British newspaper publishers love prime ministers. Conversely, prime ministers love publishers. That is, if the publisher in question owns a national newspaper with a big circulation (often in the millions).
You cannot get into the club if you only own, say, the Lewisham Borough News. This is an exclusive club for those who wield real, palpable power: Witness the scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in Britain today.
The club has been operating for more than 200 years. But it was at the turn of the 20th century, with ever-expanding voter rolls, that the intimacy became really intense. Victorian prime ministers had to put up with editors and owners of journals of opinion, like The Spectator or Punch, and sometimes The Times.
Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his Liberal rival, William Gladstone, bargained with the media of their day. But these did not sway huge swathes of the electorate in the way that was to come. General education produced millions of avid readers and improved printing technology, notably the Linotype machine, made large mass- circulation newspapers possible.
Two brothers, Vere Harmsworth and his more colorful sibling, Alfred, were the first big-time press barons. In time, they were rewarded with titles: Alfred became Lord Northcliffe and Vere, Lord Rothermere.
It is unlikely that all of the prime ministers — and all of them had to deal with the press barons — really liked the intimacy. These men mostly had huge egos, daunting agendas, and their friendship always came with a price. So, of course, did the friendship of the politicians. They sought support in elections and freedom from scrutiny in governing.
Part of the price was usually the peerage, but then there were other considerations. Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian, wanted prime ministers to endorse his campaign for “Empire Free Trade.” Others had other interests; but the tariffs on newsprint, the subsidy of cable traffic (which made getting news from overseas cheaper), and subsidized postal rates for newspapers and periodicals were common to all.
Northcliffe lectured World War I Prime Minister Lloyd George on how to run the war — and everything else. Beaverbrook treated Lloyd George’s successor, Bonar Law, a fellow Canadian, as his surrogate in government and campaigned for him relentlessly.
After that, Beaverbrook turned his demonic energies to supporting Winston Churchill — even though Churchill was at a low period during much of the1930s. Not only was the man who was to be Britain’s greatest prime minister out of power, he was also out of money.
The newspaper proprietors, in surprising unity, came to Churchill’s aid. Churchill boasted that he made 1 million pounds from his articles in one year and retired his debts. That was an astounding amount of money, and it reflected the fact that the newspaper bosses were overpaying him enormously, according the historian A.J.P. Taylor.
The leading paymasters were Beaverbrook, who owned the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, and Brendan Bracken, the Irishman who owned the Financial Times. In Churchill they saw potential, a lively contributor, and someone who gave the best dinner parties in England. Bracken even encouraged rumor that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son, although he knew this was nonsense.
The cultivating of prime ministers was an ecumenical affair. Cecil Harmsworth King, who ran Mirror Group Newspapers in the 1960s, lectured Prime Minister Harold Wilson on everything, including his own somewhat ridiculous idea that Britain needed a bipartisan national government — as in wartime — to get it out of his its financial difficulties. Rupert Murdoch went all out for Margaret Thatcher. But he turned against her successor, John Major, and supported the Labor Party and Tony Blair. Gordon Brown failed to get Murdoch’s nod, but current Prime Minister David Cameron did. The rest, as they say, is history.
When television came along, the proprietors had a new incentive to cultivate prime ministers: licenses. The big winner here was the least pushy of the publishers, Roy Thomson, another Canadian, who owned The Times. He got the license to run commercial television in Scotland and became Lord Thomson. Like Murdoch, Thomson did not crave the company of prime ministers. He was happy to let others carry his requirements to the men in power. Murdoch has used various intermediaries, including the American economist and free-market ideologue Irwin Stelzer.
Is it all over now? Will prime ministers shun the company of media barons?
Will the sun rise in the East tomorrow? – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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I cannot look at British Prime Minister David Cameron without feeling that he has been made from an Identi-Kit, and that they just missed the perfect likeness. The hair is from a Vidal Sassoon catalogue; the face from an exhibition of Dutch masters; and the body from, well, the ranks of the well-fed but not fat.
This sense that Cameron is a made-up man came back to me in the East Room, when President Barack Obama welcomed him to the White House as both men gave their first joint press conference since the prime minister was elected.
With just four questions from pre-selected reporters, it is stretching it to call these events press conferences; and the lack of enthusiasm for the format was shown by the empty media seats.
Anyway, the purpose of the event was to convince the media that Cameron and Obama are on the same page of the hymnal. Everybody knows they are not. They are divided by four not-unsubstantial issues.
They tried hard to sound like chums. They wore almost identical dark suits and blue ties. They called each other by their first names: It was “David” this and “Barack” that.
There has been a steady growth of informality at the White House, but this was a new mile post. One British reporter -presumably for the benefit of his American colleagues -actually addressed Cameron as “Mr. Prime Minister.” That is a form of address peculiarly American and never heard around the British Parliament. The British prefer to believe that a title determines the form of address. So it is simply, “Prime Minister, could you tell us …”
Cameron tried to set the stage by writing an article that appeared that morning in the Wall Street Journal. In it, he redefined the “special relationship” and called for the British to be less sentimental about it.
Underlining their differences, Cameron and Obama share something that is not helpful: neither of them is an Atlanticist.
