William Rodgers reads the papers

William Rodgers

  • The Market for Glory: Fleet Street Ownership in the 20th Century by Simon Jenkins
    Faber, 247 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 571 14627 9
  • The End of the Street by Linda Melvern
    Methuen, 276 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 413 14640 5

Seven miles high above the Bay of Biscay and bound for Madrid, reading the daily papers is the alternative to a British Airways breakfast at noon. What is news? A kiss, it seems. England has won a Test Match and Emburey is conveying his congratulations to Ian Botham. It is front-page news for the Guardian but back-page for the Daily Express. The popular papers have a problem. Myra Hindley and the Moors Murders is a rich story on which to lead, as full of purple prose today as it was twenty years ago. It should be a good day for sales.

To the Express, the Mail and the Mirror, sales are important. Together they sold over twelve million copies every day in the early Sixties. Twenty-five years later, they sell not much over half of that, and the Express in particular is down on its luck. In the days of Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King, the Mirror was a wonder to us all – slick, successful and serious about its politics. Its journalists and layout men buzzed round Hugh Gaitskell, seeking to burnish the Labour Party’s shabby image. Now, in 1987, Captain Maxwell does his best when not buying up industrial companies or running Oxford United. But it is not the same. The Mirror is cracked and the images confused. It is part of the history of the British press, but may not much belong to its future.

To a grammar-school boy growing up in the North of England forty years ago, the press was an honourable estate. At the centenary of the birth of C.P. Scott, The Making of the ‘Manchester Guardian’ was an ideal anthology for a sixth-form prize on Speech Day. Here were Scott’s lieutenants: W.T. Arnold, grandson of Arnold of Rugby; L.T. Hobhouse, social philosopher and member of a Liberal dynasty; and Herbert Sidebotham, sent on a scholarship to Balliol but as Lancashire as his name. Here was Scott himself, presiding over the paper with robust integrity for almost sixty years and even combining it for a time with membership of the House of Commons. There were other papers, sometimes cheap and nasty; and the most famous paper of all had been nice to Hitler at the time of Munich. But the press was part of the fabric of a free society. It was held in trust for us all.

The truth was rather different. Scott had acquired the Manchester Guardian in 1907 and henceforth it was ‘carried on as a public service and not for profit’. After his death, and with the Manchester Evening News to sustain its revenue, the company was vested in trustees. But the press as a whole had no such luck. As Simon Jenkins has reminded us, the great proprietors bought and sold their newspapers for power, prestige and, they hoped, money.

The brothers Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror while Scott was wrestling with Home Rule for Ireland and the Boer War. Later, as Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere, their proprietorial arrogance and political manoeuvring became a legend. As Scott approached retirement, Lord Beaverbrook was making the Daily Express ‘a paper of prejudice, not thought’. And the Berry brothers, up from Methyr Tydfil, were moving from Boxing magazine to the Financial Times and Daily Telegraph and to peerages as Lords Camrose and Kemsley. Fleet Street was vulgar, tough, unprincipled and competitive, a world away from the austere values of Manchester.

The Guardian has now long since settled in London, in the grey, commercial confusion of Farringdon Road, and the loss of the News Chronicle and Daily Herald has been matched by the arrival of the Sun and the Daily Star. But, until recently, the rules of the game (to be bent, broken and ignored) and the ferocity of the play remained the same. Roy Thomson, benign among proprietors, has come and gone, picking up a peerage in the process. So has Victor Matthews, moving from building-site to Fleet Street and out again in less than ten years. The free or cut-price offers of dictionaries and flower-pots in the 1930s have given way to bingo and cash prizes. As for content, most of the popular papers are as cheap and nasty as ever, apparently as indifferent to a more educated public as they are contemptuous of the Press Council. When it comes to politics, they are happy to use selective reporting to turn news into comment and to exclude fairness from their vocabulary.

By the standards of today – even by those of his later years – C.P. Scott wrote a rather pompous prose. But the message was plain and lasting. ‘A newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news.’ It follows that ‘neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong.’ And so to Scott’s most enduring aphorism: ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred.’

By such lofty standards even the Guardian of Peter Preston falls short. Its reporters are men and women with opinions that shine out from its pages. Even if they start their careers with the news, they are hoping for preferment to the editorial pages. With luck, long service and a reputation for controversy, they might even graduate to a column of their own. In making news comprehensible to his readers, an editor may ask that the facts be put in context: but the choice of context and the manner in which it is described give scope for editorialising.

