Saturday, September 30, 2023

Press Exposure: Bloody Awful (1995)

Beaverbrook by David Low.
The Press Exposure column from the September 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bloody Awful
It must have worked wonders for the sales of the Daily Express when, in the 1960s, no less an expert than the Duke of Edinburgh told some people in Latin America that it was "a bloody awful newspaper”. After all, any man on the promenade in Rhyl or in the back streets of Derby must have sensed that a newspaper which earns that sort of description from a massively boorish social parasite like the Duke must have something to be said for it.

In fact at that time Prince Philip seemed to be locked in unceasing conflict with much of die British press, who gleefully reported all his public relations blunders. For example there was the time he genially soaked an assembly of hacks on a lawn at the Chelsea Flower Show by turning on the sprinkler. The antagonism became so intense that, in the midst of the Profumo affair, the Sunday Express published a remarkable article which, after recounting some of the Duke’s more colourful criticisms of the press, warned that unless he held his tongue the Express newspapers might find it their unavoidable duty as a responsible newspaper serving the great British public to reveal some acutely embarrassing details of his private life.

Those were heady days for the Express which, under the eccentric ownership of Lord Beaverbrook, could take comfort from a circulation of about 4¼ million and a reputation for employing some famous journalists. The paper's success was said to spring from their natural empathy with the sort of people to be found in Rhyl or Derby (other papers, of course, had a direct line with passengers on buses in Clapham; all of them seemed to suffer from identical bigotries and delusions). It is unlikely that the Duke would bother to criticise the Express now when its circulation hovers precariously on 1¼ million after a fall of about 6.5 percent over the past year.

Beaverbrook bought the Daily Express for £ 17,500 in 1916 and a couple of years later started up its stablemate on Sundays. To say that he stamped his—rather objectionable—personality on the paper would be an understatement, although he did not baulk [balk?] at employing journalists like Michael Foot and Tom Driberg who had political disagreements with him. He was not always frank about his motives. In 1927 he pretended to give up his interest in the papers by passing his controlling interest over to his son. In 1954 it was the Beaverbrook Foundation, supposedly too purely objective to be interested in any sordid political ambitions, which was said to have been given the ownership. He was more open when he gave his evidence to the Royal Commission on the Press in 1947: "I run the paper purely for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive."

Of course other people saw Beaverbrook’s motives in a rather different light We have already mentioned how wounded were the delicate sensitivities of Prince Philip. He was only one of the more recent examples. In 1930 Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, smarting under some particularly savage attacks in the papers, included Beaverbrook in the press barons who aimed at “. . . power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."

Well, whatever else may be said about this particular harlot no one can accuse her of having a knack for infallible forecasts. In May 1938 the Daily Express assured its readers that Germany would not seize Czechoslovakia. In September that year it declared on its front page that "Britain will not be involved in a European war this year, or next year either.” Staunchly supportive of the Tory Party, it ran a typically flamboyant selective and disastrous campaign in the 1945 general election. Time will tell whether it got it right when it supported Major in the recent Tory leadership election.

The long drawn out decline of the Daily Express set in after the death of Beaverbrook and has continued through several changes of ownership and management. After Beaverbrook there was his son Max Aitken whose talents as a fighter pilot and a playboy did not extend to running a newspaper. There was Jocelyn Stevens who was sacked by Lord Matthews who ran the great combine Trafalgar House. Stevens, who was a millionaire merchant banker, maintained the Express tradition for getting it wrong when he said in 1987 that the stock market fall should be ignored as it was only a computer blip. The present Managing Director, Andrew Cameron, recently announced an economy drive in which 220 workers would lose their jobs ". . . to put us into fighting shape. (The cuts) are about securing the future."

There may be people—in Rhyl, in Derby—who will ask what shape, what future, what security? In other places too. In July the MP for Manchester Gorton, Gerald Kaufman, told the Commons about how some of the people in that city live. Taking the national mortality rate as 100, in Manchester it is 163 for men and 148 for women. The rate for stillbirths in England and Wales is 4.2 percent, in Manchester it is 6.4 percent. For infant mortality Manchester rates 8.4 percent against 6.5 percent for the rest of Britain. These are symptoms of the extremes of poverty, of the stresses of unemployment which force down the wages of whose who are in work; Kaufman mentioned one man who works 64 and 72 hours a week whose hourly rate of pay has been cut from £3.02 to £2.35.

The poverty endured by these people is extreme in comparison but not too exceptional in its nature. Rather, it is conventional to capitalism, part of the process which produces rich people like Lords Beaverbrook, Matthews and Stevens we are supposed to admire and poor people, in Rhyl, Derby. Manchester or wherever, we are encouraged to despise. The Express may be a bloody awful newspaper but there are no bloody good ones and it speaks for a bloody dreadful social system.

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