A book by one of the grandest names in British journalism that sheds new light on Rupert Murdoch’s empire must – this month – command attention. “Looking back,” writes William Rees-Mogg in his Memoirs, “he has been an excellent proprietor for The Times, but also for Fleet Street.”
It seemed like a judgment from another age this week when Murdoch, appearing before the House of Commons select committee to face questions on phone hacking at the News of the World, fell back on what his Scots ancestors would have recognised as the sinner’s agonised cry from Hell: “Oh Lord, Lord, I didnae ken!” To which the divine reply could only be: “Weel, ye ken noo!”
Lord Rees-Mogg, like the rest of us, did not know the extent of the intrusions into private lives undertaken by News International – the UK newspaper subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corporation – and about which no one in authority in the newspapers or the company had, by their account, the least inkling. Well, he knows now.
He might, had he words enough and time, have added a judicious balancing sentence. But probably no more. His high opinion of Murdoch derives from his time as editor of The Times from 1967-1981, which culminated with the Australian’s acquisition of that newspaper and the Sunday Times from the Canadian Thomson group. As he writes, Murdoch – by smashing the power of print unions that had escaped the control not just of management but of their own officers – helped secure a future for an industry that might have been much grimmer and more impoverished.
Rees-Mogg’s journalistic apprenticeship was served on this newspaper in the 1950s. He secured a meeting with the editor, Sir Gordon Newton, because Shirley, now Baroness, Williams had written a profile of him in an Oxford student paper when he was president of the union, which had him reading the FT at breakfast. For an editor scouting for the cream of Oxbridge, he was a natural choice. He experienced it as “a nest of singing birds” (a phrase of Dr Johnson’s) and (following David Kynaston in his centenary history of the paper) “rather like a university extension course in which the trainees learnt far more than they had at university”.
While a leader and feature writer on the FT, he wrote speeches for the then prime minister Anthony Eden. He remained an active, engaged Conservative, privy to some of the party’s inner counsels, through a period at The Sunday Times, only taking greater distance when ascending to The Times’ editorial chair. His loyalty was consistent but not his views: he had been a Keynesian but was persuaded into monetarism by Peter Jay, The Times’ economic editor (who did the same for the upper reaches of the Labour party); and he became a eurosceptic, which cost him the respect, he believes, of Edward Heath. Both of these shifts were common among moderates in the Tory party.
His 30-year career after editing The Times has seen him remain a graceful, often acute, sometimes reactionary columnist, and has brought a succession of jobs – chairman of the Arts Council, deputy chairman of the BBC board of governors – at the core of greatness and goodness. He found BBC culture rebarbative and deeply upset the executives when he was instrumental in temporarily banning – at prompting from the government – a documentary on the IRA commander Martin McGuinness that neglected to put to him the allegation that he had ordered many murders. I thought him wrong then, right now.
Memoirs is a life recollected in the determined tranquillity of his 83rd year. His contentment is solidly based on a family, upper middle class, rich enough during his high journalistic period for a mansion in Somerset and a Georgian townhouse in London, which remains close and united; and a religion, Catholicism, which appears to give meaning and hope, and provide the springs of love. From an early age, England’s literature – especially Shakespeare and Alexander Pope – gave structure to his thought and expressed his moral outlook. Shakespeare, he assumes, was a Catholic (there is no certainty); and Pope he prefers to John Milton because the latter was a revolutionary leveller, the former an acerbic conservative, seeing Man (“the proper study of Mankind”) as “in doubt to deem himself as God, or beast”.
The book is largely purged of bile; all criticisms are oblique. When relating how he was refused a scholarship entry to Eton – a source of lasting regret – he claims it was due to the intervention of the school’s then provost, Lord Quickswood, who had objected to Rees-Mogg’s Catholicism. Levelly, he writes that “no provost was ever again invited to join in the scholarship proceedings. No Roman Catholic was ever barred again.” There is no denunciation of prejudice; instead, an implicit reassertion of British fair play belatedly arrived at. Even his self-criticisms are mild. Rees-Mogg confesses to being a bit of a Polonius at times and making bad editorial calls but, overall, there are few regrets.
John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor
Memoirs, by William Rees-Mogg, Harper Press, RRP£30, 352 pages