Dawn of the Dark Ages
- Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the Glory Days of Fleet Street by Ruth Dudley Edwards
Secker, 484 pp, £20.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 436 19992 0
Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King had been colleagues for 15 years when Cudlipp was ejected from the editorship of the Sunday Pictorial. Though a director of the company, King made no attempt to save Cudlipp’s skin. A couple of years later the man who had toppled Cudlipp, Harry Guy Bartholomew, was toppled himself, and it was King who pushed him. He took over Bartholomew’s chairmanship of the Sunday Pictorial and Daily Mirror and presided over them until, in 1968, it was his turn to walk the plank. This time Cudlipp was the executioner (he had returned to the Pictorial after a brief spell on the Sunday Express) and, just as King had done after ousting Bartholomew, he inherited his victim’s job. Treachery and self-aggrandisement were part of the natural order of things in what Ruth Dudley Edwards, in this double biography of Cudlipp and King, comically describes as the glory days of Fleet Street.
The two men had very little in common. Cudlipp, the youngest son of a travelling salesman, received his formal education in local authority schools and completed it when he was 14. King’s father was an intellectual, a classicist, an able linguist and a pillar of the 19th-century Indian Civil Service. So a governess, a top-notch preparatory school, Winchester and Christ Church were as much a matter of course for Cecil as Gladstone Elementary School in Cardiff was for Hugh. They did, however, share an adolescent ambition to work in newspapers, though for entirely different reasons. King, a nephew of Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe), was attracted by the wealth and influence that his uncle derived from owning the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Times and a clutch of periodicals. Cudlipp, whose brothers Percy and Reg were already newspapermen, was attracted by the glamour and excitement which they seemed to enjoy, as well as by the prospect of free tickets to the theatre.
At an age when King had been in his second year at Winchester, Cudlipp was a probationer on the Penarth News, a weekly with a circulation of three thousand which the proprietor subsidised from his milk round. Under the terms of his apprenticeship he was supposed to stay for three years, but the paper collapsed after one. He moved to the Cardiff Evening News on 12 months’ trial, but that too was cut short when the News amalgamated with the South Wales Echo. Cudlipp then gave up on his native city, joined the Manchester Evening Chronicle and began to display his tabloid talents.
In 1995, three years before he died, he wrote an entertaining piece about some of his escapades as the Evening Chronicle’s reporter in Blackpool. In the 1930s even more than today, the Lancashire holiday resort was a bastion of vulgarity and chicanery, and thus an abundant source of newspaper copy. But even Blackpool had its quiet periods when Cudlipp could either take things easy or make something happen – practising what he called creative journalism. This, he explained, was quite different from invention. It was making news, not faking news.
When a vicar lamented his dwindling congregation, for example, Cudlipp helpfully suggested a special service to bless the worshippers’ pets. This idea produced two exclusive stories: one about the dogs, cats, rabbits and other livestock which filled the church on the appointed day, and a follow-up about all the other clergy who were shocked and outraged by the impiety of the event. Then there was the case of the unhappy Blackpool and England footballer, who had financial and domestic problems and confided to Cudlipp that he would like to disappear for a while to sort himself out. Always willing to oblige, Cudlipp arranged for him to spend a week at sea on a trawler from nearby Fleetwood, and while he was away the Evening Chronicle ran daily stories about his disappearance. Had he been kidnapped? Had there been trouble at the football club? Had he killed himself? And when the trawler returned to port Cudlipp was there on the dockside, notebook in hand, ready for the exclusive interview. Once again, creative journalism had delivered the goods.
This, you could say, was journalism as a branch of showbusiness, but at the same time exposure to the interwar depression was forming Cudlipp’s left-of-centre political attitudes. As a court reporter he encountered unemployed men who topped up their dole with the proceeds of burglaries. He visited houses which had been condemned as unfit for human habitation years before. He wrote sympathetically about a cotton workers’ strike in the towns around Manchester: ‘The pawnbrokers’ shops were filled with pledged possessions, the bookies’ runners were idle, and the wives (most of them spinners or weavers themselves) told me the secret of how to make a hot-pot go further by adding water.’ This story got a big show in the first five editions of the paper but disappeared from the final one – the edition which went to London and was seen by Lord Kemsley, the Evening Chronicle’s proprietor. Kemsley had financial interests in the cotton industry.
While the youthful Cudlipp was emerging as a man to watch, King was indulging his lifelong habit of feeling sorry for himself. He seems never to have shown the slightest awareness, still less appreciation, of his privileged background and pampered upbringing. He complained about his parents’ harshness and indifference, though his sister Enid remembered them as attentive and affectionate. He complained about his schoolmasters at Winchester. He complained about his tutors at Oxford. He complained with special vehemence when his uncle Harold, the first Lord Rothermere (Lord Northcliffe had died in 1922, the year King graduated), declined to give him the important job in newspapers that he felt was his due.
