21 MARCH 1987, Page 27


How a newspaper lost its unique authority through populist delusions


I RECENTLY heard the Master of a Cambridge college announce at dinner that after taking the Times for 50 years he had switched to the Independent. In the past a reader might have renounced the Times because of some specific outrage — such as its support for appeasement, or its oppos- ton to Churchill's intervention in Greece — but certainly not because he found it tatty and vulgar. The Times simply was the obvious newspaper for the governing class — which possibly still includes the heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. It claimed an authority unique amongst newspapers In the world. Times readers could assume that its anonymous articles were both Immensely well-informed and written by experts in the field. Foreign rulers were frequently convinced that its leaders ex- pressed the views of the British Govern- ment. Editors really did approach their task with solemnity, and agonised over the policies of the paper almost as though they were conducting public affairs themselves. (Lloyd George in 1922 actually thought of resigning the premiership to become editor of the Times.) Yet although there are widespread grumblings that the Times is not what it was, many people seem to have forgotten what once it claimed to be. They will even tell you that the idea that it was once a much more serious paper, written for educated people, is a myth. Is it? One can scarcely exaggerate the paper's old sense of its importance. Barrington- Ward, who succeeded Dawson as editor, recorded in all seriousness in his diary that `while it is the duty of the Opposition to oppose, it is the duty of the Times to get the best it can out of the goverment of the day. The King's govt has to be carried on.' The historian of the Times comments, without apparent irony: 'No sentences can reveal more clearly Barrington-Ward's view of the Times as a special force in the conduct of public affairs, acting almost like a governor, in the sense of a balancing agent, within the political machine.' Some- times the paper's conceit of itself amounted to an almost Northcliffian mega- lomania. During the war, after the Times had precipitated a serious quarrel between Stalin and Churchill, with Stalin threaten- ing to break off all confidential exchanges, Barrington-Ward complained that the Goverment had wantonly ruptured rela- tions between the Times and a major ally: `This is a state of affairs which can be of no service to the national interest and is manifestly displeasing to The Times itself.' It was only the opening of the Second Front — presumably at the Times's instiga- tion — that restored Stalin's good humour.

The claims were not modest. Were they absurd? The Times certainly employed experts. During the war, when there was an acute shortage of newsprint, the Times actually reduced its circulation rather than cut down on its news coverage, and re- tained all its expert writers. Liddell Hart was military correspondent for four years, and gave personal advice to Hore-Belisha, Secretary of State for War, and to Chur- chill, Eden and Lloyd George when they were opponents of Chamberlain's policies. Things have changed. When, for example, Peter Nichols wrote from Rome of the election of the Pope that `the smoke that today billowed over the Sistine Chapel swept away five centuries of tradition', you knew that he didn't know anything at all, and also that he greatly overestimated the power of smoke.

Yet the determination of the old Times to have well worked out and authoritative policies could be pernicious. It is well known that Dawson was culpably tena- cious in his support of appeasement, and tried hard to keep any anti-German senti- ments out of the paper. One leader sug- gested that 'Herr Hitler, whatever one may think of his methods, is genuinely trying to transform revolutionary fervour into mod- erate and constructive effort and to impose a high standard of public service on National Socialist officials'. That was the Times's response to the Night of the Long Knives.

Dawson's support of appeasement was overtaken by events. Yet he really did believe in it; he really did believe that war with Germany would be a catastrophe to which almost anything would be prefer- able. The Times case for appeasement was coherent and rationally argued, flawed only by the totally false assumption shared by the British Goverment and nearly all the British people until 1939 that Hitler could be understood by normal rational criteria.

The Times was also extremely accommo- dating to the Soviet Union after the war, pursuing appeasement under another name (`Russia's fears are susceptible of ready alleviation'). In 1943 there was a leader, accompanied by a 'turnover' article on the same page, on Russia's role in Europe after the war. The article was by Namier, and the leader, which was more tendentiously Sovietophile, by E.H. Carr. Namier's piece is a majestic and eloquent historical essay, a résumé of balance-of- power politics in Europe from the Seven Years' War to Stalingrad. It pointed to political conclusions — the desirability of Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe —

Haley valued Times tradi- tions but was simply not very clever

which it did not draw directly: 'Experience proves, most emphatically, that no West- ern power, however great, can safely act on the eastern flank of Germany except in a genuine and close understanding with Russia.'

