Lord Hartwell, who died in 2001, aged eighty-nine, was the last of Britain’s real press barons.
Alone among the scions of the pre-war dynasties that dominated Fleet Street for three-quarters of a century, he was a lifelong, full-time newspaperman, and chairman and editor-in-chief for thirty years of the family’s Daily and Sunday Telegraph – until his dedicated, but idiosyncratic, stewardship delivered them into the hands of the now discredited Canadian entrepreneur Conrad Black in December 1985.
He married Lady Pamela Smith, a zesty figure in pre-war society who made up for his reclusiveness with her dinner parties and gossip. The couple had two sons and two daughters, who all survive. Lady Pamela died in 1982.
Born in 1911 and educated at Eton and Christchurch, Oxford, he served as captain and major in the army and was twice mentioned in Despatches.
His career in newspapers started in 1934 when he edited the Sunday Mail in Glasgow for a year. From 1937-9 he was managing editor at the Financial Times and in 1954 he became chairman of Amalgamated Press Ltd, a post he held for five years. When his father, Lord Camrose, died in 1954 he became chairman and editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and some years later of the Sunday Telegraph which he founded in 1961.
Lord Hartwell retired in 1987 when the Telegraph Group was acquired by Conrad Black.
His biography of his father, William Camrose: Giant of Fleet Street, was published in 1993. His family reported that he died holding a copy of the Daily Telegraph, a newspaperman till the end.
I interviewed him in early 1993 and found him easy to talk to, a dedicated man whose motives were always honourable and his failures gracefully conceded. He had an air about him that endeared him to most people he encountered, despite a reputation for avoiding interlocutors.
Did you feel that the education at Eton and Christchurch equipped you well for your subsequent life in newspapers?
Education at those two places really depended upon the application of the boy. I can’t say I worked very hard at Eton, but I didn’t do badly. In my last year I had a great deal of responsibility. The trouble was you had so much freedom at Eton that you didn’t feel the extra freedom most boys from other types of schools felt when they went to university. The consequence was that you really rather let go. The examination wasn’t until the end of the third year which seemed an aeon of time away, and you didn’t take it very seriously until the last year by which time it was too late to catch up.
Were you very much in awe of your father Lord Camrose? Did the fact that he was a press baron, along with people like Beaverbrook and Northcliffe, lend him a certain eminence and remoteness as a father figure?
Certainly not. He was in no way remote, and he was very good with his children. He treated them like young adults and discussed all his problems with them, so although I had the deepest respect for him I was not in awe of him. He was very supportive of us, particularly when we got into trouble. I can’t say I had very many troubles myself but I saw it with the rest of my family, and now I know he did even more for his children than I had realized before.
Your father knew Churchill well. What was your impression of Churchill?
I only saw him towards the end of his life when he was already a national hero. My father didn’t really trust him at all at the beginning. He first came across him in the early 1920s and until about two years before the war he regarded Churchill as a fascinating mountebank, as indeed most of the nation did; he was thought of as somebody not to be trusted, always out for office and his own self, and for the massage of his own ego. I saw him only after the war when he was already established in his own right as being the great of the greats. I had some professional dealings with him because when my father died I took over Churchill’s war memoirs which the Telegraph had bought. In fact I think I must have been one of the few people ever to have given a sizable tip, twenty thousand pounds, to Winston Churchill. Like all authors he over-wrote his memoirs and although he had sold them on the basis of five volumes, he wanted to write a sixth. Most of the international publishers wouldn’t pay extra but my father agreed to pay for another volume though there was nothing in writing about it. Churchill asked me to lunch and was very much relieved to hear that I was going to honour my father’s unwritten promise.
You have suggested that Churchill would have made your father Minister of Information in 1943 but for the fact that Beaverbrook was jealous and told Churchill that your father was too ill to take the post. What is the evidence for that?
The suggestion that he should be made Minister of Information came from Oliver Harvey, later Lord Harvey, who was principal private secretary to Eden when he was Foreign Secretary. Churchill had agreed to my father being Minister of Information until Beaverbrook – who had been falsely promised leadership of the House of Lords – heard about it and told Churchill that my father, who had had a serious illness five years before, was likely to break down if given any responsibility. The source of that information was Churchill’s scientific guru, Lord Charwell, who was a great friend, very close to Churchill and also close to my father.
What was the origin of the jealousy between your father and Beaverbrook?
Just that they were the same age, exactly the same age, and both newspaper proprietors. Beaverbrook, by virtue of his Canadian fortune, had started at the top while my father was still working his way up, and he didn’t particularly like the idea of a man of his own age becoming as important, if not more important, than himself in the journalistic world. There were several manifestations of this which I have detailed in my book.
