A Different Sort of Tory

Ronald Stevens

  • Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers by Max Hastings
    Macmillan, 398 pp, £20.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 333 90837 6

Something about the British press attracts Canadians. In the 1920s Max Aitken bought the Daily and Sunday Express, turned them into successful popular papers and became Lord Beaverbrook in the process. In the 1950s Roy Thomson bought Kemsley Newspapers, added the Times to his empire in 1966, and was similarly rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords. Conrad Black came on the scene in the spring of 1985, paid £10 million for a minority stake in the Telegraph Group, and later the same year became its controlling shareholder for the modest expenditure of another £20 million. He, too, has acquired a peerage, to the great displeasure of the Canadian Government.

Beaverbrook always claimed that he only wanted to own newspapers to peddle his pet schemes and nostrums: before the Second World War the Daily Express tirelessly advocated Empire Free Trade even though most of the colonies and dominions of the British Empire wanted nothing to do with it. Thomson was equally simplistic. He said he was in the business purely for the money. Black is just as interested as Thomson in the financial performance of his investment (which cannot be giving him much pleasure at the moment). But he also appears to be just as keen as Beaverbrook on using his papers to promote his ideas, some of which – such as his support for British membership of Nafta – are as hare-brained as anything Beaverbrook championed.

He owes his control of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph to the managerial incompetence of Lord Hartwell, who inherited the business on the death of his father, Lord Camrose, in 1954. As Michael Berry he served a long apprenticeship on newspapers in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Manchester and London before joining the Army in 1939. His verdict on himself after this experience was that he was a better sub-editor than a writer, and he demonstrated the truth of this during his thirty-year reign at the Telegraph with the stream of memos which flowed from his fifth floor eyrie every day. They were occasionally constructive, rarely complimentary and almost invariably nit-picking – the work of a man who was obsessed by the small change of journalism. Hartwell’s great merit was that he insisted on a fair and balanced presentation of news, and coverage as comprehensive as money and space allowed. But be was no visionary. Timorous and inhibited by temperament, he wouldn’t countenance any significant departures from the editorial formula established by his father a generation earlier.

His resistance to change did not matter at first: although the Sunday Telegraph was a drain on resources for years after its launch in 1961, the circulation of the Daily was half as large again as it is today and advertising revenue was buoyant. But as the years passed the paper became increasingly dated and Hartwell increasingly set in his ways. Not the least of his deficiencies as an employer was that he never met most of the people who worked for him, and was therefore cut off from the ideas they could have contributed. He would drive to Fleet Street in his Mini every day, go straight up to his office and stay there until it was time to go home. His editors and senior executives didn’t make much effort to keep him in touch. The Telegraph had no pension fund under the Hartwell regime. Only ex gratia pensions were provided, and the amount that an individual would receive was decided when he retired. This had two damaging consequences. First, the fear of an impoverished old age kept people at work long after they should have given up. Even worse, because the amount of each pension depended on the proprietor’s goodwill everyone became more ingratiating and sycophantic with age. Hartwell was always surrounded by mainly second-rate people who told him only what they thought he wanted to hear. Reality rarely managed to break through.

Hartwell took a close interest in the City, but it was gossip rather than expertise that he picked up. He showed how feeble his grasp of financial matters was in 1984, when the freehold of the Fleet Street office was sold to a property company and leased back at a rent of just over £1 million a year. For the seller the purpose of a sale and lease-back agreement is to release unproductive capital, but Hartwell and his managers contrived to leave the Telegraph worse off than it was before. The bulk of the £15 million they received for the freehold was taken up with the cost of modernising the building, which they foolishly agreed to finance and which turned out to be much higher than expected.

But this was a minor fiasco compared to what happened twelve months later. The production facilities in Fleet Street had been installed when the building was refurbished in the 1920s, and it was decided to replace them with two new printing plants, one in London and one in Manchester, at a cost of £105 million excluding redundancy payments. Contracts were signed for the buildings and much of the equipment, but nothing was done to raise the money. Hartwell simply assumed that the banks would lend it to him when the bills started to come in. In the event the banks would only agree to put up £75 million, and that was on condition that the Telegraph raised the balance from the sale of shares. This was to be handled by Rothschilds through a private placing, but the task quickly proved to be beyond them. Many institutions were deterred by the prospect of the Berry family remaining in control of the company, and Rothschilds attracted only £19 million.

It was at this point that Conrad Black (whom Hartwell had never heard of) entered the picture, offering to make good the shortfall but only if he was guaranteed first refusal in the event of any further shares being created in a rights issue or of shares already held by the family being sold. Hartwell happily agreed to this because he was confident that the Telegraph would not need any more money. He was wrong. Within a few months it was clear that all the projections on which the new investment had been predicated were ludicrously optimistic; that the company was still under-capitalised; and that the rights issue so recently considered totally improbable had now become inescapable. Black bought nearly 40 million new shares, giving him a 50.1 per cent holding in the company. Hartwell remained chairman and nominal editor-in-chief, but he had sold his birthright and brought 58 years of family control to an end.

