British politics and British press barons in the early 20th-century

Rupert Murdoch, Private Eye’s “Dirty Digger,” may well turn out to be the most egregious media mogul in terms of British political history, but there is previous form. Here are a few “highlights” from early twentieth-century history.

Lord Beaverbrook. Running newspaper empires appears to attract wealthy types from former British colonies. Max Aitken (yes, he was the great-uncle of disgraced Tory, Jonathan) came to this country from Canada in 1910, following a shares scandal which made him wealthy but many believe would have resulted in him being sent to prison had he stayed in Canada. He became involved in politics very quickly, particularly with the Liberal party and gained the reputation of a king-maker, using his growing newspaper business, particularly the London Evening Standard and the Daily Express to bring down the Prime Minister, Asquith and replace him with Lloyd George. Beaverbrook was rewarded with a peerage and held powerful ministerial positions, including propaganda and munitions during World War Two. During the abdication crisis, Beaverbrook gave advice to Edward VIII to discontinue his relationship with Wallis Simpson, but at the same time the Express published every detail of the affair.

Beaverbrook was regarded as the “first” press baron and it was generally acknowledged that his newspapers could make or break anyone in public life.  He was both admired and despised, sometimes by the same people, which was summed up in a quotation from cartoonist David Low, who worked for Beaverbrook for years: “If ever Max gets to Heaven, he won’t last long. He will be chucked out for trying to pull off a merger between Heaven and Hell after having secured a controlling interest in key subsidiary companies in both places, of course.”

Irrespective of whether Beaverbrook’s influence was beneficial or detrimental to this country, the question has to be asked: who voted for him?  Should anyone be allowed to wield such political influence without openness and accountability in a democracy?

There is no doubt that, until Rupert came along, Beaverbrook was the doyen of press barons in terms of his political power. Here are two also-rans:

Lord Northcliffe. Educated at Stamford School in Lincolnshire, Alfred Harmsworth worked as a Fleet Street journalist, and along with his brother, Harold (see below) made money out of publishing cheap, popular periodicals. In 1896 he founded the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror in 1903 and rescued the Observer, Times  and Sunday Times from financial ruin. He used his newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail for political influence. Like Beaverbrook, he campaigned to bring Asquith down. Lloyd George, ever wily, asked Northcliffe to be a member of the cabinet. Northcliffe declined the offer but it was part of a now familiar process of politicians courting the owners of newspapers, an acknowledgment of their power and influence with voters, which is hardly an enhancement of our democracy.

Lord Rothermere, Alfred Harmsworth’s brother, Harold. Rothermere took over control of the Mail in 1924 after Northcliffe’s death. During this period, the newspaper published its now notorious 1932 headline: “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” Rothermere is also credited with making the following comment in 1933: “The minor misdeeds of individual Nazis would be submerged by the immense benefits the new regime is already bestowing on Germany.” Before that, though, there was the little matter of the Zinoviev letter in 1924. This scandalous use of the Daily Mail’s influence certainly helped bring down Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour government in 1924. The letter, published four days before the general election, was said to have been written by Grigori Zinoviev, a leading Bolshevik in post-revolutionary Russia and was addressed to the Central Committe of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). It offered to assist the British communists bring about a revolution in Britain. It created an immense scandal. It was a forgery.

So just three press barons who all exercised – to some extent successfully – the influence of their media empires on British politics. It is a form of political activity that is insidious, covert, and undemocratic. 

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