Yet it matters less that the Times might have been wrong in trying to apply a traditional balance-of-power analysis to post-war Europe, and more that it address- ed itself to grown-ups, and presented a point of view based on serious historical analysis.

It was with the appointment as editor of Sir William Haley that things began to change. Haley seems to have been a man who valued Times traditions but was simp- ly not very clever. It was Haley who substituted moral uplift for the carefully argued tours d'horizon of Dawson, Barrington-Ward and E.H. Carr. His very first leader, just after the Coronation, set the tone: 'The British people as a whole have had a holiday from reality long enough . . . . Britain's economy still sways on a knife-edge . . . . Meanness of spirit, envy and jealousy sour too much of our national life.' Haley had waited seven months before he delivered himself of these reflections. He continued as he be- gan. Perhaps the most famous Times lead- er since the attack on Parnell was his. 'It is a moral issue!' (on the Profumo case). Yet anyone who can discover a coherent line of thought amid its clichés (`For the Con- servative Party . . . things can never be the same again' etc) deseives a prize. Haley's `Europeanism' was all uplift, and he thought that Nasser's seizure of the Canal was a moral issue.

The Times finally took on the character of a `quali-pop' paper under the aegis of Sir William Rees-Mogg — that curious figure, so typically English in his charm, supreme self-confidence and ultimate frivolity. Of Rees-Mogg it could be said that he lisp'd in leaders, for the leaders came'. He really was very good at writing them. But was he in the tradition of Barrington-Ward or Dawson, who believed in their leaders? With some odd exceptions — such as his advocacy of a return to the gold standard — he went gracefully along with the more civilised progressive opinions. Despite the intimations of austerity in his advocacy of gold, he supported the Heath-Barber dash for growth. He was the prophet of the `greatness' of Heath as Prime Minister, and of a religiose Europeanism'. He appeared to take little interest in the paper as a whole, and in a Reaganesque way allowed his writers to express their personalities.

It is interesting to read through the Times's account of the Paris evenements of 1968. There is a series of spendidly vivid reports of the demonstrations, by Charles Hargrove, the Paris correspondent, accom- panied by a number of Rees-Mogg leaders elegantly amplifying the orthodox British reaction to de Gaulle at the time. Finally, on 30 May, Rees-Mogg wrote another leader, which said nothing in particular, but through some intuition just hesitated on the brink of recommending that de Gaulle resign. Meanwhile, on another page, in a piece referring to de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic entirely in the past tense, Patrick Brogan was writing: 'With the revolution now under way, the Fifth Republic is also receding into history and General de Gaulle with it.' This was on the very day on which de Gaulle made his great comeback speech CI have the man- date of the people and I mean to exercise it') which brought out a gigantic demon- stration in his favour.

Rees-Mogg promoted the dim-witted Times diary, so bad as to be beyond parody. Under him also sub-editing stan- dards slipped grievously. (When the Emperor of Japan paid a state visit to Britain, the Times ran a supplement on Japan, which featured a good deal of historical background about the Meiji Res- toration. The pre-Meiji ruler of Japan was throughout referred to as 'the shotgun'.) Sheer tastelessness became extremely com- mon. I remember one story about a drugs raid, where heroin was found secreted about a baby. The headline was 'Happy in his Nappy'.

Harold Evans was a bizarre choice as editor. His natural mode of writing is Sunday Times 'Insight' (`Words frothed over his lips like waves on a barrier reef). When his leaders attempted to be serious they were usually pompous. Under Douglas-Home the leaders were much more coherent but often simple-minded: propaganda rather than attempts to Per- suade the reader.

