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Cover of the book under review.
The title of this book is slightly misleading: most pages are given to the Victorian period but the first chapter covers the younger Pitt and begins with a brief survey of relationships between governments and the press across the eighteenth century. Sections on Liverpool, Wellington and Grey follow before we reach Victoria's first Prime Minister. The back cover is also slightly misleading:
Most historians date the beginning of spin in Britain to World War II or the Great War, but here Paul Brighton unearths a much earlier relationship between press and politicians. From Peel and Palmerston to Gladstone and Disraeli, Prime Ministers have all tried to manipulate the press to a greater or lesser extent. Using original research and unpublished sources, this book reveals covert contacts between Westminster and Fleet Street for the first time.
The relationship which the publishers claim that Brighton has unearthed would be well-known to anyone who is familiar with the major biographies of Victoria's Prime Ministers published in the last 50 years. Brighton's footnotes, citing his sources, more often refer to those very biographies than to the unpublished sources mentioned on the back cover. It is more reasonable to claim, as the cover does, that this is the first book to concentrate on that aspect of government and to trace it through from 1783 to Salisbury's resignation in 1902.
10 Downing Street in the early twentieth century. Source: West, facing p. 214.
There are ten chapters and six are devoted to individual Prime Ministers: Pitt the Younger, Derby, Aberdeen, Palmerston, Disraeli and Gladstone. The other four chapters each cover a pair: Liverpool and Wellington, Grey and Melbourne, Peel and Russell and Salisbury and Rosebery. Before the ten chapters on specific periods there is an introduction and they are followed by a conclusion which don't offer as much analysis and refection as they might have done. The book makes few assumptions about the reader's familiarity with nineteenth century political history so a fair amount of each chapter is taken up by a general background account leaving less space than one might expect for material that addresses the ostensible subject of the book. That is just as well in some cases because there is not much to say of real interest about Prime Ministerial relationships with the press.
The book raises many fascinating questions, among them:
- is it possible to correlate growth of the electorate with the growing influence of the press and closer attention to the press by party leaders?
- what are the respective impacts of proprietors, editors and other employees and freelance writers on the political stance of papers?
- how does the power of newspapers in the late nineteenth century compare with their power when first radio and then television were in most homes?
- is it more common for newspapers to support a political cause because it looks like winning or to be the occasion of a cause's victory?
- how many examples are there of a politician being involved in the ownership of a paper and, as a result, gaining a clear advantage over the opposition on his own side or on the other side?
- how easy is it to distinguish between a Prime Minister's legitimate efforts to make sure that what he says or does is reported accurately, fully and promptly and his more questionable efforts to persuade a newspaper to mislead the readership in his own interests and how often can we be sure that contacts with the press strayed into the second category?
- which methods of influencing what appears in newspapers are legitimate and which are less acceptable (out of, say, meals, offering articles to be carried whether anonymously or by a named author, flattery, general efficient briefing in good time, privileged access to accurate information/leaks, honours)?
In most chapters some light is shed on one or more of these questions but Brighton doesn't generally attempt a considered answer to any of them. The title of the book invites the reader to consider whether spin is objectionable or simply a loose term to embrace any contact between the government and the press and it is a weakness that it is not crystal clear how Brighton intends it to be understood. In several places he includes a comparison between what was being done in the nineteenth century and what we have become used to in the last 35 years and in particular since 1997, perhaps to enliven the text. For some at least it will simply cause them to tease out just how the circumstances are different and why the comparison is less than helpful.
Left: Lord Palmerston, photographed by J. J. E. Mayall. Right: Lord Derby, by sculptor Matthew Noble.
Brighton has assembled a range of interesting passages on press relations from nineteenth century politicians and others. In a wonderful example of a man being a century ahead of his time J. W. Croker is quoted in 1829 advocating to Wellington "that a Cabinet Minister should be responsible for influencing or 'instructing' the friendly papers instead of a mere parliamentary secretary to the Treasury...." This was a role Bill Deedes fulfilled for Harold Macmillan about 130 years later. He went on:
the day is not far distant when you will (not SEE, or HEAR) but KNOW that there is someone in the Cabinet entrusted with what will be thought one of the most important duties of the State, the regulation of public opinion. 
Croker tried with other party leaders over the following twenty years with an equal lack of success. Brighton brings out well the striking differences between the politicians he considers in their feel and skills in this area. He quotes from the Earl of Malmesbury's diary is 1857 on Derby who headed three governments:
Lord Derby has never been able to realise the sudden growth and power of the Political Press, for which he has no partiality, which feeling is reciprocated by its members. In these days this is a fatal error in men who wish to obtain public power and distinction. Lord Derby is too proud a man to flatter anybody, even his greatest friends and equals, much less those of whom he knows nothing. 
