An annual lecture in memory of Tom Olsen, a former Sunday Telegraph journalist, with the aim of focusing on the themes of freedom and responsibility.
Tom Olsen had a long career in journalism both in London and the provinces. He worked as reporter, leader-writer, editor and author. He had a great love of writing whether under his own name or the nom de plume John Morrell. Tom loved wine too and spent the last fifteen years of his life as the wine correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.
Tom was an enthusiast for the St Bride’s Church which, during his time, shared Fleet Street with the nation’s press. When he died in 1987 a Trust bearing his name was set up in his memory. By this stage the diaspora of the printers and journalists had begun, soon to be replaced by lawyers, bankers and accountants, and a big effort was made by the Trustees to promote the work of St Bride’s to those new neighbours.
The Trustees established an annual lecture for those in the law, in journalism and in the immediate Fleet Street community. At the time St Bride’s was strongly supporting the campaign for the release of John McCarthy and the other hostages. Therefore it seemed entirely appropriate that the theme of the lectures should be freedom, both spiritual and physical, and the responsibilities that go with it. That ministry to journalism remains a core component of the church’s work.
The Trustees invited Lord McGregor of Durris, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, to deliver the inaugural lecture. His subject was “A Free Press in a Free Society?” and he delivered the lecture on 16th October 1991.
Over the following thirty years lawyers, writers, politicians, broadcasters and musicians have given the address. Speakers ranging from David Attenborough to PD James, Andrew Marr and John Simpson to Nigel Farage and Rick Wakeman have engaged and entertained audiences drawn from Fleet Street, the City and beyond.
The lectures normally take place in the Autumn each year and are followed by a lively Q&A session.
2023 – Dominic Ponsford – “How good journalism can save the world in the age of generative AI”
2022 – Dr Carol Cooper – “Has Covid Fractured the Way We Live? – assessing the effects of the pandemic on everyday life”
2020 – Rebecca Fraser – “The Mayflower 400 year on: the Pilgrim Fathers and their quest for freedom”
2019 – Dr Courtney Radsch – “Enemies of the People: the global assault of journalists and press freedom”
2017 – The Rt Hon Nick Clegg – “Brexit, Trump and the politics of fear: is populism here to stay?”
2015 – Rick Wakeman – “Baroque & Roll”
2014 – Nigel Farage MEP – “We will remember them – the effects of The Great War and the legacy to contemporary Europe”
2013 – The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge – “Where to now for the Public Accounts Committee?”
2012 – Peter Hitchens/Brian Paddick – “Drug laws in Britain – a waste of time, or an essential barrier to grave danger?”
2011 – Bob Satchwell – “Hacked off with the media – an unholy alliance of Press, Police and Politicians?”
2010 – Dr Rowan Williams/Sir Simon Jenkins – “Prosperity and Morality – can we really have it all?”
2009 – Adam Boulton – “24/7 News – Free & Irresponsible?”
2007 – John Simpson – “A Matter Of Fact? Foreign Reporting Over Fifty Years”
2006 – The Rt Hon George Osborne – “Politics and the Media in the Internet Age”
2005 – Andrew Marr – “Hacks and Politicians: Are they condemned to sink together?”
2004 – Peter Stothard – “God Exists Only for Leader-writers”
2002 – Matthew Parris – “The Problem of Responsibility”
2001 – Jane Asher
1999 – The Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe
1998 – Sir David Attenborough
1997 – Sir Oliver Popplewell – “The Arrogance of Power”
1996 – The Rt Revd Lord Habgood
1995 – Lord Alexander of Weedon
1994 – Lord Rees-Mogg
1993 – Baroness P D James of Holland Park
1992 – Lord Anthony Lester of Herne Hill – “Democracy and free speech”
1991 – Lord McGregor of Durris – “A free press in a free society?”
Dominic Ponsford is editor-in-chief of Press Gazette, and this Lecture marks his 20 years at the magazine. A journalist for a quarter of a century, he is also Media Editor of the New Statesman Media Group.
The Lecture was introduced by Rachel Younger, ITV News Correspondent, who also chaired the Q&A after the lecture. Younger recently reported extensively on the advancement of AI and why it leaves more questions than answers.
Carol Cooper, doctor and journalist, gave the 2022 Tom Olsen Lecture on the impact of the pandemic on society.
Rebecca Fraser, author of the acclaimed book “The Mayflower Generation”, gave the 2020 Tom Olsen Lecture on the Pilgrim Fathers’ quest for freedom in this the 400th anniversary year of the sailing of the Mayflower.
St Bride’s has numerous memorials to the Pilgrim Fathers and the parents of Edward Winslow, one of the Fathers and future Governor of Massachusetts, were married in the church in the late 16th Century.
Dr Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, gave our annual Tom Olsen Lecture in 2019 which focussed on the global assault on press freedom, what this means for journalists, and how the media are standing up to protect their own through initiatives like the Coalition.
Adam Boulton, broadcaster and journalist, gave the 2009 lecture.
I am greatly honoured to be asked to give this Olsen Lecture at St Bride’s. We journalists spend our careers asking questions about others and I am firmly of the belief that we should be prepared to reciprocate and give an account of ourselves and our work when challenged.
Both St Bride’s and the Tom Olsen Trust have been friendly and important supporters to our calling as we undertake this often painful task of self-revelation – a process which, it has to be said, usually involves much dog-eat-dog, in the best traditions of Fleet Street.
Indeed I first came to this church for the remarkable service recognising the last withdrawal of the trade of Journalism from the geographical location with which it is most associated – “Fleet Street” – a term which even President Obama used when I interviewed him earlier this summer. On that day we were marking the departure of Reuters, eastward into the city – I note that their old building has now been put to good use as the latest venue for a Conran restaurant. Rupert Murdoch read the lesson – a pious recognition of his long association with Reuters and the Chancellor family who have been such an important part of the wire service. Murdoch was surrounded by family and executives from the News business – both capital and small “n” in this context. Even if you know nothing of that service you will have seen the pictures of it. It is the illustration most often reached for by picture editors – shades of a Mafia funeral – when they want to air conspiracy theories about my ultimate employers. So much for the rewards of going to church.
Alas I never met Tom Olsen our benefactor, although I am delighted that his son Tim is here today. Tom’s long career was very different from mine – being in the print. And many would say that preoccupations that he and the Trust have been able to further – wine, music, and considered ideas expressed in lecture form – all matured in the vat so to speak – are a long way from the live gabblings of a 24 hour news reporter.
However, over the next half hour or so I hope to demonstrate that perhaps we have more in common than may at first appear; in terms of our concerns about the potential dangers of journalism – both to journalists themselves and to the community which we serve; and in our belief in what journalism is for – to inform, educate, entertain and (the one the BBC left out) to shock as well on occasion. Functions, which I shall argue, are exercised by the digital electronic media today more analogously to the print of Tom Olsen’s heyday than by our current newspapers and magazines.
Such claims may strike you as overdone because, Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve got to admit that we are starting from a low base and I’m sure some of you are wondering why we printed 24/7 News – Free and Irresponsible with a question mark at the end. I’ll try to explain.
Sky News is now in its twenty-first year of non-stop operation, CNN started eight years earlier in 1980.
As I shall point out, 24 hour news is evolving in a very different way on either sides of the Atlantic. But whichever version we talk about we’ve got to accept that 24 hour news as we call it here, or “cable news” as it tends to be known in America, has seldom been more denigrated – both by some politicians and some media grandees.
Jeremy Paxman has accused us of “expectation inflation”; in his book Flat Earth News Nick Davies pontificates about manic, high speed “churnalism” suggesting there is an irreconcilable conflict between the accuracy and speed of reporting; Libby Purves claims that “the mission to explain” has been turned into “a licence to witter”.
From his Hugh Cudlipp lecture to his blog site, Alastair Campbell complains about everything from the size of my head, to the tone of Kay Burley’s voice. He says 24 hour news is only patronised by the lonely (something my mother once said to me about public houses). He brands a question to President Obama about Afghanistan and Pakistan as “smart aleck”. He suggests that 24 hour news would have dissipated public support for D-Day if we had been around in 1944. And of course things aren’t as good as they were in his day as a tabloid hack “when you kind of knew where you were. You had the tabloids, you had the broadsheets, and you had the broadcasters. They did very different things. The advent of the 24/7 media age means that the barriers between them are pretty much broken down, certainly in our country.”
In 2007, Tony Blair developed such criticisms in a more thoughtful way in his famous Lecture on Public Life delivered at Reuters’ new headquarters in Canary Wharf a fortnight before he stood down as Prime Minister. “The News schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Blair observed, “it moves in real time. Papers don’t give you up to date news. That’s already out there. They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary. And it all happens with outstanding speed.”
Blair maintained that for competitive reasons “accuracy” now took second place to what he called “impact”. He too bemoaned the merging of agendas between media outlets. Claiming that “misconduct is what has impact… the fear of missing out means that today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack… it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.” Blair made it clear that he believed new forms of instantaneous digital media had made things worse, as he put it: “the new forms of media can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five.”
An ex-journalist himself, and not the only one in his family, Gordon Brown takes a rather more sympathetic and considered approach to the problems of instantaneous digital media. But he too recognises a change in the terms of trade of information, suggesting that texting and blogging provoked recent political upheaval in Burma and the Philippines and telling a seminar in New York earlier this year: “I think the thing that has changed in the last few years is that the ordinary media that we think about – newspapers and television – are less important for the future than our ability to communicate with each other across the world.”
Undoubtedly there is a self-serving element to all of these attacks – the settling of professional rivalries or the salving of bruises and lash cuts. I’m going to resist the temptation to get into that now. But I will try to deal with the serious points raised, which can be summarised simply. 24/7 news stands accused of driving the media’s supposed drift towards inaccuracy, shallowness and intrusion.
Much of this protest seems to me unjustified and in vain. If the media reports and reflects the world as it is, should it also be blamed for what it shows? (Shooting the messenger is a tradition dating before even the ancient Greeks and Persians). Breakthroughs in technology have enhanced both what we can do and transformed what we actually do. From the internet to highly portable instantaneous television transmission, we have the tools to subject today’s world to ever more scrutiny in real time. What’s more, the branches of digital technology complement each other. The internet is a repository for stored images and words. But in an age of YouTube, iTunes applications, Sky+ and MP3 players, television’s unique selling point is more clearly defined than ever. It is the ability to transmit live events simultaneously to big audiences of people. That’s why the focus of television is increasingly on just four genres: live sport, news, live cultural events and reality TV – live events and competitions contrived by the TV stations themselves. There’s a commercial driver to this separation as well – the more ears and eyes they attract the more money a broadcaster can make; but the larger a live online audience the more it costs the originator to provide bandwidth.
(Documentaries, drama, films, light entertainment and comedy still have their place in TV schedules. But in an age of downloads and DVDs they are no longer uniquely televisual experiences – and, let’s face it, they are proving increasingly unattractive investments for conventional TV networks as well. In the US for example, NBC has just replaced its prime time drama hour with a nightly topical chat show from Jay Leno.)
A good 24 hour news channel has the capacity to show its audience events and arguments live every day which they never had access to before: from Nobel prize acceptance speeches to World Cup draws to Jade Goody’s funeral; from a statement to parliament to a beach struck by a tsunami to a live fire-fight in Afghanistan. 24/7 news also usually has the airtime for analysis, opinion and debate on each action as it unfolds; as well as room for summaries of other news items and information.
Authority is derived from the authenticity of the events shown as they develop and the depth of analysis provided simultaneously rather than the presumption of infallibility of the broadcaster. Remember that the first head of BBC News 24 declared that they would not relay news conferences live, because editorial control would be lost.
Those old school journalists who invoke the canard of inaccuracy – who remind us of the unofficial slogan “Never Wrong for Long” (which was coined by John O’Loan, the first head of Sky News) – are forgetting that all journalism is only “the first draft of history”. Good live journalism requires attribution and contextualisation of all information passed on. Over the past twenty years I believe our standard of accuracy would stand comparison with any of the stuffier news organisations. Where we have made mistakes it is often because we have been misinformed by official sources. At Sky News we know the difference between stating “Police say over a hundred people may have been killed in the Ladbroke Grove rail crash” and “Over a hundred dead in rail crash” as one of our competitors put it. Mercifully, as we reported accurately, the toll turned out to be far lower.