And so to the Times as it is now. What has happened to the paper that used to claim unique authority? It is now merely one quality paper amongst the others, but with sillinesses that are peculiarly its own. The headlines are the chief centre of foolishness. They never achieve the crisp salaciousness of the Telegraph (`Unusual divorce case says judge: husband and wife cite same man.') Instead there is a sort of senile jokiness. So the celebration of the New Year in Peking is headlined 'Whizz- bang in Peking as the Year of the Rabbit leaps in'. In the same issue (30 January 1987) an article about an Olympic swim- mer who has had a baby but intends to keep up her swimming is entitled 'Babies keep you in the swim'. Then there is a story about someone who swallowed a watch (headline 'Tick tock turn'). An article revealing that 'fewer than one in four of households headed by an unskilled manual worker had a car' is headlined 'Unskilled do badly in car stakes.' Sometimes they seem to think that cliche equals wit: 'Christians muscle in on fitness for the soul.' (Muscular Christians, ged- dit?) Often they just do a poor imitation of the tabloids, as with an article on accidental shootings by French police (`Trigger happy boys in bleu'). They are also curiously, but undoubtedly, obsessed with Forties Americana. So a piece about Rosalynn Carter's discontent since leaving the White House is headlined 'First Lady sings the blues.' The issue of 21 February of this year is full of choice things. In the 'Saturday'

A dullish article by Miles Kington illustrated with a re- volting drawing

section the headline writer outdoes him- self. An article about organised crime in Japan has the banner headline: 'IN TOKYO ROSE A GANGSTER'S SUN'. (`Tokyo Rose', you see, and 'The Land of the Rising Sun'. Geddit?) On the centre page, as well as a characteristically unfunny cartoon by Bar- ry Fantoni about the Henry Moore altar- piece (`. . . it's certainly an insult to great French cheese'), there is a dullish article by Miles Kington on why he didn't become a `wine-buff . This is illustrated with a revolt- ing drawing of Mr Kington, who is sup- posed to be spitting out wine at a tasting, but in fact looks exactly as though he were vomiting. On the same page there is an article by a professor of sociology, Christie Davies, entitled 'Witches at the church door'. It is about women priests. The `argument' of the article is as follows: John Wesley's Methodists used to believe in witchcraft, but they do so no longer. Yet many Anglicans seem still to believe in it, because some of them 'are fighting a last ditch battle' against the ordination of women. Some of these Anglicans are simply 'good honest reactionaries'. But the more 'catholic' among them regard women as witches, and women priests as polluters of the sacred. For them a true priest possesses 'a powerful juju or fetish'. To such people, who are frequently homosex- uals, active heterosexual men are 'suspect', 4 Lack of coherence is the most obvious feature of the present Times and women are dirty, menstruous crea- tures. Just before the end of his article which is quite innocent of evidence for a single one of his statements — Davies turns ironist and concludes that once the 'liber- ated harpies of the Left' have got their hands on the priesthood, they will find that the magic has departed, and that to be a Priest is just like being a nurse. I have quoted the article in all its condescending foolishness because I am sure that such a farrago could not have aPpeared in the Times even ten years ago. Even the Fourth Leaders, for all their leaden whimsies, would have disdained such intellectual bad manners.

On 5 February there was the following headline: 'Sex party hostess rewarded slaves" with a bit of a caning.' The Times seemed much taken with the Cynthia Payne case. Its headline writers were up to standard (`Everyone was enjoying Cyn- thia's sex party'), and referred to her throughout as 'Madame Cyn'. In the middle of the case the Times actually sent a female journalist to talk to a distinguished French whoremistress (head- line: 'Sex, says Madame, is a taxing thing — and she should know'). 'As the Cynthia Payne case continues, Caroline Phillips flew to Paris to talk to the celebrated Madame Claude' (photo of whoremistress inset). Caroline Phillips finds it all awfully Jolly: 'It never occurred to me that I would make a good prostitute — it wasn't the sort of thing that the university careers officer ever suggested.' The point of the article is that Madame Claude, who ran a brothel and a call-girl network, owes £2 million pounds in income tax on her profits (`Sex a taxing thing': geddit?). The Times took leave of the 'Madame Cyn' case with real regret: 'In keeping with a trial that has considerably brightened recent short, dark days, Mrs Payne has worked the string [of a toy policeman] that made it guffaw and nod its helmet.' Need we, as Johnson said, waste critic- ism upon 'unresisting imbecillity'? I doubt that the Times really believes that a trial full of accounts of drivelling old men engaged in' slavery' and sado-masochistic practices has 'brightened' our days. It allows this sort of writing because it has lost confidence in its traditions.

