London Letter

London Letter


Beverly Baxter March 1 1953
London Letter

London Letter


Beverly Baxter March 1 1953

London Letter


Beverly Baxter

IT ALL began in 1948 when the socialists were in power though not in clover. Herbert Morrison, as the boss of the Labour Party and Leader of the House, had shown an increasing irritation with the Press and no one could deny that he had some reasons for it.

In fairness it must be admitted that when a Labour government assumes office in Britain it is faced with a national Press overwhelmingly hostile in principle to the socialist philosophy. The Times always tries to be scrupulously fair and to give broad support to whatever government is in power but at heart it is for the capitalist way of life. Lord Camrose’s powerful and dignified Daily Telegraph refuses to compromise. It is an out-and-out conservative newspaper.

Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, Sunday Express and Evening Standard support, no party hut are fiercely individualist and therefore anti-socialist in spirit. Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, Evening News and Sunday Dispatch proclaim the virtues of Tory philosophy and acclaim the good deeds of the Tory party. Even the News of the World with its Sunday circulation of ten million copies mixes robust Tory propaganda with its lurid items of rape, robbery and realism from the courts. As for Lord Kemsley’s Sunday Times, Sunday Graphic and Sunday Chronicle— as well as his vast kingdom of provincial newspapers-they are trueblue conservative in all weathers.

What can the Labor Party muster against these massed battalions of the Right?

There is, of course, the official socialist organ, the Daily Herald, but you cannot expect too much from a newspaper whose soul belongs to socialism but whose body is owned by the highly capitalistic publishing firm of Odhams. Such a marriage of convenience does not produce a passionate progeny.

The daily Evening Star is really a Liberal paper, hut since the Liberals are virtually extinct it turns its baleful smile on the socialists rather than its ancient enemy, the Tory party. The Daily Mirror (circulation: 4,500,000) is independently in favor of socialism but not permanently so. In fact it has now become independently in favor of the Tories.

In the all-important matter of Sunday newspapers the socialists could only muster the anaemic underfinanced Reynold’s News owned by the co-operative societies; plus the intermittent support of the flashy four-million-circulation Sunday Pictorial and the mild benevolence of Odhams’ week-end newspaper, The People —known sardonically as the Bumblebee.

It must not be thought that the conservative newspapers automatically praise their own party and denounce the socialists. Lord Beaverbrook’s group constantly criticizes the Conservatives, and even mocks them when his lordship is in a playful mood. But psychologically and philosophically the weight of the Express group is against the socialist way of life and therefore in favor of Conservatives.

No one but a fool can deny the power of the printed word. To say that a man is no good is to toss words into the air but to prm+ them is to drive a thought into the minds of millions. If. CS a dramatic critic,

I tell an author that I liked his play he is pleased but the blood does not rush to his head. But if I putjtjjx^pññt he is not only elated but decides there and thenJ,b.a.-L.I agnATie most discerning critic in London. “^SöTïïnv let us see how Herbert Morrison decided to teach the Press a lesson. He discussed the matter privately with some of his journalist socialist MPs and let it be known that it would give him deep satisfaction if the House of Commons was asked to set up a royal commission to enquire into the vagaries and problems of the Press. Needless to say, since the socialists were in power, the Government found time for the debate and named the day.

It was a battle royal. With considerable shrewdness the socialists did not direct their attack on the basis of political partisanship but proclaimed the growing power of Big Finance over Editorial Policy and concentrated on the iniquity of a proprietor such as Lord Kemsley owning a long chain of newspapers throughout the country which were driving the small local papers out of existence.

I helped to make the attack against the socialists but we were outnumbered in the division lobby even if we held our own in argument. It was decided there and then that a royal commission, under an independent chairman, should be set up. That great inquisitor, the Press, was going to have a taste of its own medicine.

In the evidence we heard of editorial black lists, of headlines that give a meaning not in keeping with the text, of suppression of news and biased editorial opinion that did not give the other side of the case. This last charge was thought to be a very grave one, but the commission received a sharp jolt when Lord Beaverbrook turned up and said: “The only thing in my papers that interests me is propaganda. I bought the Express to do propaganda and I shall continue to do so as long as I have any connection with the Express newspapers.”

His frankness shook the members of the commission but they recovered their zeal when evidence was given of the intrusion by reporters upon private grief. Here they were on safer ground. So in the end the Royal Commission recommended that the Press should set up a permanent newspaper council with an independent chairman and representatives of all sides of newspaper production, and some lay members as well. Their aim should be to regulate the recruitment and training of journalists and the establishment of a correct code of ethics.