Every Guardian story now has a byline and almost half its reporters appear to have job descriptions, placing them in a hierarchy worthy of ICI. On a single day you may read reports by the Chief Political Correspondent, the Medical Correspondent, the Labour Correspondent, the Social Services Correspondent, the Education Correspondent, the Local Government Correspondent, the Industrial Editor, the Energy Correspondent and the Environment Correspondent. These are all writing about Home Affairs. The foreign staff seem less bothered about handles to their names. What the Guardian offers is a whole shadow cabinet of eager talent, not civil servants with facts but ministers-in-waiting strong in their opinions.

People read newspapers for very different reasons. For many years the popular – and populist – dailies and their Sunday counterparts attacked working-class readers who studiously ignored their predominantly right-of-centre politics, discounting them when it came to the ballot box. It is not possible to say that they were without political influence but only that Labour governments were elected despite them. Before its translation into the Morning Star, the Communist Daily Worker was outstanding for its racing tips, and the sporting pages remain important for the newcomers. ‘Sport Starts Here,’ says Today on page 39 and provides six pages of greyhounds, angling and darts, apart from the more obvious activities. The Independent draws the line at dogs, but finds room for billiards, basketball and hockey. A good day for England at cricket can reach the front page and soccer is often there, especially when accompanied by a spot of violence. Similarly, the Arts pages of the Financial Times and its features on Saturday attract readers with no share prices to watch and relative indifference towards the paper as a whole.

The treatment of politicians has often shown newspapers at their worst. The real charge here against the press is the roller-coaster nature of its affections. During the sharp conflicts of twenty-five years ago, Harold Wilson was not a newspaper hero in his dealings with Hugh Gaitskell. But after Gaitskell’s death, a single speech on the white heat of the technological revolution transformed his reputation. As Prime Minister, from 1964, he enjoyed complete domination of the press for over three years. The Lobby in particular accepted him at his own evaluation, returning full of admiration from every briefing at Number 10. Each government reshuffle was reported as ‘masterly’ and seasoned political correspondents would retail the Prime Minister’s wisdom as if it were their own. Then the mood changed; and after his ‘pound in your pocket’ devaluation broadcast, the press was merciless. But Harold Wilson was the same man in Opposition, as leader of the Labour Party, and throughout his term in government. Any serious and independent newspaper should have maintained a steady judgment of his performance based on an understanding of his character and the political environment of the time. Very few did.

Neil Kinnock may be suffering a similar fate. Whatever the shortcomings of its policies, his party has lately been the victim of some crude misrepresentation and malicious attacks. The failure of his American tour and his ineffectiveness in the House of Commons have been used to rub off the glamour of three years ago. Even his wife, then seen as a major asset, is now apparently a witch whose dangerous influence equals Nancy Reagan’s with the President. But nothing has changed in three years to justify such a reassessment. It is the shallowness of much press comment and its inability to reach a balanced and steady judgment that are at issue.

This is not an exclusively British weakness. When Gary Hart won the New Hampshire Primary early in 1984, he had been a Senator for many years but the files of the Washington Post and the New York Times were empty. His sudden emergence as a serious contender for the Presidential nomination required a hurried attempt to investigate his past. It was only then that his change of name and the curious transformation of his signature became known and that an effort was made to assess his character.

The personal sketch or profile is not a new phenomenon and the scurrilous invective of the 18th century would be inappropriate today, even if libel lawyers allowed it. But the political profile has become a ponderous affair, announced as a major event although often bland and unoriginal. ‘Hattersley Profile, page 29,’ the Sunday Times trailed and there, on page 29, was a cartoon of the Great Man, unmistakable with round face and scowl. ‘The Sunday Times PROFILE,’ screamed the headline, as if announcing the Booker Prize. Half of what followed was a jaunty mixture of stale news and rather obvious comment about how Labour’s moderate Shadow Chancellor had suddenly become the scourge of the City of London. The rest was potted history, easily put together from cuttings and a quick look at the Crossman diaries. The profile ended with Hattersley, now 54, approaching his ‘most critical test’. The question hanging over him ‘is not whether he is an intellectual or populist but whether he has the weight to defeat the Thatcherism he despises’.

Perhaps these sober thoughts became a talking-point over Sunday lunch throughout the nation. But this wasn’t a character sketch that illuminated a leading politician or helped to explain how the public figure sprang from the private man. It was an old story given a twist of immediacy. In this technique, the Sunday Times is not exceptional. The Independent, which might have seized the opportunity to bring a new depth and perception to profiles, has done no better. A profile of Nigel Lawson, ‘maverick at Number 11’, at the time of the Chancellor’s last Mansion House speech, was no more than a review of his four years at the Treasury. Only Terry Coleman, in his extended Guardian interviews, gets close to his subjects.

