Richly-Wristed

Ian Aitken

  • Changing Faces: The History of the ‘Guardian’, 1956-88 by Geoffrey Taylor
    Fourth Estate, 352 pp, £20.00, March 1993, ISBN 1 85702 100 2

The best thing I ever did in my professional life was to move from the Daily Express to the Guardian just before the 1964 General Election, and then to stay there. It seemed a good idea at the time, and nearly thirty years later I have no reason to change that judgment. On the contrary, the more I reflect on it the more grateful I am to my own relatively youthful prescience, and even more so to the gambler’s instinct of Alastair Hetherington, the then editor of the Guardian, in taking me on. To put it mildly, hiring a political writer direct from a notoriously partisan popular newspaper like the Daily Express was both risky and a radical departure from the paper’s traditional methods of recruiting staff.

Whether I would have been quite so ebullient about it if I had known what I know now, after reading Geoffrey Taylor’s riveting book, is another matter entirely. To be sure, I knew that the dear old Grauniad was not exactly flush – my new salary would have told me that even if I hadn’t noticed that one of my future colleagues pinned his bus-tickets to his expenses sheets. But just how hard-up it was was mercifully unknown to me.

Above all, I did not know that the company chairman, Laurance Scott – a Scott of Scotts and therefore a man who could be assumed to be committed to the idea of C.P. Scott’s Manchester Guardian – had effectively lost faith in the paper’s ability to survive. Nor did I have more than a whiff of Mr Scott’s attempts to merge the Guardian with the Astor Times and later with the Thomson Times. It was long after the event that I learned how Richard Scott, Laurance’s cousin and the chairman of the Scott Trust, flew to London from Washington on what my old employers would have called a ‘mercy mission’ to save us from being sold into slavery by his kinsman.

This ignorance may have had something to do with the fact that I worked almost entirely at the House of Commons and rarely visited the office. With one exception, we members of the political staff were like stokers in a coal-fired ship, shovelling fuel into the furnaces in total ignorance of what was happening on deck, let alone on the bridge. The one exception was Francis Boyd, our revered boss, who was the representative of the editorial staff on the Scott Trust. He was rigidly and characteristically loyal to his duty of confidentiality. As a result, we in the Westminster stokehold could only judge the state of affairs by Francis’s facial expression on his return from his frequent visits to Manchester. As he was inclined to look gloomy even when happy, we tended to discount this evidence, and thus remained blissfully ignorant of the grim truth.

Nor was Francis the only one to hold his tongue. Hetherington was equally tight-lipped, even with quite close colleagues. One, who was close enough to go bounding up mountains with him, recalls that it was only at altitudes above three thousand feet that the editor would disgorge even the smallest nugget of information – presumably from lack of oxygen.

Just how desperate things were, or seemed to be, is faithfully recorded by Mr Taylor. These horrors include persistent attempts by Scott to persuade Hetherington to take the Guardian down-market in an effort to achieve the son of circulation which would have justified the abandonment of its Manchester roots in 1962. That had originally been a central plank in Scott’s plan to turn the Manchester Guardian from a provincial newspaper dependent on provincial loyalties and provincial advertising into a fully national newspaper attracting national advertisments at national rates. As Taylor reports, that process was already under way when London printing began. There had been a steady expansion in the paper’s circulation in the South even while it continued to print exclusively in the North, a trend accelerated by its anti-Suez, stand in 1956 (which, contrary to contemporary mythology, did not cause a loss of circulation). The key factor in Scott’s calculation was that a large circulation outside the North, with all the extra costs for printing and transport, could not be sustained exclusively by Northern advertisers. In other words, the extra circulation would be a millstone unless it could be covered by higher advertising rates – precisely the syndrome which helped destroy the much-lamented News Chronicle.

Laurance Scott’s estimate of the rewards of a move to London proved to be wildly optimistic, however. Instead of producing a handsome profit, the outcome was a further addition to the Guardian’s losses which had to be covered by the earnings of the group’s other title, the popular and profitable Manchester Evening News. Though it is not recorded by Taylor, it was a situation which led the MEN’s editor, a certain Brian Redhead, to remark that the Guardian was his ‘kept woman’. It was a fair point, since MEN journalists had good reason to suspect they were being paid less than their efforts deserved in order to subsidise a newspaper whose staff saw themselves as a cut above mere pop-paper hacks. None of this reflects very well on Laurance Scott, especially when he was found to have compounded the difficulties of the company by engaging in unsuccessful property speculation and a dicey printing enterprise. If there is a villain in his book it is Laurance Scott, with his cousin Richard cast as the hero.

I have to acknowledge that much of the detail of Laurance Scott’s many attempts to square an intractable financial circle is probably more interesting to the likes of me than to readers who don’t have personal links with the paper. Happily, the details of who did what to whom in the privacy of the boardroom and the Scott Trust, though crucial to the survival of the paper, are not the centrepiece of Taylor’s elegant and witty biography of the modern Guardian. And that is not surprising, given the extraordinary events which unfolded between 1956 and 1988, not only in the tight little world of Fleet Street but also in the world at large. Geoffrey Taylor is unusually well qualified to chronicle these events, partly because he was both foreign editor and a senior leader-writer during the period, but also because he is one of the best writers on a paper which has always prided itself on the quality of its writing. Perhaps the only downside is that in order to prepare this book he had to give up writing the weekly column which brightened otherwise gloomy Monday mornings.

He records the mixture of highbrow snobbery and journalistic amateurism which characterised the Guardian at the time of its move to London, and which certainly irritated journalists on other newspapers. Part of the story he has to tell is how people like John Cole – yes, the same John Cole – and his successor as News Editor. Jean Stead, dragged the paper more or less reluctantly into mainstream, news-oriented journalism. Coming from what at the time was probably the most professionally polished newspaper in Fleet Street, I was particularly vulnerable to the atmosphere Taylor describes. Some of my new colleagues left me in no doubt that joining the Guardian did not relieve me of my burden of guilt for all those years as a popular journalist. The awful misprints which won the paper the title of the Grauniad were regarded by many of them as instances of the paper’s charming eccentricity. Once when I whined to Cole that nobody seemed to have noticed that I had delivered a scoop the previous night, Cole snarled: ‘You should be so lucky. When I joined this paper nobody noticed when we’d been scooped’.

Perhaps the most striking difference of attitude between my old and my new newspaper was the amount of attention given to what Guardian executives called ‘the leader line’. Very little time had been devoted to that subject at the Express, for the excellent reason that its ‘leader line’ was determined by the opinions and prejudices of someone we called The Principal Reader (i.e. Lord Beaverbrook), either in direct conversation with him or by a process of telepathic communication. At the Guardian it was established by discussion, debate and very occasionally argument between the editor and his aides and acolytes. The editor or the deputy editor spent a great deal of time considering what the paper ought to say about the issues of the day, and often disappeared for the entire afternoon to compose some great blockbuster. In my innocence, I regarded this, too, as unprofessional. I was used to editors who took off their jackets and sat down with their sub-editors to lay out the front page and determine the prominence given to the big news stories. In my belief, news was the commodity which newspapers should be selling. Opinions were an optional extra.

That certainly isn’t how Mr Taylor sees it, which isn’t surprising in view of his long stint as a foreign leader-writer specialising in African affairs. A great deal of his book describes the arguments over the paper’s policy on this or that great public crisis, including its forthright opposition to the Suez adventure and its slightly less forthright distaste for the Falklands War. Inevitably, he quotes C.P. Scott’s famous dictum that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’ – a sentence which is often paraphrased by snide critics on richer newspapers as ‘comment is free, but facts are expensive.’ But he leaves little doubt that true Guardian folk accept that one of the main reasons, if not quite the only reason, for the Guardian’s existence is its comment rather than its facts. It is a point of view with which I once profoundly disagreed, possibly because I was often accused (and I am here) of making my own opinions all too clear in writing my news stories – ‘a finely-flighted, richly-wristed spin’, as Taylor puts it. After 29 years, I am not sure that I still disagree so profoundly. At a time when almost all our competitors had turned themselves into crude propaganda sheets for the Tory Party it was surely right that the Guardian should speak out loudly and unequivocally in support of the opposite camp.

