Obituary: Lord Cudlipp

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HUGH CUDLIPP, in his day, was the superstar of Fleet Street, the editor with the greatest charisma. Over a span of 40 years, he poured into the Mirror newspapers all his passion, his abrasive charm, his crusading zeal and his exuberant personality.

Some of his rival editors were fine newspaper craftsmen. One or two others possessed political insight. But only Cudlipp, in his generation, was highly endowed with both gifts.

And there was more to it than that. All his life he was fired by his faith in the unique social purpose of the popular newspaper. A newspaper, Cudlipp said, must be inspired by a mission. A paper without a cause is but dress, brilliant though it may be.

When I first met Hugh Cudlipp he was just 17. On the top open deck of a Salford tram, he gave us an impression of Pastor Jeffreys, the Welsh revivalist preacher, winning souls in his Big Tent Mission at Cardiff. There was more admiration than mockery in his act.

Years later, the Mirror was to be Hugh's Big Tent, an editor's chair his pulpit.

His mission was to enlarge the knowledge, freedom and welfare of ordinary people. But to be effective the mission had to be carried out with fun as well as earnestness, with dramatic even sensational impact, as well as common sense. A good paper, Cudlipp wrote, must be an Open University. Yet it must also destroy taboos and foment controversy.

So, when Cudlipp took over the editorial direction of the Mirror, it was to remain what it had lately become, the candid, critical, yet constant friend of moderate Labour.

Lord Cudlipp, as he became after his retirement from newspapers, took the Labour Whip in the House of Lords until December 1981. Then, like many others, who feared that Labour was too far down the road to extremism to return, he became a reluctant Social Democrat.

Hugh Cudlipp was one of the boy wonders of the newspaper world when there was a fashion for boy wonders in the 1930s. At the age of 22 he was Features Editor of the Daily Mirror. At 24, he was Editor of the Sunday Pictorial (renamed the Sunday Mirror) and before he was 40 he was editorial supremo of the whole organisation.

Cudlipp always gave full credit to Guy Bartholomew, no friend of his, the man who revolutionised the style and policy of the Mirror with the help of a dozen men and women, brilliant pioneers of the new journalism. Above all, he recognised his debt to Cecil King, who picked him out for promotion when he was 24, inspired him, guided him, educated him and sent him round the world. "He was my tutor," Cudlipp would say. About his own role, King could be modest. He himself merely supplied the ballast, he once said. "The man who put the words on paper was Cudlipp."

They were the odd couple of Fleet Street. King was withdrawn and taciturn with a platform manner that was the despair of his speech writers. Cudlipp was an extrovert, a non-stop talker, a born orator. King knew all about the Top People, his own class. Cudlipp knew only about the rest of mankind. King had the political sophistication of an Oxford history scholar. Cudlipp had simply the swift political instincts of a South Walian. King's radicalism was based on his sympathy for the underdog, as he put it. Cudlipp had actually been an underdog and had deftly slipped out from under and vaulted to the top.

The year was 1938, year of appeasement, year of Munich. The Mirror papers attacked Chamberlain and demanded that Churchill be brought into the government. Guided by King, Cudlipp wrote what he called "a bellicose and flag- waving column". He commissioned articles by Churchill and Lloyd George, Britain's foremost writers on warfare. It was the beginning of Cudlipp's political education. During the next 30 years, he was to become personally acquainted with every leading politician in Britain.

In 1940, after Churchill had formed the National Government, he complained that the highly charged articles Cudlipp was writing on Sundays, and Cassandra throughout the week, to ginger up the war effort, appeared to him to be scurrilous and subversive. In times of military adversity they might even lead to defeatism.

The time had come for Cudlipp to leave journalism and go to war. "What are you?" asked a sergeant. "A newspaper editor," answered the recruit. "Get into that effing truck," the sergeant said.

A subaltern in the Royal Sussex Regiment involved in the battle of Alamein, Cudlipp was ordered to report to Harold Macmillan, Britain's resident minister at Tripoli. Macmillan asked him whether he could produce a Forces newspaper to match the American Stars and Stripes. Cudlipp said he could and it must obviously be named Union Jack.