Even when information is imparted in an accurate and provisional way, TV producers and reporters have to be careful that the emphasis, what Tony Blair would call the “impact”, is not wrong. For example, I recently reported that the British authorities were trying to confirm reports that the Lockerbie convict Al-Megrahi had died. All true but it turned out the reports in question were inaccurate. It was a mistake on our part to back this up our story with the full panoply of breaking news – on screen text, rolling video and instant phone calls for comment.
Frank Sesno, the veteran of CNN has written about developing a “language of live”, commending the way in which then Mayor Giuliani commented during the breaking news of 9/11. Few of us will forget his announcement that casualties will be “more than any of us can bear”. Sesno suggests that we should create a place called “story in progress” where information is presented as “incremental and developing”. I believe that we, and the viewers and the best communicators of our times are already in that place. We can only remain viable because of the trust our viewers and online users place in us to provide the best information that we have.
Have we made the news agenda more intrusive or more trivial? I have one simple piece of advice for anyone in the public eye – and that includes both politicians and television presenters – do not do anything in your private life and personal affairs that you could not defend if it became public. There are now common rights to a private life, reinforced by a surprisingly broadminded public but, I believe, any special privacy law to protect the powerful or prominent would be profoundly damaging to our democracy. I speak as someone whose own personal affairs have often been commented on in newspapers, sometimes hurtfully. I doubt anyone found the disclosures interesting. I certainly didn’t find them accurate. But comment should be free. Real life is much more important than a gossip journalist’s misrepresentation of it.
These are arguments well backed up by this year’s revelations over MPs’ expenses. I freely admit that I never had much taste for such stories, on an individual basis, and that I also have some sympathy with MPs who complain about their salaries. However, thanks to the Telegraph’s comprehensive exposé, we now know that I was wrong. The outraged general public clearly disagree with me. What’s more, we now know that perhaps half of parliament were prepared to exploit their allowances in private in a way which they could not defend in public.
Just as trust is important between the news broadcaster and the viewer, so trust is important between the politician and the voter. Part of that is based on the personal impression made. Most of us would regard many such personal details as irrelevant but I don’t see why the curious should be denied by law from looking for personal details about participants in the national conversation. Increasingly, we seem to think it’s right that there should be openness about money. Health is clearly pertinent if you are choosing someone to work for you. These days sexual behaviour continues to fascinate but it is rarely a career threatening issue – as politicians from Bill Clinton to Boris Johnson have found to their advantage.
Creeping liberal tolerance may be shared across the pond – but we in the media often fail to recognize the starkly different media ecologies separated by the Atlantic Ocean.
The American TV culture has evolved in a free market mainly as a platform for advertisements; and subsequently with the introduction of pay-per-view as an additional revenue source for premium product, usually on cable.
In this country, and much of Europe, the airwaves have from the outset been treated as the property of the state to be licensed out to broadcasters under set conditions. At least until the arrival of satellite TV, the profit motive was replaced by some form of state patronage, either through the licence fee or the granting of privileged access to the audience.
As it happens, both the American and British systems have produced programmes of the highest and the lowest quality – and we could spend all night debating their relative merits. That is not my intention now.
American 24/7 news has developed in a very different way from here. For a start it’s not strictly 24/7 there. In a country of six time zones, much of the daily output is repeated from tape. At Sky News it’s not so much never wrong for long as never on for long – typically all our stories are changed and updated at most every four hours or so. A developing story will never be reported in the same way twice.
Secondly, the legacy from terrestrial television is that the British viewer expects picture and on-location journalist led reports – there simply is not the appetite for talking head comment that there is in North America (perhaps because you can get that with knobs on from print and online).
Thirdly, it’s a much smaller market here. To be successful in Britain you need to be in the mainstream, participating in the common national discourse. In America, thanks to cable subscriptions, news channels can make a tidy profit with just a niche audience of a few million zealous fans each. Not surprisingly, with opinion and argument at a premium, there is a far greater concentration on politics in the cable news agendas.
Not that approaching things in a different way means that 24/7 news gets any better press in the United States, nor that the criticisms are any different, or even better informed!
President Obama likes to remark that he doesn’t watch cable news – but he certainly lets it get under his skin. Pressed why he wouldn’t spell out his position on Iran by an MSNBC reporter, he spat back: “Because I think, Chuck, that we don’t know how things are going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24 hour news cycle. I’m not, OK?” [He was speaking to Chuck Todd not to Michelle in the sense of Macbeth’s “Dearest Chuck”].
Elsewhere Obama has complained about cable news and Washington saying “There is an impatience that characterizes this town that has only grown shorter with the 24 hour news cycle, and insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results and higher poll numbers.” Or again: “the easiest way to get on CNN or Fox or any of the other stations – MSNBC – is to just say something rude or outrageous. If you’re civil, polite and you’re sensible, and you don’t exaggerate the bad things about your opponent… you might maybe get on one of the Sunday morning talk shows – but you’re not going to be on the loop”.
There are strong shades of Blair in the President’s simultaneous expression of outrage and media savvy. But for Blair, detachment from and disillusionment with the media were the result of a long love affair gone wrong. That’s why, for example, Tony Blair was the Prime Minister who introduced monthly news conferences – a genuine move in the direction of openness – because he was no longer getting his message across to his satisfaction via the conventional media. Alastair Campbell had tainted the well. And this was even before Kelly, Hutton, and the other disasters of 2003.
Obama has never tried to treat the media as his friend – however often he has employed their means of communication. Obama has tried to be detached rather than dependent on the MSM (mainstream media) from the outset – recognising that the digital age gives him many different platforms to get his message across, often with very little editorial intermediation. Indeed the 44th President is a digital multimedia phenomenon. It’s a year to the day [November 4th] since his election but Obama has already given more prime time news conferences than George W Bush did in two full four year terms. Obama has given more TV interviews (but almost all to the domestic US media) than any other President in modern times. He has already given two joint addresses to Congress. He is the first incumbent President to go on the Leno and Letterman late night talk shows. He has posted over a 1000 pictures on his Flickr site, gazumping the paparazzi with his own images. He is a bestselling author in print twice over, and he read his own audio books. His race speech was the most watched video on YouTube with over 1.6 million hits in 48 hours, and 7 million until now.
As Jennifer Senior logged in her excellent article, ‘the Message is the Message’ for New York Magazine – In one typical 36 hour period Obama had 11 televised or videoed interactions with the public in which he delivered messages on the surgeon general, healthcare, Africa, employee rights, Israel, urban renewal, Afghanistan, the economic stimulus, job training, community service, gays in the military and baseball.
None of these were soundbites – brief one line zingers. Instead Obama has realised that the limitless capacity of online and rolling news allow him to deliver considered statements on a range of topics which will be accessed by interested members of the public in their own time. The pressures of the 24/7 media mean that there is no longer just one daily news cycle. In its place, as Jennifer Senior stresses, is “an infinite media marketplace, with micro news cycles and niche news outlets,” where “no one story gains traction for very long, and there’s always room somewhere for one of your ideas”.
Frequent multiple communications allow Obama to try to set the context and frame an argument in the national conversation. By taking an issue up he can also set the topics for discussion, as he did in choosing to become involved in public following the arrest of the black Harvard professor Henry L Gates for breaking into his own home.
This approach is the opposite of a classic New Labour-type spin operation. A spinner tries to fix the views of opinion formers in the national media in the hope that they will influence the public. Obama takes the argument to the public first, in the hope that they will then help him swing the political classes. Most famously this was the way he built momentum for his own Presidential campaign, mobilizing the grass roots long before he was seen as a contender by the commentariat.
This process would be impossible without the dedication, application and range of 24/7 news provided by the internet. In contrast to traditional news packages, the political message conveyed by these media is much less editorialized and often transmitted live or as a simple recorded extract.
Of course as they are no longer the primary means of communication, the newspapers and daily TV news programmes have had to find a new secondary role. Some, including perhaps The New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS (reacting to the shrillness of cable news) and BBC terrestrial have gone in the direction of trying to be more authoritative and comprehensive than their round the clock competition. The alternative approach – exemplified in this country by the national press, ITV and Channel 4 News – is to seek impact through tendentiousness, concentrating not so much on the facts of a story as on exaggerated aspects or opinions on it.
These two approaches are of course in total conflict with each other even though some organisations try to go in both directions, using their websites and multi-channels in the opposite way to their premium output.
In Britain, viewers of 24/7 news see and hear so much of the primary sources for themselves; it is not possible to contrive stories and headlines in the same way as the periodical media. For example, a recent Times splash showed the Post Office workers’ leader Billy Hayes claiming to be “stronger than Scargill”. That was true in the sense that Mr Hayes pointed out that he had won a ballot of his union members for strikes unlike Arthur Scargill. But the comparison left the amiable Hayes giggling for all to see, when I interviewed him live the next day. My observation here is that terrestrial news bulletins are now more inclined to follow the high-impact newspaper agenda than 24/7 news whose extensive coverage often undermines an impressive if tenuous headline. Who is irresponsible now?
As I have explained, the path of evolution is different in America. Before leaving President Obama whose declamatory style has earned him nicknames such as the Explainer in Chief and the Professor in Chief, it would be remiss not to mention the current dispute with Fox News which has brought the White House down from its Olympian heights. Following the extensive coverage given by Fox to the anti-Obama tea parties, and the extreme comments of Glenn Beck, the channel’s newest ratings-busting host, White House political aides have declared war on the channel. They denied it access to Obama and called it a branch of the Republican Party and “not really a news station”. This has created some problems for Fox News, including the loss of a few advertising sponsors for some shows; a direct attack from the editorial pages of News Corporation’s own Wall Street Journal; and a drive inside the news channel itself to separate the news gathering service from the evening opinion shows, so that the main reporters no longer appear on the likes of Beck and Hannity. But overall it appears to have been a net positive, cementing Fox as the highly profitable ratings leader in the cable news sector. In America’s very different media world, where journalists enjoy the protection of the first amendment to the constitution, rather than give way to provocation, Obama might be well advised to remember that an omnipresent media strategy will probably work best when it is indeed omnipresent.
But this is a diversion which I consider has no immediate relevance to our media in Britain. I chose to make my career in television news because of our binding commitments to impartiality, and I am not one of those who supports weakening them, however many blandishments the BBC offers for us to vacate the centre ground to them. Nor do I believe that there is a living to be made in this country from providing fringe news. It follows that I don’t think that the Conservative proposals to loosen the impartiality rules are constructive. Sky News would be unlikely to alter its editorial position in those circumstances, and I certainly would not alter mine.
For quite understandable reasons, the BBC has often been reticent about innovation in programming, particularly in the highly visible realm of television news, when it risked confrontation with politicians. Competition has always been the driver of change, with independent companies taking the commercial risk even if the maintained BBC has subsequently occupied the territory gained with great professionalism. Thus it was the upstart ITV which first introduced news bulletins prepared and presented by journalists, coverage of elections within the 14 day quarantine period, World in Action, News at 10 and breakfast TV. And in 1989 Sky News brought 24 hour news to Europe, eight years and two general elections ahead of the BBC.
Once again, this pattern is being repeated in the latest effort by broadcasters to bring a new and important service to the viewing public: the campaign for a Leaders’ debate, or debates at the next general election.
With no debates Britain has long lagged behind the United States and Europe and even Iran. This September Sky News launched a campaign for a Leaders’ debate at the next election, urging the general public and politicians to support it. David Cameron and Nick Clegg agreed to participate immediately and Gordon Brown eventually gave his support some four weeks later.
On the day of our initiative, the BBC said that they were constrained from campaigning for a debate although they supported the idea in principle, while ITV accused Sky News of a PR stunt. Since then I am glad to say that the broadcasters have come together and we are now working with the parties to agree the format for a series of debates before the General Election.
This is the first time ever in British political history that the main party leaders, incumbents and challengers, favourites and underdogs have all agreed to debate in principle. I am confident that the debates will happen, not least because there is a growing realisation on both sides, TV and parties, what a disgrace it would be if we squander this great opportunity to re-engage a jaded public with the political process, using the best means at our disposal.