When Lord Stockton died, the headline was 'Tory grandee Macmillan dies, aged 92.' (Compare the Independent's 'Harold Macmillan dies.' That is how the old Times would have put it — simply.) The second lead story, under the vulgar headline 'The unflappable liberal dandy' was by George Hill: 'With the death of the last eminent Victorian to preside in Downing Street, the great dandy of post-war British politics falls silent . . .' (Were there then two Macmillans, one of whom fell silent on the death of the other?) 'and Mrs Thatcher can relax in the assurance that she will never again be vexed by his reproaches about the family silver.' (The crassness of that re- mark is surely unperceived by Mr Hill which makes it worse.) 'He was "Super- mac" [inevitably] . . . the unflappable, the supple Greek in the Roman Empire.' (This seems to be an idiot misremembering of Macmillan's recommendation that the British should see themselves as 'the Greeks in the Americans' Roman Empire'.) In Mr Hill's version it means nothing at all. And does he mean 'supple' or 'subtle'? Who can say?) `. . . the only prime minister of modern times never to have had to slave as Leader of the Opposi- tion as the price of his eminence.' Certain names come to mind: Churchill in 1940? Eden? Home? Callaghan? Neville Cham- berlain? Lloyd George? Asquith? Nothing could more sadly mark the decline of the Times as a 'journal of record'.

What went wrong? In 1958 the Times accepted the advice of a firm of chartered accountants that it should become less `ponderous' and carry shorter news stories. Yet there never seems to have been a coherent policy of taking the paper 'down market'. Indeed, lack of coherence is the most obvious feature of the present Times. Side by side with serious leaders, excellent theatre reviews, reliable law reports, are the vacuities (and sheer visual messiness) of the Spectrum and Friday pages. And at what audience is the Diary aimed? Who is informed by it? Who laughs at its jokes? No doubt the Times had to change. Its share of the market was declining, and it was losing money (although much less than it lost subsequently). Yet this does not explain the zest with which it destroyed its traditions — its elegant and reticent lay- out, with sober, informative headlines, its sense of proportion, its wholly admirable, Victorian, seriousness — all that consti- tuted a style possessed by no other news- paper. Could it be that having concluded that there was no longer a governing class for whom to write, the Times and Rees- Mogg decided that there was no other audience worth taking seriously?

We need not lament the loss of the paper of the governing class. There is no need for the Times to be the 'governor within the political machine' (any more than for the Guardian to be the governess). Yet we can regret a paper which used to be written for educated people. The Victorian Times did not merely cater for an educated public: it helped create the very idea of such a public — one which could be expected to take a serious interest in politics, the arts, finan- cial and foreign affairs, and to expect consistent standards of writing and accura- cy in all these areas. The Times saw itself as mediating between various sorts of exper- tise and the needs of the intelligent general reader. Need we doubt that representative government benefits from the existence of just such a public, and hence of such a newspaper? So it is not merely snobbish to be unmoved by Rees-Mogg's vision of a Times that would be (I quote from mem-

Can old standards revive? The Times still has some good writers

ory) 'read by shop-girls'. And it is not simply fastidious to dislike the parts of it that seem to be written by them.

Can old standards revive? The Times still has some good writers: David Watt, T.E. Utley, Ronald Butt — and Frank Johnson, a true Wit whose comedy ex- presses his political acumen. It is not true that the present world would have no place for a more serious Times. Le Monde remains an unabashedly elitist paper and has kept all its influence. There does not seem to be any evidence that Mr Murdoch would not wish to see a restoration of the Times's authority. There is no reason why the Times should not shake off its populist delusions, and understand that a serious newspaper creates its own audience and its own world.

Dr John Casey is a fellow in English at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.