Donald Trelford On The Press

Big, bad and mad - but the press barons kept papers in the news

Only a dozen years ago, Nicholas Coleridge introduced a book on press barons with the claim that "the great new media empires spanning the world have subjugated more territory in a decade than Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan in a lifetime" and put control of news "into the hands of an "ever-smaller, ever-more powerful cabal of press tycoons". Now, if Rupert Murdoch is right - and he usually is - the days of those great press lords are over, felled by the unstoppable advance of the internet.

If so, it will be the end of one of the most enduring legends of our time - the eccentric, larger-than-life press baron, often depicted as the bloated, Maxwell-type figure of David Hare's play, Pravda, bullying politicians and editorial underlings with the same brutal indifference. As Hugh Cudlipp, who knew the breed well, wrote: "Megalomania is their vocational disease."

Even so, having treated them as hate figures all these years, I wonder if we might come to miss them. Not only did they add colour to the Fleet Street scene, they made their presence felt on the national stage, giving political weight to the so-called Fourth Estate and making it harder for governments to censor the press. In many cases they also kept newspapers alive, and journalists in jobs, for reasons way beyond commercial sense.

In Britain, the prototype was Lord Northcliffe, the inventor of the popular press; in the United States, it was William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Citizen Kane. Northcliffe saw the chance to cash in on the new market of literate working-class readers created by the education reforms of the Victorian period. "God made people read," he said, "so that I could fill their brains with facts, facts, facts - and later tell them whom to love, whom to hate, and what to think."

He used his power to manipulate public opinion in favour of his cranky crusades and against his enemies. Politicians such as Lloyd George and Churchill had to bend the knee, or pretend to. Always an eccentric, he fell into "lunatic rages" and died young of suspected syphilis. His brother Harold, the first Lord Rothermere, lacked Northcliffe's creative genius, but had business flair. He also flirted with fascism, met Hitler and Mussolini, wrote a front-page article headlined "Hurrah for the Blackshirts" and supported Hungary's cause so enthusiastically that they offered him the Crown of Saint Stephen.

In his madness, Northcliffe used to sign himself "Captain of Vigour and Venom" - a soubriquet that might have been better applied to Lord Beaverbrook, who bombarded his Express empire with memos every day from the 1920s until his death in 1964.

He attracted much hatred. Clement Attlee, who had served with him in Churchill's War Cabinet, refused a request from the Observer to write Beaverbrook's obituary, saying: "He was the only evil man I ever met." But even his enemies conceded he was a great journalist and propagandist, and left-winger Michael Foot once said he loved him.

Worthy men, like Lords Camrose, Hartwell, Stevens and Astor of Hever, are largely forgotten now, while stories are still told about Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland and Conrad Black - even though journalism didn't really run in their veins. When Clive Thornton, a building society chief who became chairman of the Mirror group, introduced himself to a group of editors, Peregrine Worsthorne told him: "We have had many strange people running newspapers, some of them mad and some of them bad. But you seem to be remarkably dull, so I can't see you lasting for long." He was right.

Lord Kemsley, the rather austere owner of the Sunday Times, gave way to Roy Thomson, a Canadian who believed that news was the stuff that kept the ads apart and whose greatest pleasure was reading balance sheets. I met him once, when I was plucked from the regions to edit a paper he had acquired in Africa. He put his goggle lenses about a foot away from mine, shook my hand and sent me on my way with the message ringing in my ears: "You make a dollar for me, boy, and I'll make a dollar for you."

Thomson gave way in turn to Murdoch, who has suffered from the stereotype of the ruthless tycoon inherited from Northcliffe and Beaverbrook. This character, as Murdoch suggests, may hardly survive the 20th century, with Northcliffe dominating the first quarter, Beaverbrook the second, Thomson the third and Murdoch the period until now. In this scenario he gets to be the Last Tycoon - though the most enduring picture of the dying breed may yet turn out to be that of Conrad Black in the dock.

Small fry bear brunt of Mail's cost cutting

Glum faces and sharp tongues, I hear, at the Daily Mail, where cost-cutting is under way. There are objections to the management seeking cuts while paying out enormous sums to new recruits: can Richard Littlejohn really be getting the rumoured £860,000 a year? The buzz is that Paul Dacre, who missed out on a bonus last year, is determined not to let that happen again.

Another year, another Press Awards controversy

Tonight is prize-giving at the Dorchester for the re-branded British Press Awards, run by the new owners of Press Gazette, PR man Matthew Freud and former Mirror editor Piers Morgan. There will be fewer guests, fewer categories, fewer sponsors - and the awards will be handed out at the start, presumably before anyone can get drunk.

Despite the best efforts of Freud, Morgan and Charles Wilson, the new chairman of judges (I did that job before), the event has been boycotted by the Telegraph, Mail and Express groups, which obviously takes away some kudos from the awards. These groups object to the involvement of Freud and Morgan, and believe the awards belong to the newspaper industry, not to Press Gazette, and that the profits should go to the journalists' charity, not to a private company.

There are problems with the awards every year. This time it was with the judges, who were originally to be hidden away in an ante-room to allow space for more paying guests. They have now been reinstated after protests. There was also a problem when Press Gazette tried to change the company doing the presentation. They, too, were reinstated when they produced their contract.

The editors are bound to be vetting the new format very carefully. Let's hope it all goes right on the night - and that Piers doesn't sock anyone this year.

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