The Media and British Politics in the Twentieth Century: Graham Goodlad Asks If the Media Did More to Support or to Challenge Politicians during the Last Century

By Goodlad, Graham | History Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Media and British Politics in the Twentieth Century: Graham Goodlad Asks If the Media Did More to Support or to Challenge Politicians during the Last Century


Goodlad, Graham, History Review


That the mass media grew in importance during the twentieth century cannot be doubted. The late Victorian period witnessed an enormous expansion of the press, stimulated by improved technology and by the mid-century removal of the so-called 'taxes on knowledge', the stamp and paper duties which had raised the price of newspapers. By 1901 there were 21 major daily newspapers being produced in London. Although this number was to fall in the next few decades, as a result of closures and mergers, the press would remain a power in the land, courted and feared by politicians of all parties.

After the First World War new media came to rival the press in their capacity to reach a mass audience. The cinema came into its own in the inter-war period, providing newsreel images which enabled the public at large to gain its first visual appreciation of the country's political leaders. The establishment in the 1920 of the BBC made possible the supply of radio, followed later by television, directly to voters' homes. From 1955, with the emergence of independent television, the BBC's monopoly of broadcasting was challenged by the rise of commercial channels. The appearance of satellite and cable television from the late 1980s further extended the variety of media available to the public.

The role of the media in politics remains an area of intense debate. Although the press and broadcasting have rarely, if ever, been direct causes of political change, arguably they have done more than merely reflect their environment. The historians James Curran and Jean Seaton regard the media as both catalysts and symptoms of change. To what extent did politicians manipulate the media for their own ends, to transmit their messages to the electorate and to divine the state of public opinion? Or were political agendas driven by media pressures? Was the media explosion of the twentieth century an opportunity or a threat as far as politicians were concerned?

Friendly Editors and Hostile Press Barons

Late Victorian and Edwardian newspapers were noted for their partisan attachment to one or other of the two dominant political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals. A German visitor noted in 1904 that 'the chief weapon of the various Parties is the Press'. It is hard to gauge the extent to which readers shared the political prejudices of the newspapers they bought. Nonetheless, as the older media of the pamphlet and the church or chapel pulpit declined, and before radio and television made their mark, the press was the best available means of shaping public opinion. It was common for leading politicians to cultivate close relations with sympathetic editors of 'quality' newspapers. For example the Liberal leaders, Asquith and Grey, associated with J.A. Spender, the influential editor of the Westminster Gazette between 1896 and 1921. A slightly later example is that of Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times in 1912-19 and 1923-41, whose close association with leading members of Neville Chamberlain's government helps to explain the paper's staunch support for the appeasement of Nazi Germany. The Times persisted in this stance even after the September 1938 Munich agreement, when other pro-Conservative papers such as the Daily Telegraph became more critical of government policy. Dawson deliberately downplayed the favourable reaction to the resignation speech of Duff Cooper, the one Cabinet minister to leave the government in protest at Chamberlain's dealings with Hitler. Such collaboration was facilitated by the narrowness of the pre-1939 governing elite, whose members shared common backgrounds and interests. Dawson himself was a near neighbour of the Yorkshire landowner Lord Halifax, who served as Foreign Secretary in the Chamberlain government.

In the early twentieth century party agents often subsidised press allies, and some politicians sought to win direct control of leading papers. Lloyd George arranged a take-over of the Liberal Daily Chronicle in 1918 and made an unsuccessful bid for ownership of The Times in 1922.

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