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A ‘Mirror’ up to Society: The Daily Mirror and British Public Opinion of the H-bomb, 1954-1958

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The rise of populism and subsequent ‘crisis of democracy’ in recent years has led to discussions regarding the detrimental effects of fake news and media-friendly politics. Within this narrative, ordinary citizens are portrayed as passive bystanders manipulated by a highly mediatized political culture.

However, this need not always be the case. Indeed, from the late 1950s, newspapers became increasingly preoccupied with providing a platform through which ‘ordinary’ citizens’ perceptions of democracy could be articulated. These ‘voices’ were then utilised by newspapers in their construction of new forms of political reporting, consequently redefining public opinion as a less elitist category that was accessible to a broader demographic.

The Daily Mirror provides a particularly good example. Initiated by its change of ownership in the 1930s, in order to appeal to their new, working-class readership, the Mirror became increasingly focused on providing an outlet through which their constructions of the ‘voice of the people’ could be articulated. This was particularly the case with the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb).

In April 1954, the Mirror published a double-page spread on the new H-bomb. Alongside the Mirror’sfirst depiction of ‘The Monster’, the public were invited to respond to two questions regarding their opinion on H-bomb testing.[1] The H-bomb enquiry revealed that 92% of participants were in favour of a suspension of the test explosions.[2] The Mirror then used the results from the public polls to inform its own discourse.[3]

William Connor (Cassandra), a columnist at the Mirror known for his anti-establishment rhetoric, was commissioned to write an article reflecting public distaste for the bomb.He used graphic and emotive language to present the H-bomb as an apocalyptic threat. Children dear, I’m afraid it’s those grown-ups again’, Cassandra wrote before going on to explain the bomb in a patronising manner, as if talking to a child.[4]

As a newspaper’s intention is not to alienate its readership, we can assume that this article was written as an ‘in-joke’ between the Mirror and its readers as, at least from what the public poll had revealed, both shared the same opinion of the bomb.

On the 2nd March 1955, the Mirror published an article revealing that Britain had ‘started to make the H-Bomb.[5] In contrast to the apocalyptic account of horror depicted in 1954, by March 1955, the H-bomb became a part of daily life. We see the normalisation of the H-bomb not only in the Mirror’s reporting style, but also within the ‘voice of the people’ constructed in their Live Letters newspaper segment.

‘I read some time ago that if an atom bomb were dropped in the polar regions, the ice barrier would be broken and that this would allow a warm current to flow round Britain and so give us a tropical climate. If this is so, why do we not have the atomic tests there instead of in Australia and this reap the benefit in climate?’[6]

Instead of a sense of horror, we see a blasé approach to the H-bomb – the implication being that the public accepted the necessity of the H-bomb and desired to make the best of a bad situation.

By 1957, the Mirror’s coverage of the H-Bomb changed again. Whereas previously the H-bomb was presented as either apocalyptic or everyday, by 1957 the apocalyptic had become the everyday.[7] This was also echoed in the nature of public opinion the newspaper published.

‘After constantly reading about the horrible hydrogen bomb, I wish that someone would invent another bomb – the H for Happiness bomb’ wrote one reader.[8]

 The following week, another member of the public wrote a response:

‘I suggest that everybody in this world today could, if he wished, explode his own miniature bomb… In this day and age, however, I have found that any act of kindness… is taken for a sign of weakness’.[9]

These sentiments were echoed in another letter entitled ‘If Angels Weep’:

‘I have my own theory about the rainy weather we’ve been having… Could it be that the angels are weeping now – not from laughter, but with bitter tears for us poor so-and-so’s who could be so happy but are being led on to the brink of misery and destruction by the big ‘eads?’[10]

On top of a clear sense of sadness and an acknowledgement that it was a part of everyday life, there is also a sense of disappointment in their political leaders and an acceptance of the inevitability that the H-bomb would bring destruction and misery to Britain – a far cry from seeing the H-bomb as an opportunity to improve the British climate.

Through analysis of the Mirror’s shifting communicative practices and constructions of the ‘voice of the people’, it is reasonable to suggest that the way people related to the H-bomb changed over time. Tracing shifts such as these will allow us to enrich current study of popular opinion conveyed through mass media by historically contextualising the current, presentist narrative of a ‘crisis in democracy’.

By accessing the mediated perceptions of ‘ordinary’ people through analysis of the outlets that constructed their voices in the public sphere, we can move away from the top-down approach that dominates the study of postwar political culture whilst critically reflecting on the role new media plays in shaping our current political climate.