Malmesbury praises Derby's son, Stanley, as being much better than his father in this respect. We are left in no doubt that Stanley had thought about it by Stanley's own comments on the social position of journalists:
They have the irritable vanity of authors, and add to it a sensitiveness on the score of social position which so far as I know is peculiar to them. Having in reality a vast secret influence, rating this above its true worth, and seeing that it gives them no recognised status in society, they stand up for the dignity of their occupation with a degree of jealousy that I never saw among any other profession. 
The analysis drives the reader back to Quintus Slide, the editor of the People's Banner in Trollope's Phineas Finn, Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister. The Duke of Omnium, of course, would have been a good deal worse at press management even than Derby if he had been assessed by Brighton.
Virtually at the other extreme was Palmerston who wrote for the papers throughout his life and was realistic about what could be done:
I can impel but I cannot control. The only communication that takes place is that every now and then when we have any particular piece of news, it is given to the editor and he thereby gets a start of his competitors, and on the condition of receiving these occasional intimations he gives his support to the Government.... Though they look to Government for news, they look to their readers for money. 
Equally realistic and putting Palmerston's point about money more gently was John Morley in his biography of Cobden: "The Times was Palmerstonian because the country was Palmerstonian, just as by-and-by it became Derbyite because the country seemed Derbyite" (175). Morley, of course, was a journalist who became an MP and served in Gladstone's Cabinets and then wrote Gladstone's three volume biography. He was not the only journalist to serve in Gladstone's Cabinets. Robert Lowe was much less close to Gladstone personally but he had been a long-standing leader writer on The Times and went on to be Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Another aspect of press relations: then and now, caricaturists had a field day with Prime Ministers. This is Harry Furniss's famous take on Gladstone.
Brighton leaves us with the impression that most Prime Ministers took their relationships with the press seriously and were effective but also went to some trouble to avoid letting it be known at the time. Gladstone, with his lifelong Liverpool connections, was one of the first Prime Ministers to see the potential of the provincial press. He was also responsible for arguably the most constructive use of a deniable leak when his son let it be known that his father intended to pursue Home Rule. This, known as the "Hawarden Kite" after Gladstone's country seat, gave him the chance to assess how public opinion reacted to the idea before he was irrevocably committed. In his very long Ministerial career Gladstone learned this aspect of the trade along with others until Colin Matthew could fairly write of his "acute and purposeful flair" for press relations (190). Brighton is strong on another celebrated way that Gladstone broke new ground in campaigning:
What was new about Midlothian was not that Gladstone spoke from the platform. This was already common-place for many front-rank politicians. It was the fact that the campaign was effectively designed as a media event, with specific attention to the deadlines and operational requirements of the journalists covering it and crafted for maximum impact in the morning and evening papers.
Brighton quotes Sir Edward Hamilton's diary in 1887 on Salisbury, who later replaced Gladstone as the pre-eminent figure in national politics, as "the Prime Minister most accessible to the press. He is not prone to give information: but when he does, he gives it freely, & his information can always be relied on" (233). Brighton's own assessment of Salisbury, just before he quotes Hamilton, sweeps in others:
Disraeli, by Mario Raggi.
As Salisbury consolidated his position as unchallenged Tory leader, he seems to have evolved a fairly consistent press management style. His was not the Palmerston or Disraeli approach, mingling flattery and intimacy as needed. Nor was it the more hands-off approach of Derby and Peel, intervening selectively on major occasions. In some ways it was closer to Gladstone's modus operandi: not appearing to the public as an obvious manipulator (in the way that Joseph Chamberlain and Randolph Churchill did); not wishing to spend party funds on starting new publications with no guarantee of success; but maintaining the level of contact necessary to gain his ends, while still contriving to appear above it all. 
Paul Brighton is Executive Principal Lecturer and Head of the Department of Media and Film at the University of Wolverhampton, and was previously a journalist who worked for Radio 4 and BBC News 24. This pedigree may explain some features of the book which will please some and irritate others such as the occasional livelier phrase than one might expect in a scholarly book and the occasional use of phrases such as "may well have" to include something for which there is limited evidence. There is also some carelessness as when Tony Blair is described as a right-of-centre leader of a left-wing party who was attractive to the Tory press in a comparison with Palmerston and Rosebery. The Sun supports the claim but scarcely, say, the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail. Original Spin is an excellent idea and few readers will fail to find material previously unknown to them however familiar they are with the politics of the nineteenth century.
[Book under review] Brighton, Paul. Original Spin: Downing Street and the Press in Victorian Britain. London: I. B. Tauris, 2015. pp.288. £22.95 ISBN-13: 978-1780760599.
[Illustration source] West, Sir Algernon. Contemporary Portraits: Men of My Day in Public Life. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1920. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 27 November 2015.
Created 27 November 2015