Amidst the euphoria of victory in 1945, the nation offered not a triumph of the will but a suspicion of change and the paralysis of doubt'1
On 1 January 1945 the Daily Express front-page splash headline proclaimed, 'HITLER: NO PEACE IN 1945', while its main feature inside was entitled: 'What will peace be like?' The newspaper and its readers were not fooled by the braggadocio of Hitler's New Year message as his retreating troops fought in vain to ward off the Allied forces. More British blood would be spilled on the relentless drive through Germany, but every Briton now believed that victory was only a matter of time. After almost six years of war the people, the politicians and the press were looking tentatively towards the coming peace. News coverage over the next five months was, naturally enough, dominated by the Allied progress towards Berlin. Along the way there were odd lapses of taste. The Daily Mirror, which regularly referred to Germans as Huns, published a front-page picture of a dead German soldier, his arm raised in rigor mortis to the sky, under the headline 'Heil Hitler!'2 Doubtless, readers liked the black humour.
The Mirror was certainly regarded as having been particularly effective during the war. 'It provided the daily talk and perhaps the daily thinking of millions who had never read a daily paper before.'3 It was the forces' favourite at a time when the forces were everyone's favourite. Apart from the front-line news, the features and leading articles in most newspapers were already beginning to reflect a peacetime agenda. They clearly expressed people's deep-seated weariness with war. Their other central aspiration was altogether more vaguely conveyed: the desire for peace was tempered by a growing insistence that it must be a different kind of peace from the one which had existed in the 1930s. But different in what way? How was change to be achieved? And by whom? If the people knew, the papers didn't.
Newspapers themselves were not neutral spectators. They not only had an interest in how things might work out; they had a view about how they would prefer them to do so. Most, but not all, decided to pass on those views to their readers. Unlike the people, largely victims of war seeking a better future, many newspapers had found the war a godsend. Sales and profits rose while competition, if not entirely suspended, was muted. By government dictat, newsprint was rationed and all papers, from national dailies to local weeklies, were restricted to publishing a set number of pages, usually four an issue by late 1942. Similarly, the available advertising was spread evenly across the range of titles, a saviour to many of the weaker papers. Circulations were supposedly stabilised at approximate pre-war ratios, though owners managed to raise them substantially by agreeing to reduce paginations. Despite censorship, there was plenty of reader interest, with people often buying two or three titles a day.
The first release of the harshest restrictions came in September 1943, after the coalition government was persuaded that extra papers should be published to satisfy demand from members of the armed forces. The cabinet relented again in June 1944 to allow another small increase following D-Day, though the size of each issue was still pegged. So the papers in the early months of 1945 tended to look very strange indeed compared to the previous decade. The broadsheet Daily Express, which published twenty-four pages before the war, managed with just four, while the Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch, both tabloids, had eight. The recognised 'paper of record', the Times, was allowed ten.
In their different ways, they used every bit of available space, cramming in words, making it tough for the eye to follow, with minimal use of pictures. Even the Daily Mirror, pioneer of the picture-paper phenomenon, usually did without a photo on its front page. In an obvious attempt to modernise, there was a spate of changes to the mastheads, mostly restyled by the typographical maestro Stanley Morison. He was responsible for the more classical and readable Roman titles of the Times, Daily Herald, Daily Mail, Financial Times, Reynolds News and the Daily Worker.
Almost every paper had been produced without the help of many of their journalistic stars, who had joined the forces. Soon these servicemen who had fought side by side against a common enemy would be fighting each other. Some were aware of their destiny. None more so than the immensely self-confident lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Cudlipp, commanding officer of the British Army Newspaper Unit, who had already edited a national paper and would eventually set popular paper records as eminence grise at the Daily Mirror. Colonel David Astor, son of a wealthy newspaper owner, winner of the Croix de Guerre for his bravery with the Royal Marines in France, knew he was about to edit the Observer. lieutenant-Colonel Michael Berry, the shy second son of the press tycoon Viscount Camrose, twice mentioned in dispatches and awarded the MBE for his part in planning the invasion of Europe, expected his elder brother to inherit their father's Daily Telegraph, but he knew he would play some part in his family's sprawling press empire.
Others about to be demobbed had no idea of their fate. Major Alastair Hetherington, of the Royal Armoured Corps was yet to start a career that would see him edit the Guardian for nineteen years. Major William Deedes of the Queen's Westminsters, winner of the Military Cross, could not have envisaged his editorship of the Daily Telegraph. Nor could Major 'Tiny1 Lear of the Royal Berkshire Regiment have foreseen becoming editor of the News of the World. John Junor, a pilot with the Fleet Air Arm, ended the war as editor of its magazine Flight Deck, but had no clue he would go on to edit the Sunday Express for a record-breaking thirty-two years.
