Point of View

Press lords and political royalty

July 20, 2011 

— My darling - Try ridding yourself of this microbe which some fear is in your blood - Exorcise this bottle Imp & see if the air is not clearer and purer."

No, it's not J. K. Rowling's Mrs. Narcissa Malfoy advising her devious husband Lucius to break off with Lord Voldemort, but a plea from Clementine Churchill writing in 1942 to her prime minister husband, Winston.

The poisonous bottle Imp? None other than London press baron Lord Beaverbrook, born William Maxwell Aitken, who, by 1940, already a notable newspaper proprietor, had become Churchill's minister for aircraft production. Mrs. Churchill wants Winston to take the opportunity of a cabinet re-shuffle to "rid" himself of a man she regarded as the political and social version of deadly nightshade.

The present uproar in the British province of the empire of that other press mogul, Rupert Murdoch, where phone-hacking and alleged "information" payments to the Metropolitan police are at stake, reverberates now across the Atlantic, to be heard, and acted upon, in the halls of The Wall Street Journal. But one aspect of the scandal - the much-condemned, and supposedly damaging, closeness of the Murdoch media to British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative government - is definitely nothing new.

It's not all bad, either. Politicians and the press in a modern democracy are bound together, and both sides will continue to reap benefits from their symbiosis. You don't even have to turn on Fox News to grasp those points.

Last year, Cameron invited Andy Coulson, who had resigned in 2007 from Murdoch's News of the World, into his No. 10 Downing Street Communications Office, and now is being pushed to apologize for that decision. But the prime minister may take comfort from history, which shows just how deeply woven and complicated are the media's ties to democratic politics.

Beaverbrook - the Rupert Murdoch of his day - became Churchill's amazingly successful aircraft production chief as the Battle of Britain began. He then survived several cabinet reshuffles, in spite of Mrs. Churchill's pleas. Beaverbrook had, in fact, since 1916, been a close friend of Winston's. Then, between 1919 and 1929, this Canadian immigrant to Britain, after gaining a seat in Parliament, bought a majority share in the Daily Expres s, founded the Sunday Expres s and bought the Evening Standard. These "national daily" newspapers, especially in pre-television days, gave powerful voice to the Conservative (Tory) party. Daily Express circulation soared after Beaverbrook took it on.

But as early as 1923, Clementine was warning her husband, then in his difficult wilderness political years, about the dangers of connecting himself - or seeming to - with this Tory newspaper man. At the time when Winston is chasing a parliamentary seat with the "other side," she begs him not to go to "Max's" for dinner, where he will risk his already shaky political reputation, "for the sake of a pleasant evening."

All in vain. The long friendship of these two men, for better and worse, survived the whirlpool of mid- 20th century British political history and of Churchill's long and not-always-illustrious career. Churchill's own pot-boiling journalism found frequent outlet in Beaverbrook's pages, while Lord B. himself flourished under Churchill's later patronage. The argument over the appeasement of Hitler, and the wartime relationship of Britain with the Soviet Union, bitterly divided the two men but never provoked a final break.

This 20th century tale highlights at least some nuances of the press and politics interface, which is ethically challenging in any democratic culture. Another shade was added to the story when Churchill - after 1940 with near-dictatorial powers - had to police the censorship line during wartime. He could, when he wished, summon and harangue the pressmen of the day, urging them to damp down expectations, jolly the anxious public along or stay quiet about bad war news. Yet he always stepped back from total control.

We may cringe as the Murdoch affair unfolds. But David Cameron shouldn't be too apologetic about the close ties between Downing Street and the press, though he should, perhaps, try to choose his own particular journalist friends more carefully. Some of the microbes will now be purged, but there will definitely be others. Cameron, and his successors, will continue to find that politics, which does not flourish in air that is too clear and pure, has need of those troublesome germs.

Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University who teaches, among other subjects, a course on War and Writing.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service