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From the NS archive: Maxwell’s Fleet Street foray

25 October 1968: The problem with a Labour newspaper.

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In 1968, Robert Maxwell was both Labour MP for Buckingham and head of a successful publishing concern, Pergamon Press. It became clear that he was looking to expand his business and had his eye on the mass-market newspaper the News of the World. Although Maxwell’s attempt to buy the paper foundered (it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch) he did not give up on the idea of proprietorship and would acquire the Mirror Group Newspapers in 1984. In this piece, Magnus Turnstile examined Maxwell’s motives for making a move on the salacious NoW and wondered how it fitted with Maxwell’s aim of buying a socialist paper. That a Labour newspaper was needed to correct the wider press bias and push the party’s message was not, Turnstile said, in doubt, but what was blocking the path was Labour itself.

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As someone who knows what it is like to be taken over body and soul along with the title and plant (appropriately, when it happened I was in a part of Africa where the slave traders once flourished), I have every professional sympathy with the editor of the News of the World, Stafford Somerfield, and his staff on being caught up in Robert Maxwell’s empire-building raid into darkest Fleet Street. But my sympathy evaporated when I read his message on Sunday to his readers: he seemed to me to be appealing as much to their xenophobic emotions as to their loyalty in his explanation why “it would not be a good thing for Mr Maxwell, formerly Jan Ludwig Hoch, to gain control of this newspaper. . . as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding”. 

Mr Somerfield, perhaps understandably, omitted the main dish on his right-wing “family” newspaper’s limited menu – crumpet. (Inside were two pages of Miss Diana Dors’s revelations about “Men and Me”, two attempted rape cases, an “outrageous club for Peeping Toms”, a double-spread on cut price pornography, “TV will show candid nudes”, and “The Cookhouse Casanova”.) Why has Maxwell, zealous defender of public morals and persistent campaigner for a socialist daily, declared that he will not change the NoW’s policy? In his ever-so-slightly over-elegant Georgian headquarters in Fitzroy Square he counters: “Would you interfere with a successful formula?” It takes a thrustful optimist of Maxwell’s calibre to call the NoW’s fading appeal “successful”. The paper has been sliding slowly down the circulation hill since 1951 (from 8.5 million to 6,191,000, compared with the rival People’s rise from five million to 5.5 million).

On the assumption that the majority of its readers don’t buy it for its politics, the reasons aren’t hard to find. It once had a genuine role to play, with its deadpan fund of surrogate sex for the frustrated and the non-practising kinky, and invaluable source material (all official and certified by HM courts, so to speak) for sociologists and students of the British libido. Today, however, its delights must seem as quaint as Victorian pin-ups to permissive-age youngsters, who spend their afternoons at the real thing. Maxwell knows this, of course, but the NoW is still profitable, and he emphasises that he regards it merely as part of a package deal that would unite two complementary concerns. He insists that his incursion into Fleet Street would be strictly a business move. He denies flatly that he has any ambition to be a left-wing Beaverbrook. “I’m not a proprietor – I’m a manager, the head of an efficient business team that could make the NoW organisation more profitable by introducing modern management methods.”

What about his plans for a “commercially viable socialist daily”? Wouldn’t the NoW’s giant battery of machines, lying uneconomically idle six days a week, be an ideal site for the marriage of his Labour faith and his respect for profit? Maxwell replies that he is interested in a Labour daily only in his private capacity. “I don’t want to run one, only to take part in the launching of it.” He agrees that the NoW machines could use a daily, but nobody will sell me a successful paper and I wouldn’t buy one that wasn’t”.

Maxwell has been advocating the need for a Labour paper since he became an MP in 1964. His first suggestion – that he would print such a paper free if the unions gave him their printing contracts – died of its own naivety. Eighteen months ago he said he hoped to help in the founding of a Labour paper that would cost at least 6d, perhaps 9d, appear six days a week (not on Saturday), with a realistic circulation of about 300,000, mainly among the faithful. This is the idea he still cherishes, “but not in my capacity as chairman of Pergamon”, although it must by now have been borne in on even such a high-powered enthuser that getting Labour to back the kind of independent paper he (rightly) envisages is as difficult as getting the man – as distinct from the typist – in the street to Back Britain. As that other would-be promoter of a Labour daily, Mr Ernest Kaye, the Prime Minister’s biographer and admirer, found when he tried to float his Morning News on £1 shares to be bought – with a year’s subscription – by the faithful.

Maxwell says he has several fellow backers lined up – he mentions Mr Sidney Bernstein’s name – who would be prepared like himself to put personal money into it, but he admits it would need official support to get off the ground. His formula is commendably shrewd. As he put it in the last issue of the dying Sunday Citizen:

“It is not enough to provide a newspaper loyal to the Labour cause – if it is looking over its shoulder to please this and that interest then it cannot succeed – the sponsors must pluck up courage, trust their judgment and give the man they choose as editor the power, independence and confidence he needs to make the paper succeed. If the editor feels he must slavishly support every twist and turn of government policy, which is often far removed from the general principles of the party and concerned only with temporary exigencies, he will produce an insipid journal no one wants to read.”

The problem is that with the government in its present mood about the mass media no conceivable coalition of party and trade unions is remotely likely to concede such independence to any editor (the late Percy Cudlipp’s stories of the ruthless interference of Bevin & Co during his editorship of the Herald still ring in journalistic ears). Yet the government faces the prospect of going into the next election without the positive support of a single national paper, even the News of the World, if Maxwell’s bid succeeds.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)