LONDON LETTER

Fleet Street Follies

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 1 1949
LONDON LETTER

Fleet Street Follies

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 1 1949

Fleet Street Follies

LONDON LETTER

BEVERLEY BAXTER

IF YOU had happened to be walking in Fleet Street on New Year's Day you would have seen a lot of worried faces. It wasn’t the Russian problem, nor the gap between imports and exports: freedom of

competition had been restored to the Press.

The President of the Board of Trade, under long pressure, had decided that sufficient newsprint would be supplied for newspapers to find their true circulations.

This needs a word of explanation. When the war broke out newsprint was rationed and the papers “pegged” at t heir existing sale. There was also a general and unbreakable agreement that there would be no more fictitious aids ti> circulation such as posters, | insurance schemes or sets of Dickens.

London’s two “class” morning papers, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, made a voluntary 10% cut in sales so as to preserve a larger size. The remainder decided that they would keep their sale and reduce the number of pages. Hence the famous four-page dailies 1 of the war, which, oddly enough, were not only profitable but proved somet hing of an editorial triumph.

Reduced to this tiny size the British dailies managed to keep their personality to a remarkable degree, and developed a striking capacity for condensation. Fleet Street met the challenge and scored a triumph, even if it broke the hearts of reporters and feature writers.

Everything was in reverse. Advertising managers urged clients not to advertise, or to take as little space as possible. Circulation men strictly rationed news agents and bookstalls, but the demand far exceeded the supply.

The newspapers prospered, advert ising rates soared, cost of production was automatically reduced, and there was some profit on the mere sale. But dividends were also pegged.

This meant that groups like those of Lord Rothermere and Lord Kemsley which had paid high dividends continued to do so, while Lord Beaverbrook’s Continued on page 28 1

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Fleet Street Follies

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group which had paid only nominal dividends, and plowed back the rest, paid enormous sums to the Treasury each war year in excess profits.

When the Labor Party came to power in 1945 it was obvious that it would face a national Press which was 80% hostile in policy. It is true that Roosevelt had triumphed against the massed battalions of the newspapers, and I doubt if Mackenzie King had a majority of journals on his side at any time in his career. Nevertheless, in a nation like Britain where there is virtually no political comment on the radio, the Press holds a unique power in the influencing of political opinion.

Something like a feud soon broke out between the Press and the Government. The Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, went so far in his denunciation of Lord Kemsley (the proprietor of the largest paper chain in Britain) that his lordship issued a writ for libel. This fairly rocked the boat. The absurdity of the senior law officer of the Crown appearing in court as a defendant was too much, and Shawcross apologized. He is a very likable fellow and many of us were glad it ended that way.

But the more astute and more powerful Herbert Morrison was on the prowl. He talked to some of his backbench supporters and soon there appealed a resolution demanding the setting up of a royal commission into the Press. A commission was set up with powers to summon anyone from the proprietor or editor to the copy boy.

Beaverbrook Was Frank

One after another the big and little fishes appeared. One of the charges against Lord Kemsley was that when his London newspapers took a political line all his provincials did the same. Many journalists said that this was a bad thing. On the other hand, what would they have said if a Kemsley paper backed the Tories in Manchester while a Kemsley paper in Aberdeen went Socialist? He would have been accused of hypocrisy and of selling his political principles for circulation.

Another charge was that proprietors had white and black lists in which certain people were favored and others criticized or left out altogether. A newspaper, like a human being, makes friends and enemies as it goes its course. It is directed by human beings and cannot avoid acquiring loyalties or antagonisms to individuals.

So the case against the Press was that it was undemocratic, that working journalists were the paid slaves of the proprietors and that editors were mere seconds-in-command to ensure that the wicked proprietor’s orders and policy were carried out.

Lord Beaverbrook (the Express group) made the best impression on the commission. He stated frankly that he was the boss, that he gathered about him men who were sympathetic to his point of view, and that he never ordered anything to be published unless it carried the editor’s approval.

Beaverbrook mentioned the famous episode a few days before war broke out when the Daily Express published the headline “No War This Year Or Next.” That was Beaverbrook’s opinion, reinforced by the majority of his foreign correspondents and by a number of Cabinet ministers. But the editor of his London Evening Standard did not agree, and, with Beaverbrook’s consent, took a line of his own.