Herbert Morrison was delighted. He had attained a great victory. No longer would proprietors and editors be answerable only to their own peculiar brand of conscience but to a central body. Fleet Street would not merely be the avenue of adventure but of responsibility as well.

Conversations about appointing the commission were held in 1949. They were also held in 1950. Just to show that the Press meant business the talks went on in 1951 and 1952. But the Press Council did not materialize. No one bothered very much. In fact everyone had pretty well forgotten about it when Lady Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of the great Asquith (she had been a member of the Royal Commission on the Press) raised an outcry against the Daily Express because—or so she stated -one of its reporters had published an interview with the wife of a diplomat who had mysteriously disappeared some time ago behind the Iron Curtain.

The unfortunate reporter had dene the interview on the telephone and had used the words in his story: “She

answered with a smile.” Personally 1 have often heard people smile on the other end of the telephone but 1 agree that it would be hard to prove. At any rate the Sunday Observer gave much space to Lady Violet’s fulminations and there was a good deal of correspondence in the more severe newspapers about “malicious and untruthful malpractice on the part of the Daily Express.” In addition there was the charge of intruding upon private grief.

Even though a committee of tradeunion journalists enquired into the case and completely exonerated the reporter, the vilification went on. As Lady Violet said, this was the very kind of thing that a Press Council was meant to handle. Just to add to the general liveliness Lord Beaverbrook opened up an attack on Lord Astor, the then owner of the Observer, on quite another front. Things were getting lively in the street of ink.

The parliamentary socialists saw their opportunity. Taking advantage of the newspaper row a Labour MP introduced a private member’s bill with clauses based on the findings of the Royal Commission. The effect of the bill was that the Press should forthwith set up the permanent Press Council.

The debate was arranged for eleven o’clock on a Friday morning — on Fridays we meet at 11 a.m. and adjourn at 4.30 p.m. Just as an aperitif we had a mad all-night sitting on Thursday and most of us were pretty weary when the Press battle opened. But, as far as the Tories were concerned, we felt the lust of battle when we saw Herbert Morrison on the front bench opposite ready to throw in his weight at the right moment.

The socialist case, as it was presented, had logic on its side. Parliament in 1948 had appointed a Royal Commission which in due course had recommended the setting up of a Press Council. The Press, however, had failed to carry out the recommendation and had, therefore, flouted both parliament and the commission.

We Tories, on the other hand, took the view that if parliament compelled the newspapers to obey orders this would be a direct infringement on the freedom of the Press. Nearly every Tory who spoke agreed that the newspapers should carry out the recommendations of the Royal Commission but they should be allowed to do it in their own time, of their own free will.

Halfway through the debate I had the good fortune to be called and at once embarked on the argument that a Press Council, whether voluntarily or compulsorily set. up, just would not work. As for proprietors meeting regularly, they should not be allowed to meet at all. The same thing should apply to editors and managers. Except for such purposes as agreeing on conditions of labor and the importation of newsprint it is the solemn duty of newspapers to wage war upon each other.

“The only way to maintain the freedom of the Press,” I said, “is to preserve the disunity of the Press.” As for the crazy clause in the bill about improving the training of journalists, I told the House the only way to train a young journalist is to chuck him on a newspaper. Tf he has printer’s ink in his blood, he will survive; if he has not then he will fail.

T admitted there were all sorts of things wrong with the Press, but held that the public, not parliament, must be the jury. In every country where dictatorship planned to overthrow democracy the first move was to create an advisory committee or central council which, when the time came, could be the medium by which the freedom of the Press would be obliterated in a night. That was what this bill meant in fact, even if the sponsor of the bill did not know it.

I had a stormy passage but in the noisy engagement our AttorneyGeneral jumped to his feet and declared: “This bill is a constitutional abortion!” Herbert Morrison’s cockatoo hairdo trembled with excitement.

So we threw the bill out although with only a meagre majority of seven— but we did throw it out which is what mattered. It was too bad that the House divided on party lines because it means that when the socialists come to power again they will certainly carry some such bill through.

In the meantime the uncivil war of the newspapers goes on with unrelenting vigor, which is as it should be. If the modern British newspaper does not quite maintain the old ferocious level of controversy in which the words “our reptile contemporary” so often occurred there is still a healthy rivalry which is good for journalism and good for the country. iç