26 December 2010

Baldwin and the Harlot’s Prerogative

Parallels have been drawn between David Cameron and one of his Conservative predecessors, Stanley Baldwin. For example, in a guest post in July 2010, Laurence Taylor warned fellow Young Fabians:
As historical actors, Baldwin and Cameron strike a similar pose. Both modernisers, both easy media performers, both leaders of anti-Labour coalitions. It seems from his speeches that Cameron is taking Baldwin’s style of leadership seriously, and so should we.
However irritating the coalition’s problems this month with the Daily Telegraph must be, Cameron’s difficulties are nothing like those faced by Baldwin 80 years ago. In 1929 Baldwin had campaigned unsuccessfully for re-election under slogans of “Safety First” and “Trust Baldwin”. Out of 616 seats, Labour under Ramsay MacDonald won 287 seats, Baldwin’s Conservatives 260 and the Liberals, led by David Lloyd George, 59. Unlike 2010 (Con 306, Lab 258, LibDem 57), the majority party did not seek to form a coalition with the Liberals, but by relying on their erratic support Macdonald was able to form a Labour government which would continue until 1931. Baldwin soon came under attack from the two rival right-wing press barons of the day, Lords Rothermere (Daily Mail) and Beaverbrook (Daily and Sunday Express, Evening Standard (London)). The two rivals made a common cause over free trade in the British empire, running their own candidates against the Conservatives in a couple of by-elections, but with mixed success. Baldwin, seeing the press barons’ campaign was faltering and antagonising the Tory party’s rank-and-file, counter-attacked on 17 March 1931 in a famous speech incorporating words from his cousin, Rudyard Kipling:
The papers conducted by Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook are not newspapers in the ordinary acceptance of the term. They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning by putting sentences apart from the context, suppression and editorial criticism of speeches which are not reported in the paper. What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.
Immediately Baldwin was able to consolidate his leadership of the Conservatives for most of the 1930s, becoming PM in 1935. A remnant of Beaverbrook’s Empire Crusade lives on in Express newspapers' logo, parodied since the 1960s by Private Eye magazine.

Malcolm Muggeridge in his The Thirties noted that:
There are, indeed, few more tantalising situations in life than a Press Lord's. He has money, he has his circle of paid flatterers; he can have as much publicity as he likes since the headlines are his own to get into, and can make others famous or infamous as he pleases. Yet whenever he attempts to exercise his potential authority, he finds himself frustrated.
Rothermere and Beaverbrook had over six million readers to influence at a time when the total population was under 38 million, radio was still in its infancy and television unknown. Just under 14 million votes were cast in the 1931 general election.  Currently newspaper sales are much lower and declining (see chart below), although the population is over 61 million, and over 27 million voted in the 2010 election. Are the current owners of newspapers directing their editors to pursue political goals, or are they more interested in adopting whatever journalistic ruses might slow the decline in circulations? The Empire of interest to a Press Baron today is more likely to be his own multinational.

The loss of sales over the last decade must, in part, be due to the availability of news and comment for free over the web and is not unique to the UK. It is interesting to note that in the last year The Daily Telegraph, without a pay wall on its website so far, has lost over 12% of sales and The Times, with, has lost over 17%. The value of advertising on a website, be it free or pay, by comparison with print must be difficult to ascertain. But what is the future of print? Presumably some of the former hard copy readers of The Times are now downloading onto an iPad, but do they take in the ads in the same way?  Against this background it seems unlikely that all the current titles will be printing in five years time, let alone ten.

No doubt if, as has been rumoured, The Times and The Sunday Times are put up for sale, there will be eager buyers because of the prestige and access that still come with ownership. But the situation in the early 1990s - before Blair became Prime Minister, he and Alastair Campbell seem to have been in a perpetual state of high anxiety over the attitude of the press – is unlikely to recur. If an iPad-type device were made available at low cost, but locked mobile phone-style to a particular newspaper group, things might be different. As it is, control seems to be passing to the individual iPad user, who, even if he or she subscribes, is likely to want to download other news and views, readily available on the web. Newspapers, long accustomed to sharing the media space with television, are now being squeezed even further in terms of ability to influence individual voters. With such an uncertain future, could newspapers and their owners ever again going to be a serious threat to party leaders, as the “harlots” did to Baldwin, or have they been reduced to being at worst irritating bit-players in the saga of the 24-hour news cycle?

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