Monopoly Mule

Anthony Howard

  • Plant Here the ‘Standard’ by Dennis Griffiths
    Macmillan, 417 pp, £35.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 333 55565 1

Evening newspapers are an endangered species. When I started out as a journalist in 1958, there were not only three in London but three in New York as well. Today each of these cities can boast just one, with Washington, since the death of the Washington Star in 1981, possessing none at all. It is, therefore, a bold and defiant moment to produce an elaborate house history of one of the few survivors of a declining newspaper art-form – at least in the English-speaking world.

The Evening Standard, or the London Standard, as it briefly and unwisely called itself in the mid-Eighties, has always been something of an anomaly. It is not merely that throughout its history it has displayed marked cannibalistic tendencies, having swallowed up no fewer than nine other afternoon titles in the 168 years since it was founded in 1827. It also lacks any genuine pride of ancestry as an evening newspaper. For more than a third of its life, under the masthead simply of the Standard, it was not an afternoon paper in any real sense but rather a morning one – to which the evening edition, published for the benefit of sportsmen, stockbrokers and the City, was no more than a junior appendage.

To describe it as having survived in the shape of a mule might be thought unkind; but it would not necessarily be unfair. Even this reverential study – written by the paper’s former production director – cannot disguise the fact that its most exciting days were in the 60 years of its life in which, as the official voice of the Tory Party, it vied with the Times in the morning market. (Incidentally, it was the Standard that pioneered the Murdoch strategy of price-cutting by competitively bringing its price down to a penny in 1858.) Some awkward questions are raised even by this era of its history. There is ample evidence that the Standard was regularly in receipt of subventions from the Conservative Party – and at the time of the American Civil War it seems in addition to have been the beneficiary of largesse from the London treasure-chest of the Southern Confederacy.

As Stephen Koss, however, made clear in the first volume of The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain (1981) – to which the earlier part of this book is heavily indebted – the Standard was by no means alone in allowing itself to be compromised in this way. And, to be fair, at least one of its editors always held his own head high. If the earlier part of Dennis Griffiths’s narrative has a hero, it is William Heseltine Mudford, editor of the Standard from 1874 to 1899. When Lord Salisbury, as Foreign Secretary, imprudently sent him a telegram via his House Steward in 1880, he received this crushing retort:

The Editor of the Standard asks permission to return the enclosed telegram (just received from his assistant manager) which has been addressed to the Standard by Lord Salisbury’s House Steward. The Editor of the Standard may, perhaps, be allowed to add that he is not much in the habit of receiving telegraphic instructions from House Stewards; not even when they are in the household of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

That was fully up to the level of prickliness displayed by John Thadeus Delane, editor of the Times, in his famous exchange with Lord Derby over the accession to power of Napoleon III 28 years earlier, and serves to show that, even if the Standard had allowed its financial independence to be corrupted, it never permitted its self-respect to be wholly disregarded.

There can be no denying, though, that the Standard has had a chequered history, that even its glory days were not that glorious. Politically, it was on the wrong side on virtually everything: vehemently opposed to Catholic Emancipation, fiercely against reform of the Corn Laws, resisting in the last ditch, along with the ‘diehards’, Parliamentary reform as much in 1911 as in 1832. It was entirely appropriate that its penultimate editor in its national daily incarnation should have been H.A. Gwynne, the High Tory who in 1911 went on to take charge of that ark of the Conservative covenant, the Morning Post, until its merger with the Daily Telegraph in 1937.

At least that way Gwynne escaped going down with his first ship – for in 1916 the decision was finally taken by the Standard’s new owner, Sir Edward Hulton, to end its 60-year career as a morning paper. Griffiths is not entirely convincing as to how and why this collapse came about: the paper had been making a profit at least until 1911 and other newspapers found their fortunes underpinned rather than undermined by the outbreak of war in 1914.

It may be, however, that the Standard, with its origins rooted in the 19th century, had never really come to terms with the ‘new journalism’, as represented first by Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail and then by its own subsequent and most famous owner, Lord Beaverbrook, who, as Sir Max Aitken, had effectively taken control of the Daily Express in 1915. Perhaps there was always something a bit archaic about the Standard as a national daily. For all the fame of its foreign correspondents – the boys’ author G.A. Henty was one – or the controversial renown of such leader-writers as the future Poet Laureate Alfred Austin, it had stuck far too long to the pledge it made in launching itself into the daily market in 1857 that ‘nothing will be allowed to appear in the Standard that can shock the purity of social life.’

