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William Camrose: Giant of Fleet Street.

'I see the flags at half-mast in Fleet Street and on the posters the news that Camrose has died. He was a staunch friend and a wise counsellor. He showed that one could be a Press Lord and a gentleman.' So wrote Harold Nicolson on learning of the death of Viscount Camrose, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Telegraph and, by common consent, one of the most successful and influential journalists of his time.

The Camrose life story as herein related by his son who succeeded him as Editor-in-Chief of the paper, is of surpassing interest. Born in 1879, one of three sons of a Welsh estate agent, William Ewart Berry began his career as a cub reporter on the local paper before his fourteenth birthday. He moved to London and without either money or influence had by the time he was 22, launched his own paper, Advertising World. There were ups and downs but he never looked back. With his younger brother (who as Viscount Kemsley also became a Press Lord) he rescued the Sunday Times from oblivion in 1915 and in 1927 bought the ailing Daily Telegraph, the flagship of the future publishing empire which grew to more than 100 national and regional newspapers and magazines. When he took it over the circulation of the Telegraph had slumped to 84,000; when he died it had broken through the million barrier, selling as it does today more papers than any two of its principal rivals put together.

Unlike Beaverbrook, Camrose had no political ambitions but he exercised enormous political influence behind the scenes, to an extent which none of his present-day counterparts could remotely claim to do. He supported Baldwin in the Abdication crisis. In the pre-war climate of appeasement he opposed Munich and called for rearmament. Governments and politicians listened to him and none more so than Churchill who said of him when he died: 'His work remains as a living monument which will long endure for the good of our hard-pressed country'.

A statesman-like tribute but at heart Camrose remained a journalist. Tall and of commanding presence, he reminded him, said a friend observing him behind his Fleet Street desk, of a cross between an elder statesman and Buddha albeit with a twinkle in his eye. Most of the editorial staff, few of whom he knew except on the telephone, thought differently. They saw him as stern and unapproachable which in a sense he was though to be fair his aloofness was due in part anyway to shyness rather than arrogance. He was a generous benefactor to good causes all his life but certainly not over-generous in paying his staff -- and positively sparing in doling out praise.

His guiding principle in running the paper was an absolute commitment to objective reporting with no editorialising in the news columns and no 'guff' as he called it anywhere. He held sub-editing to be the key role in producing a newspaper and regarded himself as the supreme sub-editor which in fact he often was. The Telegraph correspondent in South Africa once told me how Camrose while in Cape Town asked him to come and see him bringing with him a copy of the Cape Times. This he immediately spread out in his hotel room for a critical analysis of the paper's selection, subbing and presentation of the news, not all of which met with his approval.

His method of getting the kind of paper he wanted himself centred on reading every line of the Telegraph and close scrutiny of its rivals. Thus armed he dictated a daily flow of memos to his editors, the terms of which as one noted wryly, were apt to be a little rasping. Thus, 'Is our Crime man still on the staff? The news in the other papers would appear to indicate that he is not'. He strongly resented any suggestion that the paper was in the pocket of or mouthpiece for the Tory Party. 'Be particularly careful not to overdo the Conservative Association meeting so as to be described as the Conservative Party organ ... Bailey (Parliamentary sketch writer) seems to be adopting a Government or party attitude. There is too great a readiness to sneer at anything the Opposition does' and so on. Ownership of the Telegraph has now passed into other hands but it still bears the Camrose imprint. Lord Hartwell who was not only Editor-in-Chief of the paper for longer than his father but founder of the Sunday Telegraph has written a closely-researched and by no means uncritical book of wide general interest, free needless to say of 'gush' or sentiment. Future historians of Fleet Street will value it for the light it sheds on the growth of the Press and, in particular on the circulation battles and newspaper wars of the 20s and 30s and the Press Barons who fought them.
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Author:Evans, George
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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