On the whole, the Press came well

out of the inquisition—but that did not finish the story.

A year or so ago for a short period extra newsprint was issued to allow newspapers to find their real circulation. This happened: the Sunday

News of the World, already selling six millions, shot ahead to seven millions. The News of the World is a publishing phenomenon. Its front page is always serious and never sensational, its political articles are excellent and its editorials dignified. But after that it publishes almost nothing but police court news of sexual crime. It is sex and violence and perversion without any adornment.

The Sunday Dispatch, the week-end journal of Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail group, used its extra newsprint to serialize the stupid, salacious “Forever Amber.” The public responded nobly.

The Daily Express retained first place among the dailies with a circulation just short of four millions. The Sunday Express had about 2) o millions. (It must be remembered that Beaverbrook’s papers are often sensational but never pornographic.)

Lord Rothermere’s group has always trailed behind the Express crowd since the death of Northcliffe, except in one particular. While the Daily Mail and Sunday Dispatch had to bow in circulation to the Daily and Sunday Express, Rothermere’s London Evening News has always had a larger sale than Beaverbrook’s London Evening Standard. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that the News makes a popular appeal and the Standard is edited for the more sophisticated reader.

Mirror Takes the Lead

However, back went the papers to their four pages again, although many protests were made in Parliament. The royal commission went into a huddle to consider its verdict.

So we come back to last New Year’s Day, when once more the lid was taken off, and the newspapers, still under the ban of promoting sales, were allowed to find their unhampered readership. Hence the anxious brows and the pallid cheeks on Fleet Street. This time it was to be no short experiment and there would be no alibis. I’ll give you a rough picture of what has happened.

That stately institution, The Times, moved sedately from 270,000 to 280,000. (All these totals are in round figures and are approximate.) It must be remembered that The Times costs threepence and that, despite its influence and prestige, has never had a large sale.

The other “prestige” daily, Lord Camrose’s Daily Telegraph, went up

75,000 copies to 908,000. It was aided by its serial publication of Churchill’s memoirs.

The tabloid Daily Mirror shot into first place among the dailies with

4.300.000, displacing the long supremacy of the Daily Express which advanced to a daily sale of 3,990,000.

Rothermere’s Tory Daily Mail gained, but came to a stop at 2,175,000. Oddly enough the Socialist Daily

Herald dropped a bit, but steadied itself at 2,080,000. The Liberal News Chronicle, a serious and well-written journal, sagged and is now selling

1.590.000.

Lord Kemsley’s noncrime, nonsex family tabloid, The Daily Graphic,

was expected to take a bad tumble but, instead, put on a few copies, although still selling well below the million mark. It is to Kemsley’s credit that he has rigidly maintained in all his newspapers a policy of absolute moral

decency.

It was left to the Sunday newspapers

to supply the sensations. The News of the World soared on the wings of sexual depravity to the incredible sale of nearly 8 )4 millions.

The “prestige” Sunday Times (Kemsley)—no relation to its daily namesake, although it, too, costs threepence —remained firm at 525,000. Its rival, the Observer (Lord Astor), gained

10.000 readers, giving it a total of

386.000.

The tabloid Pictorial went up to the astonishing figure of 4 '4 millions on sensationalism, but also very lively and skilful editing.

This brings me to the People, a Sunday newspaper which sells nearly five million copies and is the absolute despair of every expert on journalism. It is not sensational. It carries almost no pictures and does not traffic in pornography. Its news service is undistinguished and it has no famous contributors except the veteran Hannen Swaffer. Not once in a year has anyone ever said to me: “Did you see that

story in the People?” In fact, I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who reads it. But there it is with a sale only second to that of the News of the World.

The People was once owned by the Canadian financier, Grant Morden, with Hannen Swaffer as its editor, but nothing could make it go. It was sold to the huge combine of Odham’s, publishers of the Daily Herald, John Bull, Illustrated, and so on. The full force of the circulation department was turned on and somehow, by some miracle, they got the People into the homes of the people and there it remained. I have studied the People over and over again and cannot see any reason whatever for its enormous sale. In fact, it makes monkeys out of all of us.

Another puzzle is Reynolds, a leftwing Sunday paper owned and published by the co-operative societies. There are nine to 10 million co-op members in Britain, thus forming an enormous public from which Reynolds could draw. Yet it has the smallest circulation of all the popular Sunday newspapers and is hard put to keep its last announced sale of 730,000 copies.

