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Adam Curtis | 11:30 UK time, Wednesday, 27 July 2011


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.... ;-)

  • 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.

  • Comment number 3.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Comment number 10.

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

  • Comment number 11.

    Fascinating piece. Keep them coming please.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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".

  • Comment number 22.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 (https://martin-gosling.suite101.com/londons-ghost-squad-detectives-a50633%29 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....

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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