I believe the Leaders’ debates will set the example to encourage an election during which hundreds of debates will take place up and down the country, on and off the airwaves, between many combinations of candidates and party spokesmen.
Unmediated, unblinking, live news with plenty of room for contextualization and subsidiary debates. It’s what 24/7 news was made for.
But it all costs money. In television terms, news is relatively low cost per hour compared to drama, sport and entertainment but it is even lower in terms of revenue returned; not least because of the amount of so called “free” material available and the number of organisations fishing the waters.
To provide British viewers with the depth and quality of news which they expect requires that TV news organisations be part of a large and relatively indulgent parent company.
More broadly, in the current economic downturn, advertising-funded television companies are struggling.
All of us face competition of a kind from new technologies. Part of our response is to join in. In this country alone, Sky News is now consumed by tens of millions of people, on TV, online, on the radio, on YouTube and MSN, on big public screens, via Twitter and through iPod and mobile phone applications.
But our success in all these forums depends on a single thing: the reputation of our brand – the trust which our audience is prepared to place in us.
Looking at some of the toxic and bigoted rubbish circulated in blogs and blog comments, and the trivialities of Twitter – it’s not surprising that consumers look for quality.
But it requires significant investment to satisfy them. That’s why we must find ways of earning revenue from online. This is uniquely difficult in Britain for newspapers and broadcasters alike because the BBC’s pay TV model generally makes its product free at the point of use, undercutting the market.
Rather than trying to micro-manage and handicap existing businesses, these matters of competition and market distortion are matters which our legislators should be considering with urgency.
I look forward to reporting that debate.
But to conclude by answering my own question: Is 24/7 news free and irresponsible?
Free and independent in spirit certainly. And in practice – so long as we or our parent company can return a profit in the free market.
Irresponsible? Most certainly not. Our future depends on maintaining the trust of our viewers.
We are understandably, if sometimes excessively, burdened with all kinds of laws, regulations, and expectations – not to mention competitive pressures – which tone us up for the hard task of showing our viewers, in the most interesting way possible, the world as it is – right now in real time – so that they can make their own choices about how to live their own lives.
It’s a noble mission and one which I hope you’ll agree is much the same as that of Tom Olsen in Fleet Street’s heyday.
Perhaps it’s time to speak out. Let me see. We have one senior member of the cabinet who keeps, obsessively, cuttings about himself and is endlessly ringing up editors to complain about their political reporters. This minister, you may know who I mean, pretends to be high-minded about the press, perfectly pleasant in interviews but endlessly banging on about the dignity of politicians – always says he never leaks, all that – but everyone knows he has a little clique of favoured hacks, I think we can mention the Mirror and a certain London newspaper in particular – people whom he briefs privately in his ministerial offices, and who in turn spin their stories in his favour and against his so-called colleagues. Nothing new in that. The trouble is, everyone knows you-know-who is a schemer. Everyone knows he really thinks the prime minister is useless – including the prime minister. Then there is – another senior member of the cabinet – who keeps up a staunchly holier than thou image in public, playing up his trade union roots, exaggerates his accent, glares at hacks, but who is happy to relax over a whisky – rather a lot of whiskies with businessmen and toffs and string-pullers in private. You know who I mean. He’s the prime minister’s protective shield against half the Labour movement, the man who stops the plotters. That’s perhaps why he is so powerful. Hates chattering class journalists, and loathes, under past and present editors, the New Statesman. Who else? The desperate woman minister, who secretly adores one of her cabinet colleagues – himself locked in a loveless marriage – and who can’t understand why reform is so very hard to achieve. The plotters with the man who would be king, the one who claims to be the beating heart of the government, meeting and feeding little diary items to their tame hacks, from certain louch premises in Soho. The sneering loudmouth, probably a repressed homosexual, who is keeping some very interesting diaries indeed – will he dare publish them when he’s eventually fired – certainly used to spy on his colleagues. Speaking of diaries, let’s mention the newspaper diary hack turned Labour MP – an example, if ever there was one, of how inflated journalistic reputations can parachute you into the Commons. And of course above them all, the prime minister, who pretends to be aloof about the press, reputation on the slide, health problems always downplayed, but knows very well what’s really going on, with his tireless press secretary. He gives the hacks briefings but they are bloody useless. Meanwhile, you know, all of the cabinet whinge about their terrible press. They hate some of the cartoons, they find the stories they read a mix of fantasy and malice, and the sketch-writers are merely impertinent. They may have been elected but somehow it seems that a swathe of the media don’t accept, even now, their right to govern. Press intrusion is the other thing MPs talk about, endlessly – even the Tories in opposition find it hard, though at least one very senior front-bencher has been able to conduct a series of affairs including one with the wife of a conniving colleague, who hoped it would win him promotion. Kept that out the papers, just…
Well, you’ve probably guessed – I hope so – that I am describing old Labour, indeed the post-war administration of Mr Clement Attlee, rather than the current administration of Mr Tony Blair. The keeper of newspaper cuttings and whinger to editors is Herbert Morrison, grandfather of Peter Mandelson. The trade unionist who relaxes with rich chaps over the odd whisky and hates sneering lefty journalists is Ernie Bevin. The woman minister, who will later kill herself, is Ellen Wilkinson, struggling to reform the schooling system. The plotters meeting in Soho are the admirers of Nye Bevan, holed up in the Gay Hussar. The loudmouth diary keeper is Hugh Dalton, soon be to be fired for leaking part of the budget – and yes, he certainly will publish those diaries in due course. The diary hack is the ex-William Hickey man Tom Driberg. The prime minister is Attlee, at which point most of the parallels diverge into meaninglessness. But now it has a halo round it, generally known as the great post-war Labour government, sanctified by time and custom in the manner of Queen Victoria or Mr Alan Watkins, it is easy to forget how bitterly those ministers struggled with a press they regarded as biased, unfair, prurient and essentially hostile to the democratically elected government of the nation. Did they go for easy headlines without focussing on the detail and follow through? Look at the history of their nationalisations. It wasn’t just Labour, of course; the politician struggling to keep his affairs out of the papers was the then Tory deputy leader Anthony Eden. Things were different, of course they were. There was the old Lobby system and its culture of secrecy, there was far more social deference than there is today – which was why, in the succeeding government it was possible to keep the gravity of Churchill’s illness out of the papers for so long, entirely contrary to what a free society should expect. Adultery was common but divorce – even blameless divorce – could finish a political career. As for gay politicians, of course, disgrace and prison were waiting. Changed days. But my point is a simple one, which is that most of the time, outside grave national emergencies, wars and fleeting political honeymoons, the press and the politicians have been – not at war, but in a state of raw mutual tension.
Surprisingly often in the course of twentieth century political history, that tension has been so bad that people have talked of democracy itself being endangered. The bitter row between pro-Eden Conservative loyalists and the BBC during Suez let to the threat, at least, of the national broadcaster being taken under direct government control. The satire boom was accompanied by mumbles from politicians in all parties about how such scabrous, vicious, humiliating stuff was incompatible with proper grown-up politics. Macmillan may have turned up to watch Peter Cook mocking him at the Establishment club; -I say may, I heard this once, perhaps from Jonathan Miller, or perhaps I saw it on late night television while mostly drunk, or perhaps I dreamt it – anyway “may” – key journalistic word, may, probably the most useful word we have – as we all know, means, I have absolutely no idea about this bit but it’s too much fun to miss out, as in David Blunkett may return to the cabinet for a third time, informed sources told me in the press gallery bar last night, prime minister may have avian flu caught at the Buckingham Palace reception, and so on. At any rate, Harold Wilson did – not may have – did suck up to Richard Ingrams at the height of Private Eye’s political impact, inviting him to Downing Street… but there was a feeling at the time that things had gone too far, the press was too invasive, too impertinent, too close. It’s a well worn territory so just a single example that caught my eye recently, from Bernard Dononghue’s wonderful Number Ten diaries, rather later-period Wilson this, I3 May I975, “He still thinks of the press all the time. Whenever we meet in the corridors he generally stops to chat about ‘isn’t the press bloody awful today?’ or ‘Have you seen that terrible article in the Guardian?’…he actually compares different editions of the same paper to compare ways in which their mistreatment of him alters from day to day.” By that stage, Wilson was authorising staff to sue Private Eye, rather than oil up to it, and had tried to offer the press a new regime of openness on official secrets and slackening of contempt of court rules in return for less intrusion on the privacy of individuals… a deal gently refused. But this was the period, remember, of paranoia about Soviet spies in Downing Street, the amazing reign of Marcia Williams, living secretly with one of Fleet Street’s most powerful political editors, the era of mutterings about right-wing coups and Joe Haines’s suspension of lobby briefings. Relations between politicians and journalists then seemed about as bad as they could get without mutual violence. When Margaret Thatcher first arrived, things seemed very different – her rise to power had been assisted after all by favoured media barons, notably Rupert Murdoch, and favoured editors, none more important than the late Sir David English. In her early heroic era, with Geoffrey Howe’s first ferocious budget, the battles with the unions, the Falklands, strife between Number Ten and the media was pretty much along left-right lines; it was the BBC, the Guardian, pinko journalists generally, that got her and indeed Sir Bernard Ingham going. Briefly, very briefly, because I think we all know this history, what then happens is that traditionally conservative papers turn sour, and the great Tory civil war over Europe is fought out in the press, so that by the time John Major arrives, the Tory press is seething with anger and hurt over the great betrayal. He has to cope with the leftish press which feels the Conservatives have been in power too long already, and with the right-wing press which is in open revolt over Europe and Maastricht. Then comes black Wednesday, and press-wise it’s all over for him, satirised from both sides, later mocked to political death over the so-called sleaze era. In the Major years, political reporting finds a sadistic edge. The brimming hypocrisy of the Aitkens and the Archers feeds our anger. The blandness of the prime minister drives satirists to distraction. Never forget that he won an election, and governed for six years, but this is the time when political authority collapses. It happened for completely explicable conventional political reasons but to be frank, in my memory as a practitioner, it is also a time when the coverage of politics starts to feel like kicking puppies.
As to whether there is a God or not, I feel perhaps inhibited here and now – but there is some kind of cosmic justice, at least in politics. For the bloodlust as we tore into the Tories was whipped up and orchestrated by New Labour by Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and their friends – the very same people coming onto screens now and complaining about how the media’s impertinent hounding of their lot. We partly learned it from them. Or in playground terms, please miss, they started it. It was richly prepared for, this reckoning. The fall of David Blunkett, twice, the fall of Peter Mandelson, twice, the fall of Stephen Byers, Ron Davies… these are one-act dramas whose rhythm and smell, the mix of private misdemeanour, press pursuit, high-minded, self-righteous denial, the one day too many of headlines, the furtive back- door early morning visit to Downing Street, the moving personal statement outside, the closing door of the official car for the last time and the silhouette caught in the snapper’s flash – all of it hallowed by post-war theatrical convention, and in particular by the resignations and scandals of the Major years. Yes, we’d had it before, Lambton and Profumo, all that. The moralising afterwards, the careers shredded, the inquiries, the new systems to clean up public life. Even the more extreme life-into-theatre examples of today, the television satirical drama about David Blunkett’s sex life, or the play, are not quite as novel as some people seem to think; what Peter Cook was doing down in the establishment club, or even Spitting Image on domestic life with the Majors, are ancestral echoes. This is now part of how we do politics in this country. Has nothing changed? And is it a good way of doing our national business?