These concerns will be explored in the ‘Voice of the People’ project, which aims to put the voices of the ordinary citizen centre stage in the discussion of postwar political culture, by deconstructing the ways in which journalists brought the ‘voice of the people’ into the public sphere. From this, we will be able to provide insight into the changing notions of public opinion, whilst tracing the impact that has upon both journalistic and political culture.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Photo of ‘Ivy Mike’ (yield 10.4 mt) – an atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the U.S. at Enewetak Atoll on 1 November 1952. It was the world’s first successful hydrogen bomb.

[1] ‘The Monster’, Daily Mirror, April 2nd 1954, p.1.

[2] ‘The People’s Verdict – Churchill Must Act’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1954, p. 1

[3] M. Conboy, ‘How The War Made the Mirror’, Media History: Newspapers, War and Society 23.3-4 (2017), p. 455.

[4] Cassandra, ‘A child’s guide to the bomb’, Daily Mirror, 6th April 1954, p. 9

[5] ‘Churchill: Another ‘Farewell’ Performance’, Daily Mirror, Wednesday 2nd March 1955 pp.1-3.

[6] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 15th November 1956, p. 18.

[7] This personalisation of the H-bomb was a common theme within Mirror articles at the time. This was reiterated by their frequent use of a map of the UK depicting the scale of the potential destruction. The public were able to visualise the impact of the H-bomb on a national level, whilst also placing themselves as individuals on the map. Therefore, by 1957 the public was no longer relating to the bomb as a potential threat, but rather as an actuality.

[8] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 24th February 1958, p. 14.

[9] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 6th March 1958, p. 18

[10] ‘Live Letters’ Daily Mirror, 10th October, p. 18.

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The Politics of Churchill’s Statue

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During Britain’s strange summer of 2020, the statues of long-dead figures became live political issues. Black Lives Matter protestors threw slave-trader Edward Colston’s effigy into Bristol harbour, an act that shocked many, but that was as nothing to the reaction provoked by the treatment meted out to Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. During another Black Lives Matter protest this was daubed with the claim that the wartime Prime Minister – voted the Greatest Briton in 2002 – was a racist. The Daily Express believed the statue had as a consequence been ‘desecrated’. A week later far-right demonstrators, many of them associated with racist views, gathered near the statue, ostensibly to defend it from further attack, some of them chanting ‘Sir Winston Churchill, he’s one of our own’. By then however the statue had been boarded up and hidden from view.

Some saw the defacement of Churchill’s statue and the response to it as another episode in Britain’s ‘culture wars’, an unwelcome development in the country’s increasingly fractious politics. But the statues of great figures have always been political, their sponsors invariably hoping to impose their view of the notables’ significance onto the future, to keep them in some way permanently alive. Yet, as Churchill’s Parliament Square effigy itself illustrates, such statues even at the moment of their creation can be subject to contestation: its 2020 defacement is not as novel an act as it might at first appear.

After Churchill retired from front line politics in 1955, his supporters unleashed a wave of statues and other memorials intended to make permanent their preferred remembrance of his wartime role as the nation’s saviour, one which led The Times in 1954 to describe him without qualification, as the ‘greatest man of all time’. Most notably soon after Churchill’s 1965 state funeral the House of Commons commissioned a statue to be placed in the Members’ Lobby. When unveiled in 1969 according to the Guardian correspondent, ‘there was an audible intake of breath’ from those present. ‘It was’, he went on, ‘for all the world as though Churchill had himself thrown off his coverings by taking a sudden step forward. There he stood once more … avid for new burdens.’ Indeed, such were the statue’s presumed magical qualities it quickly became the practice of Conservative MPs to stroke its left foot for luck, something responsible for the foot being almost worn away.

Even before that effigy was completed, in 1968 Conservative MP John Tilney in a question to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson started the process which would end with Churchill’s Parliament Square statue. Tilney called for the creation of another likeness ‘of perhaps the greatest leader of this nation and the greatest Parliamentarian for centuries.’ The reaction to Tilney’s suggestion revealed the partisan nature of his request. Wilson was reluctant to endorse the sentiment and so dissembled. But, reflecting the enmity in which Churchill the class warrior – as opposed to national saviour – was held amongst South Wales miners, Labour MP Emrys Hughes sarcastically questioned whether another statue was ‘absolutely unnecessary because nobody can forget him?’

Undeterred, Tilney raised the matter a few months later. Wilson remained unwilling to back the project and refused it state funds but promised to facilitate the statue’s construction should broad support be made evident, which he doubted. When the matter was raised in the second chamber the Labour Leader of the Lords, Lord Shackleton, claimed to be not unsympathetic to the initiative, but then proceeded to list all the memorials then dedicated to Churchill, clearly implying another one was unnecessary. But another Labour peer, Lord Blyton, a former miner, was more direct in his criticism of the scheme, pointedly stating that, ‘I think we should remember that he [Churchill] did not win the last war by himself. He had men like Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin.’

