George Walford: The Weakness of the Press

People attempting radical social changes, and failing to arouse the support they need, often blame the newspapers. These, they maintain, form public opinion; what the papers say, the people think. Experienced newspaper proprietors know better, although it often costs them millions to learn the lesson. They can maintain circulation only by saying what their readers are willing to read. This is a principal theme of Simon Jenkins’ book, although he seems not to have seen it himself, choosing as a title: Newspapers, the Power and the Money. (London: Faber & Faber 1979).

Since Jenkins wrote the Independent, Today and Daily Sport have added themselves to the list. These changes have occurred, however, within a persisting structure, newspapers today falling into the same groups as in 1979 (this by itself goes a long way to show how limited a freedom of action they enjoy), and I stay mainly with those Jenkins speaks of: The Times, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Financial Times and their Sunday equivalents are ‘up­market’ journals, The Daily Mirror, Daily Express and the Sun ‘down-market’ tabloids, and the Daily Mail occupies the middle ground.

The owners of a newspaper can make money provided they follow normal commercial rules, adapting their journal to the market (though even then success is no more guaranteed than in other industries.) They cannot, any more than those engaged in other trades, alter the market to suit themselves. Esso can make profits provided it sells petrol; it cannot maintain itself by selling horse­fodder, and a newspaper cannot sell the bulk of its readers the idea that they should fall in with its political or social preferences. A newspaper used for this purpose ceases to be a fount of wealth and becomes a hole for pouring money into.

The Political Register kept William Cobbett and his family in a state of constant ruin, and George Newnes, having made a fortune with Titbits, went on to payout over £10,000 a year (in pre-1914 money) for the honour of running the Westminster Gazette. Alfred Harrnsworth, with Answers, emulated his success, and went on to make money out of the Evening News, but only by driving what had been a staid journal relentlessly down-market. He failed to win election as a Unionist candidate for Portsmouth, even though he bought a local paper for the purpose. Beaverbrook persistently slanted his papers to support his career, and had to excuse the financial results by saying he was in business not to make money but to produce newspapers. After having supported Lloyd George he was refused the expected reward, offered only a peerage (accepted) and a minor government post (refused); his Empire Crusade accompanied the dissolution of the British Empire. On taking over the San Francisco Examiner William Randolph Hearst (the model for Citizen Kane), announced that he was going to ‘startle, stupefy and amaze the world’; his papers irresponsibly made and destroyed reputations, buying politicians while exposing corruption. Hearst did get elected to Congress (along with many who did not own newspapers), but failed even to get nominated as a presidential candidate.

Through the nineteen hundreds, while the Times belonged to the Walter family of printers (who took no interest in causes) it made money, but by the turn of the century it had run into difficulties and was sold to Harrnsworth (then Lord Northcliffe). He used it to further his political ambitions and was able to give Lloyd George useful support. On trying to call in this obligation, however, he got coldly put down, his expectations described as ‘ridiculous.’ His brother Lord Rothermere, seeking in turn to use the paper for political ends, suffered Baldwin’s famous knock-out blow likening newspapers to harlots, seeking power without responsibility.

Rather than controlling, or significantly influencing politics, through the nineteenth century newspapers were instruments of a political system determined by other factors. Only in the twentieth did they even manage to secure independence from overt party control. Jenkins sums up: ‘Ownership has been a ticket to the front stalls of public affairs, but not to the stage itself. Owners who have disobeyed this rule have had to retreat to their seats, bruised and disillusioned.’

Jenkins’ main interest lies in the straightforward commercial operation of newspapers, their long struggle with the unions and the conditions for success with a new paper. Throughout his account it becomes increasingly clear that while a paper maintaining responsible attitudes, devoting space to cultural subjects, social analysis and public affairs, may win prestige for its owners, it will almost certainly need massive subsidies; even more so if it goes in for reformist or revolutionary politics. The mass circulations and the big profits lie with those providing entertainment and reassurance rather than information or analysis, with the papers specialising in short, snappy and, above all, highly personalised stories, with a profusion of illustrations. For many years the trade unions subsidised the Daily Herald, and not until Rupert Murdoch had transformed its similar successor, the Sun, into what it is today did it become a commercial success.

The circulations of the various newspapers, by and large, match the sizes of the ideological groups to which they respectively appeal, with the great numbers towards the unintellectual end of the range. The Daily Worker, claiming to appeal to the masses, never came near any of the tabloids in circulation; with Freedom and the Socialist Standard number approach vanishing point, and with IC they practically reach it.

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WARTIME conditions produced a song, popular if I rather under-the­-counter:

My father’s a black-market grocer, My mother makes illegal gin,
My sister sells sin on the corner. Good God! How the money rolls in!

These days it’s easier; you need only come up with a new application for the microchip.

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.