Instead Rothermere sent him to Scotland to learn the ropes on the Glasgow Record and the Sunday Mail. Having demonstrated that he had little editorial ability he then spent three years selling advertising space for the Daily Mail in London, until Rothermere transferred him in 1926 to the Daily Mirror to do a similar job at the same salary. He felt all the more embittered because he had believed himself (probably wrongly) Northcliffe’s favourite nephew: the one who would have inherited the empire had Northcliffe, who was childless, lived. Now the heir apparent was Rothermere’s son, Esmond, the object of King’s unremitting jealousy and hostility.
After three years’ grovelling he persuaded Rothermere to make him advertisement director of the Mirror and its sister paper the Sunday Pictorial (later renamed the Sunday Mirror), with a seat on the board. It was then that he found himself close to Guy Bartholomew and, suppressing his instinctive dislike, formed the first of his improbable alliances: the supercilious and fastidious King and the blaspheming, flamboyant Bartholomew, united in the conviction that the genteel, declining Mirror could be saved only if it was turned into a lively, iconoclastic, working-class paper. With the help of a new editor Bartholomew started the transformation in 1933, using the New York Daily News as a model. Bill Connor, who would become the columnist ‘Cassandra’, was recruited from J. Walter Thompson, where he had been a copywriter. Cudlipp, who was now in London with Kemsley’s Sunday Chronicle, joined as assistant features editor. His brother Percy was by this time editor of the Evening Standard, but he seems never to have thought about giving his younger brother a job. Nor does Hugh seem to have expected it.
Six months after he arrived Cudlipp was promoted to features editor, and he was soon feeding the readers a standard tabloid diet: intimate confessions, prizes for revealing letters, marriage guidance, home-making advice and an agony aunt. The paper was still formally Conservative – it supported Baldwin in the 1935 general election – but other points of view were beginning to get an airing. Cudlipp ran a series of articles on the policies of all the political parties, even the Communists, a radical departure for a paper which only a couple of years earlier had published an article by Rothermere extolling the Black Shirts. Rothermere, however, had never had much time for the Mirror, and liked it even less in its latest populist manifestation. He decided to sell his personal shareholding, and the Daily Mail Trust retained only a vestigial interest in the paper. With nobody exercising financial control, the directors, effectively Bartholomew and King, were free to decide the paper’s commercial and editorial policies, and they were clear that it was to be downmarket and left-of-centre. Circulation and advertising revenue were soon responding to the more liberal dispensation.
The Sunday Pictorial had been left behind by these developments, though it was as much in need of a revival as the Mirror. King got himself appointed editorial director and replaced the Pictorial’s editor with Cudlipp, who was still only 24. Cudlipp had no doubt that the Mirror formula of big headlines, short sentences, concise news stories and sex – he published Fleet Street’s first picture of a topless model in 1938, thirty years before Murdoch’s Sun – would rescue the ailing paper. At the same time he changed its political stance from timorous appeasement to strident Anti-Fascism, expressed in the lapidary language that was to become the tabloid trademark.
When the Second World War started, the Mirror and Pictorial soon found plenty of targets for their campaigns: black marketeers, petrol wasters, profiteers, pacifists (‘put the lot behind barbed wire’), bureaucrats, brass hats and blimps. In 1940 Edward Hulton, the proprietor of Picture Post, said that Cudlipp was
an uncomfortable sort of young man to meet. He is a revolutionary. I don’t mean he is filled up with a stock of ballyhoo about Karl Marx, or that he believes that every Labour Party pamphlet is an addendum to the gospels. If he were, he would be just another Bloomsbury drawing-room socialist . . . Cudlipp is just fed up with the evil complacency which is still the order of the day in this country, and will remain so while we tolerate this domination of palsied greybeards in every corner of our national life . . . His bursting impatience for genuine reform is almost irritating. When I lunched with him the other day at the Savoy he rapidly brushed away many of the cobwebs still clinging to my own mind. I left him feeling exhausted. The operation had been painful, but salutary. Write him down as another Citizen of the New Age.
Thanks to King’s dislike of most of his wealthy relatives and Cudlipp’s firebrand contempt for the political establishment, the two papers were in almost the same class-warrior category as the Daily Worker. But there were important differences between the two men. King, for example, was fashionably anti-semitic before the Second World War, whereas Cudlipp was outraged by the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. King was also defeatist, and perhaps even traitorous, during the war. In 1940 he wrote in his diary: ‘If the alternatives are victory under Chamberlain and his old men of the sea or defeat by Hitler, I should prefer the latter.’ Cudlipp, however, never wavered in his belief that the people wanted to fight and win.
