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Low and Lord Beaverbrook: The Case of a Cartoonist's Autonomy

by Dr Timothy S. Benson

"Freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one" (Doug Marlette)a1.jpg

The cartoonist, Sir David Low, and his proprietor at the Evening Standard, Lord Beaverbrook, made, in their own succinct ways, a substantial impact on the British political landscape throughout the inter-war period and the Second World War. Theirs was a relationship that has yet, rather surprisingly, not been thoroughly examined.

During his lifetime, Beaverbrook was arguably the most politically active, hands-on newspaper proprietor since Lord Northcliffe. Low was not only widely regarded as the greatest and most imaginative political cartoonist since possibly Gillray, but also, it has been claimed, the most independent cartoonist ever to have worked for a British newspaper up until the late 1950s.

Low had a contract at the Evening Standard that gave him complete freedom in the selection and treatment of his subject matter. This was then a unique arrangement between a proprietor and a cartoonist. Low always maintained that Beaverbrook never interfered with his position of absolute independence. This, however, was not the case. Whether, for example, in Low's treatment of Beaverbrook's friends, or the depiction of Beaverbrook himself, or the issue of Appeasement, the Monarchy, general elections, and so on, proprietorial constraint was administered when and where it was felt necessary. Low's independence in reality depended on how far Beaverbrook felt that freedom should go. Low for his part, it is argued, was not only prepared to ignore such blatant infringements to the terms of his contract, but also towed the line to suit his proprietor's political whims. Such behaviour was persistently and successfully disguised in order to enhance the reputations of both the cartoonist and the proprietor.

'I will give you my assurance that during my 15 or 20 years' association with Low I have never suppressed a cartoon of Low's. I took whatever he gave, good or bad.' (Beaverbrook)

'My apprehensions about Beaverbrook had been groundless and I was gratified to find that the alleged prince of darkness was scrupulous in observing my independence, and even defended it against his friends.' (Low)

Low thought that having a 'complete freedom' clause inserted into his contract would, when he joined the Evening Standard in 1927, secure for him an unparalleled position as a newspaper cartoonist, free from both editorial and proprietorial control. At that time, it was totally unheard of for a political cartoonist to have such freedoms on a British newspaper. For the function of the newspaper cartoonist was generally to support the editorial policy of the paper, thus reflecting the views of its owner. In his 23 years at the Evening Standard, Low generally succeeded in giving the impression that his autonomy during that period had never been infringed upon. It appeared that he was able continually to ridicule Conservative politicians and their policies against, it was believed, the wishes of his proprietor. Readers also found Low at times controversial in his selection and treatment of subject matter, which often resulted in the publication of correspondence for and against the offending cartoon in the paper. Is this not evidence enough to emphasise his complete independence at the Evening Standard?

However, Beaverbrook was unlike any other Tory press baron before him, and the Evening Standard under his ownership took an atypical political line. The evening paper was, in A. J. P. Taylor's eyes, Beaverbrook's 'playground where writers, cartoonists and Beaverbrook himself could shake off the shackles of orthodoxy'. Not only was Beaverbrook a political maverick, but he was also mischievous enough to enjoy seeing politicians from all parties, including those in his own party, being made fun of in his newspapers. He thus encouraged his staff to be provocative and to spare no one, no matter what their political sympathies were. He was, therefore, more than happy to let Low agitate as well as amuse the Evening Standard readers. According to Ronald Searle, Beaverbrook personally 'encouraged his [Low's] opposition to the paper that printed his drawings'.

If ever anything appeared in the Evening Standard that Tory Ministers or supporters did not like, Beaverbrook's response was to say that he held no control over his journalistic staff, whilst in reality he was encouraging them in their attacks. Sir Samuel Hoare was one such Tory Minister to protest frequently to Beaverbrook about the treatment that Baldwin got in his papers, as Peter Howard later recalled, after having himself written a critical article about Baldwin. Sir Samuel Hoare, a mutual friend of both men, phoned Beaverbrook in an attempt to draw his attention to the article. Beaverbrook to Hoare:

'Now listen to me. I can't do anything with the fellow. No. I tell you I can't do anything with him. Now listen, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll have him here and I'll roll him in the mud. Will that satisfy you?' Then, replacing the telephone, he looked at me and a grin the size of a melon cut across his face. He began to slap his hands on his knees and to laugh. 'Ha, ha, ha. Do it again next week, Peter. Do it again next week'.

As with Howard, Beaverbrook acted in the very same manner to Low by saying he could do nothing with him, whilst enjoying the very angst he was causing, as was probably the case when Churchill complained to Beaverbrook about Low in 1940:

'I do not agree with Low. I have rarely done so. I do not interfere with Low. I have never done so.'

