British newspaper publishers love prime ministers. Conversely, prime ministers love publishers. That is, if the publisher in question owns a national newspaper with a big circulation (often in the millions).
You cannot get into the club if you only own, say, the Lewisham Borough News. This is an exclusive club for those who wield real, palpable power: Witness the scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in Britain today.
The club has been operating for more than 200 years. But it was at the turn of the 20th century, with ever-expanding voter rolls, that the intimacy became really intense. Victorian prime ministers had to put up with editors and owners of journals of opinion, like The Spectator or Punch, and sometimes The Times.
Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his Liberal rival, William Gladstone, bargained with the media of their day. But these did not sway huge swathes of the electorate in the way that was to come. General education produced millions of avid readers and improved printing technology, notably the Linotype machine, made large mass- circulation newspapers possible.
Two brothers, Vere Harmsworth and his more colorful sibling, Alfred, were the first big-time press barons. In time, they were rewarded with titles: Alfred became Lord Northcliffe and Vere, Lord Rothermere.
It is unlikely that all of the prime ministers — and all of them had to deal with the press barons — really liked the intimacy. These men mostly had huge egos, daunting agendas, and their friendship always came with a price. So, of course, did the friendship of the politicians. They sought support in elections and freedom from scrutiny in governing.
Part of the price was usually the peerage, but then there were other considerations. Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian, wanted prime ministers to endorse his campaign for “Empire Free Trade.” Others had other interests; but the tariffs on newsprint, the subsidy of cable traffic (which made getting news from overseas cheaper), and subsidized postal rates for newspapers and periodicals were common to all.
Northcliffe lectured World War I Prime Minister Lloyd George on how to run the war — and everything else. Beaverbrook treated Lloyd George’s successor, Bonar Law, a fellow Canadian, as his surrogate in government and campaigned for him relentlessly.
After that, Beaverbrook turned his demonic energies to supporting Winston Churchill — even though Churchill was at a low period during much of the1930s. Not only was the man who was to be Britain’s greatest prime minister out of power, he was also out of money.
The newspaper proprietors, in surprising unity, came to Churchill’s aid. Churchill boasted that he made 1 million pounds from his articles in one year and retired his debts. That was an astounding amount of money, and it reflected the fact that the newspaper bosses were overpaying him enormously, according the historian A.J.P. Taylor.
The leading paymasters were Beaverbrook, who owned the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, and Brendan Bracken, the Irishman who owned the Financial Times. In Churchill they saw potential, a lively contributor, and someone who gave the best dinner parties in England. Bracken even encouraged rumor that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son, although he knew this was nonsense.
The cultivating of prime ministers was an ecumenical affair. Cecil Harmsworth King, who ran Mirror Group Newspapers in the 1960s, lectured Prime Minister Harold Wilson on everything, including his own somewhat ridiculous idea that Britain needed a bipartisan national government — as in wartime — to get it out of his its financial difficulties. Rupert Murdoch went all out for Margaret Thatcher. But he turned against her successor, John Major, and supported the Labor Party and Tony Blair. Gordon Brown failed to get Murdoch’s nod, but current Prime Minister David Cameron did. The rest, as they say, is history.
When television came along, the proprietors had a new incentive to cultivate prime ministers: licenses. The big winner here was the least pushy of the publishers, Roy Thomson, another Canadian, who owned The Times. He got the license to run commercial television in Scotland and became Lord Thomson. Like Murdoch, Thomson did not crave the company of prime ministers. He was happy to let others carry his requirements to the men in power. Murdoch has used various intermediaries, including the American economist and free-market ideologue Irwin Stelzer.
Is it all over now? Will prime ministers shun the company of media barons?
Will the sun rise in the East tomorrow? — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate