‘She comes across in the newspaper and on television as an aggressive sort of woman, creating enemies wherever she goes. This is not at all the sort of impression she makes in the flesh.’ This is Cecil Harmsworth King, mid-20th century media mogul and Labour Party backer, writing in his diary about Margaret Thatcher a few years before she became leader of the Conservative Party. King, born 110 years ago today, had great political influence in his day, but was forced to resign after plotting to unseat Harold Wilson. His reputation took a further dive with the publication of his diaries in the 1970s because some found he had betrayed confidences.
King was born on 20 February 1901 into a privileged family, and was educated at Winchester and Christchurch College, Oxford. He married Agnes Margaret in 1923, and they were to have four children. His uncle, Lord Rothermere, employed him on the Glasgow Record and then on the Daily Mail, and in 1926, on the Daily Mirror. When Lord Rothermere disposed of his shares in the newspaper organisation in 1931, King began to assert a growing left-wing and anti-establishment influence on the political direction of the Daily Mirror. In 1951, he became chairman of Daily Mirror Newspapers Ltd, a post he held until becoming chairman of International Publishing Corporation (IPC) in 1963. A year earlier he had divorced Agnes and married Dame Ruth Railton, founder and musical director of the National Youth Orchestra.
King was involved, during 1968, in a bizarre plot to replace the government of Harold Wilson with a coalition led by Lord Mountbatten. The conspiracy failed very early on, and King was forced to resign as chairman of IPC. After retirement, he contributed articles for The Times, and worked on his autobiography and on his diaries. These latter, though, were ill-received by some for revealing too many confidences. In the last years of his life, he moved to Ireland with his wife, and he died in 1987.
There is surprisingly little online information about King, especially given the extent of his influence, for a generation or so, within British media and political circles. Wikipedia and Spartacus, though, both have short articles. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has a longer bio, but requires a subscription or UK library card log in.
In 1970, Sidgwick & Jackson published King’s With Malice Toward None: A War Diary (edited by William Armstrong). In the next few years, Jonathan Cape published two volumes of The Cecil King Diary, one covering the years 1965-1970, and the other the years 1970-1974. Here are a few entries from the latter, in which Murdoch and Thatcher and the three-day industrial week all make an appearance.
28 January 1971
‘Lunch with Dennis Hamilton and Hussey at The Times. Both very friendly and it was nearly three o’clock before I got away from Ken Thomson and others. First, Fleet Street. Denis had done his best with The Guardian but they insist on maintaining their independence, in spite of now moving into the red on both papers together. The obvious move is for The Times in London, The Guardian in Manchester and The Scotsman to co-operate with news and other services; but Richard Scott, the chairman of the trustees (and Washington correspondent!) of The Guardian will have none of this. It is thought The Sketch will fold in the next few weeks. It has been making a small contribution to overheads but is doing so no longer. . . Murdoch is threatening to start a new evening paper if the News and the Standard merge. It would be a sort of evening News of the World. The Sunday Telegraph is losing a lot of money, and The Observer in serious financial trouble. The Mirror has lost all its character and has become an imitation Sun. The unions continue as militant, short-sighted and irresponsible as ever. I have been told recently . . . that the Central Branch of the paper workers is politically dominated by a group called the International Socialists . . . [and that] these Socialists get money from China via Ceylon and that this is well known to the Special Branch. The Times has done quite well out of its increase in price to 1s and its losses are now manageable.
The Sunday Times has bought Wilson’s book on his six years in office. He is receiving £260,000 and the book will be out about May. Denis thinks he is going to tell all (why not make sure - for that money?) and he certainly goes to town on George Brown. The Times has bought Rab Butler’s memoirs. According to Denis he was very dependent on his first wife for decision and courage, but had a built-in sense of timing and a feel for politics all his own.’
13 January 1972
‘Dinner at home last night for Mrs Thatcher [three years before she would become leader of the Conservative Party] and others. She comes across in the newspaper and on television as an aggressive sort of woman, creating enemies wherever she goes. This is not at all the sort of impression she makes in the flesh. She is attractive, highly intelligent and very sensible. She says the so-called liberals (the left-wingers, the long-haired, and all that group) are determined to get her out of office and will doubtless succeed.’
14 December 1973
‘So the balloon has begun to go up. The PM announced yesterday that we shall be going on to a three-day industrial week to save electricity during the current trouble with the miners, the train drivers and the power engineers. There is to be a mini-Budget on Monday, despite all the denials. The PM put it all down to the miners and hardly mentioned the oil embargo. In fact, as Lord Robbins writes in the Financial Times today, this trouble was coming on us anyway, even if there had been industrial trouble and no oil embargo. I dare say one of the reasons for the three-day week (and how is to be enforced?) is to cause short-time working and so bring pressure on the miners and railwaymen from their fellow unionists. I doubt if this will work - the resentment is more likely to build up against the Government - and rightly so. Ted’s call for national unity on the box last night could not have been flatter or less inspiring.’