After Tilney received the support of 150 MPs and various other worthies, Wilson was however obliged to endorse the formation of a committee to oversee the creation of a statue, which was unveiled in November 1973, the ceremony being watched by a crowd of over 1,000 including the Queen.

Since then and especially after the turn of the century Churchill’s statue has regularly been defaced or subject to lèse-majeste as perspectives about his contribution to British history have changed. During London’s May Day protests of 2000 a strip of grass was placed on its head to give the impression Churchill sported a Mohican haircut. Those responsible evaded the police but James Matthews, the 25 years-old former soldier who sprayed its mouth with red paint so it looked as if blood was dripping from it, did not. To him, ‘Churchill was an exponent of capitalism and of imperialism and anti-Semitism. A Tory reactionary vehemently opposed to the emancipation of women and to independence in India’.

Ten years later in what the Daily Mail described as an attack on ‘respect and common decency’ young protestors at a demonstration against an increase in university tuition fees showed what they thought about Churchill by urinating on the statue’s plinth. In 2012, in a more sober and focused way, in order to highlight the need to tackle problems associated with mental illness, campaigners placed a straightjacket on the statue, in recognition of Churchill’s increasingly well-known bouts of depression.

Even before it was unveiled, Churchill’s Parliament Square statue was the subject of dispute. Those well-placed figures who regarded him as the man who single-handedly saved Britain from defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany prevailed; but their view of Churchill’s place in history – and of the character of Britain itself – was always contested. Similarly, culture has been a constant political battleground: the events of the summer of 2020 are not so unique after all.

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham and the author with Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye of The Churchill Myths (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Cover image: Big Ben and Churchill Statue, courtesy of johnnyhypno https://www.needpix.com/photo/1805316/big-ben-churchill-statue-westminster-clock-england-london-politics-government [Accessed 08/10/2020].

This blog originally appeared in a slightly different form at: https://blog.oup.com/2020/09/the-defacing-of-churchills-statue/

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“Freewheelin’ to Ban-happy”?: Students and No-Platform in Britain

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Since around the end of 2013 there has been a moral panic around freedom of speech on British university campuses. This emerged after a number of public figures scheduled to speak at various universities and student unions were disinvited due to student pressure and organising – what is known as ‘no-platforming’.

This took place within a broader argument in the British media about ‘censorious students’, consisting not just of debates around ‘no-platform’ but also ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’.

For example, in December 2015 the Editor of the right-libertarian publication Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, used the term ‘Stepford Students’ in an article for the Spectator. He described how, in his view, students had been rebranded as fragile, overgrown children who needed to be shielded from ‘harmful’ ideas and who demanded the right to feel comfortable even at university which should be a space of challenging ideas and intellectual discomfort.

O’Neill characterised this development as a sudden and radical reversal. He argued that it is ‘hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have’ and claimed that in the ‘space of a generation students have gone from freewheelin’ to ban-happy’, from ‘askers of awkward questions’ to ‘suppressors of offensive speech’.

This idea of mollycoddled ‘snowflake’ students caught on and achieved a relatively dominant position in media coverage of free speech in Britain and British universities.[1]

Most of the discussion, though, has been devastatingly ahistorical. As the historian Evan Smith points out in his recent monograph, ‘no-platform’ has a much longer and more complex history than contemporary media discussions acknowledge.[2]

Smith argues that ‘no-platform’ emerged out of a longer antifascist tradition in Britain of denying a platform to fascists in the inter- and early post-war periods through tactics such as heckling and the physical denial of space. Whilst true, we might put these longer traditions aside for the moment to look at the issue of free speech at universities, which became a matter of media interest in the 1960s.

In May 1968, for example, an article in the Spectator compared what it termed ‘liberal’ and ‘revolutionary’ students, and noted there was tension between the two because the ‘liberals’ were struggling with their studies due to their ‘free speech being howled down’ by the demonstrations of the ‘revolutionary minority’.[3]

The next year the Vice-Chancellor of Essex University, Dr. Albert Sloman, expressed his concern at how militant students were killing free speech and complained that important questions were no longer being debated in universities as frankly or as often because visiting speakers were regularly being ‘drowned out’.[4]

During the 1960s and 1970s, rather than Milo Yinnopolous or Tommy Robinson, it was often Conservative MPs like Enoch Powell or Keith Joseph who were being denied platforms. For instance, when Powell was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the Conservative Association at St. Andrews in 1973, he had attracted so much previous opprobrium on other campuses that the Association deliberately printed the wrong date on posters advertising the dinner, only informing students buying tickets what the real date was in order to avoid disruption.[5]

Referring to Powell being prevented from speaking at Dundee University the year before, one commentator, again in the Spectator, complained that students were ‘encouraged to regard themselves as infants whose tantrums will not be held against them’ and that they were ‘pampered…in the most regressive and childlike attitudes and granted exemption from the adult world’.[6]

Here – in 1972 – were almost identical criticisms to those being made today and even the same language being used – of infantilisation, childlike attitudes and the characterisation of students as regressive children who urgently need to grow up.

