Theresa May, the press and a lesson from history

If Theresa May is brave enough to stand up to the press, she will reap the rewards.

Brian Cathcart
27 January 2017


One of the decisions that Theresa May must make in the next few weeks will define her as a prime minister – and it is not about Brexit. The fateful choice before her is between, on the one hand, standing up to the corporate national newspapers and becoming a political leader in her own right, and on the other, accepting that, for as long as they allow her to remain in Downing Street, she must be their doormat.

The mechanics of the choice are these: May’s government has just conducted a ‘consultation’ on implementing Leveson and must now come to its own conclusions on whether press regulation changes and the planned second phase of the inquiry (into criminal activities) should go ahead.   

Received political wisdom and recent history suggest that she will choose the doormat option and will abort the entire Leveson process as the corporate press is demanding. This is not because she enjoys being trodden on by Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, but because many think the press bosses are so powerful that she has no alternative.

This is not necessarily the case. In fact there is a famous and eerily appropriate precedent which suggests that the smart thing for May to do now is to defy the press – not only because that is best for the country and for democracy, but also as a career move.  

The precedent involves Stanley Baldwin, who as Tory leader in opposition in 1931 found himself fighting to save his party from a ferocious takeover attempt by the Express and the Mail, owned respectively by Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere. At successive by-elections the two press barons openly fielded anti-Baldwin candidates against official Tories, while behind the scenes they plotted to keep up the pressure until ‘the Conservative party is ours’.[1]

Matters came to a head in a by-election in the central London district of St George’s, where, in a style that would be familiar today, the Mail and Express deployed every available form of personalised ‘post-truth’ reporting, including a wholly unfounded allegation in the Mail that Baldwin had squandered his family fortune.

Then as now few expected the Tory leader to say boo, indeed many wrote Baldwin off as finished. He proved them wrong with a fighting speech at the very end of the campaign:

The papers conducted by Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook are not newspapers in the ordinary acceptance of the term,’ he declared.


‘They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal likes and dislikes of two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning . . . suppression and editorial criticism of speeches which are not reported in the paper.’ [2]

So far as his own reputation was concerned, Baldwin said he had been told he would win if he sued Mail, but: ‘I shall not move in the matter, and for this reason – I should get an apology and heavy damages. The first is of no value, and the second I would not touch with a barge pole.’ 

Then he uttered a condemnation of press power that has passed into history: ‘What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’

One witness recalled seeing the reporters in the hall ‘jump out of their skins’, and the effect outside was no less electrifying. The public responded to Baldwin’s courage; the by-election was easily won; the press campaign was totally derailed and Baldwin emerged as strong as he ever had been.

Could there really be a lesson here for Theresa May, as she ponders whether to oblige Murdoch, Dacre and their friends by abandoning the Leveson press reforms – a project she herself voted for only four years ago?

No one can be in any doubt of the towering ambition of the national papers today. Day after day their front pages tell a story of falsehood, misrepresentation and half-truths that might have made even Beaverbrook blush: they want power all right, and they certainly don’t want any responsibility to go with it.

And they are no more ready to be accountable for the various half-baked and bigoted policies they are so determined to foist on government than for the lies they publish about ordinary people – the same people the Leveson reforms were designed to protect.

Just as in 1931, however, they don’t have the country on their side. For example, despite their relentless and totally one-sided campaign against Leveson’s regulatory reforms, the public still backs those reforms by nearly five to one – a picture that has been more or less unchanged for four years.

What this tells us is that if Theresa May stands up to the lying, hysterical press just as Baldwin did all those years ago, she will not only be doing the right and consistent thing (she voted for it all before) but she will probably also be doing the popular thing. She will be acting like a political leader and not a doormat – and the public will thank her for it.

It might be objected that Baldwin’s reputation today is not high, but that misses the point. That week in 1931 he went from being written off to unchallenged party leader, and from there to winning elections and returning to 10 Downing Street. Theresa May today can only dream of the level of public respect Baldwin enjoyed in those years, and she might heed his words on leaving office in 1937: ‘Beaverbrook has been trying to hound me out of public life for 14 years, but I go of my own choice, in my own time and on the top of my form.’ [3]

And yes, completing the Leveson reforms and the Leveson Inquiry is doing the right thing. Don’t believe the nonsense peddled in the Mail, Express, Sun and so forth about a threat to press freedom. There is no such threat – except perhaps to the freedom of newspapers to libel and intrude upon ordinary people without consequence, and to ‘mark their own homework’ when it comes to regulation.

[1] Beaverbrook: A Life, by A. Chisolm and M. Davie, p301

[2] Baldwin: The Unexpected Prime Minister, H. M. Hyde, pp326-7

[3] Hyde, p529

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