Magazine article The Spectator

Why David English Was Not a Great Journalist

Magazine article The Spectator

Why David English Was Not a Great Journalist

Article excerpt

Unquestionably Sir David English, who at the time of his death was about to be made Lord English, was a most successful newspaper man who deserved all the praise and fortune showered upon him by his proprietor, Lord Rothermere. His achievement, in reviving the Daily Mail's circulation by turning it into a tabloid and launching the tabloid Mail on Sunday, was quite as remarkable in its way as that of the great Lord Northcliffe who started the Daily Mail in the first place. But whether those achievements made English a great journalist, as his memorialists claimed, seem to me more doubtful. For surely a great journalist - `the greatest journalist of the last quarter of a century', as one obituary said - should either himself have produced or as editor be responsible for others producing, some great journalism and, so far as I can judge, this he never did, or ever tried to do. With the other judgment his memorialists made - that he was the voice of Middle England - I would have no quarrel, except to add that the same could be said with equal truth about Jeffrey Archer.

In fact these two men always struck me as having much in common - the same youthful fizz and sparkle, the same engaging charm, the same bonhomous cheerfulness, the same joie de vivre, the same quick wits, the same enthusiastic generosity, the same hyperactivism and, above all, the same eagle eye for the main chance and the current trend. Even so, no more than Jeffrey Archer should be described as a great novelist on the grounds of his high book sales should David English be described as a great journalist on the grounds of his high circulation figures.

I write in this sour vein because there have been two or three great journalists in recent years and it is their achievements, rather than English's, which should be the benchmark of what is required to earn that description. It is not enough to spot new opportunities for attracting readers, as Northcliffe did among the working class and English among the middle class.

Another and more important qualification must surely be the gift for discovering new ideas that need to be circulated, old truths that need a new affirmation, new developments which need to be accurately reported and fairly assessed, and new dangers and evils which need to be exposed. David Astor, owner and editor of the Observer, did precisely that after the war. So, at the same time, did Hugh Cudlipp on the Daily Mirror, thereby immeasurably raising the level of popular journalism. Lord Beaverbrook's Express served the same purpose by making the reader sit up and take notice. Even the present young editor of the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, is worth considering for this pantheon.

Unfortunately the Mails under David English never did anything of that kind. In fact they did the opposite. For although he employed many fine journalists, most gave the impression of writing for the money which was enormous -- rather than from the heart: more concerned to earn a fat fee than to improve their journalistic reputations, which had, in any case, been made elsewhere. To say that writing for the Daily Mail brought the worst out of the best journalists would be an exaggeration, since good professional writers can always produce something pretty readable. But I always felt - particularly when reading superstars like Paul Johnson - that for the Mail they were not so much content to produce second-rate stuff as almost obliged, under the terms of their contract, to do so. …

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