The editor of the Daily Telegraph during this cataclysm was Bill Deedes, a kindly, urbane but ineffectual man, who boasted that he never gave anyone orders. Andrew Knight, former editor of the Economist and Black’s new chief executive and plenipotentiary in London, recommended Max Hastings as Deedes’s successor. Though only 40, Hastings was already an established military historian and a reporter of formidable prowess. But he had never run a newspaper or even a department of a newspaper, so Knight’s choice was both imaginative and risky. For Hartwell it was also insulting because he was kept in the dark about the approach to Hastings, and protested with uncharacteristic vehemence when he was presented with a fait accompli. That was the moment he realised that he had lost the editorial direction as well as financial control of the papers. A year later, when the company moved from Fleet Street to the Isle of Dogs, Hartwell went in the opposite direction, to a rented office in Victoria. Distance made his humiliation easier to bear.

Hastings intended to ease himself in gently. ‘There would be no overnight transformation to frighten staff and readers,’ he writes in this engaging account of his ten years at the Telegraph. The plan was to ‘change the title by stealth, step by step over a period of months and years, seeking to hold on to our loyalists while we reached out for a new audience’. But the situation was too desperate for a Fabian approach. In the first year of his tenure the paper lost £12 million and its circulation fell to less than 1.2 million (in 1980 it had stood at 1.4 million). Significant economies had to be made quickly, so the axe was taken to the editorial staff. Many of the old retainers were underemployed and keen to go, but some younger people – including Carol Thatcher – were forced out as well. The dismissal of the Premier’s daughter caused a rift with her mother (whom Black idolised) which lasted until Mrs Thatcher’s ejection from Downing Street five years later. It was, obviously, unfortunate that the new editor of the country’s most reliably Conservative newspaper should have a frosty relationship with a Conservative Prime Minister. Hastings could always point out, however, that sacking a superfluous employee was simply Thatcherism in practice.

He was, in any case, a different sort of Tory from his predecessors. They had all been establishment figures on whose support Conservative Central Office could always rely: Deedes had even been a member of Harold Macmillan’s Cabinet. Hastings, though unquestionably Conservative in his sympathies, reserved the right to go his own way on particular issues. The Telegraph criticised the Americans when they bombed Tripoli in 1986, and the Thatcher Government for allowing them to use British bases. Then it defended the BBC against Norman Tebbit’s criticism of its coverage of the attack on Libya, something that would be inconceivable in today’s Telegraph. The paper abandoned its long-standing support for the Nationalist Government and its apartheid policy in South Africa, and accepted both the inevitability and desirability of black majority rule. The privatisation of the water industry, the ban on broadcasting the voices of IRA activists, the commercial television franchise auction, even Mrs Thatcher’s style – all came under fire in the leader column. For good measure, the paper consistently argued that Britain’s future lay inescapably in Europe.

These opinions soon brought Hastings into conflict with right-wingers inside and outside the Telegraph. To political columnist T.E. (Peter) Utley, an exponent of mid-19th century Conservatism, he was not a gentleman. (Hastings was greatly relieved when Utley left to write obituaries for the Times). Paul Johnson, once a rabid socialist and by now an equally rabid Tory, denounced him as ‘a swine and a guttersnipe of the lowest sort’. But the man whose opinion mattered most – perhaps the only man whose opinion mattered at all – was Black. He appears to have started off with good intentions. At their first meeting he told Hastings self-deprecatingly that ‘any newspaper that attempted to impose my convictions on its readership would be in danger of possessing a circulation of one.’ But if this was a sincere commitment to the notion of editorial independence it did not last long. A few months later he told the board that ‘the editor should not feel under pressure from me on every individual point of editorial policy, though obviously if there were frequent variances of view the position would have to be reassessed.’ In other words, Hastings was on a short leash.

‘I spent many hours pondering how far I could safely go with both our proprietor and our readership,’ he writes. But no one could reasonably have accused him of being over-cautious. In his first couple of years the paper published leaders arguing for an accommodation with Spain over Gibraltar and negotiations with Argentina over the Falklands; it attacked Ronald Reagan for supporting the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua (oddly for a Canadian, Black regards criticism of the US as the worst of all journalistic offences); Israel was frequently taken to task for its treatment of the Palestinians; even the SAS was censured for killing three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar, though the British Army has no greater champion than Hastings. As the character of the Telegraph changed and its appearance was modernised the circulation began to stabilise and profits reappeared: a modest £800,000 in 1987, £29 million in 1988 and £40 million in 1989. The commercial recovery of the paper would probably have been enough to protect its new editor even if nothing else had been working in his favour. But what really made him untouchable in the first few years was the fact that he was a recent arrival. Black could not sack him or make his position untenable without conceding that he had appointed the wrong man; and he was too self-regarding to admit a mistake as enormous as that.