In 1954 you became chairman and editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph. What were your feelings as you stepped into your father’s shoes?
My feelings were that I wished to continue his traditions, and to maintain the Daily Telegraph as an institution in such a way that for anyone who really wanted to know what was going on, not only in this country but in the whole world, it would be difficult to be without the Telegraph. My father had already deputed a good deal of the running of the paper to me in any case. In fact he had already nominated me two years before as deputy editor-in-chief, believing it would be a mistake for him to linger too long. We got on very well indeed and he was such a tolerant man, although he did say when he put me in charge that he did not want a new broom, in other words, he didn’t want me to start throwing my weight about and trying to change everything and everyone; rather he wanted the paper to continue to evolve. That was his great feeling about the Telegraph itself, because when he bought it in 1927, it had been a very great paper in the previous century but it was definitely in decline. It wasn’t actually losing money but it wasn’t making any and it might not have lasted another ten years. He permeated it with his own ideas, and although he did bring in a few people, he got rid of very few indeed, and he congratulated himself afterwards since he didn’t think a paper had ever been revived in quite that manner, so apparently effortlessly. That was an achievement he particularly prided himself on, and he didn’t want me to start making mistakes he hadn’t made.
But by all accounts your father ran the Daily Telegraph as if it were a feudal institution; in the words of one observer, ‘he ruled as well as reigned’. Were you at all critical of this autocratic approach?
It was centralized to a certain extent and he wasn’t prepared to let everybody do their own thing; he preferred always to know what they were doing. Lord Burnham, the managing director, said he wasn’t very good at what in the army they call staff duties, which means apportioning duties to everybody down the chain and making them responsible only to those directly above them. For example, he was continually ringing up the newsroom to talk to people who were running a particular story without going through the news editor. My father interfered in everything if he wanted to.
Was it filial devotion and respect which kept you from altering much at the Daily Telegraph or was it the fact that the newspaper was doing well and there was little point in changing a winning formula?
The last proposition is always a good idea, but there were one or two things that he would never have let me do, which I did do in the end, but nothing of any importance – the masthead, for example. He took over the Morning Post in 1937 or 1938, and he always insisted on including the Morning Post in the masthead, which I thought rather an anachronism after the war. He wouldn’t allow me to take it off, because he thought there was still some goodwill left in these ageing Morning Post readers, but when he died I did take it off. Apart from appearances I think I also made the paper less stuffy; concentrated on more good writing and introduced more humour.
You have been described as a journalist through and through. Do you see yourself as a journalist by nature, and if so, what does that entail?
I think a journalist principally is a person who is interested in people and who is immensely curious about affairs and wonders why things happen and why people do what they do. I suppose it’s a form of busybodyness. Everything is grist to the mill.
Although in your capacity as editor-in-chief of the Telegraph, you always defended your journalists loyalty, some people have detected that you are a little uneasy with journalists as a breed, and that you are particularly suspicious of columnists and leader writers…is there any truth in that?
As a generalization, none whatever. I do think a leader column ought to be consistent, and if it pronounces once a fortnight on some subject, it ought, on the second occasion, to remember what it said on the first. You shouldn’t contradict in your leader something you said in the previous one unless you draw attention to it and do it gently and for apparent good reason. If you have to box the compass, admit to it.
In the quality newspapers there is a tendency nowadays for the intellectuals to rule the roost; newspapers have become platforms for opinion. How do you view this trend in journalism?
Certain journalists have their hobby horses and one should simply not employ hobby horses because they can’t move anywhere, and then they become a bore. They plug the same line and use their column for their own personal purpose and not for the purpose of the newspaper, which should be a different thing every day.
Richard Ingrams once said to me that journalists who take themselves seriously or believe they have influence are bad journalists. Would you agree with that?
No, I would say they have to be very good at their job, otherwise they’re bad journalists. Journalists would do well to remember that they hold no position of responsibility in the running of the country, and bearing that in mind, they should acquire a little humility which is quite a rare quality in Fleet Street.
There is, however, a great deal of talk nowadays about ‘opinion makers’ in newspapers. Politicians obviously believe newspapers hold great sway over the way people think…what is your view?
