Press Management and the Spin Principle

Paul Brighton, Original Spin: Downing Street and the Press in Victorian Britain

IB Tauris, 288pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781780760599

reviewed by Elliot Murphy

While its title may not be entirely accurate – given that its chronological span also encompasses a considerable chunk of the late Georgian period and the reign of William IV – Paul Brighton’s Original Spin: Downing Street and the Press in Victorian Britain is a perceptive and comprehensive account of how successive British prime ministers from Pitt the Younger to Rosebery dealt with the numerous problems and possibilities the emerging print media presented. As the three major Reform Acts considerably extended the franchise, Downing Street was forced to range beyond its traditional methods of population control (brute force, intimidation, taxation, imprisonment) and form new allegiances with the media in order for its agenda to gain popular credibility, and Brighton explores the topic in admirable depth, though in rather textbook-like language.

In contrast to the standard image of 19th-century prime ministers being aloof from and unconcerned about the press, Brighton shows through letters, press archives, official histories and biographies that it was in fact common for leaders to ‘leak’ (a term which came around in the late 1800s) information in exchange for backing, and also to write anonymous letters and articles for various papers. Indeed, even Queen Victoria may have published an anonymous, sassy letter responding to relatively petty grievances she had with an influential editor.

Brighton’s major contribution is to show that media spin is not purely a post-war phenomenon, but existed as a well-kept secret throughout the long 19th century, and even stretched back to the early 18th. He reveals that Victorian prime ministers used secret service funds to covertly subsidise newspapers willing to be flexible in their reporting. Lord Palmerston, while foreign secretary, attempted to persuade the Morning Chronicle to promote his Portugal policy. Lord Liverpool, also while foreign secretary, may have written anonymously for The Times, and Peel and Palmerston both contributed squibs to The Courier.

More generally, writes Brighton, ‘[p]rime ministers who are often regarded as uninterested in, or even contemptuous or oblivious of, the press in reality had much more nuanced and pragmatic private views.’ The Duke of Wellington’s famous, spiteful comments about the press preceded his less well known regrets over failing to acknowledge its influence. Sir Garnet Wolseley wrote to Lorde Minto to warn that ‘[t]he Press has become a power which a man should try to manage for himself.’ The gradual shift in politicians’ attitudes towards the media from 1800 to 1900 reflected the dramatic changes it underwent, with circulation figures climbing from the low thousands in the early 19th century to the hundreds of thousands at the turn of the 20th. The removal of newspaper duties (stamp and paper levies) in the second half of the century led to the establishment of the Daily Telegraph, which reached a circulation of 300,000 in the 1880s. Lloyd’s Weekly, a Sunday paper, was the first to reach a million readers in 1896.

The book’s central argument revolves around what we could call the Spin Principle for short: ‘I’ll tell you something no-one else (yet) knows if you give me your support and/or report it favourably.’ If a paper manages to find something out before its rivals, it will likely support and promote the information source. This Spin Principle is still operative today, as when Tony Blair, Jack Straw and George Osborne write in the Guardian or the Financial Times about the Middle East or the economy. Wellington told Castlereagh in 1808 that the press had come to ‘rule everything in this country,’ and his ominous tone is worth bearing in mind today. This is something that Brighton (rarely, but soberly) manages to achieve in his brief asides throughout the book which draw relevant contemporary analogies with a number of Victorian press scandals.

Some prime ministers took more principled positions towards the press. In a letter to Lord Castlereagh in 1815, Lord Liverpool responded to Castlereagh’s request to intervene in order to weaken the anti-French message of much of the media by offering them subsidies. Liverpool wrote that ‘no paper that has any character, and consequently an established sale, will accept money from the Government; and, indeed, their profits are so enormous in all critical times, when their support is most necessary, that no pecuniary assistance the Government could offer would really be worth their acceptance.’ Liverpool’s unwillingness to manipulate the press was typical of his demeanour, and he was so empty of feelings of self-promotion, and his general figure and profile were so unknown, that one of the few biographies of the prime minister published in the 20th century mistakenly includes a front page image of his father, the 1st Earl. In 1819, Liverpool’s government even turned down offers to buy the Sun after the paper approached the prime minister’s private secretary, Robert Willimott, and Pitt’s administration also turned down the opportunity to buy the Observer in 1794.