For the next seven years, the Evening Standard – the frail child of a once more substantial parent – limped on under the charge of Sir Edward Hulton. But it never rated as the apple of his eye: the majority of his press empire – the Daily Sketch, the Daily Dispatch, the Empire News and the Sunday Chronicle – was centred on Manchester, and the Evening Standard was in danger of becoming a supernumerary acquisition. All that changed, however, when in 1923 Beaverbrook bought the Hulton newspapers as a job-lot off their now ailing proprietor, and promptly sold every other title on to Northcliffe’s brother, the first Viscount Rothermere – keeping, as he characteristically put it, only the Evening Standard as his ‘commission on the deal’.

More than thirty years after Beaverbrook’s death in 1964, the Evening Standard of today is still recognisably his creation. It was the nearest thing to a quality paper he ever owned and he lavished on it an affection that he never vouchsafed his lustier progeny, the Daily and the Sunday Express. He took a particular interest in its strongest regular feature, the Londoner’s Diary (his own invention), frequently using it as the vehicle for the pursuit of his own campaigns and vendettas. With the emphasis that he also gave to its books pages (he brought in Arnold Bennett as chief literary critic), he was determined that the Evening Standard should continue to maintain its up-market position. Throughout the first 37 years of his ownership he was never deterred by the fact that it consistently ran third in the London circulation race, behind both the Evening News (owned by Rothermere) and the Star (the sister paper of the Liberal News Chronicle which died alongside its stablemate in 1960).

In many ways he was a monster – ‘Lord Beaverbrook reminds you that the Evening Standard is a Capital Punishment paper’ was typical of the kind of memos that successive editors got used to receiving from him – but he was also a newspaperman of genius. The principal criticism of this house history has to be that it does not give anything like full credit to Beaverbrook. It is easy to understand the dilemma in which a house-trained author may find himself; the paper is, after all, today (and has been since 1985) the sole property of Associated Newspapers, the company now controlled by the third Viscount Rothermere – and no proud proprietor likes to see too much praise being given to a predecessor. Nevertheless, to speak of the present Lord Rothermere – or, worse, of Sir Jocelyn Stevens or the late Lord (‘Whelks’) Matthews – in the same tone of voice as Beaverbrook is a substantial affront to natural justice.

Fortunately, Griffiths is more generous to the other main agent in the building up of the modern Evening Standard. Charles Wintour was its editor for a total of 19 years – in one long stint of 17 years from 1959 to 1976 and in a shorter, and more stormy, one from 1978 to 1980. In my own one conversation with Beaverbrook about the Evening Standard – over lunch in the Waldorf Towers in New York in January 1961 – he went out of his way to announce: ‘I leave that paper entirely to Charles.’ I am not sure that I believed his statement at the time – and anyway, as a declaration even of intent, it was made somewhat less than persuasive by his wistful remark in the next breath: ‘I’d give it to my granddaughter Jeannie tomorrow it only she would settle down.’ (Lady Jean Campbell, herself an Evening Standard contributor, who had taken me to the lunch, had just started going out with Norman Mailer.) But what I now think was probably genuine was the acknowledgment on the proprietor’s part that Wintour enjoyed ‘favoured nation status’ among Beaverbrook editors. Within certain limits – of which, no doubt, support for capital punishment was one – he was given the licence to make the Evening Standard as sophisticated and intelligent as he liked.

At least until the end of the Sixties, when Jocelyn Stevens hove into view as its commercial-minded managing director, Wintour exercised that freedom with considerable skill and resourcefulness. Indeed, he could be said to have restored the paper’s reputation to the high point it enjoyed during the Second World War, first under Frank Owen and then under Michael Foot. Editing the Evening Standard was a much tougher task for Wintour than for his more recent successors, since the Rothermere Evening News was still in his time outselling its rival in the London market by roughly half a million copies every afternoon. Even in his later incarnation – when he was brought back to succeed his own chosen dauphin Simon Jenkins (an episode rather slidden over in this book) – he fought all the might of Associated Newspapers with remarkable ferocity and daring, finally winning the war when in 1980 the Evening News was merged with the Evening Standard rather than the other way about. For such a victory, a price inevitably had to be paid. It was no coincidence that Wintour himself immediately resigned and that the next four editors of the paper, which at first was jointly owned, should all have been the nominees of Associated Newspapers. (It is a pity that in 1987 Wintour allowed himself to be inveigled into resuming hostilities through Robert Maxwell’s forlorn London Daily News.)

The return of Max Hastings to the paper on which he made his name – first as a rumbustious editor of the Londoner’s Diary from 1975 to 1976 and then as the insouciant liberator of Port Stanley in 1982 – has at least the potential of making all these ancient conflicts recede into the middle distance. And if anyone can perform the miracle of turning this stubbornly surviving (and now monopoly) mule back into the classic racehorse it once was, it ought to be – given the Standard’s origins – the former freebooting editor of the Daily Telegraph.