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20 September 2022

From the NS archive: The ten days

15 March 1952: Fleet Street now speculates which story would be the natural “splash” if war was declared on the same day as Princess Margaret’s engagement was announced.

By Ted Castle

“Royal death, birth and marriage are now unchallenged as the news to end news,” wrote Ted Castle, a journalist and future Labour Party politician, in March 1952. In the days following the death of King George VI the previous month, Castle had watched as the press went wild for “every scroungeable item of news” from the event, including the details of lying-in-state and the arrangements for the funeral. The announcement of the King’s death on 6 February had already added four million copies to the sales of that day’s London evening papers. The following day titles including the “Daily Mirror” and the “Daily Graphic” achieved new record sales. The timing of the news made proceedings a little awkward for the popular picture weeklies “Illustrated” and “Picture Post”, both of which had gone to press two days before the King’s death, “in one case with a particularly bosomy glamour girl on the cover”, Castle noted. Luckily the magazine’s production staff worked overtime to re-do the covers, “so that customers the following Wednesday should not be affronted”. That edition of “Illustrated” sold a record two and a quarter million copies.

There was once a republican circulation manager of a British newspaper. The poor man, of course, died of a duodenal ulcer, because every time a Royal Happening sent up the circulation of his paper his professional pleasure fought among his gastric juices with his repeated affirmation that “The whole thing’s poppycock.” For Royal Death, Birth and Marriage are now unchallenged as the news to end news – and the King’s death certainly did end other news in many of the popular papers. Fleet Street now speculates which story would be the natural “splash” if war was declared on the same day as Princess Margaret’s engagement was announced.

Superior people, who think they have their sense of values rightly adjusted, cannot dismiss it all as a plot by the newspapers to create an interest and emotion which would not otherwise exist. The mere words “Death of the King” scribbled on a news vendor’s poster is all the sales talk needed. Those words added four million copies to the sales of London evening papers on 6 February. And what happened on following days suggested that editors who decided to play up every scroungeable item of news from Sandringham, every aspect of the Lying-in-State, and every detail of the funeral arrangements were satisfying a real demand. To meet it, the Newsprint Supply Company, which guards the newsprint reserve, decided to raise the allocation to each newspaper for the period. Extra supplies, equal to an extra ten large pages to the daily and evening papers, and four large pages to the Sundays and weeklies, were made available. This represented an additional consumption of 3,300 tons. Some of it was used to increase the size of papers, the rest to printing more copies.

The circulation leaders shared the harvest with the “also rans.” Though the news broke for the evening papers, the big wholesalers were convinced that the demand for the next day’s papers would be unabated. And they were right. On 7 February, the Daily Mirror established a new record by adding 300,000 to its usual print. Sales of the Daily Graphic rose by about the same. The rest of them had similar experiences, the Daily Worker alone excepted. From then on, sustained by news and pictures of the new Queen, the return of the body to London, the Lying-in-State, the arrival of Kings and Presidents, and by the exploration of every cranny in the background to the news, circulations were kept unusually high.

The decks were really cleared for the funeral numbers. Many thousands of pounds of advertising were scrapped and – historic indeed – the Mirror dropped most of its strip cartoons. Only “Jane”, appropriately decorous for once, and “Useless Eustace” were allowed to remain in the otherwise unsullied pages. Singleness of purpose was rewarded by another jump in sales – a further 500,000 above those of 7 February – with the Graphic, Express and Mail close behind. With the popular dailies transformed into pictorial magazines, there might have seemed little left for the Sundays, but here again The Topic paid dividends. The decision of one Sunday paper to come out even two days after the funeral with an almost entirely funeral issue added well over 100,000 to its sale, at the expense, it is believed, of a competitor who assumed it was time to return to normal.

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To the two popular picture weeklies, Illustrated and Picture Post, both the death and the funeral presented exceptional difficulties which a sense of market stimulated them to overcome. The King died two days after they had gone to press for the following week – in one case with a particularly bosomy glamour girl on the cover. Prestige demanded that at high expense they should sacrifice the hundreds of thousands of copies already printed, so that customers the following Wednesday should not be affronted. There was a quick replacement of covers and a breakneck rush to get several pages of Royal pictures into the papers. Both magazines normally go to press on the Monday, allowing nine days for printing and distribution. With the funeral arranged for the Friday, however, there was nothing for it but to scrap existing schedules and make-up the papers four days late. Fantastic overtime pay to mechanical staffs had to be accepted and unusual measures taken to get the papers on sale everywhere the following Wednesday. Even so, four days after the dailies had printed everything there was to print about the funeral, the magazines set out to satisfy an apparently insatiable appetite. In the case of Illustrated, two and a quarter million copies were sold – a record not only for the paper but for the whole of the Odham’s group.

It is sometimes thought that the work-a-day Provinces are less avid for Royal news than the Capital. 6 February proved how wrong this is. Some provincial evening papers in the big industrial towns sold double their normal sales. Many people appeared to buy several editions. Circulation managers, whose expectations were exceeded, believe that the buying of newspapers on this day particularly was substantially affected by the mystifying silence of the BBC. But the surprise and shock of the first news does not account for the heavy buying on the day of the funeral, when provincial sales again jumped by 50 per cent. Within an hour or so of the funeral procession passing through London, papers printed hundreds of miles from London were on sale with up to 30 pictures of the scenes – a triumph of the camera and photo-telegraphy.

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The camera, in fact, is widely accepted as the principal cause of all the public interest. Whatever the qualities of the Monarch and his family, they would have gone comparatively unheeded without the camera. Through the camera, Royalty has lost its remoteness, while still preserving something of its mystique. The camera has over the years convinced us that, whatever our reservations about inherited privilege, there has been at Buckingham Palace a pleasant family, and an attractive one, going everywhere it should, doing everything required and doing it well. The supremacy of the camera is accepted with reluctance by the writing men of Fleet Street, but accepted just the same. Many a Phillip Gibbs and George Augustus Sala is now born to write unread. The Royal Occasion gave to a few a temporary release from years of confinement. For the death and funeral they were given an unfamiliar expanse of columns and they wrote as well and as much as their forbears. But with what avail, against the competition of the camera close-up? Even if we do not all share the tastes of the average newspaper reader, it is as well to try to understand them. The usual criticism of the popular press is that it is sensational and prepared to pander to morbid interests and bidden sadistic instincts. However true the charge generally, it was not true in this instance. Newspapermen, conscious of the many sins committed in the name of news, accurately assessed the level of interest of those ten days and are not ashamed of the energy and enterprise they put into satisfying it. Moreover, in doing what they did, many papers had to reckon on losing money. Newspaper finances are so delicately adjusted to the high cost of newsprint that to drop advertisements, increase paper sizes and print hundreds of thousands more copies could result only in a loss. Managements accepted this because they believed that they were doing what readers expected of them and also because extra sales, though not immediately profitable, presented a chance of reaching new readers, some of whom might be retained as regulars. But sympathy with Fleet Street’s point of view does not condone mawkish bad taste.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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