Unlike many British Conservatives, Cameron has not been seduced by the United States. He did not spend a year at a U.S. university and has not peppered his talk with mention of the American example.
Likewise, Obama is one of the least Eurocentric of American presidents. He, too, did not spend time at a British university, as did Bill Clinton. He even offended many by banishing a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.
We do not know whether the public coziness extended into two days of talks between Obama and Cameron, but the policy differences are wide.
First, there is the global economy. Obama and his advisers believe too much austerity now will lead to a second recession and catastrophic deflation. So much so that Obama wrote to his partners in the G8 urging them to stimulate, not strangle, their economies.
But Cameron, keenly aware of the fate of Greece and the downgrading of Irish debt, has put forward an austerity budget and asked his departments to come up with possible cuts in staff and expenditures of 25 and 40 per cent, respectively. The real pain will not be felt until the cutting begins in the fall.
Second, there is the delicate matter of BP. Obama does not mind if the oil giant is squeezed so much over the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that it has to be sold off to, say, an American company. Cameron minds a lot.
Then there is the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, by the Scottish government. Americans want an inquiry into whether there was a deal to release al-Megrahi to protect British business interests in Libya, possibly involving BP. Cameron, who opposed the release at the time, thinks it is a closed issue. But he has already been pressured into a review.
Finally there is the case of Gary McKinnon, the computer genius with Asperger’s syndrome, who hacked into Pentagon and NASA computers after 9/11. The United States wants him extradited for trial here and Cameron is under pressure on grounds of humanitarianism and sovereignty not to oblige. Obama says it is a legal not presidential matter; Cameron raised it anyway.
His “special relationship” might not be Obama’s cup of tea.
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I would like to introduce you to the new Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He is remarkable. He is unique. His political success is based on the oft-repeated pratfall. Yes, Johnson has committed every political sin and is now at the helm of the most important city in Europe, and the one best beloved by Americans.
In the age of the technocrat, Johnson is more like something out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. For more than a decade, the British media have been regaled by Johnson’s “scrapes.” For example, he was demoted in the Conservative Party from a position on its front bench (which means that if the Tories had come back to power, he would have been a cabinet member) for variously insulting the city of Liverpool, antagonizing Pacific Islanders, and having an extramarital affair with Petronella Wyatt, a columnist at The Spectator, the weekly magazine which he edited.
Indeed, everyone at The Spectator seemed to be having an affair at the time Johnson occupied the editor’s chair. Publisher Kimberly Quinn, an American, was having an extramarital affair with David Blunkett, the blind British home secretary. Associate Editor Rod Liddle was having an extramarital affair with a Spectator secretary. Given that the staff is very small, that it is the oldest continuously published magazine in England (1828), and it is the seat of the Conservative intelligentsia, you can imagine how the tabloids loved the goings on. In fact, they took to calling Johnson “Boudoir Boris” and the magazine “The Sextator.”
Johnson was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and with which he has been able to cut himself. From Eton, the world’s most exclusive boarding school, Johnson sailed into Oxford University, where he distinguished himself as president of its debating society, The Oxford Union. Many a future prime minister has honed his skills debating at Oxford, and it seemed inevitable that Johnson would find his way into parliament. In 2001, he became a Conservative member.
Johnson’s running for mayor of London had all the characteristics of William F. Buckley Jr.’s running for mayor of New York. The only difference is that Johnson secured–to the horror of his party–the formal Conservative nomination, and now he is the mayor. At 43, he is one of the few executive mayors in England. He is a man known for his dazzling white hair, disorganization, irreverently witty tongue, and a sense that absolutely everything is not to be taken seriously.
Johnson was aided in his campaign because he was running against an equally bizarre, but more calculating, Ken Livingstone, also known as “Red Ken.” Livingstone had a long history in London politics and was elected to the new post of executive mayor eight years ago. Livingstone’s admiration of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, coupled with his newly found affection for big business, offended the left and the right of his party. Yet, to his credit, Livingstone introduced congestion pricing, which has eased London traffic, and coped with the al-Qaeda subway bombings on July 7, 2005.
But in this election, the big issues like the 2012 Olympic Games in London and street crime were dwarfed by a silly argument over buses. Livingstone had decided that it was time to replace London’s double-decker fleet with flexible single-deck buses, commonly called “bendy” buses. The argument is one of tradition versus modernity. Johnson, who mostly rides a bicycle, wants the double-decker Routemaster buses redesigned and saved. He wants to ban the bendy buses that he believes hurt the image of London as well as being, well, un-English: the Routemasters are made in England and the bendys are made in Germany.
The Conservative Party is not so happy about Johnson winning the executive mayoral race. They feel that he will embarrass the party leader, David Cameron, and generally humiliate Tory values. Johnson has the wit of Will Rodgers and none of the temperance. Here are some of Boris’s best:
“My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
“I don’t see why people are so snooty about Channel 5. It has some respectable documentaries about the Second World War. It also devotes considerable airtime to investigations into lap dancing, and other related and vital subjects.”
“I love tennis with a passion. I challenged Boris Becker to a match once and he said he was up for it, but he never called back. I bet I could make him run around.”
“I have as much chance of becoming prime minister as of being decapitated by a Frisbee or of finding Elvis.”
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