As Smith documents, 1973 saw protests against Professor Hans Eysenck at LSE (for his research on racial elements in the inheritance of intelligence) and the occupation of a lecture hall at Sussex to prevent the American academic Samuel P. Huntington from speaking. In May 1974, the former Monday Club Chairman Jonathan Guinness was prevente from speaking at Portsmouth Polytechnic with students even barricading a hall and drowning him out until he left.[7] Smith shows how ‘these events were portrayed as an end to free speech on campus and an example of a violent turn within the movement’, with this period an important ‘incubator’ for the idea of ‘no-platform’.[8]

1974 was indeed a particularly important moment as it was the year ‘no-platform’ became an official National Union of Students (NUS) policy rather than a disparate patchwork of policies at various student unions. The NUS conference in Liverpool voted to ‘smash’ the meetings of, amongst other groups, the Monday Club, the National Front (NF) and the National Democratic Party.[9]

There was, however, considerable opposition to the Liverpool motion. Surrey, for instance, disowned the policy of disruption by defending ‘the right of freedom of speech for all’.[10] One NUS-delegate from Manchester argued that right-wing views could be rejected through common sense and believing students did not have the capacity to do so was ‘patronising paternalism’.[11]

At the University of Sheffield, a debate took place on whether to let Brian Faulkner, the Unionist last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, speak. The talk eventually went ahead with the Chairman of the Debates Committee arguing: ‘if he was evil let the man come and show himself to be evil during questioning…students are capable of judging for themselves’, whilst others argued that freedom of speech had to be weighed against ‘other important freedoms’.[12]

In fact, mirroring recent moves, disillusionment with the NUS and policies like ‘no-platform’ even caused some unions to disaffiliate, such as Aston and Manchester in 1976.[13]

The important point here is that there has been, for over half a century now, anxieties and debates about freedom of speech on campuses and so to suggest that, in the space of a generation, students have gone from ‘freewheelin’ to ‘ban-happy’ isn’t really true.  

It is also not quite accurate to say, as Sarah Ditum did in the New Statesman in 2014, that only recently has the tactic burst beyond the remit it was originally intended for. During the 1980s sexists and homophobes were targeted for denial of platforms and Smith argues that in this period the tactic was recalibrated in the face of these other threats following the decline of the NF, ‘indicating that debate around the repurposing of the tactic by students has endured for nearly 40 years’.[14]

There was another pronounced ‘spike’ of media interest from 1985, and by 1986 it was felt that freedom of speech in universities was under such an acute threat that parliamentary legislation was required to make it the duty of institutions to enforce the right of free speech. In the Commons, the Secretary of State for Education and Science spoke of the ‘considerable public unease’ about the way in which certain people had been denied the right of freedom of speech at universities, resulting in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 which forced institutions to take ‘reasonable steps’ to guarantee freedom of speech within the law.[15]

So, a closer look at the history of ‘no-platform’ in Britain reveals that much of the discussion has remained essentially unchanged for decades. There have certainly been more intense moments where these themes gained greater visibility and traction in the media, but students have not gone from free speech warriors to censors in a generation and a ‘radical transformation’ simply does not accurately characterise changing attitudes to campus free speech.

Hallam Roffey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey


Cover image: University of Michigan Student Walkout at the Ross School of Business, November 16, 2016. Courtesy of Corey Seeman, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cseeman/30895469312/in/photostream/ [Accessed 5 October 2020].

[1] I myself repeated a number of its tropes in what I now view as a somewhat embarrassing series of articles for Spiked and the Telegraph).

[2] E. Smith, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (Oxon, 2020).

[3] Spectator, 23 May 1968, p. 2.

[4] Daily Mail, 14 October 1969, p. 9.

[5] Darts, 23 February 1973, p. 3.

[6] Spectator, 18 November 1972, p. 11.

[7] Daily Mail, 18 May 1974, p. 14.

[8] Smith, No Platform, p, 82.

[9] Daily Mail, 5 April 1974, p. 13.

[10] Guardian, 29 May 1974, p. 5.

[11] Guardian, 5 April 1974, p. 7.

[12] Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 7; Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 1.

[13] Darts, 19 February 1976, p. 1, 12.; Daily Mail, 5 February 1976, p. 9.

[14] Smith, No Platform, p. 113.

[15] B.P.P, HC, 11 February 1986, Freedom of Speech (Universities and Institutions of Higher Education).

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Why You Should Watch ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’

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There’s only one Rupert” announced Donald Trump in June 2017. He was responding to an introduction given for him by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The two men have a relationship stretching back decades, and Murdoch and his media empire played a pivotal role in Trump’s election as US President, particularly via the television network Fox News.