Original Spin contains extensive levels of detail about the personalities of the 19th-century establishment. Brighton relates, for instance, that George IV did not want to be crowned with his wife Caroline, from whom he had become deeply estranged. Their relationship was filled with so much animosity that when, upon the death of the exiled Napoleon, the King was informed that his ‘greatest enemy’ had died, he immediately responded: ‘Has she, by God?’ Brighton additionally explores how Lord Wellington’s views of the press frequently oscillated between contempt and respect. The prime minister ‘thought often and sometimes subtly’ about the press, Brighton argues. In 1810, he accused the papers of ‘stultifying England’, and in 1827 he condemned ‘the manner I have been treated by the corrupt press in the pay of the government’. During the Liverpool premiership, Wellington told his brother Richard that England was ruled by ‘the Gentlemen of the Press.’

Brighton overturns a number of standard judgements not just about the parliament-press relationship, but about the reputation of notable prime ministers. He shows how in 1831, Gladstone – probably the century’s most well-respected prime minister – wrote to the Herald complaining that the government was being ‘smothered by the expression of popular opinion’ in proposing the Great Reform Act; words which do not mesh well with the typical image of Gladstone as ‘the People’s William.’ The more scholarly motives of Britain’s leaders are also assessed. Disraeli, Brighton writes, ‘wrote for fame; Derby and Russell out of interest and intellectual engagement.’ Unlike Disraeli, early Victorian editors were so unassuming that when the death of a major and influential editor, Thomas Barnes of the Times, was announced in May 1841, it was the first time his name had ever appeared in his own paper, despite Wellington and Lyndhurst’s belief that Barnes was, at one point, the most powerful man in the country.

The power of the press was something which most representatives and writers became conscious of as the 19th century progressed. During Peel’s first ministry of 1834-5, The Times condemned the idea of press management since ‘it would have ended in a rotten representation of public opinion … The editorship of one paper was as much a Government appointment as a seat at the India Board or the Admiralty’. The journalist and politician JW Croker, towards the end of his life, wrote that ‘[m]y regret and alarm is that I see all ministerial functions either yielded to or usurped by committees of the House of Commons, and even more undisguisedly by editors of newspapers.’ Managing the press was a task that no other prime minister had to deal with prior to the early 19th century. This task was so alien to some statesmen that Henry Brougham was even accused of faking his own death just to see how it would be reported.

Brighton assesses the evidence relating to the journalistic careers of notable prime ministers, with a lot of controversy still surrounding whether or not certain leaders wrote for certain papers. His judgements are sound, measured and, on the whole, persuasive. He shows how a number of prime ministers advanced the goals of their party through the Spin Principle and a process of ‘leaking, steering and contributing’, and does so in a scholarly and sensible way. For instance, when commenting on Croker’s hostile opinions about the first Reform Bill, Brighton rejects the easy temptation of many leftist historians of simply objecting to Croker’s elitism: ‘Of course, it is easy to satirize his view, and refer scathingly to his perception of the inconvenience of democracy and public opinion. However, it is perhaps more constructive to set patronizing rhetoric to one side and consider the applicability of his analysis to political and journalistic behaviour over the following century and a half.’ At all times Brighton rightly assumes the role of historian, not polemicist.

The book also contains much that is of contemporary relevance. When The Times announced there was reason to believe that Wellington would introduce a bill of Catholic emancipation, they claimed that this belief was ‘founded on intelligence from a quarter alike incapable of being deceived itself, and of deceiving others.’ Westminster sources were deemed infallible; similar, indeed, to how the Guardian often dispassionately quoted government sources during the Iraq War, the Libyan War, and, now, the latest intervention in Syria. Of course, not all 19th-century commentators were blind to this. The Morning Journal accused a number of papers like The Courier and the Morning Post of existing to regurgitate and praise official Downing Street statements: ‘If any unwelcome news finds its way to the public, the “Post” is instructed to contradict it in the morning, and the “Courier” is ordered to swear to the milliner’s falsehood in the evening … at the nod of some subordinate secretary of the Treasury.’ The parallels with the machinations of today’s right-wing press, most notably with regard to the vilification of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, are clear – and, as Brighton argues, should be brought to popular attention if the unaccountable power of Wellington’s ‘Gentlemen of the Press’ is to be challenged.
Elliot Murphy is a graduate neurolinguistics student at the Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London. He is the author of Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature.