The Last Great Beast of a Mighty Line

6 Apr

Published March 2018 in the British Journalism Review @TheBJReview

 by Les Hinton

The days of the autocratic editor are numbered: newspapers need to look elsewhere for the manic energy that fuels great journalism

It was a brisk autumn evening when we arrived at the point where Ave Maria Lane meets Amen Corner, and walked into the cobblestoned courtyard of Stationers’ Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, whose origins trace back more than 600 years. We were a couple of minutes from St Paul’s Cathedral where tradesmen, in the days even before print, offered their manuscripts and were named stationers because of the “stations” at which they worked.

It is always an out-of-time experience visiting Stationers’ Hall – I’m sure I saw a cat, a Dick Whittington cat, glide through the courtyard shadows – and that sense of the bygone gave special meaning to the reason we were there. The symbolism was almost too good to be true.

Our host was Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, the fourth Viscount Rothermere, of Hemsted in the County of Kent, and only remaining real-life hereditary lord of the press on earth. Jonathan Rothermere might not be what you would imagine of a press lord, with the gangly, tentative way he moves and the face that seems too gentle for the role; but, in the two decades since inheriting his position, no national newspapers have done better than those he controls.

Those last few lines are a compliment but, as every reader of this journal knows, it is a relative kind of praise. Rothermere’s newspapers, and those of his un-aristocratic rivals, are in existential trouble. Great newspapers are dying or fading away, and the long genetic link going back to those primitive manuscripts sold on the steps of St Paul’s, and Wynkyn de Worde, Fleet Street’s first printer, is going through an historic upheaval.

The viscount’s grand party that night, beneath the gaudy livery flags and ancient stained-glass images of Shakespeare and Caxton, was a homage to one man, but it also felt like a requiem.

Paul Dacre is one of the last mighty Fleet Street editors and we were there to honour a miraculous accomplishment: Dacre had held down his job as editor of the Daily Mail for 25 years. As Rupert Murdoch, an untitled titan, said that night in a flickering video tribute from California, even the fabled Arthur Christiansen of the Daily Express only managed 24 years.

There won’t be many more evenings such as this. Paul Dacre – just like his ennobled boss – is among the last of his breed. The big editors of Fleet Street will soon be gone forever, extinct as the linotype and the clattering typewriter and the newsboy’s cry.

There will be other editors, but as the shapeshifting world of media diminishes the importance of Fleet Street’s great newspapers, none will assume the same power, admiration, and notoriety.

There is no editor left in Fleet Street who could command the attendance of that night. Theresa May was there, at the top table alongside Lord Rothermere. At the next table was her husband Philip, with the familiar radiating beam he somehow manages, no matter how dire his wife’s most recent predicament. He was on the right of Claudia, the viscountess.

On the other side of the viscountess was the guest of honour himself, approaching his 70th year, with an elegant stoop to show for those years bent over hard copy and page proofs, a mixture of delight and discomfort as he acknowledged the procession of important people arriving to pay tribute.

There were a dozen or so present or past Cabinet ministers, both Labour and Conservative, although Tories easily won the count. There were peers and MPs, and even once-bitter rivals; Richard Desmond, a shrewd money man who was beating his own retreat from Fleet Street, seemed surprised and pleased to be a guest at his table. Gordon Brown and Michael Howard sent congratulations by video. Incongruously, so did Simon Cowell.

Most of the current standard-bearers of Fleet Street were there, as well as many of its old relics – among the old hands these days, the default topic of conversation being how lucky they were to have departed before the storm struck.

Of the existing editors present, only John Witherow of The Times has the reputation and tenure to compete with Dacre’s. He has been editor either of The Times or The Sunday Times since 1994. In the calmer world of the heavies, editors traditionally hang on longer.

The power of today’s editors has dwindled with the size of their products, and the days may be numbered when politicians will continue to believe that newspapers can determine elections – if they ever could.

When I first became interested in newspapers, there were two television channels, and just about every household in Britain read more than one newspaper every day; in my house, before we had TV, we read newspapers and listened to the radio.

Back then, and in years to come, Fleet Street editors were big beasts, although not all achieved the influence and profile of Dacre.

The aura of strong editors spreads throughout a newspaper, reaching people who are far too junior ever to actually speak to them. I discovered this when I was 15 at a little evening newspaper in Adelaide, where the editor was a well-born man named Rohan Deakin Rivett, the grandson of Australia’s second prime minister. His underlings seemed to channel their boss before every move – “You sure he’s happy with this leader? … That headline will send him crazy … Not another pet story! He’s getting sick of them ….” Later, in Fleet Street, I discovered this kind of anxious compliance is routine.

For King and Cudlipp

I also discovered the power and reputation of some Fleet Street editors. Hugh Cudlipp was the mastermind of the Daily Mirror’s success and influence and, in his day, the country’s most famous editor; David English, Dacre’s forerunner, transformed the fortunes of the Daily Mail when it became a tabloid (coyly, he chose to call it a “compact” and it was launched with the slogan “The Compact with Impact”). English, then Dacre, swept away the Daily Express to become the country’s dominant mid-market newspaper. His Mail might have been a personality cult; some who worked for English adopted his mannerisms. Rod Gilchrist, his features editor, and even Paul Dacre, would emulate his gestures and the strange high pitch of his voice when he was excited.

