5 MAY 1961, Page 8

Christiansen and Beaverbrook

By BRIAN INGLIS A PEW years ago I came back from holiday


to find a letter telling me to see Arthur Christiansen: he had liked some articles of mine, and wondered if I would be interested in working for the Express. When we met. 'Chris, as he was universally known in Fleet Street among those of us who had never met him, said he was look- ing for a leader-writer; and it did not take him long to see that my opinions were unlikely to piove suitable. `Features?' I asked hopefully. He pondered a moment, and then rejected the idea. I would only be lost, he said, in the Features Department, where already there were too many writers whose by-lines appeared in the paper too seldom for his comfort or theirs.

In one sense I regret the soundness of his judgment on that occasion To have worked in Fleet Street without working for Lord Beaver- brook is like having been in the forces without seeing action. One would not have liked it, and one might not have survived it; but without it, that sense of inadequacy lingers which used to plague Scott Fitzgerald, because his draft never went to Europe. Still, it was something to have been asked; and the interview gave an impression of Christiansen confirmed by subsequent en- counters and by Headlines All My Life*: that one of the secrets of his success was the constant search for unknowns (unlike most Fleet Street editors, who waited for talent to display itself and then bought it over at inflated prices), coupled with his hunch for guessing which of the potential recruits paraded before him would be no use in the Express. I was touched, too, that he did not take the easy way out. One man more or less in the Features Department at that time would hardly have been noticed; and he could have used it as a bait, with the real intention of securing a leader-writer. A nice man, I felt; and considering he had so much power for so long, it is a tribute to him how few enemies he made.

And yet, there remains the picture of all those doomed men in the Features limbo. Christiansen spoke of them with the gentle regret of a Teiresias introducing the Dead in the halls of Hades: as if their existence was melancholy but inevitable—in the nature of things; some- thing he could do nothing about. Nor could he; for though nominally he had been editor for twenty years, he was firmly in the grip of the system he had created, under the proprietor he had so loyally served. He was not, never could be, `editor' in the traditional sense of the word.

With Christiansen the editorial function has resumed the place it had occupied in the eighteenth century. Then, the owner of a news- paper employed editors to look after the mech- anics of newspaper production; they combined the functions now divided up between a host of prefixes—managing, deputy, associate, assistant, and sub.; and they had no real authority. The first man to deserve the title of editor proper was Thomas Barnes of the Times in the 1820s. With Delane and C. P. Scott the impression grew that the term applied to a man who was in abso- * Heinemann, 25s. lute charge of a paper, subject only to the over- riding power of the owners to sack him or, if they did not dare to, to sell their shares. This concept of editorial power never applied in more than a minority of newspapers, and with the advent of Northcliffe it ceased for a while to be true even of the Times; but it is the one that still lingers iu the public mind. Yet in all but a hand- ful Jt papers editor means little. My first Fleet Street appointment as leader-writer was made by the Managing Director of the group without the consent of, without even reference to, the editor of the paper; and as Patrick Campbell remarked in the Spectator a few months ago, it is possible to live on Fleet Street's lower slopes without ever finding out which of the scurrying executives the editor actually is.

Beaverbrook and Christiansen were not respon- sible for this change; but they carried it a stage further than it had been taken before. Beaver- brook was in fact the editor, Christiansen the managing editor; and when Beaverbrook said, 'Well, isn't Czechoslovakia a far-away country?' Christiansen, though he felt sick, agreed that it was and `got on with my job of producing an exciting newspaper. I regarded that as my pur- pose, and Beaverbrook's to adumbrate, formu- late, and pursue the political policies.' This is a tenable attitude. It is possible, indeed certain, that if Christiansen had been in charge of political policy the Express would have been more respected politically, but he had no way of know- ing this; a-political himself, it was as reasonable that he should decide to stick to his last as that a captain should sail his ship without worrying about the shipping line's policy.

The trouble was that he did his work as manag- ing editor all too well. The eccentricities of the Beaverbrook line washed over him, leaving him relative:y unaffected; it was the men who worked for him who came badly out of it. To secure the kind of newspaper he wanted, Christiansen says, he had to mould writers: to `put dozens of people who are household names through the wringer. Among the critics he had to bully into being 'amenable' (in the context the term has the sinister ring of a brainwashing experiment) were James Agate, Daniel George, John Pudney, Paul Holt, Jonah Barrington, Leonard Mosley, John Barber and Nancy Spain. The fact that he admits Agate was the `shining exception' who re- mained incorrigible suggests, unless I am reading too much into the phrase, that Christiansen most admired those who did not succumb to his treat- ment. and well he might: that wringer of his has wrung exceedingly dry. All too many Express men, household names once and still legends in some pubs off Fleet Street, have disappeared into obscurity, or hang around resembling those inflated wine skins that dangle outside doorways in the Middle East, making pained noises in any passing breeze.