I don’t know that they do. Because of the rise of television they have far less influence than before. Newspapers tend to provide the public with information, the facts, which televisions can’t do, because it’s trying to do too many things at once. Television is rather like opera for a beginner; it’s very difficult for an untrained person at an opera for a beginner; it’s very difficult for an untrained person at an opera to appreciate the decor, the singing and the music, let alone the words which don’t matter. The same thing applies when people watch television – they are so obsessed with whether a man’s tie is straight or his eyes rotating to hear what he’s saying. But what they are able to do is to get an idea of the genuineness or the non-genuineness of the man talking, and therefore the opinion to a certain extent is made by watching television. In short, people get their information from the newspapers and their prejudices from television. People say that such and such is a very poor performer and conclude that he must be a very bad administrator, and form their opinions in that way. It’s not the way that public opinion is supposed to be directed but that is what happens.
You have always upheld editorial independence. People often recall how the Daily Telegraph criticized Anthony Eden just before Suez and how protests on the Prime Minister’s behalf failed to move you. Did you have any qualms about that at the time?
Not at all. We’d all thought that Eden was faltering a bit in so far as he was trying to be like Churchill was, always interfering in every department without going through the Cabinet. I well remember a story told to me by Jim Thomas who was First Lord of the Admiralty when Churchill was Prime Minister. Churchill used to ring him up early in the morning, about 7.30 – he of course had been called with a large whisky at about 7 o’clock – and Thomas was always very much annoyed at being wakened at this hour. One morning he rang up: ‘Is that you, First Lord?’ ‘Oh yes, good morning Prime Minister, how nice to hear your voice’ then Churchill said, ‘I’m very worried about that submarine, you know’. And Thomas hadn’t any idea what he was talking about. It turned out that some submarine had brushed a sandbank in Portsmouth; Churchill had read about it in the first editions of the papers, but by the time the final edition came out the submarine had come off again, so it wasn’t news anymore. Anyway, that was the sort of thing that Churchill used to do, but he did it just to keep his ministers on their toes, whereas Eden got the impression that he really was trying to interfere in their business, and he tried to do likewise, only in a rather schoolmistress sort of way, thereby making himself very unpopular. It was Donald MacLachlan our deputy editor who wrote that the government under Eden lacked the smack of firm government, a phrase that put Eden very much on edge. But we weren’t highly critical of him, we just said that things seemed rather a shambles and there was no firm direction. We did criticize him on one or two other things, as one has every right to do, and he took this very much amiss. I remember Lord Salisbury and Butler came to see me at my home and asked if there was anything personal about it, and I assured them there wasn’t, but that the paper wasn’t going to give unthinking support to the government. This was discussed sometime before Suez on which we were generally supportive of him; we were only critical of his having stopped it midway, and having no plan as to what to do next.
It is perhaps not surprising, given your uncompromising stands on critical independence, that your life peerage came from a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson? Were you conscious of a certain irony in that – after all, you were editor-in-chief of the Telegraph, a widely perceived Tory stronghold.
I certainly wouldn’t have accepted a peerage from a Tory government because it would have looked as if it was payment for the services rendered – not that I was offered one.
But all the editors do that now.
Well, that’s no business of mine.
But would you have turned down a peerage from a Tory government?
Why do you think Harold Wilson gave you the peerage?
I think it arose because Cecil King, a very strong Labour supporter, also a man of immense self-importance, wanted to be placed in Wilson’s Cabinet and to be given an earldom. Wilson turned this down but offered him an under-secretaryship and a simple barony which made him furious, and so in order to stop the Daily Mirror turning against him altogether – that being the way politicians think – he gave a peerage to Hugh Cudlipp, and I think I was pulled in to balance him. Wilson never told me this, but that’s what I assume.
But tell me, of all the former Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson is perhaps the least talked about, the least respected. Why do you think that is?
During his government there was so much backbiting and backstabbing, and everyone seemed to act so much out of self-interest, and then he retired for supposedly mysterious reasons. I don’t think them mysterious reasons. I didn’t think them mysterious at all; he was getting past it, even though he was only sixty. Callaghan who took over from him was a much rougher man, made of much tougher moral fibre than Wilson. Wilson was much more like Lloyd George, a tremendous wheeler-dealer but without the same skills.
Did you know him well?
I knew him quite a bit, yes. When he was Prime Minister I saw him often at Chequers because we had a house nearby. He was always extremely agreeable and could be very funny, but one couldn’t really respect him much.
It is sometimes said that your late wife, Lady Pamela Berry, persuaded Wilson to confer the peerage. Is there any truth in it?
She hardly knew him.
Your wife was very sociable, gregarious and someone who loved meeting people and giving parties. By contrast you always preferred to remain in the background socially. Was this ever a source of tension between you?
