps one precedent. When the right-wing press launched the New Bullying some ten years ago by encouraging citizens to take private vengeance against the power workers, they were acting in the tradition of Horatio Bottomley’s call in the First World War for the persecution of those with German names. ‘The fabric of our society is under threat.’

Henry Porter’s book was written in this climate. As its title promises, it is mostly about the lies that newspapers have told in the sample year of 1983-4. You read it with avidity, because the book is fluent and well-researched and appallingly funny, but afterwards you feel sick. ‘It is the contention of this book that fiction of all sorts appears in nearly every section of the British press.’ The ripest section, entitled ‘The Fun-Loving Royals’, covers an assortment of fairy-tales including the Mirror’s detailed description of how Balmoral celebrated the news that Princess Di was pregnant again – three months before she actually conceived. Equally amazing is a chapter devoted to what one might call criminal credulity, ranging from the News of the World’s ‘UFO lands in Suffolk’ through bogus astrology to the saga of how the Daily Star paid something like £50,000 to the late Diana Dors for an ‘exclusive’ slimming diet that did not exist. Being a journalist of remarkable civil courage, Henry Porter extends this enquiry to the ‘Hitler Diaries’ catastrophe on his own paper, the Sunday Times, placing the blame substantially on the reckless haste of his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. He also raises the most interesting unsolved question at the London end of the hoax. Charles Douglas-Home, editor of the Times, was told on the Saturday morning before the Sunday Times commenced publication that Lord Dacre had changed his mind about the authenticity of the ‘diaries’. Why, then, did he not inform Frank Giles, editor of the Sunday Times, who was left to hear the frightful news from Lord Dacre when his first edition was already on the trains?

The Porter sections on political lying and fabrication provide essential evidence for the New Bullying. In that year, concocted and dishonest stories rained down on job marchers, Peter Tatchell, on CND and, most persistently, on the women of Greenham Common. The Mail said that Nissan would not base a car plant in Britain if Labour won the election, which was a lie; the Express said that Robert Hughes MP was affiliated to the Soviet Friendship Society, which was another lie; the Sun tried to swing the Chesterfield by-election with a fraudulent ‘psychiatric analysis’ of Tony Benn. Henry Porter, once again displaying a complete disregard for personal safety, as the medal citations say, also brings up the Sunday Times front page on the Parkinson affair, where the editor allowed one of the most powerful men in the land to smear the character of his ex-mistress behind the dishonest cover of ‘Parkinson’s friends’.

Porter concludes that ‘while the quality newspapers are more tentative and less adventurous than I can ever remember, something decidedly unpleasant is beginning to emerge in the popular press ... a meanness of spirit, a lack of aspiration and a contempt for the suffering that their own activities undoubtedly cause.’ Can the proprietors reverse this trend? He thinks this improbable. But he warns that ‘unless newspapers improve their standards, they will at some time indubitably become the subject of legislation which will permanently injure the freedom of the press.’

What a prophecy! The press escapes from the bonds of party allegiance sixty years ago only to be rounded up and shackled by the state. In the locker of those who oppose freedom-of-information laws on the American model for this country, there is only one argument to consider: ‘A right to know for this press? Look what they do with the information they have already!’

Two works of biography, David Ayerst’s life of J.L. Garvin and Logan Gourlay’s collection of memoirs of Beaverbrook, serve to colour out the process which Stephen Koss describes – and the decline. Garvin, editor of the Observer from 1908 to 1942, was beyond challenge the greatest journalist of his times. His writing was magnificent, his opinions passionate, his hold on his readers and on the political world almost mesmeric. His relationship to the Astors, who owned the Observer, was always tense, but Garvin’s charm and his genius as an editor postponed the final explosion for over thirty years. Yet the whole nature of his connection to party politics changed with the destruction of the Liberal Party and the fall of Lloyd George. As Ayerst puts it, ‘from being an eager, active player, he became a touchline commentator. No party programme was sufficiently to his liking to command his wholehearted support; no party leader big enough to win his entire loyalty.’ It was only an example of what was happening to the political press as a whole. And even the mighty Garvin lost his way as the years passed. In the Thirties, we find him embroiled in an absurd argument with Waldorf Astor – Garvin convinced that Mussolini should be treated leniently as a possible ally against Hitler, Astor perceiving ‘a strong Germany’ on good terms with Britain as a barrier to Italy’s ambitions in the Mediterranean. In 1938, Garvin hit bottom with a leader dismissing Czechoslovakia as a ‘nonesuch state’ and complaining that Britain was being asked to guarantee ‘the racial ascendancy of the Czech minority over the rest’.

When he fell in 1942, it was not because of anything he had written before the war but for typically oligarchic reasons. Garvin had offended the Astors by demanding that their old enemy Beaverbrook should be taken back into the Cabinet. If Garvin’s career showed how political detachment carried the danger of losing touch with reality, Beaverbrook was a living example of how the press abused its new independence. Logan Gourlay’s contributors, like so many others before them, try to explain the magnetism of this little imp from Canada; the fact that Garvin forgave Beaverbrook for threatening to impede the divorce of Garvin’s intended wife unless he would leave the Observer and join the Daily Express is proof enough. It is all very well that he used to sing ‘Sow the seeds of discord, sow the seeds of discord’ down the telephone to his staff, to the tune of ‘The more we are together ...’ It is true enough that to the chosen few he was the most enchanting, encouraging boss a journalist could wish. The fact remains that he was a wrecker. He helped to wreck Hitler, in what Michael Foot calls his ‘finest hour’, but he broke a lot of more deserving human beings as well. His potty campaigns wasted the nation’s time; his irruptions into politics unnerved politicians and put them off their already shaky stroke. The effect of the peacetime Beaverbrook press on public opinion was to encourage stupidity, delusion, and complacency in the face of approaching disaster.

Once the press mediated parliamentary politics to the nation. Today it has become a powerful ‘de-politicising’ force, substituting for its old participation in the democratic process an attempt to create a muzzy, conservative ‘national consensus’ – the English for the Nazis’ gesunde Volksempfinden. The only escape is a new approach to newspaper ownership, at once economic and political, which makes it possible for groups, individuals, even parties to launch intelligent daily papers which can survive with modest circulations. A few years ago, but already in another age, David Astor said that the duty of a newspaper management was ‘to produce the best possible paper without actually going bust’. If something is not done, the decay of press content will converge with the growing impatience of the state to bring papers to heel. Those who can no longer square will, sooner or later, decide to squash.