EVERY DAY IS LIKE SUNDAY

Wednesday 27 July 2011, 12:30

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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THE DOWNFALL OF A PRESS BARON

As we wait to see whether Rupert Murdoch will fall from power and lose control of News International, I thought I would tell the extraordinary and forgotten story of the dramatic downfall of the newspaper mogul who used to dominate Britain before Rupert Murdoch arrived.

Cecil King ran the Daily Mirror - along with over two hundred other papers and magazines - and was as powerful and influential in 1960s Britain as Murdoch would become in the 1980s. The Daily Mirror dominated Fleet Street - and politicians bowed down to its power and influence.

But in 1968 Cecil King became convinced that Britain was heading for disaster - and he decided to engineer what in effect would be a political coup. He was going to use the Daily Mirror to try and bring down the Labour government.

Many in the Labour Party have believed ever since that Cecil King was conspiring with members of MI5 to destroy the democratically elected government, but there appears to be no hard evidence for this.

The truth is that King was in league with more familiar "rogue elements" - senior City of London bankers, including the Governor of the Bank of England, who wanted to force the Labour government to slash the financial deficit. But the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was refusing to bow to their demands.

At the same time as this was happening, many of the journalists in Fleet Street were filled with a terrible doom about the future of newspapers. As a result the BBC got excited and went and made all sorts of films about newspapers - recording Fleet Street before it died. Some of the material they filmed is just wonderful - it is full of both touching and silly moments of an old world of journalism.

It also forms a fascinating backdrop to the strange story of Cecil King because much of the BBC material was shot inside the newsrooms of the Mirror, the Express, and the Times at the very moment King was planning his coup. So I decided to make a documentary film which both told the King story and also let some of the archive run longer than normal because it is so fascinating.

I have no idea who most of the journalists are who appear - but I'd love to find out.

Here it is. It's still a rough cut. As well as all the BBC stuff there is also a wonderful bit from the brilliant ITN Source archive - they kept the camera running as Harold Wilson rehearsed an address to the nation.

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    Comment number 1.

    Great piece of work. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Was Mountbatten innocent after all ? I think we should be told.... ;-)

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    Comment number 2.

    According to Cecil King's entry in the DNB, Mountbatten agreed with Zuckerman.

    Cromer was in effect sacked by Wilson at the end of 1966 when his term as Bank of England Governor came to an end; before then Wilson had briefly considered him a potential ally. One of Wilson's defects was a tendency to misjudge which establishment figures he could bring on board, as for instance when he praised the courage of Rhodesian Chief Justice Sir Hugh Beadle in avoiding UDI. It made not one difference to Ian Smith and after Smith declared UDI, Beadle declared it legal.

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    Comment number 3.

    Looks like a young Jeremy -Paxman in there just before the section about Lord Cromer

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    Comment number 4.

    Wonderful film, especially the ending music choice - very good!

    Interesting for two reason over and above the overall narrative; firstly, seeing the Bank so antagonistic makes the decision to make it independent much more understandable. If it couldn't be controlled, better make a virtue of the lack of control and give it a remit to follow to better control it from a distance?

    Secondly, interesting to see Tom Tullett in there. He used to be a CID Detective before beaming a crime correspondent; the permeable membrane between the press and the police has a long, long history.

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    Comment number 5.

    At 11.15 mins is Len Greener who was picture editor of the mirror even in the late 1980s. He's featured several times and also in a later show the BBC did in 1987 called In at the Deep End which followed presenter Chris Searle as he learned to become a press photographer at the Daily Mirror. great stuff.

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    Comment number 6.

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing this. One error of fact and another of interpretation: Labour's victory in 1964 was four seats, rather than "five votes", and it's going much too far to say that bankers wanted "maintaining sterling as the dominant world currency"; such a moment had long since gone. The overall thesis is right, though, as is the timing, and it deserves a large audience. I worry that the central argument looses impact with so much (admittedly fascinating ) fly-on-the-wall footage, but I'm sure this will be tightened in the edit. Thanks again.

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    Comment number 7.

    Excellent and fascinating as ever.
    Though George Brown saying he drinks is a bit like the Murdoch's claim, up until last month, that phone hacking as just a rogue reporter snooping on a few celebs.
    I'd love to to see drama based on George Brown, his drink fuelled exploits, rows, fights were the stuff of legend. He also nursed, like another Brown, a bitterness of not being party leader. Though George of course never made it.
    Private Eye's term 'Tired And Emotional' was first used to describe Brown.

    Cecil King was clearly mentally unstable, the idea that he would just take over the government showed just how out there he was.

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    Comment number 8.

    The most discordant note is the idea that Murdoch and Thatcher gave 'the public' what they wanted. As f they weren't in the business of shaping opinion! It sits uneasily with the rest of the episode.

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    Comment number 9.

    A fascinating tale, but I feel something is missing. King's plan, was it ever really likely to work? As described in the film, it feels like something the Underpants Gnomes would think up:

    1. Plan to overthrow the government using the Bank of England and a tame Royal.
    2. ?
    3. Hereditary Peerage!

    As a coup, it feels somewhat lacking. Where are the loyal troops tasked with seizing Broadcasting House? The Household Cavalry on the streets of London - in their less ceremonial mode of transport?

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    Comment number 10.

    Outstanding - what's the music? Jesus and Mary Chain?

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    Comment number 11.

    Fascinating piece. Keep them coming please.

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    Comment number 12.

