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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 10:31 GMT
Suez and Fleet Street
By Geoffrey Goodman
Media analyst

Geoffrey Goodman, founding editor of the British Journalism Review, was a Fleet Street reporter with the News Chronicle at the time of the Suez crisis.

He explains how opposing the government's policy over Suez was potentially disastrous for national newspapers.

Anthony Eden
Eden fought to win support for his policy from Fleet Street

Picture the scene in the news room of one of our great national newspapers, the News Chronicle.

It was a newspaper with a national reputation for quality reporting and a long tradition of radical liberalism.

When the Suez crisis finally exploded following months of uncertainty after Gamal Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, Michael Curtis, who then edited the News Chronicle, had no hesitation in deciding that his newspaper should oppose Prime Minister Eden's decision to invade Egypt - seeking to retake the Suez Canal by force and, if necessary, depose Nasser.

Despite considerable pressure from Downing Street, notably from Prime Minister Anthony Eden himself, the paper's traditions called for Curtis to oppose the Suez venture.

Yet Curtis made that decision fully aware of the formidable commercial as well as political risks he was taking.

Brave journalism

As a reporter on the paper at the time I vividly recall the scenes of intense excitement in the News Chronicle news room on the night of 31 October 1956 when RAF bombers struck at Egypt - and the paper opened its campaign of robust criticism.

There was frenzied activity around the night production bench with the editor himself standing behind the night editor (the man in charge of producing the paper).

Reporters, feature writers and columnists gathered together in chattering, arguing groups.

My close friend, the late Laurence Thompson - the paper's chief feature writer - argued with me about the virtues of the editor's decision.

Laurie disagreed with my support for Curtis. He believed Eden had no option but to attack Nasser and was right to try to seize the canal by force.

Yet Curtis gave Thompson space on the feature page to oppose the paper's policy - not an unusual manifestation of the News Chronicle's liberal qualities though, in the circumstances, very brave journalism.

Of course the paper suffered the commercial consequences of Curtis's decision - to a greater degree than even he had bargained for.

It's circulation, then nearly 1.5 million, never recovered from its losses. It was indeed one of British journalism's prime casualties of the Suez crisis.

Fearful dilemma

The background to the News Chronicle's fate after Suez is an important part of Fleet Street history.

It had been one of the first British daily newspapers to oppose the rise of Hitler's policies after he won power in 1933.

The paper was an early supporter of Winston Churchill during his persistent warnings in the 1930s about the impending threat from Nazi Germany.

[It] developed into one of the fiercest, and costliest, battles between government and the media of any in the last half century
The News Chronicle's reporting of the Spanish Civil War won the paper widespread international acclaim and numerous honours for its star writers in Spain, including Arthur Koestler.

However, in 1956, with Britain's decision to go to war against Nasser over his seizure of the Suez Canal, Curtis faced a fearful dilemma.

All his instincts were to oppose the war and carry his newspaper into an anti-war campaign.

Yet he knew that such a campaign would almost certainly lead to a loss of circulation at a time when the paper was fighting for its life.

The board was divided but Curtis persuaded them reluctantly to support his view.

Readership loss

There was continuing tremendous pressure from Downing Street where Prime Minister Eden was fighting to win maximum support for his Suez policy from Fleet Street and the BBC.

This developed into one of the fiercest, and costliest, battles between government and the media of any in the last half century.

And when, in October 1960, four years after Suez the News Chronicle finally folded, inappropriately, into the grip of the Daily Mail the bell had indeed tolled for Fleet Street's saddest Suez victim.

Suez crisis
Newspapers were divided over the government's stance on Suez

Michael Curtis's immensely courageous stand, while not unique in Fleet Street, proved the costliest. He paid a far higher price than other courageous editors.

The other opponents included the Manchester Guardian (it had yet to be retitled as The Guardian) then under its new editor of only four days, Alastair Hetherington; The Observer, edited by the equally courageous David Astor; the Daily Mirror, presided over by the legendary Hugh Cudlipp; the Daily Herald, which dithered somewhat until the Labour Party confirmed its opposition to Suez, along with its Sunday stablemate The People; Reynolds News, the Co-operative Party's Sunday newspaper; and the Communist daily Morning Star.

All of them suffered a loss of readers - though none as disastrously as the News Chronicle.

The national papers supporting Suez were: the Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Sketch, Daily Telegraph along with the Sunday Times, Sunday Express and the two London evening papers, the Evening Standard and Evening News.

Their circulation figures remained mostly static though some pro-Suez papers actually registered a small increase.

Operational secrets

The position of The Times (then still in the hands of the Astor family) is perhaps the best example of the political turmoil faced by great national newspapers during the Suez crisis.

The official history of The Times informs us that Prime Minister Eden regularly briefed the paper's editor, Sir William Haley, on a strictly confidential basis providing him with operational secrets denied even to his own Cabinet.

This, of course, ensured that The Times was kept onside supporting government policy.

Yet eventually Haley became so appalled by what Eden was telling him, as well as the prime minister's general behaviour, that he shifted from being supportive to a personal critic.

Though even then Haley felt unable to move his paper publicly to outright opposition of Eden's policy. The result was that The Times drifted into a form of confusing limbo.

Wartime censorship

Alongside all this the prime minister spent a good deal of time trying to bring pressure across the entire media, especially the BBC.

At one stage Eden was so outraged by the BBC's "objective reporting" that he considered taking direct government control over the corporation - not the first nor last example of exceptional government pressure on the corporation's independent status and credibility.

There was a major attempt by Eden to muzzle the BBC and prevent even the most modest attempt at objective coverage by BBC correspondents.

The prime minister went to extraordinary lengths in seeking to impose censorship on the corporation
Eden was even incensed at the BBC's attempt to offer free debate and sought to prevent Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party and head of the official Opposition in Parliament, from speaking on the BBC in reply to Eden's previous broadcast.

But the BBC insisted on Gaitskell's right of reply. The records of the corporation reveal that Harman Grisewood, the director general's chief assistant at the time was in regular communication with Downing Street during this tense period as Eden sought to impose wartime censorship on the BBC.

Grisewood has recorded that if the corporation's journalistic high command had yielded to Eden's pressure there would have been "open revolt" among BBC staff leading to a possible "end of the corporation as it had been known until then".

It required great political and professional courage in the BBC to avert that disastrous outcome.

The prime minister went to extraordinary lengths in seeking to impose censorship on the corporation - even by trying to stop outside journalists, critical of the government's Suez policy, from broadcasting.

Eden was especially active in trying to stop the BBC using the Guardian's diplomatic correspondent Richard Scott.

The prime minister actually demanded Scott be banned from the airwaves. But he did not get his way.




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