Not at all. She gave quite a few small lunch parties, but she resented being called a political hostess. A lot of her friends were middle-ranking politicians and perhaps quite a few left-wing journalists, but she really invited them for their conversation. She found them much better company than the more respectable lot. But she was not interested in politics, she was interested in people.
You have a thinly disguised distaste for social life – how on earth did you cope with your wife’s enthusiasm for entertaining politicians, people from the arts and other dignitaries?
I found them interesting on the whole. But the difficulty for a man in his own house is that he is usually put next to a wife…and although many wives are often very interesting, very often they aren’t. People tend to marry young and when the husband has achieved something in life the wife may have got stuck in her early rut. My wife quite rightly thought that general conversation made the most interesting party. Sometimes one of ‘my wives’ – the ones sitting next to me – couldn’t keep up and kept turning to talk to me. One could not but answer and my wife used to frown at me angrily. I once suggested jokingly that I should give her a silver bell which she could ring when she wanted general conversation – as did a Parisian hostess described by the Goncourt brothers. But this of course would have seemed arrogant in her and rude in me.
Most Englishmen seem to prefer the company of other men, is that because of the public-school background, do you think?
No, it’s because men are usually doing something, and as a journalist I like talking to people about what they do, not about things at large.
Lord Weidenfeld said of your wife, ‘She had a respect approaching reverence for her husband’s profession’, but he added that she did not exercise influence over the contents of your newspapers. Would you agree with that?
Yes. Actually she never tried to, and I would certainly not have approved of it. She’d advise me on certain things, but she was never able to persuade me unless I thought it a good idea. She was a great influence on my life personally I suppose, because of our mutual confidence, but she wasn’t an influence so much on what I did as what I was.
Weidenfeld also said that she ‘humanized’ you. What do you think he meant by that?
I suppose he meant that without her I was inhuman, but I plead not guilty.
The Hartwell house was often regarded as the last private political and intellectual salon in the classical tradition. Were you conscious of that at the time, and do you mourn its passing?
I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, nor was she, and therefore it’s nothing to mourn. She didn’t regard herself as a centre of political discussion; she only asked people who amused her, and it so happened that some of her left-wing friends she found more amusing than the right-wingers, perhaps because they were more indiscreet which helps conversation. The thing she really hated was to be called a Lady Londonderry type who had vast parties of only one political persuasion – that was what salon was really about.
Peregrine Worsthorne, referring to your keen sense of duty, wrote that newspaper proprietorship for you was ‘a high public trust to which all private and family must be subordinate’. Did you ever come to regret that scheme of priorities?
Certainly the Telegraph dominated my life, and I daresay I should have been at home more than I was. But I don’t feel any guilt about it. If you’ve got a rather important job, you must devote everything you’ve got to it. I don’t think my family suffered as a result. My wife would have like to have travelled more, but other than that I don’t think so, and certainly my children did not suffer at all.
Would you consider yourself to have been a good father to your children?
I’m the wrong person to answer that, but I was a good father according to my own lights, and I hope they would agree. Now that they have all made their own way in life we all seem to get on very well together.
Lady Pamela was often the subject of severe criticism in the press. To what did you attribute these attacks?
Spite more than anything else. She attracted a certain amount of publicity because she associated with the people I describe, and I suppose those who didn’t like her thought she was becoming too big for her boots.
In 1980 Lord Lambton wrote a disparaging article for Now magazine about Lady Pamela. Why did you take such exception to that?
It made me very angry because it was highly offensive to her. It was written as if she were already dead, and she was suffering from a disease which killed her two years later, she found that particularly damaging and hurtful. I daresay Lambton didn’t know at the time. There was a long story behind it involving Sir James Goldsmith who had been attacked three times in the Daily Telegraph, on three separate occasions about three different things by three different people. Being a very sensitive chap he got it into his head that I had organized and coordinated a campaign against him, and having started Now magazine he decided to hit back at me. His editor commissioned Alan Brien, who could wield a vicious pen and had been on the Sunday Telegraph, to write an article attacking me, but Alan Brien said he couldn’t do it because he couldn’t find anything to attack me on. Then Goldsmith had the idea that if he couldn’t get at me, he would get at my wife instead, and so he hired Lambton, who had been a friend of ours, to do it.
But why did Lambton do it?
He has a great deal of money but he like notoriety, and thought it rather a jolly thing to do. He was a sort of acolyte of Randolph Churchill who regarded all personal attacks as jolly jokes – that’s what he called them – and this was one of those jolly jokes. We didn’t find it at all jolly; in fact it was astonishingly offensive, so I wrote a letter, and had great difficulty getting it published because it was thought to be libellous. But I offered to guarantee it personally and financially against libel, though later I discovered that is illegal.