Trump’s statement serves as a refrain in a new BBC documentary, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, which everyone should try to watch before it disappears off BBC iPlayer.[1] It examines the business activities and family – particularly Rupert’s children, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James – of one of the most powerful and influential figures in recent British and global history.

Murdoch and his mass media conglomerate News Corp have for decades wielded enormous political and cultural influence in the UK, the US and Australia. In recent years, aside from supporting Trump, Murdoch’s UK tabloid the Sun played a key role in Brexit while his Australian media organisations have led efforts to undermine recognition of climate change and to resist attempts to combat it, even as the country experienced horrendous bushfires. Leading politicians in both countries have also maintained close connections with Murdoch.

The documentary arrives in the wake of HBO’s critically-acclaimed drama Succession, which uses the Murdoch family as its main source of inspiration while also drawing on other controversial media dynasties such as the owners of the Viacom, the Redstones. Indeed, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty apes the style and aesthetics of Succession.

Rupert Murdoch has long been depicted as an antidemocratic despot whose media organisations subvert the democratic process, coarsen popular culture, and stray into illegality.[2] In the UK, his newspapers having bragged about swaying the outcomes of elections, their use of features such as page 3, and their involvement in scandals such as smearing the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and Phone Hacking offer plenty of supporting evidence.

During protests against News Corps’ attempt to gain overall control of the broadcaster BSkyB in 2010, a campaigner in a Murdoch mask manipulated puppets of the then Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt – the minister presiding over the decision.

Despite Hunt failing to refer the deal to the Competition Commission, the bid was ultimately withdrawn when the Phone Hacking scandal came to light. Subsequently, a raft of texts and emails exchanged between Hunt and News Corp were revealed, with one of the company’s lobbyists having told James Murdoch that Hunt “said we would get there in the end and he shared our objectives”. Hunt had publicly denied any relationship with the Murdochs, reinforcing the impression that they had far too much influence over leading politicians.

There is a long history of fears about the ability of the media to influence politicians and the public. This became particularly acute with the rise of the mass popular press at the end of nineteenth century, which reached much larger numbers of readers than ever before and which refined methods to grab the attention of the public, such as eye-catching headlines and layouts, emotive slogans, sensationalist stories, competitions, and gimmicks. While partly due to elite fears that the newly enfranchised masses could not be trusted to vote wisely, many of the critiques of the popular press were nevertheless well-grounded.

In the US, William Randolph Hearst became notorious for what his critics saw as the debasement of journalism and politics, while in the UK the same charges were levelled at the press barons, Lords Northcliffe, Rothermere, and Beaverbook. While such figures wielded less direct influence over the outcome of elections than they desired, the long-term impact of their newspapers over broader attitudes was significant. Indeed, tabloid values have seemingly taken root across the media and wider society.

The media environment has changed a lot over the last hundred or so years, and throughout Murdoch’s career. However, given the scale and international reach of Murdoch’s media concerns, it is reasonable to suggest that he has achieved a greater level of power and influence than the press barons ever managed.

Assessing the activities and impact of Murdoch is difficult because his modus operandi is secrecy”. As Rodney Tiffin notes, this is at odds with what should be the primary democratic purpose of news organisations: increasing public transparency. Murdoch operates outside of public view, exercising control via face-to-face conversations and phone calls that leave no paper trail.[3]

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty does a good job of surveying what we do know, and some of the insights from interviewees that worked within Murdoch’s media organizations are illuminating.[4]

One aspect of the documentary worth expanding upon concerns commonalities evident across Murdoch’s media organisations. As he stated in 1996, News Corp, “For better or worse, is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values”.

A series of articles published in the New York Times outlines the driving motivation of Murdoch’s activities: conquest. Following in the footsteps of his father, from the start of his career Murdoch used his newspapers to gain political leverage over and intimidate Australian politicians, lending them support in return for political favours and the relaxation of media competition laws. This pattern was repeated as he moved into the UK and then the US.

The undermining of journalistic standards and the creation of workplace cultures that have encouraged and concealed toxic behaviour – and even outright illegality – have been common features across many of Murdoch’s media possessions.[5]

Accompanying this has been a distinctive form of right-wing politics.[6] While at times Murdoch has lent the support of his newspapers to centre-left parties such as New Labour, this has always been dependent on concessions, and his media empire has consistently pushed political positions such as hostility to trade unions, jingoism, hawkish foreign policies, climate change denial, and various conservative social values.[7] Indeed, in recent decades many of Murdoch’s newspapers and television channels have played a key role in the emergence of what has been termed a “culture war”, even including highbrow newspapers such as The Times.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty is a great overview of how the world’s most powerful media mogul has amassed and wielded power, and given recent events it is vital viewing.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley

Cover image: Protester in a Rupert Murdoch mask manipulates puppets of David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, London 2010. Courtesy of 38 Degrees, https://www.flickr.com/photos/38degrees/5887629591/ [accessed 06 August 2020].