The case for the prosecution is almost too easy, but let’s rehearse it anyway. We journalists ask impossible standards from our politicians, standards at any rate most of us fall far short of. Leading hacks are well paid, generally better paid than the politicians. We have an easier life, and are mostly far less subject to scrutiny. When we are hounded we find it in general very, very horrid and we squeal something awful. Well, it is horrid. It hurts. Rebekka Wade, to be fair, didn’t squeal in public, but she was – as the media commentator Stephen Glover rightly pointed out, given a very easy time in the rest of the press. Had a politician been banged up overnight for attack his or her spouse, would that minister be in office by now? The BBC is slightly outside the conspiracy of mutual silence protecting most of the printed press because we are publicly funded, an identifiable other. If you’re on the telly, you’re fair game. But when I think of what I know about people across the digitalised virtual Fleet Street, I wonder sometimes at our eye-popping outrage directed at elected people. Could it be, perish the thought, just a tad synthetic just a whiff hypocritical? The defence is that people working in the market, employed by private companies and funded by advertising and sales, should not be judged as elected or public servants are judged, that they occupy a different moral universe. Private sector equals private life. Public sector means public life, in every sense. And while it is true that we have to pay our taxes, and we don’t have to buy newspapers, or subscribe to Sky television sports, is that enough of a final defence for this convenient distribution of privilege? In a world in which the private is so influential – lobbying the public sector, analysing it, satirising it, yet depending on it – should people working for a great media empire be treated so very differently from people working in, say the Scottish parliament or the Department for Work and Pensions? There is an uncomfortable question. My answer, let’s be clear, is not to have a wild free-for-all, but to say that we should mostly respect people’s dignity – everyone needs space around them to live in without public ridicule. And if we don’t get the best people going into politics perhaps it’s because of what happens to them if they do. And all that.
Let me turn to the case for the defence, however. For if there is one lesson I draw from my years of reporting, it is that things at the top are always just a little more lurid, just a little wilder, than was ever said in the papers at the time. I’ve alluded already to the government of Harold Wilson, when frankly Downing Street was madder and more paranoid than even Private Eye seemed to suspect… though the prime minister was not, so far as anyone could later establish, really working for Moscow. Already politicians were becoming aware that their secret world would eventually spill out into the open through the relatively new sin of keeping and publishing diaries. So far as I can recall, Hugh Dalton was the first sinner in this way – and perhaps other ways too. In an interesting example of the diarist noting the danger with diarists, then eventually publishing the result, Dononghue records the horror of the then cabinet secretary John Hunt when the first draft of the Crossman diaries arrived in Number Ten – appalling, terrible attacks on all the Labour leaders, “Hunt said it would bring the whole system into disrepute and would certainly be disastrous for this government to have its members denigrated in this way. He says B Castle is described as a boring old bag.” Dear me. Well, of course, the question is whether we have a right to know, at least after the event, what was really happening, and of course we do. This is not the same as having the right to know in real time, every conversation, though we’ll never say no thanks. But as I say, things are generally more shameless than we assumed. Coming right up to date, here is a recent Number Ten diarist, Lance Price, on a yet-to-be-published diarist, Alastair Campbell. Bill Clare of the foreign office has just gone off to work for Liam Fox and they are warned about how much he’s overheard. “So far we’ve laughed it off, but I think it could be quite serious. AC said as a result that life is on the record, so I guess it will now be OK for me to publish my full and frank account of life at Number Ten.” Which of course he then did. But Price goes on, “Last weekend, in an Observer interview, TB called for a new moral purpose in Britain. It was totally vacuous and was just made up to give us a good story after two twelve-year-old girls were found to have got themselves pregnant. But it worked…” When you read that, and when I recall just what was said before the Iraq war, and a thousand other examples, my enthusiasm for protecting the dignity of office rather shrivels.
Let’s turn, finally, to the most up to date spilling of beans, the new book DC Confidential by the former Washington ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, which is so very disobliging about Mr Tony Blair and many of his ministers but particularly, perhaps, the deputy prime minister John Prescott and the foreign secretary Jack Straw. Don’t underestimate the shock this has produced inside the system – for former spin- doctors to publish and be damned is one thing, but diplomats, ambassadors – who next? Sir Christopher is of course now chairman of the press complaints commission, as much of an insider in modem media London as he was before in political Washington. He knows, none better, how powerful the media baronies are compared to a fading political court. He knows the value of a ringside seat in the preparation for war. After you’ve sat there, you can dish ministers, and not worry, if you are supported in the media. Well, this is our version of the balance of powers. But Sir Christopher points me in a final direction. For his case against Blair is not that he was wicked, or conspired to deceive, but simply that he underestimated his own leverage in the Bush camp, and did not spend enough time on the detail of how to deal with post-war Iraq. Having promised after 9-11 that Britain would be with America at the last, as at the first, he was effectively captured by the logic of his own rhetoric. Now these are subtler, more political points than are often made against the government – compared to the lazy, easy, they’re all liars and rogues, they’re all corrupt stuff – and to my mind vastly more persuasive. We need to spend more time looking at the consequences of badly thought out policy, errors of choice, failures of concentration, and a little less time in a kind of lurid moral cartoon, in which everyone is good or evil, but mostly evil.
It used to be said the Russian political system in the days of the Czars was autocracy tempered by assassination. Sometimes our system looks more like amateurism tempered by humiliation. I think we need to start afresh by being honest about the motivations which drive many people in public life, and being honest about how natural they are, Sex, it seems to me, happens rather a lot. Certainly, where men are concerned it often involves a considerable loss of dignity, and sometimes a failure of judgement. This may be the case among lawyers, fishermen, cheese makers, car workers and editors, as well as politicians. It’s time for us to be a little more adult, in the old fashioned wholesome sense of the word, and a little less titteringly prurient. I loathed the fact that David Blunkett’s sex life was satirised on television. He is a man of many flaws, and they have brought him down – not us, not the media – his own flaws – but I also think he is a big man. He has suffered more, done more, kept going for longer, than – probably – most of us, all of us here? I don’t say the same about every member of the government, it contains little people too, but did we not wince at some of that stuff? Was what we did, in the media, humanly decent? Out there in the country, people are probably a deal more worldly-wise and forgiving than we assume, I just think that on such matters, a little less hyperventilating moralism would go a very long way. We didn’t need to know about Prince Charles and that tampax tape and frankly it would have been better – better for us, better for the country, as well as better for him – had we never known.
The same is not the case when it comes to money. Here too, it is worth remembering that politicians, including Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson as well as David Blunkett, find themselves living in a world of rich people – those who fund their political parties, who invite them to dinner as trophy guests, who want them to help their business by association – and it’s probably a good principle for the small investor that any business needing a politician on the letterhead is to be avoided. The editors they meet are better off. They are surrounded by people with second homes in the country or in Tuscany, or wherever. And though they have a good lifestyle while they are in office, and enviable pension deals, they naturally begin to think, why can’t I be rich too? Aren’t I important? Aren’t I successful? So they are softened up already for the tempting deals, soft loans, cheap shares on the up, all the things that can so easily bring them down. The answer is not to be worldly wise, still less tolerant about this. The membranes between private self-enrichment and cheating the public are too thin – conflict of interest is not a dry phrase, it’s what describes the moment before corruption enters the system. It matters very much. So when we ask, has nothing changed, remember that in this area, much has. The rules on disclosure of MPs income and on ministerial behaviour have been tightened and tightened again, so that the behaviour which brought down Mr Blunkett was far less serious than financial scandals in earlier times – the gross corruption of Lloyd George, and the favours that stained the reputation of ministers in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, Our systems are tougher now, and that’s a very good thing. In Gus O’Donnell, a thoroughly amiable, self-effacing man, I think we may have a cabinet secretary who is a genuine financial puritan and tough as nails. I do hope so, that would be a very good thing too. Journalists’ involvement in potential conflict of interest cases and traditional financial scandals, whether it be the Blairs and the Bristol flats story, or the Mandelson home loan story, or Railtrack, or the latest one, has been admirable, and right, whether it makes relations worse with politicians or not.
Must we hang together or hang separately, journalists and politicians? It turns out to be the wrong question. The reputation of politicians in this country has rarely been very high; the toot-tooting, suits you sir, oleaginous press of High Victorian and Edwardian Britain did the nation few favours -it was a time when we lost our industrial edge, over-extended our empire and came briefly close to civil war, before blundering into the great one. Better, surely, the disrespectful, finger-stabbing, questioning press of Georgian and early Victorian times, which returned and has stayed with us for most of the past century. Every few years there is a national debate about the low esteem politics is held in; and yes, we all depend on parliamentary politics to safeguard our liberties. But that’s about us all as citizens, not as a professional body. We should behave as journalists towards politicians as we should behave as citizens to them – that is, sceptical, questioning, prepared to challenge, but not sneering, prurient, or seeming to enjoy human tragedy. Journalists have fantastic influence. In the new online, digital multi-channel world, they are going to keep it. We’ll share some with bloggers and we will work often with smaller market share, but the hubbub of argument that is our national media will not be displaced or pushed aside, even by its real enemy, which is not politics but entertainment.
Having such influence, indeed power, we have to learn to use it better. We should be a little kinder towards human frailty a little harsher about policy failure, lack of follow-through, because that’s what hurts the country more. And the politicians? It wasn’t just spin that caused the trouble – spin in the sense of twisting stories. It was the deeper, corrupting belief that daily news management matters most. It doesn’t. For years now we have had it, and the result is cynicism – one more target, one more Initiative, one more promise, one more headline. The more impressive-sounding the five year plan, the bigger the disappointment when real life proves trickier and stickier. Daily news management is an addiction that confers status and offers excitement to those doing it, but which has skewed the attention of too many top politicians away from the real grind of carefully thought- through policies, consistently applied and meticulously followed through. Daily news management doesn’t matter so much – it is the application of ruthless professionalism to the wrong thing, or at any rate, second-order things. It hasn’t even won good headlines or supportive papers, has it? Perhaps the truth is that the news management obsession in government is what happens when too many hacks hop the fence into Whitehall. We don’t do politics well. We have short attention spans. We’re easily bored. That’s why we are journalists. If we stuck to our jobs, and the politicians to their jobs which are in the end more important, perhaps the country would have been a happier, more confident place over the past few years.
What a pompous note to end on! It must be the pulpit. Goodnight.
Suddenly there is Graham Greene everywhere. It is his centenary. And the media likes a centenary. If he had survived to be hundred, he might have been a bit of an embarrassment.The media does not like centenarians so much. None of the newspapers could have traced his sexual interests in the detail they have deployed in the past few weeks. Or, at least, not very politely. But a dead hundred-year-old, unprotected by libel law and with a back catalogue of late-night movies? Perfect.
