The Press in a Mess

Attempts by the US and French governments to buy favourable coverage in British newspapers proved a costly failure.

James Buchanan (detail), illustration by Charles Child, 1933 © Bridgeman Images.

The history of the British press is a tortuous mess, bedevilled by the twin dangers of proprietorial interference and insolvency. A bizarre example can be reconstructed from deep within the annals of the Spectator, 10,000 issues old this month. During a whirlwind two years (1859-60), it somehow reversed its first 30 years of reform-focused campaigning by becoming the secret organ of an overseas government.

After the death of the Spectator’s founder, Robert Rintoul, and the awkward ten-month tenure of a young millionaire far out of his depth, it was snapped up by a pair of Americans: Benjamin Moran, assistant secretary to George Dallas, ambassador at the US Legation in London, and his friend James McHenry, a railway financier based in Liverpool. Moran was keen to win the British press over to his lacklustre president, James Buchanan. A British paper, Moran fantasised in his diary in August 1858, ‘under proper control would be invaluable to an American Minister here, and I would sooner be its editor than Envoy to the Court of St. James’. Within five months, he landed the weekly for £4,200 (around £500,000 today).

Slavery was the monstrous elephant in the room. While the British press was largely pro-abolition, Buchanan strove to keep the peace with his powerbase in the slave-owning South. He acknowledged their practice to be wrong, but he regarded the Union as sacrosanct: better to let each state make up its own mind and thus avert undue conflict. Ambassador Dallas summed up this diffidence: ‘You can’t get rid of it without consequences more dreadful than the thing itself.’

The Spectator thus became the organ of ‘doughfaces’, Northerners who protected Southern interests. To disguise that visage, Moran placed the respectable English weekly under the control of his friend Thornton Hunt. Although Rintoul had brought him onto the staff 20 years earlier, Hunt had blotted his copybook by founding a rival radical weekly, the Leader; by serving as founder-editor of the Daily Telegraph in 1855; and by seducing the wife of fellow Leader editor George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s partner).

The new editor cut the price by a third to sixpence, commissioned his father Leigh Hunt as a celebrity columnist (breaching the paper’s anonymous style) and reversed its long-held scepticism of America. When Buchanan rebuffed abolitionist protests in March 1859, the Spectator sang his praises as a president ‘who has alone displayed the capacity, the courage, the will, and the elevated national virtue, to administer the affairs of the Republic for the Republic, without being carried away by the extreme unworthy on either side’. The Spectator’s claim to be ‘a Liberal paper, perfectly independent of every party’ was perhaps still true – but only in a British context.

Just before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, a Spectator leader proclaimed: ‘We are simply stating a fact when we say that Mr Buchanan’s immediate predecessors had not altogether reached the standard which he restored.’ Brazen advertisements promoted the Spectator as ‘the FIRST OF ALL THE JOURNALS OF EUROPE to publish ACCURATE INTELLIGENCE OF POLITICAL EVENTS OF THE HIGHEST IMPORTANCE’. Yet circulation inevitably slipped.

In March 1860 Hunt also became editor of the Morning Chronicle. But this venerable daily, employer of Dickens and Thackeray, had been similarly compromised. For several years, Napoleon III, Emperor of France, had secretly paid a monthly retainer of £100 to control its pages; a close reader of the British press, Napoleon kept an annotated scrapbook of every mention of France in The Times. The French court – steered by ‘hints’ from Napoleon – began sending over articles for translation in the Chronicle, only for these snapshots of ‘British’ opinion to be back-translated in other French papers as the view outre-Manche. This sordid prostitution of a London paper became public knowledge: the press wrote of the wag who tried to buy his Chronicle with a franc: ‘I thought you took French money.’

While other dailies were alleged to have had stories placed by Napoleon, it may be that Hunt’s Spectator suffered more direct influence. George Francis Train, another American railwayman, later alleged that he engineered Napoleon’s acquisition of the title. While not all of his claims can be correct, the Spectator did publish strikingly pro-French material at the time. By mid-1860, journalists claimed it was ‘in the direct interest of the French Emperor’. Another even alleged that ‘both [papers] edited by Mr. Thornton Hunt are understood to have become the property of the French Government’.

Ownership remained, in fact, with Moran and McHenry. But it is possible that French money secured favourable coverage in the Spectator. Both McHenry and Moran were in the social milieu of Serjeant Glover, who first linked the Chronicle with Napoleon; with Henry Delille, who later sought to purchase that title for Napoleon; and with Jean-Gilbert-Victor Fialin, Comte de Persigny, Napoleon’s London ambassador. Persigny privately advised that the ailing Chronicle be abandoned and support be found in a more influential journal.

Such tactics failed. In the summer of 1860, Hunt left for the US, leaving the Spectator in the hands of George Hooper, a sub-editor and noted military expert. Given his inveterate patriotism, the tone shifted rapidly. ‘The politics of the paper have changed’, a press observer wrote: ‘From being violently Napoleonic, it is now violently anti.’ But the damage had been done. By early 1861 Moran and McHenry sold up – for less than half they paid. The slide in value was matched by a drop in circulation to fewer than 2,000.

Moran was later promoted to Secretary of the Legation, before becoming Minister Resident in Lisbon; McHenry went bankrupt. The Chronicle, too, collapsed in 1862. The Spectator was snapped up by the team of Meredith Townsend and Richard Holt Hutton, who led the abolitionist cause, supporting the North in the Civil War. This decision halved the paper’s readership once more, but returned it to the moral high ground. The lesson to proprietors is perhaps a salutary one: putting principles ahead of politics will, in the longue durée, win out.


David Butterfield is Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Queens’ College. His latest book is 10,000 Not Out: The History of The Spectator 1828-2020 (Unicorn, 2020).