Finally we come to Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express, Rothermere’s Sunday Dispatch and Kemsley’s Empire News and Sunday Chronicle, the last two selling more in the north than in London. The Express has about

2.740.000 circulation, the Dispatch

2.120.000, the Empire News 2,140,000 and the Sunday Chronicle 1,180,000. Kemsley’s Sunday Graphic, a tabloid stablemate of his sedate Daily Graphic, sells 1,210,000.

A Story of Corruption

If these figures told the whole story we could close the London Letter at this point, but suddenly a section of the Press decided to give the royal commission, still considering its findings, something to think about. You will remember the Lynskey Bribery Tribunal which filled the newspapers day after day almost to the exclusion of all other news. Finally, John Belcher, a junior minister, resigned from Parliament, and the notorious Mr. Stanley was told he would be deported.

Hardly had the decisions been made known when the Sunday Dispatch announced it had secured Mrs. Stanley’s life story written by herself; the People screamed that it had paid a huge figure for Mr. Stanley’s life story. It was learned that Stanley had been paid £10,000 ($40,000).

At this the storm broke, and I must say that for once I was with those who denounced the Press. Editors had been demanding newsprint to cover world

events and parliamentary debates, yet when they got it they used it for the intimate details of a man who had corrupted and broken a minister and a director of the Bank of England. It was sheer madness.

Already the Socialists are clamoring for a central board of control to tell the newspapers what they will and will not publish, and here were the newspapers passing them the ammunition. I have a heavy feeling that British journalism will pay for those stupid attempts to gain circulation.

By this time many of you must lie wondering why the circulations of British newspapers are so huge compared with American newspapers which have a far greater population to serve. The reason is a purely physical one -distance.

A late edition of a New York morning newspaper cannot be on the breakfast tables of New York and Chicago at the same time. A certain number of copies could be flown west but there would not be enough to bother about. Besides, the U. S. is not dominated by any one city as Britain is. London is the capital, the seat of the monarch, the place where Parliament sits, tinfinancial centre and the very heart of Britain.

Milking the Capitalist Cow

By erecting printing plants in Manchester and Glasgow, connected by private wire with London, and carrying their local editorial staffs, a London national morning (such as the Express or Mail) can deliver its latest editions in the early morning to any centre in the British Isles. Thus, they have a massed public of 50 millions on their very doorstep.

And is there big money in all this for the shareholders? It all depends whether they were caught out by Sir Stafford Cripps’ banning of increased profits in last year’s budget.

Such worldly wealth as I possess is mostly in the shares of the Express group and this is how we fared in the

last financial year. Net revenue £6,651,240. Salaries, wages, raw 1. terials, services, and other expense cost £5,921,049. If my arithmetic is correct, this leaves the directors with £730,191 for distribution.

Well, that, you must agree, is still not too bad. However, you have reckoned without the estimable Sir Stafford Cripps. The management was duly informed that he wanted £378,708 which, deducted from our £730,191 leaves us £351,483.

That’s still quite an amount of money and on the whole we shareholders are rather pleased— but wait a moment. For future taxes, £159,093 has fo be set aside, so now we are down to £192,390. That, is the reward to those who must share year in and year out in the good and bad fortunes of the enterprise.

But don’t ring down the curtain yet. Already, income tax at nine shillings in the pound (amounting to £186,571) has been deducted. But there is still surtax to pay on all incomes above a certain level. For example, Lord Beaverbrook, who is the biggest shareholder, had to pay 97 1 ■>'/ of the sum received from his Express dividends in income tax and surtax.

In short, 1 suggest that something like £90,000 was all that found its way into the pockets of the hundreds of shareholders, yet there are idiots who want to nationalize newspapers. Where else would you find a cow like private enterprise that will give so much milk on so little grass?

That is the story of Fleet Street today. With all its peculiarities it is still the best and most honorable Press in the world, completely incorruptible and stubbornly independent. Yet the shadow of the royal commission is on the old street; at a time when British journalism has no leader. There is no Northcliffe today, and Beaverbrook spends too much time in Canada and Jamaica to give the leadership that is in his power.

So we wait, and we wonder what lies ahead. if