In the 1960s, even to an old union man like myself, British newspaper
unions had reached a point at which they were a threat not only to the
newspaper industry, but also to the freedom of the press itself.
It took someone as ruthless and sociopathic as the unions to find a way to
break their hold. That man was Rupert Murdoch and he did it with
outstanding courage, cheek and military-like planning.
In theory, the deal was simple: If the unions would not behave in the
workplace, he, the proprietor, would move the workplace.
In today’s world, this sounds easy. But in those days, trade union rights
were regarded as inviolable. A blow against one union was a blow against
all unions. “Solidarity,” in union speak, was awesome.
Yet Murdoch set out to leave London’s Fleet Street; then the physical home
of nearly all of Britain’s national papers, now the metaphorical home of
In secret Murdoch built the most modern printing plant of its day in
Wapping, the old dock area in the East End of London. He surrounded it with
razor wire and prison-like defenses and secretly recruited new workers
from the areas of Britain with the highest unemployment.
Nothing so bold had ever happened in British industrial relations.
To get the operation rolling, Murdoch made demands of the National
Graphical Association — the most militant of the unions — on
computerization. The union did not want journalists touching computers,
and they wanted no changes in the antiquated machinery that they used.
Strikes were frequent and often unofficial: The workers just downed tools
over almost always imagined grievances. Then they started censoring the
newspapers: They would not print newspapers with editorial material they
disapproved of. Production was said to be “lost.” This euphemism meant
that the newspapers never appeared in some markets.
If a newspaper were to run a story about communist penetration of the
unions, which was rife, the printers censored it. Sometimes they allowed a
blank space to appear, and sometimes the paper had to withdraw the
offending-but-accurate report to get printed at all.
With planning worthy of a great general, Murdoch orchestrated the move to
Wapping and sprung it on the country as a fait accompli in late January
1986. The journalists, who belonged to a less belligerent union, the
National Union of Journalists, were divided. Some “went to Wapping,”
All of Murdoch’s titles moved, including the weekly News of the World, The
Sun, a daily, and the venerable Times and Sunday Times. Five thousand
old-line workers were sacked for honoring what the unions said was a
But the press was saved, and Murdoch saved it. All the newspapers made it
to fight another day.
The unions had become arrogant, thuggish and sociopathic. They did not
care about the principles of a free press, the illogic of their Luddism or
the greater harm to society. Power and money was their thing, and they had
power: power to boss the bosses, power to set the number of workers who
worked each night, and increasingly power to determine what was printed.
Lord Rothermere, one of Britain’s newspaper barons, was once asked, “How
many people does it take to produce The Daily Mail?” His lordship replied,
“About one quarter.”
The featherbedding was awesome. Some delivery drivers got paid by three
newspapers for delivering papers when they were, in fact, working
somewhere else altogether.
So there is a fine irony that the Murdoch’s News Corp. now stands accused
of many of the sins of the unions he disciplined: sociopathic arrogance; a
desire to control the news as well as cover it; and a thuggish corruption
that reached into the highest levels of at least three British
administrations, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron; and has brought low the
world’s largest and most storied police force, the Metropolitan Police,
known as Scotland Yard.
Murdoch’s many newspapers in England accumulated so much power that they
began to dictate the news, orchestrate policy and politicians came live in
awe of the power of the News Corp. apparatus to reveal people’s private
lives, delve into their finances, and have their careers boosted or
blunted by columnists and selective reporting.
Many years ago, before Murdoch established himself in Fleet Street, one of
its legendary characters, Harry Procter, wrote an angry memoir called
“Street of Shame.” Yes, indeed. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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
When do two diametrically opposed economists, one from the left and one from the right, agree?
Answer: When the subject of the euro comes up.
So it is that Paul Krugman of Princeton and The New York Times and Irwin Stelzer of the Hudson Institute and News Corp. both attacked the euro in the past week. They blamed the euro for the difficulty in bringing meaningful help to the troubled euro zone economies of Europe. And they were right.
Stelzer and other conservative economists had warned of the weakness of the one-size-fits-all nature of the common European currency at the time of its launch in 1999. Liberal economists, more sympathetic to the political dimension of the euro, were prepared to be satisfied with the assurances of fiscal probity from the aspirants to the new currency and endorsed it.
If everyone played by the rules and kept an orderly financial house, the euro would survive its structural weakness, reasoned the fathers of European monetary union. And for 11 years, it appeared that they were right.
The new currency found a lot of favor and hardened against the dollar early on. In some ways the euro was thought to be on its way to being a new reserve currency, supplanting the dollar. Iran and other oil producers with no love for the United States talked about designating the world oil trade in the euro rather than the dollar.
Now disaster, or near disaster. The weakness of a multi-country currency is revealed for all to see.
If Greece, Ireland, Spain, etc. still had their own currencies—the drachma, the punt and the peso—they would be able to deal with their financial crisis by devaluing their currencies, or by letting the markets do it for them. That would make their exports cheaper and their imports more expensive and leave the holders of their bonds intact, if a little poorer.
Likewise when the Irish currency was overheating during the property boom, interest rates could have been raised to cool things off. With a single currency there is no such flexibility, and each country must struggle with draconian internal economic measures that may take years to have an effect.
Why then did most countries of Europe, including this one, jump into a single currency when the potential for problems was known? Call it “The European Dream.”
I am writing this from Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Here on the Great Hungarian Plain, where armies have crossed and recrossed for thousands of years, from the Romans to Napoleon, to Hitler to Russians, who put down the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, it is easy to understand the evocation, “Never again.”
The first and definitive purpose of integration was to end internecine war in Europe, its curse for more than 2,000 years.
Yet from its inception as a customs union in the 1950s to the 27-nation behemoth it is today, integration has come slowly. People have different cultures, speak different languages and still have not found a common European persona.
Aspiring young politicians still head to their national assemblies rather than the European Parliament, and most people still have difficulty in accepting the dictates of the bureaucrats in Brussels.
So, to the European idealists, a common currency seemed something that would further bind Europe together. Now it appears to be something to be hated rather than embraced.
Yet no country in the common currency can afford to pull out in the current crisis. Krugman rightly points out that this would lead to a run on the banks, ahead of the devaluation that would certainly occur if any troubled country sought to revert to its old currency.
What is missing in the halls of economic philosophy is a way to make a single currency work equally for the weak and the strong. In the present crisis—and it is a severe one—that would be for strong Germany, France and Italy and for weak Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal to weather the current storm.
One size has yet to fit all. But one size is what the euro zone has to work with.