A Point of View: Power, politicians and the press

Stack of folded newspapers

The Leveson Inquiry has put a spotlight on the practices and ethics of British newspapers, whose wealthy proprietors have tried to influence public life since the early 20th Century, says historian David Cannadine.

A few days ago, the funeral took place in Long Island, New York, of the award-winning American journalist Marie Colvin, who'd been killed in Syria last month, while covering the siege of Homs.

For many years, Colvin had worked for the Sunday Times, and she had reported on conflicts in many parts of the world, including Chechnya, Kosovo, Sri Lanka and Libya.

Among the mourners were family, friends and colleagues, and also Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News International, which owns the Sunday Times.

Image caption Supporters praised journalist Marie Colvin's integrity

At her funeral, as in her obituaries, Colvin was praised for her courage and her fearlessness as a war reporter, for the support she gave to those who were the innocent victims of such conflicts, and for the help and inspiration she became to many of her fellow journalists.

In the best and bravest tradition of her profession, Marie Colvin believed it was the purpose of reporters and newspaper people to tell truth to power.

It's a very different sort of journalism that's now being exposed by the Leveson Inquiry, which since last summer has been investigating the culture, practices and ethics of British newspapers following the revelations concerning the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

"The press," Lord Justice Leveson announced on the first day of public hearings, "provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us."

Here's the latest version of a familiar refrain: on the one hand, a free press, devoid of censorship or any other form of government interference or regulation, is vital to the successful functioning of any nation that claims to be a democracy; but on the other hand, those freedoms may be abused by rich proprietors who use their newspapers to promote their own political agenda, or by journalists whose ethics are at best dubious and at worst deplorable.

From this second perspective, the freedom of the press is a self-serving argument, justifying or concealing practices that ought to be against the law, and in some cases probably are.

Here's a venerable and so far unresolved dilemma: a press which is fettered by government regulation is no longer free to check and criticise government; but a press which is free may abuse those freedoms in ways that the public - on whose behalf it claims to speak, and whose interests it claims to serve - may find deeply repellent and repugnant, as in the case of the current hacking scandal.

Since World War II, these matters have been addressed, but not satisfactorily settled, by three royal commissions which have investigated British newspapers, and also by a government committee chaired by Sir David Calcutt, which reported in 1990.

The result has been the creation of a system where the press has been charged with regulating itself: initially through the Press Council, and subsequently through the Press Complaints Commission.

This arrangement leaves newspapers free from government intervention or control, but it assumes they will responsibly regulate themselves - an assumption to which the revelations emanating from the Leveson Inquiry do not lend much support.

It's scarcely new to deplore the British press for being unregulated, for being owned by a few very rich men, or for employing journalists who do their bidding.

Ever since the early 20th Century, when the phrase "press barons" became current, such ennobled proprietors have been a permanent fixture on the British newspaper scene.

Image caption Then and now: the 20th Century's first notable press baron Lord Northcliffe (left) and News International chairman Rupert Murdoch

The most important early figure was Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, who was famed for buying stolid, unprofitable newspapers and transforming them into lively entertainment for a mass market, and who created the Daily Mail.

Northcliffe died in 1922, whereupon his press empire was inherited by his younger brother Harold Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere. And Rothermere's friend and rival was the Canadian Max Aitken, who became Lord Beaverbrook, and who was the proprietor of the Daily Express and the Evening Standard.

Between them, these three men exerted a huge influence on British public life - at least they tried to, although they didn't always succeed.

During WWI, both Northcliffe and Beaverbrook were supporters of David Lloyd George - they helped him oust Asquith as prime minister in 1916 - and both later held office in his coalition government, Northcliffe as director of propaganda, Beaverbrook as minister of information.

Image caption Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (left) was almost ousted by press barons including Lord Beaverbook (right)

Beaverbrook also backed his fellow Canadian, Andrew Bonar Law, to be leader of the Conservative Party and eventually to become prime minister; but on Law's death in 1923, he was replaced by the emollient and apparently unprepossessing Stanley Baldwin, to whom Beaverbrook took a great dislike.

By 1930, Beaverbrook had enlisted the support of Lord Rothermere in an attempt to oust Baldwin, who was by then leader of the opposition, and they began to put up their own candidates at by-elections against the official Conservatives.

As a result, it seemed that Baldwin's position had become untenable, and by the spring of 1931 it was confidently expected that he would resign.

But then he turned on his critics in a speech containing two damning phrases that no press baron should ever forget.

By directly interfering in politics, Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere were seeking what Baldwin denounced as "power without responsibility". And he capped those words with an even more devastating phrase, which had been suggested to him by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling: for "power without responsibility", Baldwin went on, was "the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".

This may seem small beer in our own time, when the right-wing American talk show host Rush Limbaugh has recently called a Georgetown University student, Sandra Fluke, a "slut" and "prostitute" for advocating free contraceptives for women.

But by the standards of inter-war political rhetoric, these were strong words, and they were all the more so coming from Baldwin, whose public persona was that of an honest, decent Christian gentleman of unimpeachable character and integrity.

Beaverbrook intervened once more in politics at the time of the abdication, by taking the side of King Edward VIII against Baldwin, who was by then prime minister again.

But he was no more successful than in 1931, and although he went on to be minister of aircraft production in Churchill's wartime government, Beaverbrook would later conclude that his attempts to change the course of politics had generally been a failure.

Baldwin always defeated him, and it seems highly likely that both Lloyd George and Bonar Law would have got to the top in politics, whether Beaverbrook had backed them or not.

Image caption Orson Welles as a newspaper magnate in 1941 film Citizen Kane

Yet all his life, Beaverbrook was regarded by his critics as a sinister force. He loved manipulating people. He even had some politicians in his pay, and through his newspapers he pursued many vendettas and campaigns, against (for instance) Lord Mountbatten, the British Council and Britain's proposed entry into the Common Market.

Clement Attlee thought Beaverbrook "the only evil man I ever met", and Evelyn Waugh's caricature of him as Lord Copper in his novel Scoop makes him seem a great deal less malevolent than he actually was.

Yet it's somehow appropriate that Beaverbrook should be remembered both as a fictional character and as a historical personality: and can it be coincidence that the same is true of another newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, immortalised (and caricatured) by Orson Welles in his extraordinary film Citizen Kane?

Like Beaverbrook, only on a far greater, North American scale, Hearst sought to manipulate people and influence events; but Welles depicted him as an unhappy man, whose life was in most ways a failure.

Hearst refused to allow Citizen Kane to be mentioned in any of his newspapers, but that didn't prevent it becoming widely acknowledged as one of the greatest movies ever made.

No-one will ever bestow that accolade on Tomorrow Never Dies, a James Bond film released in 1997, in which the villain is Elliot Carver, another media mogul, who vainly attempts to start a world war between Britain and China.

Yet once again, Carver's character owed something to William Randolph Hearst, and also to the disgraced British newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell. There were even those who thought Elliot Carver bore a passing resemblance to Rupert Murdoch…