All the same, he became very unhappy with the Telegraph’s editorial stance on many issues, and the first sign that he intended to have more of his own way came with the appointment of Charles Moore as Hastings’s deputy in 1989. Moore, though a relatively young man, was and is a rigidly unadventurous Tory with whom the retired colonels and colonial civil servants who had survived from the Hartwell era would feel at home. He was also much more likely to be in tune with the proprietorial will than Hastings. When Michael Heseltine challenged Thatcher for the Party leadership in 1990 Moore was alone among the leader writers in sharing Black’s opinion that she could win. And neither of them stopped supporting her after her poor first ballot result – a telling refusal to face up to political reality. The Telegraph continued to back the wrong horse after Thatcher dropped out of the contest. Heseltine had been Hastings’s preferred candidate from the start, but Black would not wear him. So the paper championed Douglas Hurd as a weightier alternative to John Major, whom Hastings regarded as attractive but not up to the job.

When Major emerged from the second ballot as the winner, Black was in the uncomfortable position of owning a Conservative paper, arguably the most important in the country, which had supported the least successful of the three contenders for the Conservative leadership. But when he remonstrated with his editor he got a dusty response:

Any standing I have with you must rest partly on telling you what I think, for better or worse, rather than what you might wish to hear. Our credibility as a newspaper suffered more (if it suffered at all) from continuing to back Thatcher when it was obvious that she was finished . . . than from backing Hurd for the leadership.

At all levels in the country, and especially among Tories, I find overwhelming relief that she has gone . . . Three or four months from now, when the Major Government is riding out its own storms, there will be cant from the Right about the ‘huge mistake’ that was made in dropping her. This will not be shared in the country. I believe Major’s links with the old regime will shrivel quite speedily, and that many of the old favourites will find themselves frozen out by the spring . . . I have a hunch that Major will prove less Thatcherite than Hurd would have been, in the end.

In the early 1990s Hastings told the Conservative Chief Whip that ‘the cosy old Torygraph days’ were over. He spoke too soon. The emancipated paper he had fashioned was safe as long as it did not trample too carelessly on Black’s visigoth Toryism, and as long as it produced healthy profits – as it did until 1993 when Rupert Murdoch cut the cover price of the Times by a third. The war of attrition which followed cost both papers millions, but Murdoch could use his popular titles to subsidise the Times whereas the Telegraph had to stand on its own feet. On top of this calamity Hastings had to cope with a growing political chasm between himself and his employer. ‘I think you’re a brilliant editor . . . but I’m afraid you don’t have a great aptitude for ideology,’ Black told him in 1994. It was a fair judgment. Hastings was a pragmatic One-Nation Tory, and the growing influence of the Eurosceptic Right in both the Conservative Party and in the upper reaches of the Telegraph was increasingly painful to him. By 1995 not only had he ceased to be a Party supporter, but several meetings with Tony Blair had convinced him that New Labour deserved to form the next Government. This was not something he could reveal to Black without resigning his editorship, but neither could he conceal it for very long with a general election not far away.

Associated Newspapers rescued him from this predicament with an invitation to become editor of the Evening Standard. It was a smaller job than the one he was leaving – the Standard is, after all, primarily a local evening paper – but as well as more money it offered him a less oppressive political environment. Shortly before the 2001 election Lord Rothermere, Associated’s chairman, asked him which party the paper would support – a question that would never have occurred to Black. (The Standard came out for Labour in 1997 and 2001.) Hastings says that Rothermere and Thomson are the only proprietors of British national newspapers who have given their editors genuine independence.

Black regarded Associated’s offer as deeply unfriendly, and he took two years to realise that he should have welcomed Hastings’s departure instead of sulking about it. It enabled him to install Moore as editor of the Daily Telegraph, a man with whom he could be much more comfortable. But perhaps what really upset him was the fact that Hastings left at a time of his own choosing rather than waiting to be kicked out, as he surely would have been when his change of political allegiance could no longer be concealed.

Little worth celebrating has happened to the Telegraph since Hastings’s golden age. Its circulation would now be well below a million but for the hundreds of thousands of copies sold at a hefty discount every day. It is a better designed and better written paper than the one Black took over in 1985. But it has some lamentable faults, among them grovelling pro-Americanism, exemplified by leaders that might have been produced by George W. Bush’s press secretary; sneering anti-Europeanism, which pervades everything from the news pages at the front to the City pages at the back; and supine loyalty to any Tory leader, just as long as he is a right-of-centre chauvinist. And then there is the abuse of privilege represented by the rambling, almost unreadable articles by Black’s wife, Barbara Amiel, usually about Israel and usually in the prime feature position. A proprietor is entitled to use his paper to promote his own opinions but using it to let his wife promote hers is uxorious overindulgence that is hard to forgive.

At one point in his memoir Hastings mocks the obviousness of the picture captions which sometimes appeared in the Hartwell Telegraph. ‘I shuddered at such horrors as: “The Prince of Wales sharing a joke with Mr Norman Tebbit”,’ he says. In July this year a picture on an inside page was captioned: ‘Gamekeepers from the Royal Estate at Windsor Great Park go for a walk with their dogs at the Game Fair at Broadlands yesterday.’ It looks as though the counter-revolution may now be complete.