Wednesday 27 July 2011, 12:30

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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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 21.

    When Murdoch talks of "giving people what they want", the "they" in the sentence should not be taken to refer to "people". Murdoch also talks of "giving people choices", which causes indignation amongst those who wrongly assume he means "enabling people to make choices" instead of "determining the choices people can make".

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    Comment number 22.

    Utterly fascinating (and disturbing). I discovered this by following a link from the Guardian. Glad I did.

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    Comment number 23.

    @ onwhosplanet

    I think the question you heard an interviewer ask - "But how do you feel about people setting fire to things?" - is a good demonstration of a couple of themes in AC's stuff.

    The lack of confidence in journalism, and the framing of issues in a personal and emotional way, a way that restricts our ability to understand or change the conditions which create these issues, runs through lots of stuff he's done.

    I was struck by something on Question Time. I basically swore and sighed my way through that programme. Then a woman in strange clothes, who seems to have done brilliant things to help children in London asked a question.

    "Why don't they have this problem in Sweden, or Norway?"

    And Brian Paddick, who surprised me, said

    "Because they have more egalitarian societies".

    If you can watch it again check out the reaction, I recall it being a bit of a conversation assassin moment.

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    Comment number 24.

    It isn't just about poverty, or maybe even inequality by the way. It's about an amoral self interest - look what they went for, trainers and iPhones. They also went for the thrill. This permeates a society which is perpetuated on consumption and self gratification. Very lefty thing to say, but I think it's true.

    With regard to race, it's complicated. If you look back at the way we've used immigration (and that is what we've done) then it's no great surprise that there's this deeply embedded suspicion across, apparently racial, boundaries. For what it's worth I think the immigration projects since the war in this country have been purely economic actions. And because of that immigrants basically became chattel from the get go, not ends in themselves (not in the Rand way btw ;)). I'm also interested in the argument that these policies were partly pursued to undermine the existing working population, or elements of it. Would love to hear others views, and see what AC has to say.

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    Comment number 25.

    I was surprised that so much of the reaction I heard personally and in the press was so vicious - 'send the army in', 'water hoses', 'rubber bullets', 'take away benefits and housing' etc. I'm a bit scared of what a government who tries to be populist, in the most facile sense, bouyed on by a confused, isolated and scared public, could do.

    I'm not saying no one should be punished, or that no one should take individual responsibility, you need that in society. But as has become the habit, we might put an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. I'm hopeful that people can use the events to better understand the world, some good can come out.

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    Comment number 26.

    Dear Adam, I really enjoyed your piece - and the parrot. When all that was happening, I was about 23 and living in Brisbane but even at that distance, Murdoch seemed like a breath of fresh as he picked up the Sun. The fact that he was able to build circulation so quickly shows that many in Britain were also tired of the continuing Beaverbrook megalomania. It therefore seems to me that King's carefully engineered dismissal was just a little bit too late - perhaps a year. That scene where the lads at the Mirror were looking through the new Sun and dismissing its contents demonstrates to me that they had all lost the plot by that stage.

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    Comment number 27.


    I was a reporter across the Mirror group titles for three years in the late 1990s, and definitely recognise some of the figures from the 1968 newsroom.

    1. At 31'37", wearing a horizontal striped purple sweater and spectacles, that is Paul Routledge, still the current chief political commentator for the Mirror. He may be able to identify others for you.

    2. At 1'52", reading a copy of the rival Sun, that looks like a young Richard Stott, later editor of the Daily Mirror, Today and The People, and, in retirement, an editor on Alastair Campbell's Blair diaries. A picture from his autobiography, for comparison, is here:

    3. At 1'40", standing in the raincoat and with facial hair, could be Barrie Clement, later a transport editor on the Independent - although I'm not so certain about that one.

    4. Somewhere in there must be Roy Greenslade, later Mirror editor and now Guardian media columnist - have you tried asking him for help?

    5. As for Cecil King, in his dairies for 1968, he also mentions flying to West Berlin for a party at the new HQ of Axel Springer's papers (Bild, Die Welt), at the height of the West German student demonstrations. Springer tells him over cocktails that he has a speedboat permanently moored at Hamburg, in case he needs to flee if West German civil unrest becomes a revolution. Interestingly, Spinger says his destination would be Hull (but I presume that merely means his first port of call.)

    6. From what I remember of his diaries, didn't King also believe in telepathy, as well as being able to make himself invisible?

    Great documentary. Enjoy the blog.

    Matt Tempest

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    Comment number 28.

