BIG-CITY JOURNALISM: PART V
It was a lot of fun to be a reporter in London in the 1960s, especially when I was able to choose what I wanted to write about. Occasionally I fell among the grandees in a number of Commonwealth press organizations. I remember sitting through one meeting when, I spotted right in front of me Lord Thomson, the biggest newspaper proprietor in the world, who was still owner of my first Canadian paper, the Northern Daily News of Kirkland Lake. I ventured some kind of semi-radical remark as part of a discussion on something or other, and the only thing I remember of it was that this dumpy little figure in front of me slowly turned, and gazed at me through his super-thick spectacles, as if looking at something from outer space. Then he turned away as if I weren’t even worth the trouble of looking at. I felt like telling him, “You see, I was worth more than the $40 a week you paid me!”
In the 1960s there were major issues of concern to the Commonwealth that I had to deal with as a reporter. An important one to me was the question of South African membership of a multi-racial Commonwealth. I felt I had a personal stake in this argument, because I had an adopted black son, and I still harboured bitter feelings against South African racism that had developed in the1950s when I worked alongside a racist South African in Coventry. In fact, my feeling on this issue went further back to a moment in the 1940s when I covered a Rugby trial for a proposed visit of a New Zealand All Black team to South Africa, in which the outstanding player was a young man called Taylor, who was not eligible to go further in the trials because he was a Maori and therefore not available for selection. That stuck in my craw at the time, as a disgusting accommodation with racism, and it was still there in the 1960s, with a vengeance.
I remember Prime Minister Verwoerd arriving and at an airport press conference smiling benignly upon us as he said that people didn’t understand the principle of apartheid, which was, in essence, neighbourliness. Prime Minister Nehru of India arrived soon after, and when we told him that, he snapped, “I wouldn’t want to be his neighbor.”
I was surprised when Diefenbaker arrived with an accompanying press corps of journalists who were almost all hostile towards him. To me, he expressed his prairie radicalism in forcing the issue against the mealy-mouthed attempts of the British to smooth everything over. When Verwoerd left he said, “We were victims of an Afro-Asian-Canadian conspiracy,” and I felt quite proud to be a Canadian, and that our guy had stuck with the right side.
Having been brought up in New Zealand and lived in four more Commonwealth countries, I tended to take these issues quite personally, especially when the British, realizing they could make more money by concentrating their economy on Europe, decided to jettison the Commonwealth that had fed them during two world wars, and had sent tens of thousands of their sons to be slaughtered on foreign fields in their support. To me, their application to join the European Economic Community was a classic case of perfidious Albion, writ large.
There were some notable debates about the EEC, whether to join or not: one of them was at a Labour Party conference, when Hugh Gaitskell, the party leader, whom I never liked, made a stirring defence of the Commonwealth contribution: “You may say,” he said --- in more or less these words --- “well, the world has changed….But what of Passchendale, Ypres, where thousands of their young men were killed on the battlefield. Are we just to forget that?” I found that profoundly moving, to tell the truth.
I tended perhaps to over-emphasize stories demonstrating British eccentricity. One of these came with a by-election in the lovely county of Dorset that arose from a concatenation of eccentricities. First, the sitting member in the House of Commons since 1941 had been Lord Hinchingbrooke, or to give him his full name, Alexander Victor Edward Paulet Montagu, who was disqualified from membership of the Commons in 1962, when his father died and he was elevated to be the Earl of Sandwich. Old Hinch, as he was usually referred to, was a far-right British Tory maverick who was impossible to pigeon-hole: anti-German, pro-Russian, pro-Commonwealth, pro-imperialist, anti-African nationalism, anti-American, and, of course, a root-and-branch opponent of Harold Macmillan’s attempt to join the European Economic Community. He was the sort of politician who, as one British reporter remarked to me, “doesn’t give a hoot what anybody thinks of him.”
The likeliest candidate to succeed him was a man called Angus Maude, a former MP, who had become discouraged with Macmillsn’s leadership a few years before and had gone to Australia to be editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Perhaps the Aussies didn’t take to his rather prissy, self-satisfied persona, and he returned to Britain just in time to put in a claim for the South Dorset seat. Maude expected Hinchingbrooke’s support, but when Old Hinch learned that a retiring local grandee, Sir Piers Debenham, an old supporter, was proposing to campaign against the EEC proposal, Hinch wrote Maude regretting that his support must go to Sir Piers. Maude, of course, was furious, and began to treat Sir Piers as a totally out-of-touch “ignorant philosopher, prancing about misquoting the Treaty of Rome,” and worthy of nothing but contempt. Sir Piers replied, “I don’t care what little Maude says about me. An awfully sad little man, don’t you think? They are doing my publicity for me. I do think they are a lot of jugginses, don’t you?”