Did you ever regret having the letter published?
No. I was rather pleased with it. My wife was unmollified. She had put so much enthusiasm into working for the great museums that she deeply resented her efforts being rubbished.
Lady Pamela appeared to have been singled out for attack by Evelyn Waugh in letters he wrote in 1962, including one to the Sunday Telegraph. She was accused of being a ‘Judas’ and ‘a Sneakhostess’. The recent publication of Auberon Waugh’s autobiography reveals that it was in fact he who had passed on information to the Telegraph, not Lady Pamela, though he never confessed to his father. Did you suspect the provenance of the diary story at that time?
Not at all. I quoted him to Auberon Waugh, who was working on the Telegraph, as evidence that was not the way we did things. I had no idea that he’d done it.
What are your views on the current libel laws in this country?
I think it quite ridiculous for juries to deal in sums of money which mean nothing to them. They know perhaps what money means up to two or three thousand pounds, but beyond that nothing. I can give you an example. We were sued by a real rogue called Lewis who was chairman of a rubber company, the biggest manufacturer of French letters in the country. Without going into the details of the case we reported that he was being investigated by the Fraud Squad. We were given damages of a hundred thousand pounds against us. Afterwards our solicitor’s clerk went into the jury room and examined the contents of the wastepaper basket only to find that each member of the jury had written down what he thought damages should be; it ranged from five thousand to a hundred and fifty thousand, so they settled on a hundred. That’s the way the libel damages are decided – the people who do it have no idea what it means. What does an assistant in a grocer’s shop know about sums over ten or twenty thousand pounds?
What do you think is the duty of a newspaper man, editor or proprietor, when faced with the problem of whether or not to publish potentially scandalous material?
It’s a question of whether we restrain people who say it’s in the public interest, which means absolutely nothing, since they do it for obviously moneygrubbing purposes.
Yes I agree. It’s becoming a dangerous weapon in the sense that anyone can threaten your livelihood or position for personal gain.
I certainly don’t approve of that trend. I can give you a good example from my father’s day when he personally refused to do something like this, even though it would have been a great journalist coup. After the war the Duke of Windsor was determined to make himself whiter than white over the abdication crisis he wrote, or rather had ghosted, A King’s Story, which his solicitors brought to my father. The Duke wanted it published in the Daily Telegraph which he thought influenced respectable opinion, and not in the Daily Express, even though Lord Beaverbrook had supported him during his crisis. My father said he wouldn’t even see it, and he certainly wouldn’t publish it as it would only reopen old wounds. But the Duke did publish it; he took it to Lord Beaverbrook who printed it in the Sunday Express which put on an extra three quarters of a million copies. I tell you this to illustrate the Telegraph’s attitude, which would be the same now I think. Certainly we wouldn’t have published Morton’s book.
Are you in favour of the French privacy law which forbids newspapers to pry into people’s personal lives?
The trouble is the French don’t find the law very satisfactory. It is an extremely difficult problem, but if we instigate censorship, then it has to apply to everybody, and censorship is a very big and undiscriminating club; it may hit the sort of thing we deplore now, but it will hit a lot of other things as well and make freedom of the press very much more restricted in ways unthought of, unexpected and not desired. There are two different sorts: there is the Andrew Morton book about the Princess of Wales which doesn’t involve privacy so much – it may involve indiscretions of ‘friends’ and possibly the encouragement of the Princess herself but one doesn’t know whether that’s true or not; the bugged telephone conversation is quite a different matter – that really is Peeping Tom stuff. And I think there should be some way of stopping that by law. In America you’re not allowed to tape anybody’s conversation, even if he’s a friend, without telling him you are doing it.
Don’t you think that in Britain we are rather hypocritical about sex? Someone in public life who is a womanizer is a hero among his friends as long as he’s not caught; once caught he becomes ostracized.
Do you know the famous story about Disraeli and Palmerston? Just before a general election in this country when Disraeli was leader of his party, his aides came to him and said they had a wonderful story about Palmerston – that although over seventy he had made some lady pregnant. Naturally his aides wanted to publicize it; but Disraeli said, ‘Are you out of your minds? If this gets out Palmerston will sweep the country.’
In 1979 there was a public row between the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, over the Jeremy Thorpe affair between the Sunday Telegraph’s offer to buy the memoirs of Mr Peter Bessell, the chief prosecuting witness. Do you think with hindsight it was right for the Sunday Telegraph to offer Bessell a financial incentive for a Thorpe conviction?