Greene, himself, would not have been surprised by this. The man who wrote that ‘God exists only for leader-writers’ was a consummate observer of journalists and well known for having enjoyed his own early days in our trade. He wrote in his autobiography that being a Times sub-editor was helpful to any young writer. It taught compression and the art of culling clichés, particularly one’s own. It was night work, which left the sub-editor’s freshest hours for work which mattered more. Nor was it as monotonous as it might seem. World events were like Scrabble letters. At four o’clock in the afternoon you might have a rough idea of how the board might look at the end of the game. But the final arrangement was never fixed till the last tray of leaden type left the stone. The only real certainties that he saw were the falling of hot coals in the office grate, the opening time of the Chief Sub Editor’s favourite bar and something else,which amused Greene rather more, the regular risible vanity of his elders and betters. As we, later Times men, came to know to our cost, when Graham Greene became one of the elders and betters himself, there were few more prickly or more vain. But we are talking now of eighty years ago. Newspaper sub-editors in the years following the First World War boasted of their noble calling. They put themselves a cut above the pontificators, those who had inflated ideas about themselves, the confident predictors of the future. In his autobiography Greene does not first aim directly at leader-writers. He goes for a more trivial example of the all-knowing man, the playwright J.M Barrie who was the only person in the country, apart from the Prime Minister, whose speeches were published in The Times verbatim and in the first person. Barrie did not just send his not-yet-delivered speech texts, in full and in advance, to the sub-editors’ room. He sent also his impromptu responses to the predicted reactions of his audience, supposedly spontaneous responses to events which had not yet happened, such as “I see the Archbishop of Canterbury smiling skeptically in my direction and wickedly shaking his head”. When David Meara asked me to give this Olsen lecture, he explained that I too could have this text printed in advance. I decided against it. I didn’t want to write that “I see my former fellow leader-writers smiling skeptically in my direction…” It was not just my reluctance to tempt fate. By the time I had spent forty minutes predicting the leader-writers’ demise, I worried that my old friends might react with something stronger than a mere sceptical smile. The subject of this lecture is only a bit about God, even here in the beauty of St Brides. It is only a bit too about Graham Greene. It is most of all about leader-writers, for a century or more the most knowing of writers, once most privileged both to know and to predict, to prophesy and to judge. It is about an endangered species of which for more than twenty years I was a member, without quite seeing just how endangered we were. Whenever a journalist anywhere comes to retire, there is often a drink, or a dinner – and the Editor has to make a speech. Most of you here know the sort of thing I mean. There can’t be a newspaper man or woman here who hasn’t been to one, who hasn’t heard all those partially checked, half-remembered anecdotes, almost justified character assessments, all wrapped in a light soufflé of rhetorical conventions. Such speeches are not easy. How much, for example, does an Editor really know about his foreign correspondents, who think that even to visit the office might bring bad luck or, worse, bring them home? Or about the night sub-editors, like Greene himself, whose professional ambitions include ‘not being known’? Sometimes, as an extra help for the speech, the leaver’s friends offer their own anecdotes for the editor’s text, adding a further layer of unreliability to the confection. Sometimes friends are instructed to recall anecdotes, adding to the possible errors of memory the almost certain errors of the forced confession. There are also, however, the personal files. If the departing journalist had arrived only in the last twenty years, these held often little more than expenses disputes. Only if the retiree’s career stretched back further, would there be a bulging file, a paper trail from a very different journalistic age, carbon copied memos of meetings with ministers and police chiefs, military leaders, presidents, papal legates, confidantes of foreign kings and queens, carefully written assessments of war progress and peace prospects, and vivid descriptions. Most of this was what we would now know as Copy. Take the files from the early fifties, from south east Asia, in the long run-up to theVietnam War. We can read in the archives the description of eastern ministerial offices, the personal habits of Thai potentates, the view that Ho Chi Minh and his friends, once faced with the humdrum task of ruling half a real country, would soon feel a cooling of their revolutionary ardour. But it was not Copy which, in the modern sense, ever appeared in the paper. Looking through these frail carbons, I could imagine the features department of today saying, “great, let’s get a profile of that Siamese crook with the strange tastes from the whorehouse menu” or “terrific, what about a series on the war room gadgets of south east Asia”. But, at that time and for a good while after that these notes went primarily – and in many cases only – to the Editor and his leader writers who sat together daily, then and now, trying to agree about the world and what was going to happen in it. Some items of this unused copy were never intended for publication.They were Confidential Memoranda for the eyes of the people on the paper who made the judgements and predictions, the assessments of character and behaviour, in those days pretty much the only people who made such judgements. Some of these curling items were intended for publication but never made it into print. Censorship? Rarely, if ever. Squeezed out for lack of space? Every night. Papers in those days were tiny by the standards of today. The practical effect of low publication rates was not just a discontented correspondent, or indeed a contented one since not all our colleagues love work above all else – whatever the editor’s retirement speech may say.The real practical result was an extraordinarily well informed set of leader-writers, working for an editor who had what amounted to a personal intelligence service.
All British correspondents – and especially those from The Times – could regularly meet the movers and shakers of the age. And the results of these meetings with world leaders and their minions, written often with panache and always at length, were given to the editor so that he and his leader-writers might make their own assessments of future actions, motive and character. These carbon copied accounts even sometimes refer – not always with great respect – to the printed stories written by the same correspondent who is writing the confidential memo. It was the memo which seemed to matter, which allowed the Times leader writers back in London to be more knowing, more seeing than anyone else, which made editors able to meet the foreign secretary on near equal terms. Your man in Singapore says this about the Viet Minh. Mine says that. And so on. The words from Graham Greene which give this lecture its title come from his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American.Greene did not cover Vietnam for The Times. He went there only after his success as a novelist. He did, however, meet one of the most famous Times correspondents, Louis Heren, one of those from whose confidential memoranda I have been drawing. Greene’s hero, Fowler, is a self-consciously, fact-driven reporter for an English paper in the years before the Vietnam War had properly begun. The French had not yet fled. The Americans were merely observing – some more quietly than others. The title character is an American agent, Pyle, who knows, or thinks he knows, how the Vietnamese can be motivated away from communism, how they can be changed and who can change them. He and the reporter are rivals over a girl and over how much we can know of others. The reporter wakes one morning with the girl beside him and his rival dead and with a typical Greene-world question: had man invented an understanding God because man was so incapable of understanding himself? There is a strong smell of opium in the air. It hangs there rather as the question hangs. Then Fowler remembers who he is: ‘Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand, I would bamboozle myself into belief. But I am a reporter’, he says. ‘God exists only for leader-writers’. Leader-writers do not get too many mentions in fiction – or even in press history. So I have given this line some thought. Is Greene merely mocking leader-writers as verpaid, under worked, pompous teacher’s pets? He would not be the first Times sub-editor to take that stance. For £250 a year in 1926 Greene had vied with his fellows to see how much they could remove from writers’ copy without losing the sense. Thirty per cent was an average score. But he couldn’t touch the leaders.Those were sacrosanct – in a well nigh literal sense. Leader-writers could attack each others’ clichés, and often did, carping about so-and-so’s use of ‘more must be done’, ‘must try harder’ and ‘crying out for action’. But ordinary spotters of pompous cliché, even the most senior ones, could intervene only for contempt or libel. There was once a time, even much later, when Louis Heren was Deputy Editor to William Rees Mogg and anxious in the early evening about a highly offensive leader about the PM which the Editor had written before leaving the office. Heren could not contact Rees Mogg. He felt he could not change any words. He just removed one or two, guiltily, sparingly, even though he was in charge of the paper at the time. Which is why we still have the line ‘Better George Brown drunk than Harold Wilson sober’, arguably one of the finest lines in twentieth century Times leaders. But let us go back to Greene at The Times in 1926, watching the coals, checking the names of marrow-growing clergymen in Crockford’s Directory and winning, he tells us, a silver matchbox for his work during the General Strike. When later he wrote The Quiet American, thinking back to The Times as he said he often did, was he, not so much mocking leader-writers’ pretensions, as simply, saying that it was no great job to be a leader-writer? A few pages later in the novel, the reporter receives a telegram promoting him to be Foreign Editor, the job whose responsibilities included charge of foreign leader writing. He is horrified.’I was to be a reporter no longer. I was to have opinions, and, in return for that, empty privilege. I was deprived of my last hope’ . This is a familiar cry to any Editor’s ear. I don’t recall anyone ever coming up to me when I was Editor and begging a job as a leader-writer. Golf correspondent? That was different. Greene was, most of all, attacking those with fixed views for improving distant parts of the world. His quiet American, Pyle, a name designedly like a haemorrhoid, is a caricature of a leader-writer himself, a man whose knowledge comes mostly from the books around his desk, a caricature based in part upon Greene’s highly opinionated and high-paying anti-communist American editor in the fifties, Henry Luce of Time Life. Greene knew that Times leader-writers had a somewhat godlike view. Greene knew his Times, both the very special status claimed for its opinions and the special efforts made to ensure that they were maintained. Records of that go back to the Crimea. William Howard Russell’s first published report from Gallipoli, on April 24, 1854, describes how the French had got to the beaches first and commandeered all the best accommodation, every last sunbed, conveniently far away from where anyone would have to fight. This might be seen as good straight reporting about the current continental rival in the best British tradition. The reporter then gives the editor his private account of the failings of British management – the information which helps Delane become one of the most farsighted editors in newspaper history. By Greene’s time as a sub-editor, according to the Times archivist, Eamon Dyas, the system was somewhat faded. The paper had become bigger and the lines of communication between the Editor, beset by commercial problems, and the men in the field, increasingly managed by a Foreign Department, had become too long. Then came the Thirties, Appeasement, and the realisation that the Editor had paid too little heed to the fears about Hitler felt by his Berlin correspondent.What happened at that time has been much disputed. The post-war result, however, was plain enough. Appeasement brought lessons to The Times as well as to the country. And one of them was a more formal system of Confidential Memoranda from correspondents to the Editor and his leader-writers.
The Cold War – which Greene and Heren were observing at first hand in the early fifties – also had an impact. Editors needed to know about places which, before, they did not need to know. The poet journalist Basil Bunting sent vivid confidential memorand – as well as unused copy – from the shakey court in Tehran. He told the leader-writers of the Empress’s ‘itchy’ fingers on the triggers of politics – and what the communists were up to. And he was much appreciated. Intelligence was valued much more than copy. Incidentally, Bunting never forgave those leader-writers their hypocrisy when, having thundered loudly against his expulsion from Persia, they then, on his return home, let him ‘starve’, as he put it, as a sub editor on the Newcastle Daily Journal. The war between leader-writers and sub-editors has had many battlefields. The Editor and his team, watching the Cold War from home, had queries about the whole world.Where precisely were the Vietnamese borders? Who were the Vietnamese? No one much had needed to know until the need was suddenly rather great. Times leader-writers commissioned lengthy papers from themselves and from correspondents who sent vivid confidential memoranda back to base. Louis Heren was then The Times man in the Far East, a man as self-consciously, down-to-earth and in his own mind purely fact-driven, as Greene’s own reporter hero. Greene had visited Heren and his wife in Singapore before his first Vietnam trip though, as the reporter recalled, had shown more interested in Scotch than journalism. Heren’s memos home – the jibes at crooked ministers and generals, the jovial treatment of national characteristics – contained just the sort of information that could not then be published in columns or profiles but which gave an editor the opportunity to take up a suitably all-knowing pose, the pose that the Cold War seemed to demand.