However, much of Low's work was frequently subjected to Beaverbrook's approval. Most of the cartoons that were either altered or refused were done so for reasons that can be directly attributed to Beaverbrook. Editors, time after time, sent him proofs of cartoons that they were unsure of. It seems apparent that they did not have the authority to decide whether a questionable cartoon was publishable or not. This seems to imply that editors were generally aware of what Beaverbrook was likely to find objectionable, as can be witnessed by the many letters Beaverbrook received from them over problematic cartoons. Of course, such a system was not foolproof, and some cartoons did find their way into the paper that might otherwise have been refused. This may have been one reason why some cartoons only ever appeared in the first edition of the Evening Standard. Thus, with Beaverbrook having the right to exclude cartoons he felt were objectionable, Low, although free to draw what he liked, was aware that if he drew too many cartoons that the proprietor found unacceptable, it would soon have become apparent that his work was subject to censor. The merest suspicion of censorship would have done untold damage to his world-wide reputation. It can thus be argued that at times Low was conscious of this fact, voluntarily censoring both his selection and treatment of his subject matter.

If Low had a reputation for being the world's greatest cartoonist whilst at the Evening Standard, why did he tolerate the paper refusing or altering his cartoons? Would there not be a great deal of interest from the rest of Fleet Street should he have had enough of Beaverbrook's interference and left the fold? Apart from the Daily Herald, the answer is a categorical 'no'. When Low left The Star in 1927, the paper made little effort in tempting him to stay. In fact, Low had become disillusioned with the Star over its apparent failure to recognise and reward him for his efforts. Which other newspaper would have taken Low on? The Daily Herald appears to have been the only paper ever to attempt to employ his services. During Low's time at the Evening Standard, there is no evidence to show that any other newspaper ever tried to lure him away or even showed interest in doing so. Will Dyson, another radical antipodean cartoonist, could only ever find employment with the Daily Herald. During the 1930s, Dyson became increasingly perturbed by editorial interference due to concerns that he may be upsetting the paper's advertisers. He was unable to find alternative employment, and therefore accepted the infringements placed on him, staying at the paper until his death in 1938. Like Dyson at the Daily Herald, Low had to conform to what was acceptable to Beaverbrook. The alternative option of resignation would have probably been too damaging both to his own reputation, as chances of employment on another newspaper would have been slight, and his finances.

Low also conformed to the point of actually supporting his proprietor, as with his portrayal of Beaverbrook without, it seems, anyone at the time noticing. In fact, Low was in agreement with Beaverbrook on far more issues, politically and socially, than has ever been thought possible before. Maynard Keynes was, however, one of the few to notice, in May 1944, how Low appeared to be firmly in support of his proprietor, instead of backing an economist such as himself, to whom the cartoonist had shown considerable sympathy in the past:

'It is the voices of Beaverbrook and the Bank of England you are listening to. For you to obey these voices and picture me as a monetary Blimp is indeed a stab in the back.

Complete freedom of expression meant little if the Evening Standard had the right to refuse publication of any cartoon it felt unsuitable. Both Low and Beaverbrook must have been fully aware of the implications of this. However, they both misled the public by stressing that Low had complete freedom over his work (except for libel), thus implying that the Evening Standard published whatever Low came up with. Indeed, Low and Beaverbrook never put the 'complete freedom' clause into context by explaining that the former's cartoons were subject to a certain degree of censorship by the Evening Standard having the right of refusal. If one also considers what an interfering and dominant proprietor Beaverbrook was, for all his claims of non-interference, how could it really have been expected that, in the final analysis, he would have given Low complete freedom, something that no other employee of Express Newspapers had ever enjoyed? Maybe, Low's employment on Beaverbrook's flagship newspaper, the Daily Express, rather than that of the politically non-conformist Evening Standard, would have proved a greater test of the cartoonist's autonomy.

After the Second World War, the editor of the Evening Standard, Herbert Gunn, no longer felt that Low's cartoons were an asset to the paper. As Gunn repeatedly shrank the space allotted to Low for his cartoons, his proprietor, from afar, seemed quite happy to disassociate himself from the cartoonist's plight. Beaverbrook, by not stepping in and alleviating the problems facing Low, was thus aware that he might lose him, in spite of his later statements of shock over Low's resignation. Beaverbrook would never carry any employee whom he felt had become a burden to the profitability of his papers. According to Chapman Pincher, who joined the Daily Express in 1946 as its 'Science man': 'By and large, the Beaver always gave priority to sales'.

The nature of Low's departure from Express Newspapers could be considered ignominious considering the vast contribution he had made to the Evening Standard over the years. However, it could be argued that this viewpoint is rather unfair to Beaverbrook. Was it not Beaverbrook who had given Low the perfect platform to produce his best work during both the 1930s and the Second World War? The impact of Low's work was also greater under Beaverbrook because the cartoons were, more often than not, hostile to the beliefs of the Evening Standard's readership. Beaverbrook also successfully promoted Low through his newspapers, and most notably his syndication department was largely responsible for making Low not only a household name in Britain but around the world. Consequently, Low's reputation both at home and abroad would probably not have been as great had he decided to ignore Beaverbrook's overtures and instead joined up with the Daily Herald.

Low, over the 23 years that he worked for Beaverbrook, gained a reputation unique in publishing history. However, in spite of Low's attempts to embellish this reputation, Beaverbrook did not give his cartoonist the free reign he has for so long been accredited with. Although Low can be considered to have been the greatest political cartoonist of his generation, possibly of the 20th century, his unrivalled reputation for having had complete autonomy under Beaverbrook should be seen to have been undeserving.