As these men either returned to their papers or set out on 'civvy street' careers that would lead them to Fleet Street, the press gradually became embroiled in a series of incidents and controversies which have been repeated at regular intervals ever since. Almost every dispute involving the press in the following half-century was uncannily prefigured in the events of the 1945-50 period. Government attacked press; press attacked government Heated claims of political bias and supposed proprietorial interference in editorial affairs were commonplace. Concerns about the increasing concentration of ownership and the growing commercialisation of the press were aired by both politicians and journalists. The debate about public service ethic versus the rights of private owners was centre stage. There were examples of intrusion into privacy, racism, rows over MPs taking money for leaking information to papers and the misuse of the libel laws. An editor needlessly committed a contempt of court. Though the phrase was not used, anxieties began to surface about 'dumbing down' in order to maximise sales.
Before exploring some of these issues, let's briefly consider the papers produced in these years. They emerged from the war flush with profits and, in most cases, with steeply rising circulations.4 The dailies sold 10.4 million before the war. By May 1946, the figure was up to 13.4 million. Sunday sales went from about 16 million to approximately 25 million. These London-based papers were recognised as the world's highest sellers, mainly because Britain's geography and well-developed communications meant they could be distributed to every corner of the country overnight. That situation was enhanced as more papers, following the lead of the Express, also published simultaneously in Manchester and Glasgow.
In 1945 the Daily Express enjoyed a circulation of 3.3 million copies a day, rising week by week. It also had the advantage of having Fleet Street's most experienced proprietor in Lord Beaverbrook and editor in Arthur Christiansen. A million behind, but coming up fast, was the Daily Mirror under Harry Guy Bartholomew. The Daily Herald sold more than 2 million, with the Daily Mail not far behind and rising. The News Chronicle was selling 1.5 million, and the Daily Sketch probably sold almost 900,000.5 The communist Daily Worker, banned for a period during the war, claimed more than 100,000 buyers. There were just two national broadsheets, the Times and the Daily Telegraph, which together sold just over 1 million in 1945.6 The Manchester Guardian, not yet regarded as a national paper but enjoying an international reputation, sold about 100,000, while the Financial Times managed fewer than 50,000.
On Sundays, the News of the World had a huge sale, almost 7.5 million, followed by the Sunday People with 4.6 million, the Sunday Pictorial with 3.4 million, and the Sunday Express with 2.3 million. The Sunday Dispatch recorded a sale of about 1.6 million, while the Sunday Chronicle managed 1.1 million, Reynolds News held on to 700,000, and the Manchester-based Empire News probably sold some 2 million.7 It was the Sunday Dispatch which recorded the era's most sensational sales rise. In what he was later to describe as 'a complete fluke', editor Charles Eade started to publish extracts from the Kathleen Winsor novel Forever Amber, expecting to do fairly well from his planned seven-week serialisation. After the first week, when demand exceeded supply, he shrewdly decided to extend the serial to forty weeks. 'I had no idea it would be such a hit', he said with a modesty rare among editors.8
London also had three competing evenings. The Evening News was selling 1.5 million, followed by the Star with about 1 million, and the Evening Standard with 650,000. It was said that the Standard sold in the West End, the Star in the East End, and the News managed both ends and the middle. Most other cities had competing morning and evening titles. The British loved their newspapers. City-centre streets reverberated to the incomprehensible shouts of paper-sellers, usually old men in shabby macs. Factory workers boarding their morning buses inevitably had a paper tucked under their arms. Office staff on trains had their heads buried in papers. According to a Unesco report, 570 daily papers were being sold for every thousand of the UK population, a far higher penetration than in the United States (357 per thousand).9
Some titles boasted key components that would endure for decades to come. In the Express was the William Hickey column, Rupert the bear, cartoons by Giles and Osbert Lancaster and Beachcomber's whimsical By the Way column. In the Mirror, the Old Codgers conducted Live Letters next to cartoon strips such as Jane and Garth, the Useless Eustace pocket cartoon, Patience Strong's homespun homilies, and features by Noel Whitcomb, a snobbish man who came to hate the hand that fed him.10
In the Daily Telegraph was Peterborough's column, an island of gossipy froth amid a sea of news. In the Times, letters from the great and the good ran next to leading articles which demanded attention from their elite readership. But there was little that lasted in the lacklustre Daily Mail of that year, nor in the Daily Herald and Daily Sketch.
Statistics aside, the men who owned and edited these papers were an extraordinary bunch. By far the most important proprietor of the period was Lord Beaverbrook, followed by Lords Rothermere and Kemsley. In 1948, the three owned 43 per cent of the total general newspaper market.'1 Of the popular paper editors, the irascible Bartholomew and the legendary Christiansen stand out from the crowd, though there must be a special mention for the flamboyant Frank Owen, short-lived editor of the Daily Mail and long-lived drinker, womaniser and raconteur. Among the serious papers, the workaholic Times editor Robin Barrington-Ward was a thorn in the Tories' side, while the Daily Telegraph's Arthur Watson was their faithful supporter. At the Manchester Guardian, A. P. Wadsworth was enhancing his paper's reputation as a liberal and well-informed voice. And here I must note the first history lesson: editors can be brilliant under any proprietor but they cannot achieve greatness unless they have either a brilliant owner or, better still, no owner at all.
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