The operation demanded all Cudlipp's organising skills and buccaneering boldness in laying hands on newsprint and ink. Towards the end of the war there were five editions under Colonel Cudlipp's direction, plus the weekly magazine Crusader.

A natural rebel, Cudlipp found it hard to be the voice of authority. Occasionally he kicked over the traces and was in trouble with the military authorities for publishing a story about the bizarre sex life of an officer as revealed in the Divorce Court; or for suggesting that the soldiers in Italy should get more pay so that they could buy a drink for the younger sisters of the Italian girls the Americans were taking out to dinner. More seriously, he was carpeted reporting that the Americans were sweeping into Rome unopposed because the British and the Poles were rolling back the Germans in the Apennines.

Cudlipp was now entering his thirties. He had come a long way fast. The Cardiff boy I had met on the Salford tram was slim, dark haired, lustrous- eyed, a younger Valentino. He had a fine speaking voice, but though he loved music he was unable to sing a note. He spent most of his nights in his bedsitter imitating the great conductors as he played his classical records.

He was an angry young man when he spoke of the depression he had left behind in South Wales to face the depression he now looked on in Lancashire. But he was a happy young man too, with a warm home background. His father was a genial chap who travelled the Welsh valleys in groceries. His mother, a policeman's daughter, was, Cudlipp would recall, "volatile, impulsive, a tireless raconteur".

He had two elder brothers in journalism. All three Cudlipp boys were to get to the very top of their profession. It was a miracle. They enjoyed no privilege and no patronage and they had had only a meagre schooling. Their temperaments were different and they did not even look like brothers.

Yet they shared newspaper genius. When Reg Cudlipp was made Editor of the News of the World at 43, Percy, aged 48, was the veteran Editor of the Daily Herald (he edited the Evening Standard at 27) and Hugh, now 40, was Editor in Chief of the Mirror Group with the title of Editorial Director.

By this time, Hugh Cudlipp had been fired by Bartholomew, but Cecil King had succeeded him as chairman and had rescued Cudlipp from two years of exile at the Sunday Express. Cudlipp became King's right-hand man in the days when the Mirror Group was initiating merger after merger to become the biggest publishing house in the world.

Many years later, Cudlipp was to succeed King, but in most painful circumstances. The year was 1968 and King was two years over the conventional retiring age of 65. It was many months since he had become disillusioned with Harold Wilson and had persuaded himself that a terrible national financial crash was imminent and inevitable.

King began using his position as top publisher to sound out eminent people about their willingness to serve in an emergency government which would hold itself in readiness for the call to steer the nation back to order and stability.

Cudlipp tells in his autobiography, Walking on the Water (1976), how King got him to arrange a meeting with Earl Mountbatten of Burma so that he could ask him if he would serve as leader in such a government. Startled, Mountbatten quickly brought this comic opera interview to an end.

A day or two later, King wanted the Mirror to tell the Parliamentary Labour Party to sack Wilson and get a new leader. Cudlipp refused to commit the paper and headed King off by suggesting that he should write a page one personal piece. This King did and he made a sensational allegation that lies were being told about Britain's currency reserves.

King was a part-time director of the Bank of England and this added weight to his charge. He had, however, to resign his directorship at once and a few weeks later the embarrassed board of the Mirror company took a unanimous decision to enforce his retirement.

They appointed Cudlipp in his place. King thought they had made a wrong choice of successor. Cudlipp was a first violin but no conductor.

"Just a Fiddler on the Roof," joked Cudlipp. But later he acknowledged that the chairmanship of a great international company was not his natural role. It was only five years before Cudlipp retired at the early age of 60. For years, there was an angry silence between the two old partners. But, shortly after King's 80th birthday, it was brought to an end.