Larry Lamb of The Sun was brooding and fearsome. When he attempted a smile, and his big lips parted, it was more like a snarl. His slow, lop-sided lope into the big room sent a shiver through us all. His post-dinner beratings of the back bench would be audible to all. The smallest lapse was enough to raise his anger – “Lengthy! Lengthy? What kind of a bloody word is that? What’s wrong with long? … “Initiate? Please! You mean begin.” A first edition with too many failings was known to fly across the subs’ table, dismembering in flight. In the end, he might have developed an overblown sense of his own genius, but The Sun he created – love or hate it – changed the rules of Fleet Street as it became the biggest-selling newspaper in the English language.

Lamb and his leading contemporaries were garlanded with knighthoods and peerages. Knighthoods were lavished among editors, awarded for “services to journalism” or by grateful prime ministers – Lamb, Nick Lloyd, Harry Evans, David English, Peter Stothard. There were also peerages for some – Cudlipp, William Rees-Mogg, Francis Williams. English, already a knight, was due for a peerage in 1998 but died before it could be announced.

While editors received mere life peerages, newspaper proprietors earlier in the last century were routinely enlisted into the aristocracy with the hereditary variety – Jonathan Rothermere’s great-grandfather Harold Harmsworth, his great-uncle Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) and Beaverbrook, Thomson, and Camrose.

It wasn’t as if the press was held in high regard by the establishment in those days. The most famous of all attacks on the press came from Stanley Baldwin in 1931, when he was prime minister and newspapers were giving him a particularly hard time. The press, he said, was guilty of “direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning … What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”. These sentiments are echoed to this day, although never so vividly. And now, as then, politicians who vilify the press still alter their tune when seeking its endorsement.

There were editors of later generations, those I worked for, or with, and over whom I enjoyed, at least technically, some authority.

I never worked on newspapers alongside Kelvin MacKenzie or Andrew Neil, a lucky break for me, given their hatred of interference; they accepted Rupert’s, of course, but never joyfully. Andrew and I did work together briefly in New York, developing (without success) a network news show. Like his days as editor of The Sunday Times, he approached everything with fierce gusto and lack of self-doubt. He sought to remind me each time I walked into his office that the programme’s content was his responsibility alone, even though I was always happy to leave him to it.

In the 1970s, Kelvin MacKenzie arrived at the New York Post as night editor when I was based in Manhattan as a correspondent. The natives found him difficult. He enjoyed abusing a sweet-natured Texan sub-editor by calling him a “Texas toe rag”; it was a while before his victim realised he was being insulted. A Post editor who was senior to Kelvin often could not join the conferences in Kelvin’s office – he would lock it and turn his back to the glass door. Kelvin was a terrorist editor, but not always. In those days, he still knew his place in the pecking order. When Larry Lamb was The Sun’s editor and visited Manhattan, he took a group of us to dinner at a French bistro off Third Avenue, where Kelvin sat all night in awed silence, to everyone’s amazement.

Nostalgia for the Cheese and Mucky Duck

That was before he had the power to make an entire city his enemy, threaten a prime minister with a bucket of excrement, and tell complaining readers that their subscriptions to The Sun would be cancelled.

Even as the sun was lowering on the golden days of Fleet Street, bright stars followed these editors. Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror restored much of its old brilliance; Stuart Higgins, Kelvin’s successor, who would almost levitate with excitement on big news days, made The Sun as good as his predecessor, at least (David Yelland was out of water at The Sun, a freshwater trout suffocating in the bitter salt tides of a hectic redtop; he might have flourished at broadsheet); John Witherow is the strongest serious daily newspaper editor left standing, and his Times is peerless – I’m sure of that, even through my own bias.

As we left Stationers’ Hall that evening, it was as if we had spent four hours suspended in another age, insulated briefly against the harsh reality waiting outside in the cold autumn night.

Inside, among the newspaper people, there had been a community of spirits I had known since coming to Fleet Street half a century before as an eager apprentice; a crush of hustling, joking, exuberant competitors, the cream of a historic industry with mingling feelings of animosity and admiration towards one another.

How will journalism happen after this, without big newspapers and those at the helm to gravitate around, when more journalists become castaways, working remotely, hermits at their keyboards? Where will the energy come from without the human combustion of a crowded newsroom, with great editors in command?

No one knows, but I’m not giving up hope.

There was dread about the loss of community when newspapers evacuated Fleet Street but, most of all, newspaper people were merely homesick for the pubs and boozy camaraderie.

Newspapers had huddled there for centuries, as the stationers had around St Paul’s even more centuries ago. The technology of printing scattered the stationers; more technology scattered newspapers in the 1980s; and now the technology of algorithms and electromagnetic interaction is scattering journalists from shrinking newspapers to ambitious new ideas.

When technology offers an infinity of entertainment and information in the palm of your hand, the competition for people’s attention is a battle print newspapers cannot win.

There might be much to mourn, but, while the newspaper industry is declining, its purpose never will.

The business models that built the old empires of print are being demolished, and for most newspapers nothing can stop that. Even if the smartest can navigate through the morass to a sustainable digital platform, they are unlikely to return to the profits of the old days.

But the biggest, most universal delivery system ever known is now in place, and there will always be an appetite for good writing and powerful opinions and important information. The new economics of journalism has still to be sorted, but there will always be stories to tell.

Les Hinton worked in newspapers, magazines and television as a reporter, editor and executive in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. His memoir – The Bootle Boy: an untidy life in news – will be published by Scribe in May.

@leshinton

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