NYRB: To what extent did newspapers influence public opinion in the US and Britain before and during World War II?

From the New York Review of Books:

* In The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler, Kathryn S. Olmsted claims that these monstrous moguls exercised a clear and malign influence on American and British policy, and that their desire not to “confront the fascist dictators made a war against fascism both more likely and more difficult to win,” while Alexander G. Lovelace’s theme in The Media Offensive is summed up in his subtitle, “How the Press and Public Opinion Shaped Allied Strategy During World War II.” Both books are informative and stimulating; whether they succeed in making their respective cases is another matter.

* The problem comes with Olmsted’s claims about the power of the press. She has no difficulty showing what a ghastly crew Hearst, McCormick, and the Pattersons were, as well as Beaverbrook and Rothermere, but she fails to demonstrate that they wielded great influence, since the evidence is to the contrary. For years on end the American press barons ferociously savaged Roosevelt. And with what result?

* In England the limits of the press lords’ power had already been dramatically demonstrated by their one attempt to unseat a party leader. In 1930, while Stanley Baldwin led the Tories in opposition, “Beethameer” launched a concerted attack on him, even running parliamentary candidates. He saw them off in a single speech, and with a single phrase (provided by his cousin Rudyard Kipling), denouncing the press lords for seeking “power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” Whatever his other difficulties, Baldwin was never again troubled by “Lord Copper and Lord Zinc,” as the two ogres of Fleet Street became in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

What frustrated critics of the right-wing press are reluctant to concede is the extent to which popular papers become popular by reflecting opinion rather than directing it. From Northcliffe and Hearst on, the press lords have succeeded by tapping into sentiment—often ugly enough—that was already there. The Daily Mail beat the drum for the Boer War and then the Great War, but it didn’t cause them. In Citizen Kane, a movie plainly inspired by Hearst, there is an episode supposedly taken from Hearst’s life, when Kane sends a correspondent to Cuba to foment the 1898 Spanish-American War. The correspondent cables, “Could send you prose poems about scenery…there is no war in Cuba,” to which Kane replies, “You provide the prose poems—I’ll provide the war.” As it happens, those last words were exactly the sense that Tony Blair conveyed to John Scarlett, chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, twenty years ago. Scarlett duly provided the prose poems in the form of distorted or exaggerated intelligence, and Blair provided the Iraq War, or the British contribution to it. But again, although the London press allowed itself to be manipulated by Blair, and although Murdoch warmly supported that disastrous enterprise, he didn’t start it.

* Olmsted writes that “British public opinion was, of course, partly shaped by one of Britain’s best-selling newspapers, the Daily Express.” But was it? She quotes Ernest Bevin, the great Labour politician: “I object to the country being ruled from Fleet Street, however big the circulation, instead of from Parliament.” That was at the time of the 1945 general election, when almost every important British newspaper apart from the Daily Mirror supported Churchill and the Tories and roasted Labour, as Wodehouse might have said, with Beaverbrook’s Express doing so in poisonous fashion. After Churchill’s outrageous radio broadcast warning that a Labour government might mean “some sort of Gestapo,” the front-page headline in the Express read “Gestapo in Britain If Labour Win.” That evening Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, broadcast a masterly reply, in which he said, “The voice we heard last night was that of Mr. Churchill, but the mind was that of Lord Beaverbrook.” Within weeks Labour had won one of the greatest landslide victories in British electoral history. It’s hard to see much “shaping” there.

* If, as Olmsted writes, “the conservative British and American media titans had achieved little in their efforts to influence domestic policies before 1937” (or after 1937 either, she could have added)…

* Murdoch may at one time have had a knack for backing winners, but he has not dictated the course of British politics any more than Fox News has stopped the Democrats winning the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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