Streets of shame

Press Gang: how newspapers make profits from propaganda

Roy Greenslade <em>Methuen, 788pp, £30</em

Many years ago, I decided that a special section of my bookshelves should be devoted to books about newspaper journalism and the press. I thought less than half a shelf would be enough. Today, my collection is spreading on to a third shelf, and that doesn't include the innumerable novels that are centred on media London. We have been hearing for nearly half a century that newspapers are in terminal decline, yet books about the press boom as never before.

Who buys all these volumes? Surely not journalists, who expect to get their books free. And surely not newspaper readers, whose interest in the alcohol-sodden minutiae of the street of shame must long ago have been exhausted. The explanation, I suppose, must be to do with all those media studies courses. Though the students themselves cannot be able to afford the books, I imagine their proud and almost invariably affluent parents presenting the memoirs of ageing and long-forgotten hacks as birthday and Christmas presents.

If so, I would rate this as a better buy than most. Unusually, the author has worked at high levels on papers of all sizes, shapes and politics - the Sun, the Mirror, the Sunday Times and now the Guardian.

Despite being a revolutionary socialist of some obscure variety or other, he has worked at senior levels for both Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. He knows everybody and has been everywhere. He has read exhaustively. Only rarely - for example, in his claim that Ian Jack, then editor of the Independent on Sunday, rebuffed an approach about the editorship of the Observer in 1995 - does he get the wrong end of the stick. As the publishers claim, this is "the definitive history" of British national newspapers since 1945 - their complex and constantly shifting ownership; their editors who, particularly on tabloid papers, come, go and come again with bewildering rapidity; their role in major public events, such as Suez, the Profumo affair and the miners' strikes; and their clashes with the law courts and with governments who wished to restrain intrusions into privacy.

It is all told lucidly, engagingly and with plenty of what hacks rather tiresomely call "colour". Greenslade is steeped in Fleet Street lore and doesn't forget to tell us, for example, that, when Clive Thornton, the one-legged ex-head of the Abbey National building society, became Mirror Group manager, the hacks quipped that "in the land of the legless, the one-legged man is king"; or that, when the vital organs of a prize bullock were airbrushed out of a paper's front-page picture to avoid offence to the proprietor's wife, the farmer sued. But though there are plenty of stories, there is no story, no discernible plot development. After nearly 800 pages, the reader is far better-informed about the press but, I fear, no wiser. How has it shaped society over the past 60 years? What has been its cultural influence? Has it, in general, dumbed up or dumbed down? How have its relations with government changed? How has it been affected by the decline of the old-fashioned proprietor who ran a newspaper company like a family firm and by the rise of the profit-driven, multinational conglomerate?

Greenslade does not tell us. In particular, he fails to deliver on the promise of the subtitle - not surprisingly, since it seems to start from a premise that is at least partly false. Greenslade correctly writes that, for Murdoch, propaganda and profits are equal parts of a seamless whole, in which his newspapers espouse the political causes that, at any given moment, seem likely to advance his business interests. In this, he is different from Beaverbrook who ran his Express newspapers for propaganda (albeit with spectacular lack of success) and hardly cared at all about profit; and, conversely, he is also different from Roy Thomson, who read issues of his Times and Sunday Times only to calculate the advertising revenue and allowed his editors to say and report what they liked.

But Murdoch is Murdoch - he is not typical of the modern press proprietor. Tony O'Reilly (oddly, the proprietor whom Greenslade probably knows best) makes neither propaganda nor profits from his Independent titles in London. Conrad Black, until recently, made ample profits from his Telegraph papers; but they were not propagandist in the way he may have wished them to be. Tiny Rowland and Robert Maxwell owned the Observer and the Mirror respectively to make propaganda for themselves - but were rewarded with declining circulation, rising losses and, ultimately, ruined personal reputations. Even in the case of the Daily Mail, the most consistently propagandist paper, the shrillness of the propaganda may hinder as much as help the profits.

The truth is that the relationship between proprietors, their editors and their papers is an immensely complex one. Vanity, power and prestige still keep many owners in the business far beyond any commercial logic. Few are as decisive as the Birmingham travel agent Clifford Hards who (as Greenslade reports) launched Planet on Sunday, Britain's first green paper, printed one issue, sold a very respectable 110,000, and then promptly shut it down because, he said, he didn't like the content.

If Greenslade is trying to say that successful papers need a strong sense of political direction (which may sometimes shade into propaganda), he is probably right. National newspapers that set out to appeal to middle-of-the-road opinion with middle-of-the-road views rarely succeed. They lack the addictive quality that persuades people to pick them up on slow news days. Beyond that, however, the formula for success remains elusive and curiously unexamined. Propaganda fails to generate profits as often as it succeeds.

Being inevitably concerned with the immediate and the ephemeral, journalism is the most unreflective of occupations - you would not have heard many conversations about the ethics of reporting or the merits of different forms of press ownership in those Fleet Street taverns that the old hacks recall so fondly. Greenslade's faults, therefore, are merely the faults of his trade (if faults they are) and one would make less of them were it not for the implicit promise on the cover. He has written a perfectly good and readable historical account; but those who want a deeper understanding of the national press and the role that it plays in our lives must await another author.