[1] Episode 1 is due to be taken down on Saturday 15th August, so best hurry. Edit: This has now thankfully been extended, so you have plenty of time to catch it!

[2] This is a popular image that Murdoch himself is well aware of and has at times been willing to play up to. After first being depicted in the Simpsons –at the time owned by his 20th Century Fox production company – bedecked in a prison jumpsuit as an inmate as Springwood Minimum Security Prison, he later provided his voice for another appearance where he introduced himself as “the billionaire tyrant” – a line he apparently came up with himself.

[3] This has a precedent with previous media moguls; while the press barons Northcliffe and Beaverbrook donated their personal papers to archives, Rothermere ordered his own to be destroyed after he died and one of the papers he controlled, the Daily Mail, continues to deny public access to its internal archives, unlike most other surviving newspapers.

[4] Though this is variable. There are some eye-opening accounts of the illegal practices that were carried out at the Sun and the News of the World, including “darks arts” such as phone hacking, blagging and the bribing of police. Conversely, former News Corp executive Les Hinton’s contribution was largely a hagiography of Murdoch. In keeping with the expected pattern, the Murdoch family declined to contribute.

[5] This includes the covering up of sexual harassment at Fox News, and the macho bullying that occurred at the Sun, especially under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie.

[6] The packaging of this political viewpoint has been overseen by a number of key subordinates, such as the Sun editors Larry Lamb and Kelvin MacKenzie and the Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Lachlan Murdoch has recently displaced James to become the de facto heir to the Murdoch empire, and his political views seem even more right-wing  than his father’s.

[7] For how this played out at the Sun, see: P. Chippindale, C. Horrie, Stick It Up Your Punter!: The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper (London, 1999).

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The Monarchy and the Next Great Depression

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It has been an oft-quoted refrain since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Europe: along with much of the rest of the world, Britain and the continent face a looming recession on a scale that hasn’t been witnessed since the 1930s. The first half of this inauspicious decade saw a collapse in overseas investment and profits, a rapid rise in unemployment, and yawning financial uncertainty for ordinary people.

Across the globe, the Great Depression also threw up challenges to democracies and some didn’t survive. The spectre of far-right nationalism, feeding on the misery of the masses, rose once again to undermine the spirit of international cooperation and optimism that had come to define the 1920s.

Britain’s political system, though, while certainly tested by the economic downturn, remained remarkably resilient to the kinds of forces that swept away Taisho Japan, Weimar Germany, and the Second Spanish Republic. British democracy – if it can be labelled as such – had been longer in the making and its political institutions were more robust than those in the aforementioned countries. But one organization often ignored by historians and political scientists which played a key role in helping to maintain at least the appearance of order and stability in these difficult years was the House of Windsor.

What exactly did the crown do and what might the current monarchy learn from the lessons of the 1930s in adjusting to a period that may one day be referred to as the Second Great Depression?

Beginning in the years immediately before the first world war, King George V and his courtiers carefully enlarged the sphere of royal altruism so that it touched more working-class people’s lives than ever before. This formed part of a conscious effort to promote social cohesion in a period marked by a surge in class conflict.

Royal philanthropy grew in importance on the home and western fronts between 1914 and 1918 and, in the wake of the economic slump that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Windsors increased their efforts to help those subjects who they deemed most in need of attention. For example, the royals set up relief funds for unemployed men and their families who had, often overnight, lost breadwinner wage packets.

Historian Frank Prochaska sees the 1930s as key to the emergence of what he terms a ‘welfare monarchy’. Since 1917, courtiers had worried about the allure of communism among what they perceived as a politically restless and unreliable proletariat. Driven by renewed fears of revolution in the early 1930s, the Windsors used philanthropy to cultivate closer ties with working-class communities in the hope that it would reduce feelings of disaffection and thus help to ensure the maintenance of the status quo.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, it will take a more concerted effort from the UK’s central government to deal with the crisis that lies ahead that will likely leave little room for philanthropic endeavour. It is also imperative that the royals avoid entangling themselves with contentious policies that might otherwise undermine the monarchy’s claims to political impartiality.

One such area no longer deemed to be taboo or politically contentious (which the monarchy has thus leapt on) is Britain’s mental health. The 2008 economic crisis led to a programme of austerity which saw government reduce real-terms spending on mental health services, and into this gap popped Princes William and Harry.[1]

We can be sure that palace courtiers are already searching for similar gaps in the current government’s Covid-19 recovery programme that younger members of the royal family can look to fill through new kinds of public service, thus ensuring their own meaningful survival – as was the case in the 1930s.