We were advised that it was perfectly safe. We bought his memoirs quite a long time before the case came up; he’d already given his evidence to the prosecution, and it had been circulated to the defence, so there was nothing more he could say other than what was already in his evidence which he was going to give the court. Some bright spark, I don’t know who it was, put in the contract that we would pay him double if a conviction was secured. That’s what got us into trouble with Mr Justice Cantley. I was attacked afterwards in the House of Lords by Lord Wigoden, who is a friend of mine, and Lord Elwyn Jones. I replied at some lengths and Wigoden congratulated me on my speech; he said it was like a speech where an attorney had no case but puts up a very good one.
But with hindsight, would you do it again?
Certainly not. Principally because Bessell’s story was so frightfully boring – just a repetition of what he’d said in court – and certainly I wouldn’t give double money.
1985 was a very difficult year for you, perhaps the most difficult in your career, when you were unable to prevent financial control of the newspaper slipping out of your hands. The financial disaster seems to have been rooted in two things: your commitment to the £100 million modernization package, and an overwhelmingly generous redundancy agreement with the unions. Would you agree with that analysis?
No. It was generous, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly generous. The modernization programme was rather complicated but I’ll try to make it simple. It had two components – electronic composing and banks of new-style printing machinery (more modern than anybody else’s), the horse and cart. Unfortunately there was a definite date when the cart had to start so that the time the horse had to be schooled in (a long process) was far too short for comfort. The experts said that eighteen months was the right period to allow for training our own compositors to work electronic composing as distinct from the old Lynotypes using hot metal. The compositors’ union (the NGA) saw here a wonderful weapon for extracting the maximum concessions from the management: it would not allow electronic machines into the Fleet Street building until about Christmas ’84, and even then we didn’t start training until May or June ’85, barely six months before the deadline for the cart. The latter date had been determined by the unexpected action of our Manchester Contract printers throwing us out of their works, so that we had to provide not just our new building housing new printing machines in London but a second one in Manchester, most of whose composing would be done in London. The result in the composing room was chaos. We had to have two composing rooms – one old technology, one new technology – running in tandem. The paper was always late, always filthy with misprints, the malaise spread to other departments, trains were missed, hundreds of thousands of copies remained unprinted, management set a nightly limit on the number of columns that could be set, readers gave up in droves. All this began to happen just as we were finalizing our funding plans. The effect on profits was profound. What’s more, it was just the time when unemployment was reaching its peak and the revenue from job advertising, in which we always led the field, fell right away. To cap it all, the Chancellor in the March budget of ’85, put VAT on advertising which had a tremendous effect on us. So all told, our revenue was slipping away and our costs, instead of going down, were going up. The cost-saving new machinery had not yet come into use.
Max Hastings has said: ‘The great enigma remains the readiness with which Hartwell, without trying to find a more sympathetic investor, sold fourteen per cent of the newspaper to a Canadian he met only once in a New York airport hotel.’ What comment would you make on that?
In about 1975 we started to look for a new building site, and eventually we found it in the new enterprise zone which had great financial advantages. The question was one of how we were going to finance the new planet. First of all, we tried to raise money on loan from our banks but the banks said our capital base was too restricted. Then our merchant bankers said we’d have to raise thirty millions in ordinary shares, and the syndicate of banks decided they’d put up the money. We came on the market in May and the first twenty millions went immediately. Then there was a long interval, and the last ten millions could not be raised. At that point our advisors found Conrad Black of whom I’d never heard. I had to do something fast since we had the machinery ordered. Conrad Black was unable to come over to London for another week, and since our advisers said they couldn’t wait that long, I decided to go and see him. I got into a Concorde with the managing director (the finance director could not get a visa on Bank Holiday Monday), and we saw Conrad Black in New York where he agreed to back us. But he did not want always to be a minority shareholder and he insisted that should we need more financing he should be able to increase his proportionate stake. I did not see how I could avoid agreeing to his terms. We had been advised we’d get by quite all right, and that’s when the trouble started, because when we did need more money Black had my rights. I didn’t sell out to him; he bought in, so to speak.
It is of course easy to be wise after the event, but looking back, is there one crucial thing which you wish you had done differently? Would you for example have allowed Black the option of increasing his stake to the point of taking control?