So did he, but in the event he spent the war as a journalist in uniform rather than a soldier. He was given the job of establishing and then running the Army newspaper Union Jack, which he did with his customary skill and verve. If anything, King had more combat experience than Cudlipp, though his adversary was the British Government. Between 1939 and 1945 the Mirror and the Pictorial were threatened with suppression several times because of their attacks on the way the war was being managed. When it was all over, Lord Beaverbrook tried to attract Cudlipp to the Daily Express and Rothermere offered him the editorship of the Daily Mail, but he returned to King and the Pictorial as much for political reasons as out of loyalty.
But he’d reckoned without Bartholomew, who was now chairman of the company and had not forgotten or forgiven Cudlipp’s prewar desertion of the Mirror for the Sunday Pictorial. When Cudlipp decided not to use an exclusive story about a Nigerian miners’ strike, on the grounds that Nigerian miners were of limited interest to his readers, Bartholomew saw his chance and sacked him. The story was in fact one of King’s rare excursions into journalism – he had been in Nigeria on a business trip at the time of the strike – and this may explain his failure to protect Cudlipp. But it hardly excuses it. Since his return from the war Cudlipp had raised the Pictorial’s circulation to five million (higher than the Mirror’s, another reason for Bartholomew’s hostility), and his dismissal illustrates how personal relationships counted for more than objective achievement in the unlovely world of newspapers.
Cudlipp was on Beaverbrook’s payroll at the Sunday Express within a few hours of leaving the Pictorial. But he soon returned. Bartholomew, who had 47 years’ service with the Mirror (38 of them on the board) was icily deposed by King in 1951 and, to add to the indignity, was made to pretend that he had resigned because of ‘his advancing years and an earnest desire to promote the advancement of younger men’. The younger man who gained most from Bartholomew’s departure was King himself, and one of his first acts as chairman was to lure Cudlipp back. Thus began the final period of collaboration between the two.
It started well. The Mirror’s circulation rose to more than five million, unequalled by any other daily newspaper in the world, and because of its presumed influence it was cultivated by politicians such as Gaitskell and Wilson, just as the Sun is cultivated by Blair today. The business also grew, almost entirely by acquisition. On King’s initiative the Amalgamated Press was taken over, followed by Odhams Press, purchases which brought in a huge raft of magazines as well as the Sunday People and the Daily Herald. But as many other company bosses have discovered, the acquisition route to growth is full of potholes. The Mirror organisation could barely absorb all the magazine titles it had bought. As for the two Odhams papers, the People was as great an embarrassment to British journalism then as it is now, and the Herald was a loss-making albatross with a declining circulation which not even Cudlipp’s energy and imagination could turn around. Having renamed it the Sun and relaunched it unsuccessfully, he finally despaired and sold it to Rupert Murdoch for a song. At the time it looked like an intelligent move, but it soon became clear that he had handed his rival a weapon with which he would inflict enormous damage on the Mirror.
As chairman of the International Publishing Corporation, the grandiloquent new name of the company, King gradually succumbed to megalomania. At first this showed itself in small and relatively harmless ways: in his regal manner, or the insistence on a coal fire in his office in the new Mirror building in Holborn Circus, never mind that it was in the middle of a smoke-free zone. Things got more serious when he started to see himself as possessing the power of life and death over governments. He thought Alec Douglas-Home ‘would make a good vice-chairman of a subcommittee of the Berwickshire County Council’. And when it came to Wilson, who followed Douglas-Home into Number Ten, contempt gave way to loathing. Wilson got off to a bad start by refusing King the earldom he wanted; a life peerage was his best offer, which King thought insulting. The relationship then went rapidly downhill despite Wilson’s undignified efforts to ingratiate himself. With Cudlipp trying but failing to keep the peace, the Mirror attacked the Labour Government for its poor management of the economy, its lukewarm attitude to Europe, its policy on rebellious Southern Rhodesia, and above all for its failure to provide what King considered strong and inspiring leadership.
He had by now joined the crowded ranks of deluded businessmen who, because they can run companies with a few thousand somnolent shareholders, think they could run a country with millions of restless and capricious voters. He convinced himself that democracy in Britain was on the point of collapse, and decided to help it on its way by creating what he called an Emergency Government of unelected but capable people (such as himself). His candidates for office show how short of political sense he was. This self-selecting administration would have been headed by Lord Mountbatten, whose wartime record had been calamitous; and would have included Lord Beeching, the failed reformer of the railway system, and Lord Robens, who as Alfred Robens miscalculated spectacularly when he left the Labour front bench to become chairman of the Coal Board not long before Gaitskell died, thus denying himself the chance to become Party leader. Not surprisingly, it all came to nothing.