    I love your work Adam. It helps me understand a world that I thought had gone crazy. it turns out it has always been crazy - which is almost comforting. Please keep making your films.

    withnail67 - The music at the end is The Smiths.

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    Comment number 13.

    I was captivated by the documentary, though I agree with Charlie W - it seems as if you are agreeing with the statements of Murdoch and Thatcher about their role in "giving people what they want". Clearly, though King and Cuddlip wanted to see improvements to the lives of their readers, the circulation of the papers was the primary objective - they too were about "giving people what they want". So perhaps there isn't as much of a functional difference - rather, the shift could be in terms of what newspaper readers expected from papers and what proprietors and politicians wanted to use papers to achieve. I suppose you've dealt with this subject elsewhere, particularly in second half of The Century of the Self.

    As to King's alleged connections to MI5 as regards his plotting, there was a belief amongst some in MI5 (and also foreign intelligence services like the US) that Wilson had been recruited by the Communists at university, and a fear during the 70s - when King also plotted against a Wilson government - that there would be a Communist takeover of the UK.

    In terms of the actual organisation for any coup attempt by people like King, consider General Walter Walker's Civil Assistance - intended as a force for breaking strikes, but potentially a force which could have intervened politically.

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    Comment number 14.

    Steffan Llysdinam & withnail67,
    the music at the end is not the Smiths - it is Morrissey. He used to be a member of that band, but by the time he made that recording (the post title was taken from the song's name, in fact), he was on his own, and was already well known by his own name (and still is).

    Adam, if you are reading this, could you list the music in the video's soundtrack? I recognized the above of course, and also Bartók's music for celesta, strings and percussion, but I am very curious about the music around 6.45, 12.26 and 13.10 (sounds like Eno, but which is the song?).

    Thanks for another great film - your work is proof that, contra Murdoch & Sons' infantile, self-serving arguments, state supported media can produce not only great journalism, but also even great art.

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    Comment number 15.

    I think the view that Murdoch wanted to give people want they wanted was delivered without judgement... or invite the viewer to judge the merits of Murdoch and Thatchers mindset. At least thats how I see it (and a lot of AC's stuff... proper punk rock tv).

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    Comment number 16.

    135 Fleet Street is an interesting building isn't it. I like the shot in the film of the marchers that moves up to the Telegraph building looming over them.

    It first caught my attention whilst traveling up Fleet St, due to it's quiet but fortress like facade. Later on I found out that it was, at the time, the headquarters for Goldman Sachs. In my mind, this unfathomoble building became a strong metaphorical image for the banks.

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    Comment number 17.

    Great video! Love this rough cut, since in a way it allows these incredible images from the past to speak for themselves. I really want to know that shoegaze song at the beginning of the video.

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    Comment number 18.

    This is fascinating, nice one Adam.

    I wonder if there has ever been a time where newspapers haven't be holden to the dominant narratives of the powerful? Is it possible for mainstream media to overcome this?

    I'd also be interested to see what gems you could unearth that might relate to recent events in London. People where I work, and I'm sure elsewhere, just seem to view them as mindless and reactionary. I wonder if you could provide some context? These things don't occur by a type of magic.

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    Comment number 19.

    Would be great to hear Adam's opinion on the news channels' and more interestingly the BBC's coverage of the riots in London and across the UK. More than any time that I can remember I've been left despondent by the complete lack of impartiality from BBC news and BBC radio journalists and presenters during the reporting of the incidents and the aftermath. I found myself watching BBC News much more than I have for some time (probably since the outbreak of the Iraq war) as I'm not really a fan but the unfortunate nature and scale of these riots drew me in.

    The obvious and now well known example of this was the line of questioning from Fiona Armstrong to Darcus Howe which is currently being lambasted constantly on all the Youtube videos popping up showing the footage. The attempt to sully Darcus Howe's reputation and thus ability to act as a voice worth hearing on the issues was clear from the outset and pushed painfully all the way through the interview. The quitely released and rather cold apology from the BBC "We'd like to apologise for any offence that this interview has caused.", was as effective as a small page 24 retraction from a Tabloid after a false article.

    The problem was it wasn't just an isolated incident, every roaming reporter seemed to attempt to push for outrage against the rioters and looters and then if any of the interviewees made any mention of deeper socioeconomic issues they were quickly talked over and asked a simplistic nearly rhetorical question "But how do you feel about people setting fire to things?" used to provoke condemnation of the perpetrators rather than discussion the potential reasons for what was happening. That was also combined with questions to witnesses, especially in London and Birmingham, with "What do the looters and rioters look like?" which as a line of questioning continued to probe unless someone answered with something like "Well they match the local demographic". Those same questions were not asked in Liverpool anywhere near as much from the footage I saw. It wasn't just the roaving reporters and news presenters it was also apparent from the presenters on 5Live and the Today programme.

    Then to top it all off someone decided to invite Kelvin Mackenzie on Newsnight to discuss the issues on morals which is woefully laughable.

    For a long time the BBC has been defended by many against people who always peddle the tired "is this what I pay my licence fee for" argument, let's hope it can keep its integrity in tact and not drop its impartiality so that it can continue to be defended and justified for years to come.

    Also, loved this mini documentary and as ever the comments that followed, possibly the only place I've found on the internet where the comments added below the main article are worth reading and more often than not full of new nuggets of info and interesting debates / lines of thinking. So congratulations for that Adam and all the commenters who get involved!

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    Comment number 20.

    And before I get lambasted for saying "and across the UK" I meant "and across England", would be ironic to have to apologise for that like the BBC considering the angle of the commment itself!

 

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