We had been advised that we’d got plenty of money there. I took great trouble going through the prospectus for the investors, but I didn’t take any trouble at all in going through the covenants we were signing with the bankers who stipulate various levels of profits at various stages. I remember that on 30 June, which was the financial deadline, I was made to sign a dozen documents which had been thrashed out by ten lawyers who had been arguing about them for a month. For instance, the saving we expected to make in our costs should have covered the interest on our loans. Of course it didn’t. In the end it turned out that our wonderful new Manchester site actually cost more to run. What was planned is what is called a leasing arrangement. Banks agree to put up large capital sums to pay for equipment which you don’t have to repay until the equipment is installed and running. In return for their patience they expect to see your plan of how you will provide the profits in stages, so as eventually to repay the total. When you borrow in this fashion you covenant at least to reach the level of profitability in the plan. If you fail at any stage, the deal is off, or has to be renegotiated. Thus when in a far bigger scheme like the Channel Tunnel you see that the banks have promised £8 billion or whatever it is but are refusing to advance more than six, it means that the covenant has been broken.
There are those who have suggested that the tragedy might have been averted if you had been more willing to take advice. Is that something you found difficult to do?
I didn’t get the advice. Perhaps I should have asked for advice. I should have had more detail about whether we would ever require any more money. I didn’t. I was told it was going to be alright so I didn’t question it. I didn’t ever reject any advice; it’s advice I didn’t get which I regret not having.
But before the sell-out you dismissed reports of a crisis…
It wasn’t a sell-out…I didn’t sell out.
But you dismissed speculation that you would be forced to lose control. You even wrote an open letter to readers of the Telegraph explaining developments in the paper, a letter full of hope for the future. It must have been all the more painful when events took the turn they did. Did you suffer a personal sense of having let people down?
No, I didn’t. I had a sense of personal humiliation. I don’t think I let anybody down. I personally assisted those who weren’t to continue in the new regime where I thought them rather shabbily treated. So I don’t think I would say I let people down.
I understand that Andreas Whittam Smith, at the time a journalist with the Telegraph, offered you financial advice along the lines of selling shares to Telegraph readers. People say that you were deeply offended by his advice. Was that true?
Quite untrue. I wasn’t offended by it. In fact I took it on board, but the trouble was we were already in the middle of this issue and it would have been swapping horses in midstream. If I had stopped then, God knows what would have happened. Anyway, you can’t raise thirty million pounds from your readers. I didn’t think it was a very practical idea, but I didn’t take the decision to turn it down myself. I think I referred it to our financial advisers and I was told it wasn’t on.
Shortly afterwards Whittam Smith’s decision to start his own newspaper and take two Telegraph journalists with him was leaked. With characteristic good manners you wished them well, but it is said that privately you felt a deep sense of betrayal. Is that true?
No. It’s true that I did wish him well, but I didn’t feel a sense of betrayal. I didn’t think the paper would fall to pieces because he’d gone. I didn’t particularly like his taking two journalists; one I was delighted to lose, and the other one I much regretted. I won’t say which.
You are accused of never having stood up to the unions in the way that Murdoch, for example, did. It is said that you looked upon all your employees as friends, that there was no ‘them and us’ situation at the Telegraph. Is this an accurate portrayal, and if so is it something you feel proud of or embarrassed about?
I did go on a bit about there being no ‘them or us’. Till 1979 my brother and I owned all the ordinary shares; then we decided to make them all over into a trust. We didn’t want to pay big dividends, but if we didn’t pay dividends commensurate with our profits, the surtax people would have taken about ninety-eight per cent, many which should have been left in the company. One of the ways of getting out of their clutches was to put it all into a trust, and the rules of trust were that the income was to be used for either the paper or the employees, all at our discretion. (When it came to the crunch I did lend £3 million to the company to sustain the company’s cash. The trust didn’t have any money so I had to borrow it from my family.) When appealing to staff to try to behave like human beings, I said there was no more them and us, that was the context of it.
But did you regret the stand you took? Would you have done a Murdoch if you had had a second chance?
You couldn’t do a Murdoch unless you had a separate plant. And Murdoch never intended to do what he ended up doing. His companies were weaker with the unions than practically everybody else, and we were really as tough as anybody. When he put up the plant, an old-fashioned letterpress plant, he told me it was for the News of the World and the Sun, and if it worked happily then later he would add to the plant in order to accommodate the Sunday Times and The Times. That building stuck there for six years after it had been finished, rusting up, and nothing happening. Eventually he made a proposition to the Sun and the News of the World people to move down there, but the unions wouldn’t wear it. He lost his temper and was advised that the only way to get people out was to so manoeuvre them that they would all go on strike at once; and that’s they managed to do. Unlike an ordinary strike where one union is out and you have to pay all the other ones, they all went out at once and they had dismissed themselves. It was a great stroke doing it, and very clever organization, but it wasn’t a thing that anybody else could do because they didn’t have a plant to move to. Eventually when our plant was ready much later, the new management did give new contracts, and if the staff wouldn’t accept them, then they were out. Wapping was a great blessing for everybody else, because you were then able to do this kind of thing, and the unions became like Samson without his hair.