One of Cudlipp's saddest tasks as chairman was to sell the Sun to Rupert Murdoch in 1969. The Mirror had acquired the Daily Herald in their absorption of Odhams Press seven years earlier. Cudlipp tried to stop its decline and in the end, in 1964, gave the Herald a new name, the Sun, and a new dress. But the Sun did not rise.

The time came when its losses could no longer be sustained. Yet it could not be closed down to become a lost voice and a lost employer. Murdoch was the only first-class bidder and he had to win, though Cudlipp knew he would turn it into a rival tabloid and would employ talented ex-Mirror men to produce a shameless imitation of their old paper.

For Hugh Cudlipp personally the great decade of the Mirror began in 1954. The circulation went up to a record of five million copies a day. The King- Cudlipp partnership was at its best and was aided, Cudlipp recalled, by "an editorial phalanx of rare energy and ingenuity".

The Mirror, long noted for its audacity and irreverence including its loyal and affectionate irreverence for the Royal Family - now won a new reputation for its insight into national and international politics. The Mirror began to win golden opinions from people in high places accustomed to sniff at popular newspapers. It became the first paper shrewd politicians read and ministers in the news would beg an early edition to find out before they went to bed whether the paper had bestowed on them a cuff or a caress.

Pride grew as the papers moved from their humble and shabby abode off the bottom of Fetter Lane to the tall glass palace at the top that dominates Holborn Circus. When Cudlipp came down to the editorial floor it was sometimes difficult not to believe that we were all on a film set. The Valentino that was had filled out and his hair was greying. Now he looked more like Spencer Tracy though with a touch of Edward G. Robinson, as, cigar in mouth, head thrust forward, shoulders aggressively haunched, he marched purposefully into the Editor's room.

Cudlipp was a great actor manque. He would act out an anecdote with brilliantly invented satiric dialogue and could hold and delight any company. Sometimes the acting was in the mind of a political leader at a time of crisis. Cudlipp would play the main part and we supplied the supporting cast. In my time I played Home to his Heath, Brown to his Gaitskell, Callaghan to his Wilson.

Sometimes he would pace the room dictating a leading article as though it was a public speech, while we of the high command stood poised to leap in with word or phrase, whenever the spark failed.

It was not all sweetness and light. Brilliance has its price. Cudlipp had his black moods. Sometimes he would merely snap and snarl, but when the demon was really in him he would blow his top and assault with verbal violence somebody who had said the wrong thing. His contrition, after one of these attacks, never failed and was often expressed by a pay rise for the victim, or even promotion.

Cudlipp loved politics. High policy for the papers was made by King and him closeted together and away from it all on the ninth floor. Cudlipp brought to these meetings not only what he had personally learnt from the politicians, but also the knowledge and views of his senior political staff. The problem was seldom what to say, but rather how it should be said and on what day.

There was, however, a famous clash over Suez. King would have supported Eden. Cudlipp, his resolution streng-thened by Sydney Jacobson, then political editor, convinced King that if they took that course the Mirror would be on the opposite side to Labour and all progressive opinion in Britain. By its stand against Suez, the Mirror lost 70,000 readers but soon won more than it had lost.

The most important innovation in Hugh Cudlipp's day was the "shock issue" in which page after page is dominated by type text, and a picture exposing some social evil. "I evolved it," Cudlipp said, "as an exercise in brutal mass education."

The first shock issue, in 1960, was a searing account of the suffering of horses shipped from Britain to the butchers of Belgium and France. This was followed by exposures of the scandals of the poorly equipped youth clubs, cruelty to children, pollution, the suicide club of teenagers on ton-up motorbikes, and the neglect of old and lonely people.

Cudlipp's finest hours were, however, lived during the six General Election campaigns, which he led. He would summon the election team to his room, conduct a brain-storming session, and, when the plan was formed, leap to the drawing-board, sketch the lay-outs and write in the headlines. He was in his element here as he never was among the balance sheets in the boardroom.

His most subtle campaign was his first, in 1955, just after Eden had become Prime Minister. The Tories were unbeatable. So the Mirror's message was Vote Labour and "Keep the Tories Tame".