    Thank you Adam for making yet another fascinating insight into the machinations of the British ruling class. And I respect your love for Burial.

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    Comment number 29.

    Adam, what a brilliant doco. Anyone working in Fleet Street in the 60s and 70s will recognise many familiar faces. At 31.55m the reporter talking to camera about
    'the worst job in Fleet Street' is Clive Bolton, Sun reporter until 1976, when he went to work for News Limited in Sydney, Australia. Clive returned to the UK a few years later but sadly died from a heart attack in Manchester in 1982.

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    Comment number 30.

    Marvellous piece of work, and for someone who started in journalism just as hot metal was vanishing, very instructive. Loved the parrot theme. To aid you in identifying some of the characters, I forwarded the URL to gentlemenranters.com , where the wizened ghost of Fleet Street lives on.

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    Comment number 31.

    I have no idea whether you will ever see this, this website has a mind of its own! I wonder who you are? You clearly knew my Dad Tom Tullett, and you also knew he had been in the CID. He always looked every inch a copper, and his best friend was the late John Gosling (http://martin-gosling.suite101.com/londons-ghost-squad-detectives-a50633) who retired in 1956 as a Detective Superindent of the then 'Ghost Squad'. If I am honest, Dad never really abandoned his police work, which is what made him, in my opinion, a fine Crime writer. He was fair, and meticulous, although he wasn't above an 'arresting' headline....It was great to see him again....

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Hope Matt Tempest sees this.

    No, that is not Routledge. He was never a sub and he never worked on the Mirror before he became a columnist around 1996. The person in the sweater is Mike Taylor who was night editor at that time - seen on the back bench with Denis O'Brien and Dave Bradbury.
    This great film has been circulated among many of the subs of that era and we have identified just about everyone in it.

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    Comment number 33.

    Matt Tempest is correct that King believed in telepathy. Cecil King was my great uncle and was extremely close to his sister, my grandmother Enid Stokes (nee King). He telephoned her frequently when he went abroad, and they would each draw cards from a pack and get the other to guess what it was over the phone. According to my mother, they got it right most of the time.

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    Comment number 34.

    Adam, It's excellent that you've decided to cover this murky aspect of British establishment intrigue from the 1960s and 70. However, you should have a read of Robin Ramsey's 'Smear' (1992), if you haven't already, which goes onto significant depth on these Wilson-King episodes.

    Firstly, King wanted a national government with him as the 'Boss-man', but when that idea was recognised as unrealistic, it was then that King began to court senior Labour figures who were potential Wilson challengers/enemies, including Brown, Jenkins, Callaghan, who themselves wanted a quick devaluation of Sterling, a floating currency and to 'bounce' the UK into the EEC by 1968. As there interests were incompatible - with King, Lord Cromer and the City wanting to maintain a high Pound and stringent incomes policies. Much of this was disarmed as Wilson 'personally' threatened King - through - Cromer, that he would go to the country over the issue that the financial sector was undermining the UK economy and Sterling. thats the main reason why Wilson got rid of Cromer at the first opportunity.

    Also, you mention that the City wanted London to be a major financial power in the world again. The key here is to recognise that the City wanted to hold up Sterling, and attract the US Dollar to London before re-directing it abroad as a way of circumventing US capital controls. This is crucial because it facilitated the the growth of the 'Eurodollar' market where huge private investment funds would emerge and eventually break the Bretton Woods system in 1971.

    A key point of interest is why the Labour government allowed this process to happen. Simply because with the global system of fixed currency rates was under strain and the UK needed foreign currency to maintain the Pound at $2.40 which Johnson supported because it was easier than shoring up the Dollar with the quid-pro-quo that the UK use its defence budget to maintain a presence East of Suez. Wilson eventually abandoned this pact, but not before sacrificing a huge chunk of the UK aircraft industry.

    Of course as you mention, King approached Mountbatten with the aim of apointing him head of a 'titular' government with predictions of 3 million unemployed, civil breakdown and armed forces and police in the streets. If I'm correct Zeigler remembers his advisors imploring him to 'chuck King out', though others argue that Mountbatten was really interested in the idea of forcibly removing the Labour Government with a 'constitutional coup' activated with Royal Ascent (hence the approach to 'Dickie' who was close to HRH) under the Emergency Powers Act (1964) The idea was to cherry pick a couple of Labour right wingers (Brian Waldren among others) and place him as head of a 'National Coalition'. The rest of the Labour Party were to interned on the QE2!

    Incredible stuff!


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