In his new Editor, Sir William Haley, Heren had just the man who appreciated that. Haley had joined The Times from the bureaucratic BBC. He was not an editor to mull matters over in informal chats – even those dignified with the name of conferences. He liked seeing arguments on paper, to a degree which journalists today would find quite amazing. He had also inherited a group of leader-writers who liked to read a lot, had time to read a lot, and who were keen to increase their power. Many things had changed since 1926. When Greene, fallen on hard days after the war, tried to rejoin The Times, he had been told that: Since your day, the tents have been folded and moved on’. But much had NOT changed. Greene likened the ‘tents have been folded’ line to Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and it was not much more true than that Red Indian romance. As the proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, had once put it, the staff well represented the paper’s origins on the site of a Monastery. Even thirty years later still, when I joined The Times, older journalists were called Black Friars. The leader-writers, distinguished intellectuals, Oxbridge fellows, were known collectively, always thought of collectively, as the College of Cardinals. It was a smaller college in 1980 than in the fifties and sixties. Some of those writing leaders had by then agreed even to do additional other duties. This had been in their interests for some time. Sir William Haley, like all editors, had to face the need for change. William Rees Mogg had accelerated what Haley had begun. By-lines were allowed on the news pages. Opinions could be held – by someone other than the Editor and a privileged few. Fame was possible for journalists, even gradually, but only very gradually, favoured. Heren himself was still there in 1980 – a man of great bulk but ghostly now. He had rejoiced when by-lines were introduced – when his published work no longer had to be headed ‘From Our Own Correspondent’. He was not short of opinions. But he was not a leader writer. God still existed for leader-writers. They were different. Heren accepted that fact, even if he would snort in his scotch about their pretensions. Heren had been much more suited to that earlier age when he could tell others, in a long and spritely memo of April 22, 1953, that ‘the Siamese are not so stupid as is sometimes believed’ and ‘for an independent nation, have remarkably little concern for the sanctity of their borders’; that ‘General Phao, the Siamese police chief, is a crook’ and that the connection between the Vietminh and the Free Thai Movement may be too smart to be true but the Minister believes it: ‘so that’s why I wrote that piece last Friday’. Eamon Dyas found me that published piece last week. It begins with a highy subbable intro: ‘There can be little doubt that the latest drive of Viet Minh forces westwards towards the associated state of Laos is part of a long planned campaign… etc etc’. It continues dull, dreary. Greene could have cut it by a good deal more than a third. The memo, by contrast, is like overhearing bar chat at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The editor got both. He could tell friends about the crooked Phao as authoritatively as though he had just come from Bangkok. He could take other soundings and judge Mr Phao as freely as any novelist. The published story reads like an official memo. The memo reads like a story. Leaders were at the centre of the paper in every sense. The other day I found a leaving card of my own – given to me by colleagues at the Sunday Times Business News when I left them for The Times in 1981. It showed me on a magic carpet and it read: ‘Here comes FLOATING CENTRE MAN’, a reference to the then bitter row about allowing the double page spread of Times leaders and letters to ‘float’, to lose its guaranteed spot in the centre of the paper. Floating the centre was heresy in 1981. The Cardinals did not like it at all. Their confidential memoranda may have become less frequent. Some of what had once been exclusive to leader-writers was now being shared directly, unmediated, with readers. That was bad. But moving the pulpit was a reformation too far. From the Cardinals’ point of view, it was one of many unwanted changes. There was also the content of the leaders. In Charles Douglas-Home, Editor from 1982-85, the leaders writers found a master with his own powerful beliefs, which included his own powerful and unorthodox Christian belief, set out in 1983 in then notorious leaders headed ‘Church and State’ and ‘The Way of the Cross’, attacking the church’s emphasis on adapting to science and sociology, placing rationality, it was claimed, as no more than another ritual, even mere fashion. I witnessed no greater leader rows than whether the Editor could commit the whole paper to his highly personal, direct, anti-rational association with God. Distressed Cardinals accused Douglas Home of setting Times dogma, abandoning the comforting High C of E of William Rees Mogg, of setting out in public what would, in their view, have better suited a ‘private hermitage’. Memos flew. Draft position papers were demanded, anything ‘to bind us all together’. The Editor argued that irrationality was everywhere in every paper but retreated to the extent of saying that his dogmas were not binding on the rest of the college, opening himself to the charge that they should not have been leaders at all but articles under the Editor’s own name. It was quite a battle. C D-H recognised that lofty leader writing required an intelligence service. But he introduced his own, a rival college. We had a schism. The Cardinal virtues were moderation in all things. Cardinal enthusiasms did not include Thatcher or Reagan. C D-H pronounced fully the virtues of this pair and added some hard-line heroes of his own. One of my own hardest jobs in newspapers – probably ever, I think – was as coordinator of Charlie’s own views, the views of these auxiliaries, with the views of the sitting College, and keep the leader line consistent. In those days ‘nonsense’ was a mild reproach from one side to another. ‘Primitive tribalists’: those were the Editor’s words attacking trade protectionists in ex cathedra print one day. Then came the silky reply from a Cardinal next morning. ‘I don’t think the argument is improved by expressions like ‘tribalism’ for our opponents’ position and ‘analytical rigour and refinement’ for our own. Many of The Time’s own church fathers were Catholics. There were occasional angry memos from the Protestant tendency complaining that Basil Hume was hogging our attention and that ‘Cantuar’, as the successor to J M Barrie’s Archbishop was known in leader conference, was being neglected. The Cardinals believed in editorial authority. But they had lost control of their Pope. Even more so, they had lost control of the rest of the paper. Suddenly, as it seemed to them, there were everywhere ‘magazine pieces’ (It is hard to recreate the dismissal in that phrase), half pages about ‘gynaecologists’ (of little interest to Cardinals). There were profiles of actors – based on ‘the worst Freudian fallacies’, as a senior leader-writer once complained to me.There were character sketches of politicians, full of stories little more reliable than in an editor’s leaving speech. Personal irrelevancies – what we now know as colour – were placed alongside political decisions. Columnists and feature writers were even sometimes giving religious interpretations of action mostly ill founded interpretations. Last year, I vividly recalled these rows during the reports of Bush and Blair ‘praying together’ before the Iraq War.What would the Cardinals have made of all that? How much better life had been when God really had existed only for leader writers. Graham Greene himself might have concurred with these protests – even though, in my time at the paper, his communications with The Times were mostly to protest about our inexplicable reluctance to publish ex cathedra comments that he himself, now the JM Barrie of his age,wanted to make in print. Portrayal of character – and comprehending the limits of characterisation – was a high novelists’ art. Even leader-writers should be wary. Now, it seemed, everyone was at it. For a Cardinal at The Times in the early eighties life was in many ways frustrating. Like top Catholics in the early Elizabethan age, not only did they see Protestant individualism breaking out all over in uncontrolled and pluralist forms, on the sports pages, on women’s pages. But even the strong man at the top did not want to put the revolts down. as long, it seemed, as he could promote his own personal and idiosyncratic faith. Charles Douglas Home appeared to them was like some mercurial extremist Pius IV, too bold in his leaders, not bold enough in dimming different approaches elsewhere. Suddenly – and not much has changed in that regard since the eighties – nothing existed only for leader writers. Speed was increasingly against the Cardinals. We were beginning to move – hurtle as the Cardinals would have put it – to the position we have now, where we tell our readers what we know as soon as we know it, where we publish much more of what we know – because we can; where a secret is a story that someone else will publish if we do not, where an original insight is an insight that someone else will soon make unless we make it fast, where a leading article is just one of many places in a paper where judgements are given; where many of the arguments which once took place before publication – or before any publication that included assessment or judgement – now take place afterwards; and what an editor and his leader-writers know is much more akin to what the readers and other newspaper writers know. Thus did the fear of the Cardinals come true. Colleges of leader writers are now everywhere much smaller and in many places barely existent at all. C D-H himself concentrated most of all on distinctive leaders that he wrote – wholly himself – often from home on a Sunday. In a rare breach of Times protocol, under which all leaders have been anonymous, these ‘specials’ were collected and published after his death, under the title ‘Leading Articles from The Times under Charles Douglas Home’. He would have been happier, in many cases, as would have been his leader writers, if many of these had been published under his own name in the first place. Leaders are a collective activity. Douglas Home’s greatest fear, in this as in so much else, was the submerging of the individual by the collective. For him, and for me, the modern newspaper was – and is -a healthier place. Today, most leader-writers write also under their own names. So do Editors. Leader-writers have columns of their own, feature and profile-writing opportunities of their own – all much more rewarding and cost-effective than writing all those discussion documents. Once, if there were any humour in a paper, it was in its bottom leader. That remains. But there is humour and light writing in many other pages too. The monolith has broken – even its decorations. Leader-writers – at The Times and elsewhere – still have some of the old leisure to keep themselves informed beyond the demands of daily writing. They do maintain the discipline of arguing a line, having their assumptions tested. Some of my most enjoyable hours at The Times were in leader conferences. But we did not have private intelligence agencies of our own – either internal or external. I sometimes wondered, during my ten years editing The Times, whether leader-writers – as Greene knew them – might not cease to exist altogether. The system of confidential memoranda is not wholly dead. Sometimes we would circulate notes of a prime ministerial lunch meeting. But competition – within papers as well as between them – made even that practice less common. Perhaps other news organisations do circulate discussion papers from their bureaux afar, though not, I think, with the volume desired by Haley.
Newspapers will always want from time to time to nail their colours to a mast. But a signed piece by the Editor can do that now just as well. In this year, 2004, enthusiasts for Graham Greene are enthusiastically celebrating the centenary. Lovers of The Quiet American have rarely had so many editions to choose from. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is also, as it happens, a hundred years old, with its own new releases to match. Perhaps Green’s problem with the pompous playwright was a peculiar sibling rivalry.War reporters have rarely been more regarded – and rightly, for continuing acts of courage, celebrated and all too often mourned in St Brides. In White House and Downing Street the existence of God, however much the media and many churchmen may protest, is celebrated with greater fervency than at any time for a century. Here maybe, in the great church of Fleet Street, we need to worry more about the existence of leader-writers.
This is the 10th anniversary of Tom Olsen’s death. I am greatly honoured to give this lecture bearing his name. When I look at the list of my predecessors I regard it as a particular distinction to be invited to speak tonight.
There is no greater threat to spiritual or physical freedom, which is the theme of these lectures than the Arrogance of Power, which is the title I have chosen. I shall be looking particularly at examples of power exercised by politicians, the media and lawyers. None of you personally need feel anxious that you will be the subject of comment tonight.
There are three quotations that come readily to mind when we talk about the Arrogance of Power. They will be familiar to you. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote 1st Lord Acton. “We are the masters at the moment” said Sir Hartley Shawcross the newly appointed Attorney General in the Labour government of 1945, “and not only at the moment,” he went on, “but for a very long time to come”. Finally “Only little people pay taxes,” said Mrs Leonora Helmsley wife of the American property tycoon in the 1990’s.
Let us turn firstly to the lawyers. William Penn was a Quaker. He was educated at Christchurch Oxford. He came under the influence of John Owen and was sent down for non-conformity in 1661. He went to Lincoln’s Inn and was then sent to Ireland to take care of his father’s Estate. He had all the self confidence of a rich young man. In the opinion of Mrs. Pepys he was “a most modish person and a fine gentleman”. He resolved to become a Quaker Preacher. In 1688 he was sent to the Tower for attacking the contemporary understanding of the Trinity as a fiction and denying the orthodox calvinist doctrines.
In 1670 the Quakers were locked out of their Gracechurch Street meeting house by soldiers. They met in the street outside where Penn preached to the crowd. As a result Penn and William Mead were indicted for riot; their trial reflects no credit on the judiciary.
There were 12 jury men. Bushell was their foreman. His name subsequently entered judicial history. The conduct of the trial was in the hands of Sam Starling the Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Howell Recorder, five Aldermen, two Sheriffs and a gentleman called Richard Browne.
Trouble started at once. The prisoners had taken their hats off out of respect for the court. The Lord Mayor asked who had allowed them to take off their hats. He ordered them to be put on again. One of the Officers replaced the hats on their heads whereupon the Recorder proceeded to fine Penn and Mead for contempt of court for wearing their hats in Court.
Witnesses spoke of a crowd and of Penn preaching but they could not identify what was said. One particular witness said he didn’t see Mead. The Recorder thinking to fill in the gap in the prosecution evidence asked Mead whether he was there. Mead said “It’s a maxim in our law that no man is bound to accuse himself” and added “why dost thou offer to ensnare me with such a question, doth not this show thy malice, is this like unto a judge thought to be counsel for the prosecution?”.
There then followed an exchange between the Recorder and Penn about where in the common law the indictment lay. At the end of it the Lord Mayor ordered that Penn should be taken away into the bail dock at the back of the Court. Mead then addressed the jury. The Mayor said “You deserve to have your tongue cut out”. Mead was also taken into the bail dock. The Recorder proceeded to sum up the case to the jury out of the hearing of the prisoners. When Penn appealed to the jury that he couldn’t hear, the Recorder said “Take them away to the hole; to hear them talk all night as they would, that I think does not become the honour of the court; and I think you the jury yourselves will be tired out and not have patience to hear them.”
The prisoners remained in the hole while the jury was sent away to consider their verdict. After and hour and half eight of the jury came down; four remained upstairs; When the court sent an officer for them, they came down. The bench made a number of threats to the four that had descended. The Recorder addressed himself to Bushell and said “Sir you are the cause of this disturbance and manifestly show yourself an abettor of faction. I shall set a mark upon you” and Robinson, one of the Aldermen made the same comment. The jury were then sent out again and returned after a considerable time. When asked whether Penn was guilty of the matter, the foreman said “Guilty only of speaking in Gracechurch Street”.
The Recorder refused that verdict. The jury demanded pen, ink and paper the court adjourned for half and hour. When the jury returned they handed in a piece of paper recording the same verdict of not guilty of riot.
The Recorder said they had to reach a verdict and told them that they would be locked up without meat, drink, fire or tobacco. The jury was sent off for the night without meat, drink, fire or tobacco or any accommodation; they didn’t even have a chamber pot between them. At 7 o’clock next morning the court sat. The jury again found Penn guilty of speaking in Gracechurch Street but not guilty of riot.
The jury were again addressed by the bench. Again they retired and again came back with the same verdict. The Recorder told Bushell he was a factious fellow and would have an eye on him. The Lord Mayor said to the jury “Have you no more wit than to be led by such a brittle fellow. I will cut his nose”. When Penn complained that the jury were being menaced the Lord Mayor said “Stop his mouth”, and ordered the gaoler to bring fetters and stake him to the ground. The Recorder said “Till now I never understood the reason of the policy and prudence of the Spaniards in suffering the inquisition among them; and certainly it will never be well with us till something like unto the Spanish inquisition be in England.”