The responsible profile-writer has to exercise discretion. On the other hand, to take an obvious example, the personal insecurity of a senior politician, which may have wide public consequences, can only be appraised by reference to his earliest years. Anthony Clare, from his psychiatrist’s chair, would write a far more interesting profile than the average political editor. Ben Pimlott, in his brilliant biography of Hugh Dalton, caught the character of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer with great assurance. And, more recently, Robert Rhodes James discovered the roots of Anthony Eden’s vulnerability better than any contemporary profile-writer. This is not the privilege of hindsight. Newspaper editors simply do not have high enough standards. They should commission profiles from our best biographers.

Much political reporting is prejudiced and mischievous. And many political profiles are shallow. Is this the full measure of press interest in politics? Not quite. In the quality papers, the reporting of Parliament is extensive and even repetitious. The Guardian may print accounts of the same House of Commons debate from its Parliamentary staff, one of its political correspondents, and its Parliamentary sketch-writer David McKie. Frank Johnson, restored to the back page of the Times after a disappointing sojourn abroad, and Edward Pearce of the Daily Telegraph, are representative of the sketch-writing-as-entertainment school. McKie is more thoughtful.

The political team on the Guardian is powerful. Its front-runner for many years was Ian Aitken (by Tribune out of the Beaverbrook press), now the benign doyen of the Parliamentary corps. From the Scotsman it has hired James Naughtie, cast in the mould of the veteran Bob Carvel of the London Standard, although rather quicker on his feet. Above all, it has Hugo Young. There is a fierce burning light about his work. He cares and despairs like an angry priest and is harsh with politicians because they let him down. He is a liberal, not a populist, but his party affiliations remain concealed.

The arrival of Hugo Young at the Guardian was part of a swop that took Peter Jenkins to the Sunday Times. Much respected for intelligence and integrity, Peter Jenkins ought to be our most influential political commentator. But there has been a more tentative and less radical thrust to his column than used to be the case and an apparent loss of interest and conviction. In a better world Jenkins would be editor of a weekly journal of opinion. Meanwhile his further transfer to the Independent should make him happier and restore his skills.

Great newspaper editors have not been the fashion in the post-war years. Some editors, like John Junor of the Sunday Express, have been long-lasting. Others, like his fellow knights Larry Lamb and David English, have been successful after their fashion, Lamb with the Sun and English with the Daily Mail. English (also a survivor) deserves credit for making his newspaper professional and profitable, within a conventional mould, aimed at the comfortable middle classes. Of an older generation, Sir Gordon Newton turned the Financial Times from a City newspaper into one with wider appeal, David Astor at the Observer held fast to a civilised, liberal view of the world through difficult years, and Hugh Cudlipp gave the Daily Mirror its last blaze of glory. The saddest case is that of Harry Evans, a brilliant working journalist caught in the cross-fire of Murdoch’s take-over of the Times and contriving his own destruction.

The treatment of politics and of politicians seems both critical and consistent if you set it against the standards that normally prevail when the reputations of companies and businessmen are at issue. The Financial Times is an exception, but even there, at the weekend in particular, the pages of advertising for top management jobs are matched by buoyant stories of irrepressible success. The smooth faces smile from the pages, good teeth, well-groomed hair, easy confidence, the BMW or Saab waiting round the corner. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why Britain’s industrial record is such a disaster.

Until, of course, the glamour comes unstuck. The hero of yesterday’s take-over – access to whom was a privilege and whose press releases made such good copy – becomes the man who let the side down. It is quite extraordinary that through the long public exposure of Guinness in its battle to acquire Distillers, the principal figures were taken at their own valuation. The press should be a watch-dog in the City – too often it is part of the show.

The Business pages were barely developed a quarter of a century ago at the time of the Royal Commission on the Press chaired by Lord Shawcross (there has been another Royal Commission since). Its concern was less with content and editorial independence than with costs, efficiency and concentration of ownership. This was the first time the public became aware of over-manning in Fleet Street, modestly estimated by the Commission at 34 per cent. The Commission was concerned that since 1949 17 daily or Sunday newspapers had ceased publication and only four new ones had been started. High costs were a cause and the development of new printing machinery and techniques had not been exploited to best advantage. The Commission’s feeble recommendation for dealing with these problems was better arrangements for consultation between management and trade unions.

