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Journalists admire politicians who make a splash and cut a dash


Proprietors shape the ethos of a paper
Anthony Howard Writer
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I mean, it’s fashionable to say, and I think it’s true, that The Observer really was the creation of one man, and that was David Astor, who was Donald’s immediate predecessor and was both editor and owner of the paper, because he was proprietor, in effect, and although he had a kind of shop window board of trustees, everyone knew that the person who paid the bills, you know, and made any money was David Astor. And it was a hard thing to follow, the 19 years Donald had been… I mean, Astor had been editor for, I think from 19… well, technically, from 1948 to 1975, but basically he was editor from 1944 onwards, with a stooge, sort of, put in the office. But he was actually running the paper.

And that was a hard act to follow. It was a very idiosyncratic paper, reflected Astor’s beliefs and all the rest of it, and of course in those days, it was much easier, in that, you know, the Astor Observer was able to campaign against capital punishment, it was able to campaign in favour of self-determination, decolonisation, freedom for Africa, freedom for India, that kind of thing. And all those big issues were there. In our day, we didn’t have them, and it was sometimes difficult. I remember once... 1983 election, it was perfectly clear that Michael Foot was going to lose and, although we had backed Callaghan, and I wasn’t there in the 1979 election, it was perfectly clear to me that it was futile to come out with a sort of rousing endorsement of the Labour party and how Labour should be elected to government, and I think our heading, or the leader in 1983 was 'Keep the Tories Tame'. And that was the best we could do, because there was no point in pretending that Mrs Thatcher wasn’t going to win. And so were saying, oh, don’t let her have too big a majority, basically. Pretty wet thing to say, but it was about the only realistic thing you could say. And so I think it was easier, perhaps, for Astor in those days than it was for Donald Trelford and, first of all, John Cole, who was his first deputy, and then me, but nonetheless, I think, you know, things could have gone better. And I look back on all that talent, even still in that paper, and think it was allowed to go to waste, really. And it was rather sad what happened to it.

It staggers on. I mean, The Observer now sells, I think, about 450,000 a Sunday. In my day, the lowest, I think when I went there, we were losing sales, and I went there because at The Sunday Times, having been out for a year, we were still, through the strike, we were still selling something like 850,000. By the time I left, in '88, we were selling 700,000, but in no time that went down to 500,000 and below 500,000. And now it went down to nearly 400,000. It’s now very slowly climbed to about 450. But it’s nothing like the power in the land that it was.

On the other hand, it’s having to compete, which... we only had The Sunday Telegraph. They’ve got to compete with The Sunday Telegraph and the Independent on Sunday in the quality market. So it’s a tougher road to follow now than it was in David Astor's day when there were just two Sunday papers of quality, The Sunday Times and The Observer. And that then changed, of course, when The Sunday Telegraph came on stream in the beginning of the 1960s. And for a time, The Sunday Telegraph went to number two, and at least for the period I was on The Observer, we were still The Observer in second place, and The Sunday Telegraph trailed back in third place.

But I think a lot of it does depend on having inspired ownership. I mean, why have the Express papers gone to the wall – and they have – the way they have? The answer is that Lord Beaverbrook was the genius presiding over Express newspapers, and really, from the moment Beaverbrook died, in 1964, I think, you know, the lifeblood went out of them, and I think that quite often that happens with papers. The Rothermeres have been lucky. I mean, for some strange reason, through four generations of the Rothermere family, the Daily Mail and first of all the Sunday Dispatch, now The Mail on Sunday, have gone on prospering. One or two wobbles along the way when the particular owner of the titles at the time was not all that bright, perhaps, but on the whole, they’ve kept going pretty well for a family-owned paper. But that’s rare.

I think, in the end of the day, it is the proprietor that counts in, sort of, shaping the whole, sort of, ethos of a newspaper. Now editors come and go much more rapidly than proprietors do, on the whole, but that makes the shock when a proprietor dies or is given the heave-ho all the greater. I think I’d have to make one qualification, though. I think Mirror Group newspapers in the days of their great prosperity were not the creation, really, of Cecil Harmsworth King, who was the nearest thing to a proprietor they had. They were the creation of the editor-in-chief, Hugh Cudlipp.

Cudlipp was a genius, and the greatest tabloid journalist of his day. He did end up as chairman of the, I think, International Publishing Corporation, and no good at that at all, absolutely hopeless. But as an editorial director, he was marvellous. And that’s one exception where perhaps the editorial side mattered more than the ownership. On the other hand, the Mirror never had a single owner. It was always, sort of, a public company, and the reason why King was pushed out with the ease that he was, was that he was wasn’t the proprietor, and he thought he behaved as if he was the owner. He wasn't the owner and therefore, the rest of the board could get rid of him like that, and they did.

But I think proprietors do shape the ethos of a paper. That would certainly be true of Beaverbrook, it would certainly be true, in my view, of David Astor. And I suppose for a brief and unhappy period, it was true of Lonrho with The Observer.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: The Observer, Labour Party, Tories, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Sunday Dispatch, The Mail on Sunday, International Publishing Corporation, Daily Mirror, Lonhro, Francis David Langhorne Astor, Donald Trelford, Michael Mackintosh Foot, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, John Morrison Cole, Leonard James Callaghan, William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, Lord Beaverbook, Rothermere, Hubert ‘Hugh’ Kinsman Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King

Duration: 5 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018