The Recorder told the jury “You shall go together until you bring in another verdict or you shall starve. I will have you carted about the City as in Edward III’s time.”
The court adjourned until the next morning. The jury came back and again found Penn and Mead not guilty. Penn asked for his liberty. It was refused. He and Mead remained in custody because they had been fined for contempt of court. They were sent to Newgate Prison for non-payment of the fines. Today such arrogance on the part of the Bench would instantly be reported by the media and condemned by the public.
Four of the jury men were also imprisoned. They sought a writ of Habeas Corpus. In Bushell’s case, named after their ringleader, the jurymen submitted that a jury cannot be punished for its verdict. The Court upheld that view. Thus the sanctity of a jury’s verdict in English law was established. The right of a jury to bring in it’s own verdict in the face of a hostile judge has ever since been a brake on judicial arrogance. I wish I could say that today judicial arrogance has totally vanished.
May I give another example. John Perlzweig otherwise known as Robert Liversidge was an enemy alien. On 26th May 1940 the then Home Secretary directed that he should be detained. The power to detain was given to the Secretary of State by Regulation 18B: “If the Secretary of State has reasonable cause to believe any person to be of hostile origin or associations and that by reason thereof it is necessary to exercise control over him, he may make an order against that person directing that he be detained.” Liversidge was so detained in Brixton.
On 14th March 1941 he issued a writ against Sir John Anderson and Herbert Morrison who were the Home Secretaries concerned. During the course of the civil proceedings for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment he sought details of the reasonable grounds upon which the Home Secretary had acted. All the lower courts held that the phrase “If the Secretary of State has reasonable cause” means “if the Secretary of State thinks he has reasonable cause” and that the only implied condition was that the Secretary of State acted in good faith.
Four of the Law Lords accepted that view. Lord Atkin was a liberal minded judge. In a well known speech he dissented. In his speech he said “I view with apprehension the attitude of judges who on a mere question of construction when face to face with claims involving the liberty of the subject show themselves more executive minded than the executive”.
Lord Atkin went on: “In this country amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed but they speak the same language in war as in peace. It has always been one of the pillars of freedom, one of the principles of liberty for which on recent authority we are now fighting, that the judges are no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any attempted encroachments on his liberty by the executive, alert to see that any coercive action is justified in law. In this case I have listened to argument which might have been addressed acceptably to the court of King’s Bench in the time of Charles I.
“I know of only one authority,” said Lord Atkin, “which might justify the suggested method of construction. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’. ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be the master, that’s all.’ After all this long discussion,” said Lord Atkin, “the question is whether the words ‘If a man has’ can mean ‘If a man thinks he has’. I have an opinion that they cannot and the case should be decided accordingly.”
Lord Simon, the Lord Chancellor, wrote in somewhat arrogant terms to Lord Atkin seeking to persuade him to withdraw part of his speech before delivery. Lord Atkin not unreasonably refused. It is now the better view that Lord Atkin was right and the other judges wrong.
Sometimes it happens that what appears to be the arrogance of lawyers turns out to be no such thing. In 1977 the Union of Post Office Workers resolved to call on all its members not to handle mails into South Africa as a protest against apartheid. Mr Gouriet was a concerned citizen. He needed the Attorney General’s consent to act as plaintiff to bring an injunction to restrain the Union. The Attorney General Sam Silkin QC refused. Mr Gouriet himself obtained an injunction. He then sought a declaration that the Attorney General had acted improperly and that he had wrongfully exercised his discretion in refusing to act as plaintiff. Lord Denning started his judgment as follows:-
“On the Saturday before last an ordinary citizen came to this court. He came, he said, on behalf of the public at large. He told us that a powerful Trade Union was breaking the law and was going on breaking it. He asked us to make an order restraining them from doing so. We made the order. We made it in the very words of the statute of the realm. Our order was effective. The Trade Union to it’s credit, obeyed it, so there has been no trouble. The breach of the law has been prevented. Yet the Attorney General came before us on the next Tuesday and speaking with all the great authority of his office, he rebuked us. He told us we had no jurisdiction to make that order”…
“What then does it all come to, if the contention of the Attorney General is correct: It means that he is the final arbiter as to whether the law should be enforced or not…
“Take warning” said Lord Denning, “from history not from a previous Attorney General but from a King himself. James II claimed that by virtue of his prerogative he could suspend or dispense with the execution of all penal laws in matters ecclesiastical. He had reasons which to him at least were most compelling. He desired religious toleration and civic equality but the people of England would have none of this prerogative. The jury showed that at the trial of the seven bishops Seven Bishops case 1688 12 State Trials 183 and at the very first opportunity Parliament enacted the Bill of Rights 1688. It declared:-
“That the pretended power of suspending of laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal.”
“Mercifully,” said Lord Denning, “our constitution has I believe provided a remedy. It is what I have already said. If the Attorney General refuses to give his consent to the enforcement of the criminal law then any citizen of the land can come to the courts and ask that the law be enforced. This is an essential safeguard for were it not so the Attorney General could by his veto saying “I do not consent” make the criminal law have no effect. Confronted with a powerful subject whom he feared to offend, he could refuse his consent time and time again. Then that subject could disregard the law with impunity. It would indeed be above the law. “This cannot be permitted” said Lord Denning. “To every subject in this land, no matter how powerful, I would use Thomas Fuller’s words over 300 years ago ‘Be you ever so high the law is above you’.”
The Attorney General not unnaturally was somewhat incensed. The case went to the House of Lords.
Lord Dilhorne who had been an Attorney General himself, poured scorn on the views of Lord Denning and said that the inference that Sam Silkin had abused or misused his powers was not one that should be drawn. There was no challenge, as Lord Denning, seemed to think, to the rule of law. The Attorney General had a wide discretion as to whether or not to lend himself to the proceedings and some observations made by Lord Denning in another case did not correctly state the law. The courts could not review the Attorney Generals decision. They let Lord Denning down quite lightly, Lord Edmund Davies said “that Lord Denning was unfortunately mistaken in his view”. The other Law Lords agreed. Even Homer nods.
Let us not think arrogance is a modern phenomenon. Hubris and Nemesis are familiar words in Greek literature.
Plato in his Republic traced the stages by which democracy was transformed into tyranny. An excessive desire for liberty at the expense of everything else was what undermined democracy and created a demand for tyranny. A democratic society in its thirst for liberty might fall under the influence of bad leaders. The minds of the citizens became so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint was resented as intolerable and in their determination to have no master they disregarded all laws written or unwritten. That was the route from which tyranny sprang.
Democracy in Greece, Plato believed, arose when the rich failed to notice the growth in power of the poorer classes and were eventually overthrown. It was a society in which all citizens had equal political opportunity to hold public office, regardless of their fitness for it and had the freedom to do as they wish. Pleasure became the test which determined what each man was to do. There was thus a lack of respect for authority and the rule of law; and as a result a democracy lacked cohesion and tended to anarchy. the democratic man was a kind of hedonist believing himself to be free but totally at the mercy of his ephemeral impulses.
The ordinary citizens looked for a popular leader. In due course he came to gain absolute power and could only be removed by assassination. The tyrant was a man who starting out as a democrat, fell totally in the grip of a master passion, and absolute power. He became a regular megalomaniac and readily fits into our concept of arrogance of power.
Plato describes how in a tyranny the leaders rob the rich, keep most of the proceeds for themselves and distribute the rest to the people. The mob will do anything he tells them and he gets rid of opposition by murder, exile, execution, and he redistributes land. At the beginning he has a smile and a kind word for everyone. He says he is no tyrant and makes large promises public and private. He puts on a generally mild and lenient air.
When we consider how some modern dictatorships exist it is clear that nothing much has changed.
Plato’s answer to the question “who should rule” was that a specially trained group of intellectuals should do so. That was described as aristocratic from the Greek word Ariston and Kpatos meaning ruled by the best. He envisaged a system of tests and training partly physical, partly intellectual and party moral; having passed those tests there would be further training in the abstract sciences. This system was justified on the basis that in absolute power, ruling is a skill just as medicine is a skill for which people had to be properly trained. Plato’s theory about the absolute standard of goodness meant that the ruler would not be imposing his own personal standards on the other members of society but directing their behaviour in those ways he knew to be right. The best that can be said about this theory is that arrogance was never intended to play a part.
The practical objection to Plato’s argument was that even if it is admitted that ruling is a skill, individuals differ in their ability to exercise such skill. Nor does it follow that to give a ruler absolute authority means that authority will be exercised either properly or with skill. It was Plato’s belief that knowledge of the good would necessarily lead to virtuous behaviour. We can call this naivete run riot.
Whereas Plato was concerned with establishing the perfect society Aristotle tended to confine himself to a detailed examination of actual Greek States with a view to discovering what might be the best or most balanced form of Government. While Plato conceived laws by which the rulers imposed order on the classes, Aristotle tended rather to encourage citizens to play an active role in the running of the state. He examined different kinds of democracies and oligarchies and the conflicting claims of such states and monarchy. He argued that the latter, monarchy, is theoretically the ideal form of Government on the ground that the ruler of such a constitution would be superior in wisdom and virtue to all of the citizens i.e. a god among men. It is astonishing how topical that question is today.
Because no such individual could be found he believed in a constitution which combined the best elements of democracy and oligarchy, with the participation of as many citizens as possible, because those citizens who are politically active necessarily possess the leisure, wealth and property which are essential in an ability to govern. He never considered arrogance as part of the exercise of power.
John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty” said: “The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle. That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self protection. That the only purpose by which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will, is to prevent harm to others… The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is of right absolute. With himself over his own body and mind the individual is sovereign”. Mill was clearly conscious of the power of the state and the part that arrogance played in its exercise.
Let us not forget that in everyday life our freedoms are constantly eroded not only by the all powerful but also by those little people who have the authority to direct and control our affairs.
John Vaizey, Professor Lord Vaizey, one of the most distinguished economists of our time and the first to consider and write about the “Economics of Education”, was during the war in his mid-teens, confined to hospital, paralysed for most of the time. In 1959 he published “Scenes from Institutional Life”, his story of that time. It is immensely moving. In the last chapter he asks “Why?”.
He wrote “I think I have written what I have because I wanted to force myself to live through experiences that were so dreadful to me that they were entrenched in my own mind and made me often anxious and unhappy. There are two major reasons why a book of this kind had to be written. Firstly, because much medical treatment seems to me to ignore much of what is the essence of the case – that the patient is a human being whom bugs or accident have temporarily deprived of part of his normal humanity and the purpose of the medical treatment is to restore humanity.
“Instead people walk out of hospital deprived of humanity but with a leg or an arm that is a masterpiece of applied engineering… all institutions, all social organisations impose a pattern on people and detract from their individuality. Above all it seems to me they detract from humanity. Institutional life is profoundly limiting, it distorts peoples values, above all it reduces their horizons. Everything in our social life is capable of being institutionalised.”
Florence Nightingale wrote:- “It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as a very first requirement in a hospital that it should do the sick no harm”.
“The same is true of all the other institutions”, wrote John. “The cruelty and callousness that prevails in many institutions which ostensibly are humanitarian, and well meaning, spring in part from their isolation where people forget that they are people and become Sisters, Doctors and Warders.”
He went on “Their unnatural hierarchy represses the individualism which is the main spring of humanity. Further in institutions the immature and unstable are to be found in positions of control and the result is that they mask their insecurity and insufficiency with rigid rules and authoritative discipline. “Above all,” wrote John, “I suspect the neurotic environment magnifies neurosis and minimises the tendencies to normality and as a result people tend unconsciously to be aggressive and cruel.
But it is important to learn that within each of us, especially the dedicated, cruelty, insensitivity and stupidity clamour for expression. The evil that men do lives after them in the lives of others and nowhere is this more true than in institutions for the care of others.”
John’s view vividly illustrates one of the less attractive features of modern life, an arrogance which feeds on vulnerability. But it goes wider than that.
There exists, does there not a Nanny syndrome? “Nanny know best”. What Douglas Jay (later Lord Jay) described when he said “The gentlemen in Whitehall really do know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves.” A splendid modern example is the hospital Trust who recently banned a baby beauty contest in aid of hospital funds because they considered such a contest not to be politically correct.