It was the Great Depression that also led the king to deliver the first ever Christmas broadcast to his peoples in Britain and across the empire in 1932. Again, the aim was to offer words of reassurance and comfort at a time of great difficulty. And it seems that he largely succeeded: the concern George V communicated for his people in his radio messages strengthened the emotional bonds that connected many of them to him and this, in turn, ensured their loyalty to the throne upon which he sat, and to the royal democracy over which he presided.

Since the coronavirus arrived on these shores, we’ve already had two such messages from Elizabeth II, where she has sought to offer encouragement to her people and bring the British nation – however fleetingly – together as one.

As we move into what seems to be an increasingly uncertain future, we will hear much more from the Windsors as they attempt to invoke a spirit of national unity and togetherness. But at the same time the royals must ensure that such sentiments do not err on the banal through repetition and that messages imploring solidarity do not ignore the inequalities that separate the lives of the privileged from the lives of the ordinary people who will be the ones to suffer most because of joblessness, cuts in public spending, and tax increases.

Finally, the downturn of the 1930s saw George V and his kin take on more direct roles in trying to stabilize Britain’s economic and political systems. Younger royals carved out roles as trade emissaries promoting new economic relationships with South American countries while also acting as advocates for an older system of imperial preference.

There have recently been calls for the return of a royal yacht that could transport the Windsor family across the world so that they can help ‘Global Britain’ forge new trading relationships. Given the cost to the taxpayer, these suggestions will likely fall on deaf ears, but that is not to say that the royals cannot work to try to improve the nation’s economic prospects by greasing the wheels of international diplomacy. We can expect many more visits of foreign dignitaries to Buckingham Palace and trips by a royal contingent led by Prince Charles to regions of the world deemed strategically important to the UK’s trading future.

Perhaps the most significant step taken by George V during the Great Depression was when he controversially oversaw the creation of a National Government in 1931 in order to restore confidence in Britain’s shaky finances. He succeeded, but this event split the Labour Party and destroyed its electoral chances.

It seems unlikely in the twenty-first century that a monarch would risk involving themselves in an episode as politically explosive as this, or whether they would even be able to given the reduction in the royal prerogative powers. But the last couple of years have taught us that we should never say never when it comes to British politics.

The UK’s uncodified constitution enables flexibility when it comes to the precise role played by the crown in affairs of state. If the monarch and their advisors were to arrive at the view that the government in power was no longer representing the interests of the public it was elected to serve, then it is possible to imagine that the palace could apply pressure on the leader of such an administration to step aside so that someone else might do a better job.

For now, we wait apprehensively to see how painful the coming recession will be, along with how many people’s livelihoods are destroyed as businesses close and the inevitable job losses follow. The monarchy has always had to search out new roles in order to justify its position in British society. While the next Great Depression will bring with it many challenges, it will also create opportunities for the House of Windsor to reinvent itself again as we move into a post-pandemic world.

Dr Ed Owens is a historian, royal commentator and public speaker. His recent publication, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53, is the first book in the New Historical Perspectives series, a new publishing initiative for early career researchers in collaboration with the Royal Historical Society, the Institute for Historical Research and the University of London Press. For queries please contact edowens@live.com or tweet to @DrEdOwens.

Cover image: The royal Christmas broadcast became an annual tradition because King George V wanted to reach out to his people in new ways during the difficult years of the Great Depression. The King delivering his Christmas broadcast, 1934. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_V#/media/File:Royal_broadcast,_Christmas_1934_(Our_Generation,_1938).jpg [Accessed 12 June 2020].

[1] Not only did the princes speak more openly about their mental wellbeing, they also set up new initiatives and promoted the work of existing charities to help people in need. The strategy was twofold: keep the monarchy relevant to people’s current concerns; and plug a hole left by government. Britain’s mental health will worsen as the nation finds itself beset by another financial crisis. It remains to be seen whether the current government takes a more urgent interest in this area thus potentially rendering royal patronage obsolete, or whether it continues in the tradition of the post-2010 administrations that left the UK’s mental health crisis to be dealt with by a patchwork of underfunded charities and royal-led organizations.

 

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The Cato Street Conspiracy, 1820

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In the early evening of 23 February 1820, some twenty men assembled in a small hayloft above a stable in Cato Street, off the Edgware Road in London. They were led by Arthur Thistlewood, a well-known militant follower of the radical doctrines of Thomas Spence; the majority of the other men were destitute tradesmen from England, Scotland and Ireland. Joining their ranks was the Jamaican-born William Davidson. The hayloft had been converted into the ramshackle headquarters of a revolutionary conspiracy to assassinate the British Cabinet, who were believed to be dining in nearby Grosvenor Square.