Sir Piers certainly was a delightful old fellow, who had spent the greater part of his life planting trees on the heath made famous in literature as Egdon Heath by Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Return of the Native. Sir Piers told me disarmingly: “Normally at this time of year I would be planting my trees. It is really a frightful nuisance this by-election.” Waving above his head a copy of the Treaty of Rome, the founding document of the EEC, he would declare, “In Europe their frontiers are a bother to them. Our frontiers are not a bother to us, and we do not need this Treaty to put things right.” He referred to Harold Macmillan as “this old silly who governs us.” When asked if he was not worried that he might split the Conservative vote and let the Labour Party through to take the seat, he said, “I don’t care tuppence who wins if I do not,” he said. “I am supporting the British constitution, the Imperial connection and the agricultural interest.”
Lord Beaverbrook’s reporters knew that they were expected to twist every story they wrote to illustrate their proprietor’s strange collection of biasses. Day after day they wrote stories interpreting every statement made by Maude and his supporters as statements of treason to the British interest. And Sir Piers they portrayed as an authentic English hero, expressing a last-ditch patriotism. The Tory head office said he couldn’t win. In fact, they were right, he even lost his deposit, but he got more than 5,000 votes, which allowed the Labour candidate to come through and take the seat from the Tories for the first time since 1906.
I got to know quite a number of journalists who worked for Beaverbrook, and they had great affection for him, especially those who knew him personally, as many did. He was, apparently, a mischievous buggar, and that mischief was on show every day in the way his newspapers reported the events of the day. The closest I ever came to him was when Lord Thomson staged a celebratory dinner at the Dorchester for his 84th birthday. It was a splendid occasion. Thomson gave every one of the 1500 people who attended that dinner a copy of a huge book by Robert Carrier, a Sunday Times writer on food, called Great Dishes of the World. My wife wore that book to pieces over the years.
Beaverbrook made a brief but very amusing speech, of which I remember his quoting one of his political enemies who described him in this way: “When Max Aitken was a boy he lived in a New Brunswick village with fifteen hundred souls. It was too small for him, and he left for Halifax, a city of fifty thousand. It was too small for him, so he went to Montreal, where there were a quarter of a million people. It was too small for him, so he left for London, and he is here now. One day London will be too small for him and he will go to hell. What then? I will tell you. It won’t be big enough for him.”
Beaverbrook added, in a moment of reflection: “This js my final word. It is time for me to become an apprentice once more. I am not certain in which direction, but somewhere, sometime, soon.” He fell ill almost immediately after that dinner, and died a week or two later. Of him it could be said that although his newspapers were a brilliant success, every cause he supported failed.
It has just occurred to me that over the years I have caught brief glimpses of the media moguls who make all the major decisions about what the public will read about what is going on. I have never been impressed by their work, and having from time to time worked with publicly-owned institutions such as the CBC and the NFB, I can say they were in no way inferior to any of the privately-owned businesses I have worked for, either in their respect for their employees, or in respect for the ethical foundation of their work. Thus I have never been agitated about freedom of the press, because in my experience, private ownership of the media is a far from perfect model for ensuring that freedom.
Most of these moguls were in place because they inherited the business from their fathers, and I always wondered why that gave them authority over me, when I actually had much more experience in dealing with information than they did. Clifford Sifton, in Winnipeg, was of a family that had owned the Winnipeg Free Press for half a century or more when I was there, and he was handing it on to his son. John G. McConnell, son of the father who grew rich from cornering the sugar market during the First World War, was a son to whom was handed The Montreal Star to manage as he wished. Max Aitken, whom I brushed up against in an episode recorded in my previous Chronicle, was the son of Beaverbrook, and inherited his father’s newspapers, which he managed with much less flair than did his father. Roy Thomson at least was a self-made man, creating a shoddy chain of small-town newspapers in Canada that were implacably non-union, then using the money he amassed to buy into Scottish TV (which he described as “a licence to print money”) and finally making it to the big time when he bought The Sunday Times, and The Times in London. Confronted by unions in Britain, he had enough sense to make his peace with them, and under his ownership for a few years The Sunday Times was one of the outstanding newspapers in the history of English-language journalism, so he knew how to hire good people. But then he handed his business on to his son, having created another obscenely rich entrepreneurial family in the process.
Since all of these media-owning families have been extremely wealthy, it follows, does it not, as night follows day, that their newspapers represent their own interests above everything.
I didn’t share their outlook, and I never felt they owned me.