The influence of the press? Nothing compared to the old days

 How very British of the establishment to get around to making a major effort to restrain press excesses at the very point when newspapers are in plunging decline. For my money the Leveson hearings are putting as much pressure on the politicians as the press, hacking aside. For those who prefer obsessing over the future of the Ulster Unionist party and the like (“and why not?” as Barry Norman would say) this won’t be of much interest. But I was surprised to read such an historically unaware assessment of Rebecca Wade’s crawling text of 2009 to David Cameron revealed at the Leveson inquiry yesterday. Surprisingly it came from veteran journo Stephen Glover writing in the Daily Mail.

The language of this text betrays a political intimacy such as can have scarcely ever existed between a powerful newspaper executive and a leading politician. She is ‘rooting’ for him ‘not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together’. If it takes two to tango, it takes an eager sender and a willing recipient to produce a message of this sort.

Granted that the mistressy tone is unusual and brilliantly dissected by Jonathan Freedland, a devoted non-sympathiser of both. Brooks’ “intimacy” however coyly suggestive, reveals influence that rates low compared to the sheer power aggressively exercised in the past century by  press lords Beaverbrook and the Dublin- born Harmsworth brothers Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere. These men were given peerages and government posts while remaining loose cannon in their papers. The idea was to try to tame them but it never quite worked. They wanted power and influence for the thrill of it, not for comercial advantage. They were rich and powerful enough to abandon their patrons when they fell out with them, which was quite often . There was never any nonsense of being embarrassed by the likes of “country suppers” every six weeks. These guys were in the front rooms of power whenever they felt like it, in the days when the papers were the monopoly medium.

Beaverbrook’s influence on Lloyd George helped make him Prime Minister through  the medium of his Daily Express and as a politician. His book Politicians and the War  while self serving is still a rattling good read.  Churchill he served as minister of aircraft production during WW2, despite having been a great appeaser and an embarrassingly premature advocate of the Second Front.

The Beaver cut his teeth in the influence stakes with his support as Tory leader and later PM for his fellow semi- Canadian Scot Andrew Bonar Law, (who also had an Ulstert background.) Three PMs and one press lord, not a bad record and far in excess of anything Murdoch could claim.

A similar point plainly occurred to Richard Littlejohn writing a Beaverbrook spoof in the same paper. It was Stanley Baldwin was used the devastating phrase about the perniciousness of  Beaverbrook’s influence: “ power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages” For obvious reasons of being misunderstood, this could hardly be applied to Rebecca Brooks.

The last of the bunch was Cecil Harmsworth King. He came up on the female side of the family to become chairman of the Daily Mirror but not its proprietor, although he behaved like one until his abrupt sacking. ( I did a half hour interview with him in the 1970s during his Dublin retirement). The family streak of megalomania may have surfaced when he seriously thought of staging a coup against Harold Wilson with Lord Mountbatten as a figurehead.  

Beside these guys, Rupert is a pussycat and Rebecca is a  poodle.




Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London