The net loss of newspapers, national and provincial, since 1962, has been less than the Royal Commission expected. There are now 11 national daily papers, and as many major regional morning papers like the Northern Echo, Glasgow Herald, Yorkshire Post and Western Daily Press. The new technology has at last arrived, thanks to Eddy Shah, while the resistance of the print workers to overmanning has been broken by Rupert Murdoch.

In her racy account of how Murdoch moved the Sun and the Times to Wapping, Linda Melvern gives the flavour of events that sickened many experienced journalists. As a buccaneer, Murdoch makes the press barons of an earlier age seem positively gentle. But history may show that he and Shah together were the sharp end of a revolution which the Mensheviks of Farringdon Road and Bracken House would never have accomplished. New technology and lower costs make it more possible for old papers to survive and new ones to be started. It may stick in the gullet, but Murdoch (Shah is an altogether more sympathetic figure) may have done more for the freedom of the press than a dozen Royal Commissions. If the economic forces of the market are to determine the winners and losers, at least lower costs give a better chance of survival to low-circulation quality papers.

Competition among the popular papers, both dailies and Sundays, will remain rough and there will be casualties. Eddy Shah’s Today (his creation, although no longer his property) deserves to survive, but if its precarious life is finally extinguished, there should be others, given the new technology, to take its place. As for the quality Sunday papers, a rising circulation in the second half of 1986 for the Observer was matched by a fall for the larger Sunday Times: but both of these, and the Daily Telegraph (no change), should be with us for yet a while.

The competition among the quality dailies is more interesting, given the strong suspicion that there isn’t room for five. This would be a pity, because each attracts a substantial number of readers and offers a distinctive style. The re-vamped Daily Telegraph under Max Hastings seems least sure of its direction. Despite its consistent right-wing politics, its reputation for a thorough and reliable news service has made it for many years the best British newspaper for expatriates or holidaymakers to buy abroad. But a single half-page in a recent edition managed ‘Sex on the stairs’, ‘New-born baby thrown to death’, ‘Boy blinded in family shooting’, ‘Father denies 18-year-old murder of son’ and ‘TV death stunt’, which suggests an odd order of priorities for a previously serious paper. The Times is a mess and cannot escape from Rupert Murdoch’s sinister shadow. It suffers from the loss of some of its most talented journalists and offers news reporting heavily prejudiced towards Mrs Thatcher, editorials that are ill-informed, and an op-ed page without a policy. Only the charm of its obituaries is undiminished although Geoffrey Smith continues to write a wise if ponderous political column.

Which leaves the Financial Times, the Independent and the Guardian. The Financial Times is a very good paper. It has replaced the Times in the authority of its features and the influence of its editorials. Its foreign reporting is careful and reliable. Anyone wishing to unravel the course and outcome of the meeting of President Reagan and Mr Gorbachev at Reykjavik need have looked no further than its pages. It has no sport and its ‘Men and Matters’ column shows that business gossip is a lot less indiscreet and infinitely more boring than its social and political counterpart. As an all-round newspaper – the only one available to the household – it falls short simply because business and finance remain its larger part.

The Independent, on the other hand, has something for everyone and does it remarkably well for a paper only a few months old. To judge by the number of readers on the London Underground, it has won instant success with the white-collared middle classes who do not like dogmatism and shrillness in their daily papers any more than in their politics. The printing, layout and photographs are superb. The Independent has its eccentricities, including its signed obituaries, one of which – immensely long – discussed the life of the writer Gerald Brenan without a single reference to his well-known Bloomsbury escapades. Nor has it yet developed a character which makes it essential reading – a paper not-to-be missed – for a dependable body of readers. But it deserves to succeed, and could become a paper of distinction.

The circulation of the Guardian, which had previously shown a steady rise, has been badly hit by the Independent and the loss of fifty thousand readers is hard to bear. The Guardian is an earnest paper with a strong appeal to committed young people, while good, too, in both its sporting and business pages. The time has come, however, for a major change in design and layout, greater authority in its reporting and features and rather less of a liking for the old-fashioned Left. Years ago, under pressure from its own militant journalists, it restricted its outside contributors to its twice-weekly ‘Agenda’ page and took to re-cycling whatever articles and speeches it was offered. A recent ‘Agenda’ page of four thousand words was wholly devoted to a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev to the Central Committee of the Communist Party – a monumental example of inverted news values. The Guardian might with advantage try the successful American formula of separating news, editorials and the op-ed page under independent editors. The Guardian is an institution that many of us would feel lonely without: but it is getting stale.