Cudlipp began the critical week of Macmillan's 1959 "You never had it so good" election with a page one message "The Time has Come for the Tories to Go." "Why? - See Monday's Mirror." "Why? - See Tuesday's Mirror." Etc, etc.

But the most powerful campaign he fought was the election of 1964 which brought Labour and Harold Wilson to power after the Tories had ruled for "Thirteen Wasted Years". It was, however, the election that would not come alive. Cudlipp asked me to wade through the copy in search of a potential sensation that would rouse the electors.

The Tory government had recently been shaken by the Profumo scandal and there was a scurrilous whispering campaign linking Wilson with his political secretary Marcia Williams. At last the sensation came. It consisted of two lines. Asked at a meeting about Profumo, Quintin Hogg had answered: "If you can tell me there are no adulterers on the Front Bench of the Labour Party . . ."

This was it. I must consult Cudlipp. But he was dining with one of the Tory leaders, Ted Heath, who was being given a chance to put the Tory case in the pro-Labour but fair-playing Mirror. Heath had just moved to Albany and nobody knew his secret telephone number. The hour was late. So I went round to the flat, told Heath I had to see Cudlipp and he led me to him in the drawing-room, poured me a quadruple malt, and left us together.

On the top of his grand piano, we wrote the page one headline: "Hogg Blows His Top . . . Fantastic Smear Against Labour's Front Bench." When Heath came back we explained in some embarrassment what we had been up to and shamelessly asked to use his telephone to give instructions on the treatment of the story. The election was awake at last. The irony was that Hogg had never heard the gossip about Wilson but was thinking of an ancient, long- forgotten scandal.

Outside public affairs and newspapers, Hugh Cudlipp's interests were narrow. He had little time for sport, literature, or the theatre. If he went to the races it was for the fun of the champagne party and not for the horses.

Yet he was an animal lover. He once had an Afghan hound that was the terror of every office messenger. And he had a famous parrot, a wayward bird, that flew ashore from Cudlipp's boat in a French harbour, causing every Mirror correspondent in northern France to be alerted.

The boat was Cudlipp's great hobby, first a petrol then a diesel motor- cruiser, with accommodation for six. Each year he took it across the Channel and many tales were told of the hazards of fog and gale and Captain Cudlipp crying "Grog all round, my hearties" as each peril was surmounted.

What Cudlipp really loved was human society. He could not endure solitude. He needed to lead the conversation over the drinks, or over the dinner table. An earnest challenging, confrontational conversation.

It could, of course, get rough, as on the night when he made the Prime Minister of Peru face the poverty of his people, or the night at the Dorchester when Cudlipp and George Brown gave a frank reading of one another's character.

Hugh Cudlipp would have liked children. His first two marriages ended tragically. In his third, to Jodi, who had a rare combination of wit and compassion, he found the warm companionship he needed. So he mellowed. In his retirement, he wrote two books about newspapers and broadcast and televised from time to time. He did not use the House of Lords as a platform as he might well have done but he did live a congenial and useful social life in Sussex, serving on the Committee of the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Yet, without a newspaper to run, he was a man deprived. "Newspapers, Always Bloody Newspapers" was the chapter heading of one of his autobiographical books.

John Beavan

Hugh Cudlipp, journalist: born Cardiff 28 August 1913; Editor, Sunday Pictorial 1937-40, 1946-49; OBE 1945; Managing Editor, Sunday Express 1950-52; Editorial Director, Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial, 1952-63, joint managing director 1959-63; director, Associated Television 1956- 73; chairman, Odhams Press 1961-63; chairman, Daily Mirror Newspapers 1963-68; deputy chairman, International Publishing Corporation 1964-68, chairman 1968-73; deputy chairman (editorial), Reed International 1970- 73; Kt 1973; created 1974 Baron Cudlipp; married three times, secondly 1945 Eileen Ascroft (died 1962), thirdly 1963 Jodi Hyland; died Chichester, West Sussex 17 May 1998.

John Beavan (Lord Ardwick) died 18 August 1994