The conspirators were driven by a thirst for vengeance for the ‘Peterloo massacre’ the previous summer, when a peaceful political rally calling for parliamentary reform was charged by the Manchester Yeomanry, killing eighteen and injuring over 700 people. Thistlewood was also enthused by the brutal assassination of Charles Ferdinard, the heir to the French throne, in Paris, ten days before the fated gathering in Cato Street. Ferdinard was stabbed on leaving an opera house in Paris by Louis Pierre Louvel, a fanatical Bonapartist who craved nothing less than the eradication of the Bourbon monarchy. Thistlewood was newly invigorated on hearing of Louvel’s deed, believing that the time had come to strike against aristocratic and monarchical rule in Britain.

The Cato Street conspirators conceived an even more audacious action than the assassination of Ferdinard. After gathering at Cato Street to collect weapons (mostly pikes, swords and homemade guns), the revolutionary band intended to walk the short distance to the home of Lord Harrowby, the President of the Privy Council, the host for the Cabinet’s dinner. It was to be the ministers’ final meal: the conspirators planned to kill everyone in the dining room who held a position in government, with decapitation reserved for the two most loathed ministers, the Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. Their heads were to be mounted on spikes and paraded ghoulishly in public as befitted traitors to the ‘People’.

Following the tyrannicide, the revolutionaries planned to seize symbolic buildings and establish a provisional government. On hearing the news of the death of the Cabinet and reading the declaration of the new government that promised a new dispensation based on the emancipation of the people, they believed that radicals in the capital would join the conspirators en masse, which in turn would trigger a national rising. Eighteen-twenty was to be the year of the British Republic.

The conspirators were, however, betrayed. There was no dinner for the Cabinet in Grosvenor Square that night; unbeknown to Thistlewood and his followers, they had been set up by an agent provocateur, George Edwards, who had infiltrated the conspiracy. The hated Lord Sidmouth authorised the publication of the false notice of the Cabinet dinner to lure out the conspiracy from the shadows.

As the conspirators prepared for their mission, the Bow Street Runners (an ancestor of the Metropolitan Police) charged into the stable on Cato Street. The scene was chaotic, as the Runners frantically climbed up a ladder to the hayloft. The candles were extinguished by the conspirators as they attempted to escape; as fighting broke out in the darkness, Thistlewood fatally stabbed an officer. With the assistance of army troops, the revolutionaries were eventually rounded up and arrested. The Cato Street conspiracy was over.

Justice was swiftly dealt out to the ring leaders. Eleven men were tried at the Old Bailey in April: five were exiled to Australia for life; one served a prison sentence; and five, including Thistlewood, were hanged on 1 May. The hangman held up their severed heads to the gathered crowd, denouncing the condemned men as traitors to the Crown.

The legacy of the Cato Street conspiracy is a mixed one. Most radicals denounced the conspiracy and its aims once the plot became public. With the passing of the generations, Thistlewood and his band of revolutionaries were not claimed by any radical tradition, in the same way that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish republicans venerated past figures associated with violent struggle, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. Given the absence of a coherent revolutionary tradition in modern Britain (as opposed to Ireland), the Cato Street conspiracy does not quite ‘fit’ into a neatly defined historical narrative that emphasises peaceful and constitutional radical political reform.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that the significance of the plot is overlooked in (or even entirely missing from) many accounts of the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. While the plot can be (and often is) dismissed as an act of lunacy, such a perspective overlooks the depth of hostility among radicals towards the government in the years immediately following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, especially in the aftermath of Peterloo. The refusal to treat the conspiracy seriously also means that historians can easily miss the international revolutionary networks that surrounded the ringleaders. The men who gathered in the hayloft on Cato Street in February 1820 did not trigger an insurrection against Britain’s aristocratic masters, but this was not necessarily a certainty, especially in the context of spiralling revolutionary fervour in Europe.

Making sense of the Cato Street conspiracy is a difficult but rewarding challenge. This is why the recent publication of an edited volume of essays that emerged from a conference on the conspiracy held at the University of Sheffield in 2017 is so welcome: as the book reveals, there is much to be said about this almost forgotten plot, from the conspirators’ Caribbean connections to lives of the exiled rebels in Australia. The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland, edited by Jason McElligott and Martin Conboy, illuminates many aspects of the foiled plan and its wider significance.

With the bicentenary of the conspiracy, it is perhaps time to reconsider Britain’s complicated radical past, warts and all. The transition to democracy was not as linear and peaceful as it retrospectively appeared.

Colin Reid is a Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History at the University of Sheffield. His research interests lie in exploring the political, cultural and intellectual mentalities at the heart of the British-Irish dilemma from the French Revolution to the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.

Cover image: The arrest of the Cato Street Conspirators, 1820.

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