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.




, , , ,

  • As good a book on the subject as there is, though 30 years old, is James Margach’s “The abuse of power :The War between Downing Street and the Media from Lloyd George to Callaghan.”

  • Framer

    It is the editors and interviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Today that now have the power without responsibility. And of course we pay them like the harlots of old – where we didn’t pay the Harmsworths and Rothermeres.
    That’s why the Beeb is so unrelentingly eager to see off Murdoch, the only competition on the street.

  • Brian Walker

    John Humnphrys hasn’t quite made it to the cabinet yet.. Not sure either how much money you think he gets. Nothing remotely like Northcliffe, I assure you. Nor does he control even a tiny bit of the BBC.

    btw many in the BBC thought the director general was unwise to express a view of the Murdoch bid to control B Sky B even though James made no secret of his wish to cut the BBC back drastically.

    Sky News is excellent and the subscription sport pretty good, both part of packages more than twice the cost of the licence fee.. But overall, honestly, do you think Sky has any ambition to compete across the board with the BBC rather than price it and other competitors out of the market? Ofcom certainly didn’t so ,

  • andnowwhat

    My nake is Andnowhat and I am a Levenson addict. It’s been 31 hours since my last hit.

    I watched Cameron yesterday, the man with a memory a goldfish would mock (who would believe that crap he came off with about dinners with Brooks and how Cameron’s wife consulted her diary?) and I just thought; “that’s our Prime minister? We’re fucked” (pardon my anglo Saxon). Cameron looked like a schoolboy in the headmaster’s office and was all at sea went off script.

    Let’s not forget the work that the Guardo did when they were told that there was nothing to see here. What we have is massive moral corruption in the press, politics and the police. Put that all together and it means we simply have a corrupt state. For decades we have had more that one franchise, but one in particular, bash the great and the good to manipulate politics and the public in general and who think nothing of hacking a dead girl’s phone and giving her mother a phone (as Brooks is accused off) only to hack it also.

    Coulson, Brooks and Cameron are in the frame but only his departure keeps the spotlight of Blair, under whom some the worst happened. That said, the question of Cameron’s judgement, especially hiring Coulson having been told that he’s as bent as a hair clip and keeping his relationship with Brooks so alive even after the Minnie Dowler revelations, is going to be a massive issue as the rank and file of the LibDems grow increasingly weary of the coalition.

  • Framer

    It wasn’t Northcliffe’s money or seat in the Lords that gave him power. It was his newspapers.
    Hunphrys is well paid and better pensioned, as are they all.
    Ever wondered why with the licence fee staying the same the Beeb is scrapping 20% of its already woeful programming?
    It’s their staff pension scheme deficit stupid – £1b. of licence fee money is going toward it this year.
    The BBC cannot abide competition or scrutiny which is why they have been pulling out all the stops over Murdoch, ably assisted by the Guardian et al.

  • Mick Fealty

    I hate say it framer, but that is plainly absurd.

    Humphries has the power to put me off my breakfast but not a lot else. He doesn’t hold huge banks of private information on public figures like embarrassing, (but mostly harmless) text messages between a senior hack and a Prime Minister to be.

    And it was skin crawlingly embarrassing, as it was meant be.

    The political class have a problem. What distinguish’s Murdoch from other proprietors is that he ruthlessly follows the very middle of the market.

    It means his papers have no conscience of their own, and no other agenda other than tracking whomever is in power or is about to acquire it. The relationship over forty years become almost symbiotic…

    Leveson was set up by the PM, which has temporarily at least broken that deal and in the process has dragged Murdoch through the most humiliating moments of his otherwise not very public life…

    Now he is slowly extracting his revenge… This is a man remember who’s voting block in the company of which he is CEO who sacked his board cause he didn’t like what they were telling him…

    The BBC in contrast, may be all pervasive (which is what it’s critics really hate about it)… in that sense it is as powerful as gravity… weak but immanent…

    I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m no fan of Murdoch’s… It has long bugged me that the media as a whole love taking ‘the bastards’ to task, they absolutely cannot stand it when they themselves are critiqued…

    But I would also take Brian’s point further… And that is that it is precisely BECAUSE the media have weakened so much in British public life that the government now feels able to open a conversation that previously it would never dared have…

  • Framer

    Re-read this para Mick “What distinguishes Murdoch from other proprietors is that he ruthlessly follows the very middle of the market. It means his papers have no conscience of their own, and no other agenda other than tracking whomever is in power or is about to acquire it.”
    Newspapers don’t have consciences. The BBC knows it has (a narrow) one.
    Following the middle of the market is no crime and hardly remarkable, if News International actually did – no business could survive without following trends – but its papers were widely different, so that doesn’t stand up.
    Your criticism of News Int. is actually the standard Beeb/Guardian group-think on the Mail.
    What’s the point of a conversation with a corpse? Address the coming overlord Ed Richards.

  • Pigeon Toes

    But sure Dave is awfully forgetful… Forgot his daughter was “down the pub”.
    The protection team also seem to have misplaced said child

  • Mick Fealty


    If Ms Rebecca not picked out those embarrassing texts to punish the PMs defection in setting up Leveson, why did she?

    They are utterly meaningless in the sense only that they damage him politically because of how it looks.

    Conscience may have been a poor choice in wording. What I meant is that no Labour leader can hope to ‘buy’ the Telegraphs favour at the elections. Nor any Tory, the Guardians.

    But sitting in the middle as he was, that is what they thought they could do with Murdoch. None of them dared ignore him: 1, because he was track one to their critical voters; and 2, he accumulated dirt on them over years to allow their rivals have a field day with.

    That is (or to follow Brian again was) power…

    And Ed is not DG, yet.

  • Brian and Mick[Walker and Fealty], Good Morning and Hi,

    Do the somewhat parochial and provincial renderings which are reported on here in Slugger pages indicate that contributors have no idea of the greater influence which command and control of the word has on leading global matters with command and control of internetworking drivers, or is it just that all much prefer and choose to keep things localised for …. ye olde big phish in small ponds thing?

    And certainly would those papers that hide behind subscription firewalls and not provide user friendly feedback commentary in their virtual editions/renditions, must surely be evidence of their fears of being a dinosaur irrelevance and non-influential relic of a past brainwashing exercise in these new ages of instant future perfect communications.

    And does anyone else have the following “difficulty” ……

    Subject: Strange Glitch ….. Crazy Situation 🙂

    Good Morning, Independent,

    It appears to be not possible to use the convenient copy text [for accurate and speedy quotation pasting] facility in computers on the webpages presented by today. Is that something new, and most inconvenient, being tried? Or a bug which is being worked for elimination even as we speak?

    It appears that the main home page of the Independent is free of this particular bug, but inside articles/webpages are afflicted/infected/affected.

    Such a glitch renders the feedback comment facility provided on articles, distinctly sub-prime and user unfriendly.