How Newspapers Make Profits from Propaganda
by Roy Greenslade
October 2003, 787 pages, £30
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Paper Tigers and Tabloid Tales
I run my papers for propaganda
It’s a multicoloured kaleidoscopic up-chuck
—Hugh Cudlipp on the ‘90s in the Daily Mirror
Two very different books on the history of 20th century British newspapers appeared recently. Chris Horrie’s Tabloid Nation: From the Birth of the Daily Mirror to the Death of the Tabloid charts the rise and fall of the Mirror, the first British tabloid, from its launch in 1903 as a gossip sheet for “gentle women,” to its height in the ‘40s as the nation’s favourite newspaper (or as the most popular paper in the known universe, as its editor liked to put it), to its downfall under the corrupt leadership of Robert Maxwell.
Tabloid Nation is the latest installment of Horrie’s series of excellent books on the popular media. His best-selling Stick It Up Your Punter! The Rise and Fall of the Sun (1990) was a rip-roaring ride through the ‘70s and ‘80s UK media, and the “soaraway” Sun in particular. This new book tells the other side of the story—the history of the Sun’s arch-rival the Mirror. Horrie’s engaging and punchy style (he is a master of tabloidese, the staccato, punning lingo of the tabloid journalist) makes this an extremely readable account of the heyday of the tabloids and their inevitable decline in the era of popular TV.
Roy Greenslade’s Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits from Propaganda is a much bigger book (at nearly 800 pages to Horrie’s 250) in more than simply page count. It is an extremely impressive and panoramic history of British newspapers post-World War II to the present, covering the tabloids and the broadsheets, the successful and the unsuccessful papers. It is not as much of a page-turner as Horrie’s book, being an altogether more sober account, but it is extremely accessible.
These two books are written by insiders (Horrie and Greenslade have both worked as journalists for many years). While ostensibly aimed at that ever-elusive general reader, both books are primarily addressed to fellow media insiders. For those who do have an interest in the history of the UK press and the rise of international global media conglomerates, Press Gang is a must read.
As the subtitle of his book suggests, Greenslade focuses on the driving forces behind newspapers. He shows how in the post-war years the press barons, as they were known, ran newspapers not for financial profit but for political influence. “I run my papers for propaganda,” admitted Lord Beaverbrook. Greenslade shows how, in the Murdoch era, newspapers are run with the profit motive firmly at the helm. His book describes the movement from one motivating force to the other. There are two further strands of Greenslade’s argument, however.
First, while charting the movement from the search for power to the search for profit, Greenslade outlines the ongoing debates about the extent of newspaper power. He draws out the arguments over the 1945 general election when, contrary to all predictions in the press, Churchill and the Tories lost, bringing Labour to power in a landslide victory. He also assesses the 1992 general election in which the press claimed to have tipped the electoral balance in favour of the Tories and John Major (“It was the Sun wot won it!” was the headline). Greenslade suggests that the press has both more influence (the drip-drip effect over time) and less (he argues that what the papers say in the immediate run up to elections has little impact) than they imagine.
Second, he underscores that while the motive for running newspapers may now be profit, in other respects the two motivations have merged. Profit is power, as Murdoch’s somewhat cosy (although rapidly cooling) relationship with New Labour suggests. Greenslade teases out debates about the press, showing how difficult it is to measure the media’s influence. He also shows both how keen media moguls (the new word for press barons) exert power and how ready politicians are to believe in it.
Both Horrie and Greenslade offer intriguing portraits of the key players in their stories, giving accounts of the many eccentric and talented men (they are all men) who have played their parts. Horrie spends much time recounting tales of the boozing and brawling of old Fleet Street, a key and highly amusing aspect of the industry, but his nostalgia for the drunken, macho world of the pre-Wapping press is in danger of becoming a bit tired. Strangely enough, Horrie describes how when Greenslade became editor of the Mirror in 1990 “one of his first acts was to ban the practice of each executive filling in a weekly order form for booze.”
Horrie looks at the changing role of advertising in the Mirror and offers an interesting analysis of the effects of TV on the print media. This aspect of the story, which is so central, is largely missing from Press Gang. Greenslade focuses exclusively on journalistic content and does not offer a wider sense of how papers have changed over the years as commodities.
Neither of these accounts has much to say about readers. The changing demographic (in terms of class, race and gender) of newspaper readers has had an enormous impact on papers and it would have been interesting to know more about this. Greenslade has written on class before and he might have brought this into his study, not least because the press’s assumptions about its readers (whether or not they are accurate) reveal much about newspapers’ motivations.
In his account of John Astor’s stewardship of the Times, Greenslade writes, “for Astor, news would always take second place to ideas.” Both Tabloid Nation and Press Gang are chock full of fascinating news but they are slightly lacking in ideas. Neither book offers any meaty arguments about the press. Horrie is ambivalent about the tabloids, swinging between nostalgia for the boozy bullies of old Fleet Street and a horror of the mucky world of Grub Street. Greenslade has an uncomfortable and grudging admiration for Murdoch and ultimately refuses to really judge any aspect of the industry he has so carefully detailed.
Perhaps this is inevitable in books written by insiders. The irony is, of course, that those with such a thorough knowledge of the media are in the strongest position to judge