Let me now turn to the media who may develop their own particular brand of arrogance as a result of the power they wield over public opinion.
Alfred Charles William Harmsworth was born in 1865. He started a magazine “Answers to correspondence” in competition with “Titbits”. He launched “Comic Cuts” and “Illustrated Chips”. In August 1894 he bought the “Evening News” and two years later in May 1896 he published the first issue of the “Daily Mail”. It was described by Lord Salisbury as produced by office boys for office boys. A good example of both intellectual and social arrogance. In June 1904 Harmsworth became Sir Alfred Harmsworth Bart and less than two years later when Arthur Balfour resigned he became Lord Northcliffe.
He had in November 1903 started the “Mirror”, which was a disaster. It was relaunched as the “Daily Illustrated Mirror”. In May 1905 he bought the “Observer” and when “The Times” was up for sale in March 1908 also bought that. He sold the “Observer” to Waldorf Astor in 1911. His criticism of the Government’s handling of the war and in particular the campaign in Gallipoli where he had an alliance with a young Australian journalist called Murdoch, was such that the then Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, proposed to the Cabinet that the “Daily Mail” should be closed down.
The relations between Northcliffe and Lloyd George was one of wariness, mutual respect and periodic hostility. He told Lloyd George he would break him if he continued to interfere in the strategy of the Generals. Lloyd George’s attitude was that “he would as soon go for a sunny evening stroll around Walton Heath with a grass hopper as try and work with Northcliffe”. He did however ask him to go to America in 1917 to head a British War Mission there. When Northcliffe returned he was given a Viscountcy for his work. It was thought Lloyd George offered to make him Air Minister which Northcliffe turned down.
The war came to an end. Lloyd George called a general election. Northcliffe refused to give the coalition his backing unless he knew definitely in writing the personal constitution of the Government so that he could approve it. Lloyd George dismissed the idea with contempt. Northcliffe issued a pamphlet called “From War to Peace” dictating the peace terms which he, Northcliffe, said should be imposed on the Germans. It was generally believed that Northcliffe had insisted that he should be one of the peace negotiators at Versailles.
Lloyd George’s attitude to Northcliffe is best summarised in a debate over the handling of the peace negotiations in the House of Commons. Talking of Northcliffe he tapped his head suggesting that Northcliffe was not quite all there and went on: “Still I am prepared to make some allowance. Even great newspapers will forgive me for saying so, that when a man is labouring under a keen sense of disappointment, however unjustified and however ridiculous the expectations may have been, he is always apt to think the world is badly run”.
“When a man has deluded himself,” said Lloyd George, “and all the people, whom he ever permits to go near to him, help him into the belief that he is the only man who can win the war, and he is waiting for the clamour of the multitude that is going to demand his presence there to direct the destinies of the world and there is not a whisper, not a sound, it is rather disappointing, it is unnerving, it is upsetting”.
Then the war is won without him; there must be something wrong. Of course it must be the government. Then at any rate he is the only man to make peace. Only people who can get near to him constantly tell him so, so he publishes the peace terms and he waits for his call. “And,” said Lloyd George, “it does not come”.
Northcliffe never went to Versailles. Thereafter his illness started to take control. His eccentricity grew; by 1922 when he died he was a spent force.
Max Aitken subsequently Lord Beaverbrook was no less a titan than Northcliffe, no less arrogant, no less a seeker for or wielder of power. He was not only a powerful newspaper proprietor. In May 1940 at the age of 61 he became a successful Minister of Aircraft production and a member of the war cabinet. In the first world war, he had been Minister of Information and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s the “Daily Express” and the “Sunday Express” increased their circulation at the expense of the “Daily Mail”.
In 1923 they acquired the “Evening Standard”. Beaverbrook expressed his view about press power in these terms. “When skilfully employed at the psychological moment no politician of any party can resist it. It is a flaming sword which will cut through any political armour. That is not to say that any great newspaper or group of newspapers can enforce policies or make or unmake governments at will, just because it’s a great newspaper. Many such newspapers are harmless because they do not know how to strike or when to strike. They are in themselves unloaded guns.
“But”, said Lord Beaverbrook “teach the man behind them how to load and what to shoot at and they become deadly. It is only genius which can so load and point. The risk for its control are therefore limited seeing that genius is rare and this is as well; for so great is the potency of the weapon that if it ever fell into the hands of a thoroughly unscrupulous man of genius there is no limit to the harm is might do.”
Is there a better definition of the arrogant exercise of power? Was he perhaps describing himself?
By 1930 Beaverbrook was less than enthusiastic about Baldwin and the Conservative Party. The remedy for the ills of the day was obvious to him. It was wholehearted protectionism – a tax on foreign wheat and meat coming into England, sometimes known as Empire Free Trade or Imperial Preference. In July 1929 Beaverbrook had launched the Empire Crusade. There were a series of bye-elections in which an Empire Crusader was put up against the official Conservative Party.
In 1931 there was a bye-election at St George’s Westminster due to the death of Sir Laming Worthington Evans. It was one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. Beaverbrook put up a candidate Sir Ernest Petter who was a Conservative industrialist. The official Conservative candidate Moore-Brabason said he couldn’t support Baldwin and withdrew. Baldwin was only just persuaded by Chamberlain not to resign but to defer his resignation until after the bye-election. There was great reluctance on the part of candidates to act as the official Conservative candidate. In the result Duff Cooper, who had lost his seat at Oldham in 1929, came forward.
Lord Rothermere, who was Northcliffe’s brother and running the “Daily Mail”, joined Beaverbrook in support of his candidate and in the attack on Duff Cooper. Baldwin fought the campaign on the issue of press dictatorship. On 20th March the bye-election was held. Duff Cooper got 17,242 votes: Petter 11,532. However, it was Baldwin’s speech on 17th March at the Queen’s Hall about the behaviour of Beaverbrook and Rothermere which is now part of history.
He said: “The newspapers are not newspapers in the ordinary acceptance of the term. Their end is 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 should not be reported in the paper… What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power but power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”. It is perhaps the best known critique of the arrogance of power to be found.
The only recent change and that for the worse in the exercise of power by the media is the invasion of personal privacy. Gladstone retained his reputation as a formidable statesman until his 80’s not withstanding his interest in prostitutes of which the public were unaware. Asquith, Prime Minister in the first World War until 1916, carried on an obsessive correspondence with Venetia Stanley. She was a contemporary and great friend of his daughter Violet. Much of this correspondence was conducted during Cabinet and other official meetings. Beaverbrook cynically wrote of the Prime Minister that he was “dreaming of his piece in war”. But none of this information was vouchsafed to the public.
While much was published about Lloyd George, particularly relating to the honours scandal, scarcely a word appeared about his long time mistress Frances Stevenson. We all know now about the affair which Robert Boothby, Lord Boothby had with Lady McMillan but no one reading the national papers then would have learnt of it; any more than they did of King Edward VIII’s affair with Mrs. Simpson until the Bishop of Bradford made his famous sermon from the pulpit. We are entitled to ask what if anything we have gained from the invasion of personal privacy not only of public figures but of private citizens as well.
We shall soon have our own Bill of Rights. While it’s form is a matter for debate, a right to privacy will be one of its major provisions. It will inevitably become the law of the land. For opponents to seek to continue to play Canute is neither very practical nor particularly heroic.
What can I say about politicians? They are perhaps in a class of their own when we discuss arrogance.
In 1945 Harold Laski was a distinguished Professor. He was Chairman of the National Executive of the Labour Party. The word Spin Doctor had not yet been invented. The European War had come to an end and the Three Power Peace conference was due to take place at Potsdam. The result of the General Election was not then known. The Prime Minister, Churchill, had invited Attlee, then leader of the opposition, to accompany him to the meeting. Laski objected and said so publicly. “If Mr. Attlee were to attend the conference at Potsdam it would be considered essential that he did so only as an observer.”
Attlee was short with Laski. He wrote to Churchill “There never was any suggestion that I should go as a mere observer. The Chairman has not the power to give me instructions nor do his remarks to a press correspondent constitute the official authoritative instruction of the Executive Committee of the Labour Party.”
Far from withdrawing Laski made a series of speeches emphasising his own authority and that of the Committee over which he presided.
There was a further challenge by Laski. After the result of the General Election was known he wrote to Attlee telling him that he Attlee could not accept the King’s Commission until the new Parliamentary Party had met to elect a leader. Attlee sensibly took no notice. This was by no means the first challenge to Attlee’s authority. When the coalition broke up in the summer of 1945 and before the General Election Laski had written to Attlee in these terms:- “The continuance of your leadership is a grave handicap to our hopes of victory in the coming election. You should draw the inference that your resignation of the leadership would now be a great service to the party. Just as Mr. Churchill changed Auchinleck for Montgomery before El Alamein so I suggest you owe it to the party to give it the chance to make a comparable change on the eve of the greatest of battles”.
On any view it wasn’t a very percipient forecast of the general election result in which Labour under Attlee’s leadership had a landslide victory. Attlee dealt with this arrogant suggestion in his own inimitable style. He would not have tolerated spin doctors. “Dear Laski” he wrote, “Thank you for your letter, contents of which have been noted. C.R. Attlee.”
So much for some examples of the arrogant exercise of power.
The right of those in power to express their views for the benefit of society generally, though subject to their particular discipline individually is not to be doubted. But how do we distinguish between the proper exercise of power and power exercised arrogantly. The power of the leader of a Church or Sect is supreme and undoubted. Could it ever be suggested that the exercise of that power comes within our definition of arrogance. To believe in a particular faith is to exercise a freedom. The freedom. The exercise of that power in relation to an individual who has the ability to exercise judgement cannot be faulted.
But what of a person who has not reached the age of judgment or whose faculties are not sufficient to enable him to exercise that judgement? To persuade a child to join a particular faith is to exercise a power no doubt with the best of intentions. But it is implicit in that act that the persuader is convinced that that particular faith is supreme to all others – Why is that not an arrogant view? Is it enough that it is thought to be for their benefit? If so how then does the question of freedom, spiritual or physical stand?
Next how do we distinguish between those who show arrogance and those who do not? Mandela, Denning and Attlee are essentially free of criticism in this respect. Churchill’s view about Attlee we can ignore. When told that Attlee was a very modest man he is reputed to have said he has a great deal to be modest about. Is it simply humility? Is it charm? Is it the better ability to conceal their arrogance? It certainly is not as Plato would like us to think that evil is due to lack of knowledge and that if people can discover what is right they will never act wickedly.
One thing is certain. All of us who exercise power must recognise that arrogance is not just a state of mind. It is also the manner of its exercise which so often gives rise to complaint.
And is it always for the worse? The French believe in their superiority as a nation. No one could epitomise that better than General De Gaulle. Everyone but the narrowest Francophobe would recognise his immense contribution to the glory of France both during the war and in the years thereafter, particularly in relation to Algeria.
There is a historical view that those who behave in this way eventually get their comeuppance. Their fall from power is ever as great as their climb and such reputation as they enjoyed is for ever thereafter tarnished. Do we need to look further by way of example than the downfall of President Nixon, His AG, John Mitchell, Haldermann or Ehrlichman? But sadly this is not a universal truth.
There are no simple answers to the problems of where the line is to be drawn. Are the proprietors of today’s media more or less powerful than the Beaverbrooks and the Northcliffes? Do they exercise that power more wisely? Do lawyers today show more humility than Lord Denning or Lord Atkin? Why do the spin doctors of today display such an arrogance? Should they not be treated like Attlee treated Laski and why do the media allow themselves to be manipulated by them. On these thoughts we do well to ponder. Perhaps in the end it is not so much the heart as the soul which distinguishes between humility and arrogance.
Finally it is worth recording what happened to two of the authors of those arrogant statements to which I referred at the beginning of this lecture.
Hartley Shawcross’s Labour Government was voted out of office in 1951. The Conservatives held power for the whole of the next 13 years. He himself was never again to hold public office. Mrs. Helmsley was prosecuted for tax evasion arising out of her property transactions. She went to prison. She was released in January 1994 having served 21 months.
As St Matthew said “What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”