There, of course, lies the problem which preoccupied the Guardian and its staff for much of the period under review – what exactly was the opposite camp? As Taylor records, there was a long period in the late Seventies when sections of the paper, including the Letters Page and the then ‘Agenda’ pages, seemed to have been hijacked by the Bennites and the loony left – a group which included many people who would now be acutely embarrassed if reminded of their role. They certainly did not see the Labour Party as the opposite of the Conservatives. On the contrary, many of them saw the party of Wilson and Callaghan, and even the party of Michael Foot, as (in the old Trotskyist phrase) ‘Labour lieutenants of the capitalist class’. Those members of the staff who did not share this view were castigated as traitors to the cause, and two or three of us were called to account at a staff meeting which later became known as ‘the Slansky trial’.

The reaction came when a substantial part of the non-loony section of the staff despaired of the leftward lurch of the Labour Party and attached themselves to the newly formed Social Democratic Party. For a time the paper became (in one Labour backbencher’s phrase) ‘the SDP at breakfast’. Three senior staffers actually stood as SDP candidates, one of them ensuring the election of a Tory in a former Labour seat. Eventually this tide receded as well. With the election of Neil Kinnock as Labour leader, followed by his campaign to rid the Party of the Militant Tendency, the tone of the Guardian became more recognisably consistent with its traditions.

Yet those traditions remain difficult to define. If pressed, I can only repeat the guidance given to me by Alastair Hetherington when he was hiring me over a frugal lunch at the Athenaeum in September 1964, on the eve of a general election which Labour was wrongly expected to win by a large majority. ‘Our attitude to the Labour Government,’ said Alastair, ‘will be that of a friendly critic – or, if you prefer it, a critical friend.’ It suited me fine either way, and I have stuck to that formula ever since. As for Alastair, Mr Taylor records that he had no fewer than 32 meetings with Harold Wilson between the 1964 and 1966 General Elections, and a total of 106 in all, generating 250,000 words of notes. By contrast, he met Ted Heath only 13 times during his entire leadership of the Conservative Party.

It was an intimacy which led people in the office to say that if you couldn’t find Alastair in Gray’s Inn Road you should try Downing Street. Many of Hetherington’s colleagues regarded the situation as unhealthy, giving rise on at least one occasion to a correct story of mine being spiked in favour of an untrue one. As Taylor says, Hetherington’s style contrasted sharply with the non-aligned style of his successor, Peter Preston, who took over in 1975 when Alastair left to join the BBC in Scotland. PP, as he is universally known to colleagues, was the winner of a contest whose defeated candidate was John Cole, when members of the editorial staff were for the first time given a voice in the selection. His diffident style and sometimes convoluted mode of speech can mislead the unwary into imagining that he is a pushover. Not so, as his highly successful incumbency testifies. Under his editorship the paper’s circulation soared beyond the half-million which Laurance Scott dreamed of. And although sales were hit by the arrival of the Independent, they still remain comfortably ahead of the Indie as well as the ‘Times. That is a considerable achievement, given the paper’s unrewarded but humane decision to introduce the new technology through negotiation with the appalling print unions rather than by way of a Murdoch-style big bang. Taylor more or less concedes that it was Rupert Murdoch’s brutal emasculation of the unions which ultimately saved the Guardian, helped along by the money it got from cashing in its shares in Reuter’s news agency.

Just where the Guardian will go now is again the subject of vigorous discussion inside the paper, made the more problematic by continuing uncertainty about the direction of the Labour Party. But it remains unique as the only British newspaper which will decide its own future, thanks to the far-sighted generosity of the Scott family in assigning its ownership to a non-profitmaking trust. It is a safe bet, however, that Peter Preston will not seek the kind of relationship with John Smith which Hetherington established with Harold Wilson, even though Smith’s Presbyterian morality is probably closer to the Scott Guardian than that of any Labour leader since Attlee. Instead, I suspect that PP will seek to confirm the Guardian’s special status as the forum in which the British Left, in the broadest sense, tries to come to terms with post-Thatcherite realities. That, coupled with the honest editorialising of leader-writers of the quality of Geoffrey Taylor and his successors, is quite enough raison d’ être to be going on with. For all its faults, it is still by far the best and most honourable newspaper of them all.