In 1986 you experienced yet more difficulties when effectively you lost editorial control over the newspaper. Was that even more painful for you than the loss of financial control?
I should have resigned straightaway. Black said he wanted me to remain as editor-in-chief, but he also authorized Andrew Knight, who appointed editors over my head, to report not to me but to him.
You didn’t know Max Hastings, but you said of Peregrine Worsthorne, ‘He couldn’t edit a school magazine, let alone a national newspaper.’ On what did you base this low opinion?
My experience of him. I used my judgement of him.
Your own son Adrian, though loyal to you, spoke out in Worsthorne’s defence and though he wouldn’t vote against you, he decided to abstain. You must have regretted that the troubles at the Telegraph divided the family in this way.
I did, but because I had lost the vote so handsomely his abstention didn’t make any difference.
You have been reluctant to offer any judgement on the new breed of newspaper tycoon. Does silence conceal contempt in this instance?
No. Reticence forbids it, though that sounds very condescending. Most of them are not journalists, you see, and I don’t think non-journalists ought to run newspapers. It’s like hiring a jockey who has never ridden a horse.
Are you saying that the old traditional proprietor was basically a journalist?
Yes. Even Beaverbrook was a marvellous journalist, a natural journalist, and even though he wasn’t trained as one, he quickly became one. He is reported to have said when he appointed Beverly Baxter editor after Blumenfeld retired in the 1920s: ‘I’m appointing you editor of the Daily Express because you know even less about journalism than I do.’ I wouldn’t say he was a very nice man, but he did put sophistication into a popular paper, so that it was read by all sections of the public.
How do you view Murdoch?
He’s become purely a financier. He’s very good at tabloids, but he’s never had a success with a serious paper anywhere, here or Australia. The success of the Sunday Times is not his at all. Anyway, I don’t like the way it’s going at all, quite apart from the scandals.
How do you view the Telegraph now?
I don’t want to discuss my successors at all. I think they’re producing a very good paper on the whole. Naturally they’re not doing it exactly the way I would, but maybe I’m out of date.
This year you wrote a letter to the Telegraph which spelt out your own anti-federalist, anti-ERM view of Europe. Do you align yourself with Lady Thatcher in this regard?
That something of a poisoned chalice, but I personally thought the Bruges speech very sound, though not over-burdened with tact. What ERM means is fixed rates of exchange, and that is always disastrous. Rates of exchange to my mind depend on purchasing power parity, and our purchasing power is not at all the same as it was. That’s why I do agree wholeheartedly with Lady Thatcher who says you can’t buck the market. That’s what we tried to do, with disastrous results. We are striving, it seems, to be at the heart of Europe. The heart of Europe, under ERM rules, is either in Herr Kohl’s waiting room or in Carey Street.
Why do you think the government is sacrificing everything for the sake of a strong pound?
Why indeed? The exchange rate is the answer to the equation; it’s not a constant.
What is it you are proudest of having done – was it founding the Sunday Telegraph in 1961? Was that the high point of your career, do you think?
No, it was an obvious thing to do. I preserved the integrity, the popularity and the eventual prosperity of the Daily Telegraph, and the fact that I wasn’t there to see it happen doesn’t matter. The whole thing was planned by my team, and if things had worked out right, we should have succeeded. The costing was right to within two percent.
So what do you see as your proudest moment?
My first job on a newspaper was on the sports page of the Aberdeen Evening Express and after my first day subbing, the chief sub said to me almost angrily, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you’d done this before?’
You were perhaps the last great gentleman proprietor and when you left it was in some sense the end of an era. When you look back on your life, do you think mainly of your great achievements, or are they now overlaid with a sense of loss and perhaps failure?
They are overlaid with a sense of failure; certainly loss, and failure in so far as I didn’t see it through. But I think it has worked out for the best in the end. It has certainly benefited my family, because in the last two years we have made quite a lot of money out of the Telegraph, and it’s gone not to my brother and myself, but to our nephews and nieces and their children. It has been more to their financial advantage than if I had soldiered on with no intention of selling anything.
How have you coped during the last ten years since the death of your wife?
Certainly it has made me a much lonelier figure. I also feel that she would have been greatly upset at my losing control of the newspaper. She was terribly loyal to me and she realized that I was bound up in this thing with my whole life, and she would have been deeply shocked to see the present regime, or me out of it. She would have been much more conscious of my failure than I am. That she was not there to see it is my only consolation at our parting.