King’s plotting did, however, cost him his job. On 10 May 1968, the front page of the Mirror was dominated by an article under his name headlined: ‘Enough Is Enough.’ It claimed that Wilson had lost all credibility and authority, and that the Labour Party should find itself a new leader. A more sophisticated operator would have known that such a diatribe would unite the Party behind the Prime Minister. He would also have anticipated its effect on his own colleagues: the Mirror had never regarded itself as the Party’s house journal, but the relationship had been close and now the chairman of the company was doing his best to destroy it. At a meeting of all the IPC directors except King, it was unanimously decided to ask for his resignation, and replace him with Cudlipp. He refused to resign and was therefore dismissed, without any nonsense about his advancing years and a desire to promote the careers of younger men. Cudlipp took over – reluctantly, because he knew his limitations – and acted as chairman for five years until he took early retirement. King went to live in the Republic of Ireland, where he died nearly twenty years later at the age of 86.
Shortly after the Mirror’s circulation passed five million, Cudlipp mused optimistically about its future. It had, he claimed, already grown from a working-class into a middle-class paper, ‘and may well end up as the paper for all the classes – eventually, perhaps, as the national morning paper for a truly classless society’. This was, needless to say, a fantasy. Within a few years the Mirror was under the cosh of Murdoch’s Sun, its circulation falling steadily until it was finally overtaken in 1978. It was, Cudlipp said much later,
the dawn of the Dark Ages of tabloid journalism, the decades, still with us, when the proprietors and editors – not all, but most – decided that playing a continuing role in public enlightenment was no longer any business of the popular press. Information about foreign affairs was relegated to a three-inch yapping editorial insulting foreigners.
It was the age when investigative journalism in the public interest shed its integrity and became intrusive journalism for the prurient, when nothing, however personal, was any longer secret or sacred and the basic human right to privacy was banished in the interest of publishing profit – when bingo became a new journalistic art form – when the daily nipple-count and the sleazy stories about bonking bimbos achieved a dominant influence in the circulation charts.
Robert Maxwell, who bought the Mirror in 1984, did not attempt to reverse the vulgarisation process; when he was not rifling the pension fund he seemed to be chiefly interested in getting a picture of himself in every issue. But in the last few years, under Trinity Mirror’s ownership, the paper has recovered some of the editorial values it had in Cudlipp’s heyday (though its commercial performance has remained disappointing: circulation is now believed to be below two million, roughly the same level as when Bartholomew took charge in 1933).
Almost without exception, people who knew Cudlipp remember him with admiration and affection. He was obviously an attractive character: lively, resourceful, irreverent and humorous, as well as a very able popular newspaperman. King seems to have been exactly the opposite: remote, patronising, self-important and no journalist, and not much of a businessman either. It was, however, an effective partnership, and the changes they made to the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial had a significant effect on all the British tabloids. Whether the effect was desirable is another matter. The idea that important and complex issues should be mixed in with the froth and frivolity of mass circulation newspapers – but only intermittently, only in a highly simplified form and only in language which a child of ten could understand – can be defended on the grounds that imperfect knowledge is preferable to complete ignorance; or it can be criticised on the grounds that oversimplification produces distortion, and distortion produces misunderstanding. What is beyond question is that the formula won a lot of critical acclaim for the paper and, more important, brought in the readers.
There is equally no doubt that Cudlipp’s contribution was much greater than King’s, though Edwards’s book does not reflect this. It contains an enormous weight of detail about the Harmsworth clan, going back as far as the mid-19th century. King’s relationships with his parents, his siblings, his uncles, his cousins, his wives and his in-laws are described at bewildering length. His hobbies, interests and physical afflictions are not overlooked: extrasensory perception, antique collecting, psoriasis – they are all here. By contrast, her treatment of Cudlipp is almost entirely confined to his professional life. There is next to nothing about his family background, very little about his sister and brothers and not much about his three marriages and the love affairs which preceded them. Edwards says that his first wife died in childbirth, but does not say whether the child (probably not his) survived. She says that he was an inattentive schoolboy and never a reader of books; so how did he acquire his apparently comprehensive knowledge of classical mythology? Above all, where did this effervescent newspaperman with only nine years’ schooling learn to write trenchant, witty prose which no one with an interest in English style could fail to admire? It will be a long time, if ever, before another life of Cecil King is needed. But a biography of Hugh Cudlipp that does its subject justice has still to be written.