To say, as Christiansen does, 'I kept more good men than I lost' is not necessarily something he should be proud of. Many stayed because in adapting to the Express's ways they unfitted themse:ves for any other writing. He laments the escape from the Express of Alan Moorehead and James Cameron : can he find two reputations as respected among those who remained captive? Among the humorists. yes—Beachcomber, Osbert Lancaster; but they were spared treat- men, to make them amenable because their func- tion like Low's and Vicky's, was to be deliber- ately off-beat. But among the regulars? Some very competent journalists stayed—the Express has a surprisingly high survival rate; but their reputation has often been absurdly inflated. Strube may have 'ranked head and shoulders above all his rivals in the affections of the British public, but his cartoons were on a Mrs Dale's Diary level; his equivalent today is not even Giles —it is the Applebys.

The effect on Left-wing politicians of working for the Express would make an interesting subject for research. It is possible to argue that a journalist should regard himself as a lawyer, who does his best for his clients even though he may not agree with them; but no lawyer has continually to take cases against his political or moral grain. Working for Beaverbrook must sooner or later create a conflict of loyalties. There is a revealing moment in Headlines All My Life where Christiansen describes hoW the smear headline on a Harold Laski story-11-1E NATIONAL SOCIALISTS'—was presented to him by a Socialist; any Left-winger, even one employed on some job altogether remote from the paper's politics, might have wondered, seeing this headline, whether he could stay in a newspaper capable of such tactics.

The effects differed according to the individual. A few men with Socialist backgrounds (some of them picked up by the paper because the skill with which they have presented an anti-Bcavcr- brook case excited the admiration of their target) soon shed their old beliefs and began to write as if ghosting for their new master—which they occasionally were. They were hated or despised (according to their position in the hierarchy) by their colleagues; but in a sense their attitude was more logical, and less painful to them, than that of Socialists who tried to combine diverging loyalties. It is easy to claim that the anti-Socialist case, cogently put, can do no real harm, and may even strengthen the cause by illuminating its weaknesses (the kind of argument Defoe used to use when he worked for the Tories); or to say that the Express has shown itself to be without political influence, so what is written in it does not matter. But these are rationalisations; and the use of them in time can be destructive.

Perhaps as a result, politicians who have worked for the paper seem to suffer thereafter from a kind of imbalance; it is not so much that they lose respect or trust as that in some indefinable way they cease to count—except as mavericks and rebels. It is hard, for example, to think of them as filling ministerial posts, should the Opposition ever be returned to power.

But it is on the ordinary reporter that the effect of the method has been par- ticularly unfortunate, owing to the establishment of the code which has brought the press into such disrepute—notably over intrusion. Christiansen admits to the original responsibility : When a murderer was hanged I wanted to know how his children were faring; when a girl rocketed to stardom I wanted to know whether her parents had contributed . . . But the idea got out of hand. The human story, like the size of headline type, seems nowadays to be sought ruthlessly at the sacrifice of taste, sense, and decent feelings. • This getting-out-of-hand, though, was surely inevitable; Christiansen is talking like a man who has convinced himself that all he wants to do is kiss the girl, not realising that if the project is successful. the next step is bound to follow—if not from him, from others who have seen him. Here, again, the Express has not been the worst; when the gossip columnists plumbed their muddy depths a couple of years ago before the Queen ex- posure, Tanficld more than Hickey was regarded as the chief offender. But it was the Express that established the code—that in the pursuit of a story the end justifies the means. A reporter, provided he kept within the law, avoided riling the proprietor's friends, and did nothing that would rebound later in the form of unsavoury publicity, could consider almost any expedient justified. The journalistic techniques recounted by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop were not, of course, invented by the Express, but Express men per- fected them—and were admired for doing so. The reporter who fabricated an account of an episode from hearsay, phoning it through while rivals were out collecting their first-hand stories; the critic who caught the early editions of the paper with a notice of a performance he had not seen; the photographer who staged a riot picture more realistic than the real shots—these men were admired in Fleet Street for their flair, not fired for their deception.

Working for newspapers when they have a moral code distinct from the one prevailing in other professions inevitably has a disintegrating effect. The journalist ceases to be able to 'judge what is ethical and what is not. Christiansen himself,, though the process has obviously affected him far less than some notorious subor- dinates, shows signs of this. He blandly quotes from one of his celebrated bulletins:

So far as the news columns of the paper are concerned, we seek only one thing--absolute impartiality

—a profession of faith that will cause some wry amusement in such organisations as the British Council. And in one of the book's few rancorous passages he denounces Tom Driberg's biography of Beaverbrook for its 'offensive references to his private life.' Anybody who has found himself pursued by one of the three dozen William Hickeys since Driberg held that office, or by three Hickeys simultaneously, may be forgiven for wondering why Lord Beaverbrook should be spared the attentions his columnists have so often paid to .others.

To handle news with integrity, Christian- sen believes, requires a sense of moral values which burns and burns and burns. 'Sometimes,' he admits wistfully, 'the flame may have died in me in the hustle and cynicism of Fleet Street.' If it did. he can be sure it died in many other young journalists; brought to the Express at a salary so far beyond past expectation that the prospect of resignation became extremely diffi- cult for them, and still more for their wives and families; put through the wringer; made big names for a few years; and then?