Reluctant assassin

Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the glory days of Fleet Street

Ruth Dudley E

After struggling through the first chunk of this book, the average reader might easily conclude that he was in for a pretty dull read. Up to that point, the profoundly introspective and impenetrable Cecil Harmsworth King is the main subject, and the story of his early years is pretty dismal. But then the Welsh wizard, Hugh Kinsman Cudlipp, bursts on to Ruth Dudley Edwards's pages, and it is as if she had drawn the curtains in a darkened room and let in a blaze of sparkling sunlight.

The contrast of light and darkness continues through most of the book, as the author switches back and forth from the copious diaries and autobiographical writings of King and Cudlipp. And that is probably inevitable, since her subject is the extraordinary partnership between these two utterly different men - a partnership that lasted more than 30 years, and built the floundering Daily Mirror into a journalistic colossus, with a circulation of more than five million and the political clout that goes with it. If it was the Sun wot won it for Thatcher and Major, it was the Mirror wot won it for Attlee and Wilson.

How they managed to combine so formidably - a patrician Wykehamist whose uncles were Northcliffe and Rothermere, partnered with a council schoolboy from South Wales who started as a 14-year-old reporter on five shillings a week - was always a mystery to contemporaries, and it is still a mystery after reading the book. But Dudley Edwards gives us a lot of fun along the way, which is not surprising considering the menagerie of extraordinary characters who provide her with her dramatis personae.

Most of them, it has to be said, are drunk a good deal of the time. As she remarks, it is extraordinary that the newspapers came out at all, let alone that they were so good. As I can confirm, the whole of Fleet Street in those postwar years was awash with alcohol. But even among the rest of us, the booze intake at the Mirror was awesome. Yes, we drank plenty at the Daily Express. But Lord Beaverbrook would not permit alcohol in the big black palace - not even in the editor's room. While at Geraldine House, the cocktail cabinets were as important as the desks.

The rest of us hacks were able to join in this wild bacchanal once a year, during the annual Labour Party conference. That was when Cudlipp would descend on Brighton or Blackpool at the head of an army of reporters and sub-editors, having taken over an entire hotel from which the Mirror would be physically produced during the ensuing week. Each night the Mirror laid on an ocean of free booze, at which the gatecrashers outnumbered the invited guests. The impression conveyed was that the Labour Party actually belonged to the Daily Mirror - which, for a while, was very nearly true.

The question is which of the du- umvirate was the driving force for all this? To outsiders, there was no question about the answer: it was Cudlipp. But Dudley Edwards occasionally hints that King provided the strategy and that Cudlipp, as a loyal and obedient servant, carried it out with his special brand of showmanship. I'm afraid I don't buy this version of events. I think King's contribution was the wholly negative one of spotting a unique talent early on, latching on to it, giving it its head, and then protecting it from company directors and other interfering riff-raff. God knows, this is an important contribution, and qualifies King for the title of great newspaper manager. But the true drive and originality belonged, I believe, exclusively to Cudlipp.

Yet they were, genuinely, a team in which King was inevitably the senior partner. Rather touchingly, he seems to have conceived it his duty, while Cudlipp was away at the war, to provide his young protege with the education he never had. Thus he bombarded Lt Cudlipp, founder and editor of the Eighth Army's own newspaper, with recommended reading lists. Cudlipp later claimed that at one point he was carrying several volumes of Gibbons's Decline and Fall round with him in his kitbag. Dudley Edwards's guess is that he never read them - or, indeed, any other book he didn't positively have to read.

The climax of the book is King's gradual descent into megalomania, encouraged by his weird and witchlike second wife, Ruth Railton. It reached its nadir in his insane attempt to generate a coup against Harold Wilson and to replace him by an emergency government improbably headed by Lord Mountbatten. King later denied advocating any such thing, although the crucial meeting between him, Mountbatten, Professor Solly Zuckerman and Cudlipp has been thoroughly reported by all the participants, with King's version in a minority of one. But the collapse of his plans certainly led him to write an extraordinary front-page Mirror piece, headlined "Enough is enough", in which he called for the removal of Wilson. By then, Cudlipp knew it was King who would have to go, and the piece gave him the opportunity to organise his removal in a classic palace revolution. And guess what? Cudlipp turned out to be his successor as chairman.

It is all familiar stuff, and I'm not sure anyone with an interest in the history of journalism will learn much new from this book. But, like those conversations in which we hacks boast about our old scoops and repeat unlikely stories about famous expenses fiddles, everyone will enjoy the yarns recorded here, whether they have heard them before or not. My main complaint is what is missing from the book - such as, for instance, an adequate analysis of how Cudlipp came to make the blunder of his life by launching the Sun in place of the old Daily Herald, then (when it bombed) selling the title to Rupert Murdoch. The story is mentioned by Dudley Edwards, but more in passing than as a key part of her tale.

Had she asked me, I could have told her that I once quizzed Hugh about why he had handed Murdoch the loaded blunderbuss with which he would blow away the Cudlipp Mirror. His reply was simple and convincing. He said that the ever-malign print unions had advised him that if he failed to accept Murdoch's offer and tried to close the Sun down, then they would stop all the Mirror publications. In other words, the print unions created the conditions which led to their own destruction at the hands of Rupert Murdoch. I feel there is a satisfying touch of poetic justice in that.

Ian Aitken is a former political editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The final bout