You cannot seek to bribe nor twist –
Thank God – the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
That was Hilaire Belloc’s take on the British press and – although she has not quoted it – that appears to sum up the understanding of Kathryn Olmsted, at least about our newspaper proprietors. Her book, The Newspaper Axis, is a fascinating and highly readable study of the newspaper barons, on both sides of the Atlantic, who backed Hitler during the 1930s. Like Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail – who praised him at Christmas 1934 for ‘rekindling the Germans soul’ – to William Randolph Hearst in the USA, better known to us Brits as the original of Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane).
I learned a great deal, especially about the fraught relationship between the Patterson family – owners among other papers such as the Chicago and New York Daily News (also Cissy Patterson at the Washington Post) – and the four-term US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My only reservation is that the book is somehow on firmer ground talking about the American context than the UK one – though I have been hard-pressed to explain why I feel that. It maybe because the book is written with a political message aimed at the USA, As Olmsed puts it at the end:
‘The last of the press lords died more than half a century ago, but their heirs continue their crusade for nation, for empire, for the “white race”, and for Britain and America first.’
There is nothing wrong with writing history like this – history has resonance when it is applied to contemporary events. And you can see how it is relevant to Trump and Brexit.
Yet I find myself wondering whether that is entirely relevant to the UK. Far from feeding into a campaign for Brexit, the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley and his supporters were so keen on the idea of Britain in Europe that the Spectator commissioned him to write their pro-European article on the eve of the Euro referendum in 1975.
Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, opposed the war with all the imagination at his command, but he came onside again as a member of Churchill’s government from 1940, in the critical role of minister for aircraft production.
It is fascinating reading the story of Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh – the leaders of the ‘America First’ movement in the 1930s, but this is a study primarily of the populist press on both sides of the Atlantic.
Kathryn Olmsted questions whether Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of the Times at the time of the Munich agreement, may have been a more influential appeaser than Rothermere was. Which is why I have been wondering why those populists – so keen on keeping Britain and the USA out of the war and so united in their opposition to Roosevelt – should have been such failures and so hopelessly uninfluential.
And if they failed, maybe we should be worrying a little less about Fix or Murdoch.
David Boyle is a historian and writer, and the author of Munich 1938: Prelude to War.