Chris Baraniuk examines British journalism and the special role student newspaper Cherwell has played in it.
Today, Oxford’s independent student newspaper Cherwell will now and again drop Rupert Murdoch’s name into lengthy lists of ‘alumni’. But if you look through the archives, you won’t find any Murdoch juvenilia troubling the margins of the 1950s editions, nor any signs of his characteristic editorial control. Rather, he is credited simply as the paper’s ‘Publicity Manager’ since his involvement extended simply to advertising and managing finances. Rumours exist, however, that he at one time considered buying Cherwell, and knowing the style and history of the paper, it’s curious that he didn’t indeed do that.
This is because, while situated at the heart of just the kind of antiquated, elite institution which Murdoch frequently claims to detest, Cherwell has, ever since its inception, vocalised the feelings of those who prefer to take Oxford with a pinch of salt. It has always tried mercilessly to point out delusions of grandeur and unsettle sensitive dispositions with hot scoops and – supposedly – scandalous gossip. Each successive generation of editors continues to proclaim that the paper is indispensable, often cheeky, irreverent, edgy and up-to-date.
There is, in the minds of those who have controlled Cherwell, a sentiment of which Murdoch would surely approve. It’s a simple, near-primal desire to get a story, get it first, and, wherever possible, profit thereby. The wry title card at the beginning of the 1940 Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell hit, His Girl Friday, describes the view of journalists which our culture, sometimes, celebrates: “It all happened in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game – when to a reporter ‘getting the story’ justified anything short of murder.” This line captures the thrill of reporting and the occasionally regrettable consequences. It suggests that the hunt for a scoop and the responsibility of the press towards safeguarding democratic principles may not always sit well together.
In his opening comments to his Inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson said: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?” His reference to Juvenal’s saying ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes’ is not to be missed, for it highlights the paradox of self-regulation while (in this context) still attempting to give journalists some benefit of the doubt. That is because they remain, in a democratic society, guardians of justice and free speech.
I want, in this article, to capture (or at least hint at) the youthful entrepreneurialism that gives Cherwell – or any respectable student newspaper – its real verve. That entrepreneurialism, largely absent from the evidence given to Leveson’s Inquiry, has nothing immediately to do with ethics; rather, it’s about making waves. Almost all the former editors I have interviewed talk about their time at Cherwell in a way which is at once hazy, nostalgic and modest. But most agree that the ‘real world’ of professional journalism is miles apart from their achievements as student editors, despite the fact that those achievements showered them with Fleet Street contacts and directly influenced their later careers.
Cherwell has one, poorly remembered (though entirely true) founding myth. Two years after he helped to establish the newspaper in 1920, undergraduate George Edinger set out to fool Oxford with one of his characteristic ‘rags’ or pranks. It was to be his greatest. As a means of proving that the new fashion for discussing Freudian psychoanalysis was nothing but a pretentious affectation, Edinger set up a hoax in which he tricked all of Oxford into believing he was an esteemed German professor of psychology, Dr Emil Busch. ‘Busch’ gave an address full of unintelligible psycho-babble to a packed audience in Oxford’s town hall and answered questions from the many interested dons and students who took it seriously. Following rapturous applause, Busch disappeared into the adoring crowd and made a quiet exit.
Whether or not Cherwell had known all along, the story goes that out of all the hacks present at the meeting, it was the Cherwell reporter alone who had the initiative to pursue ‘Busch’ through the streets and unveil his true identity. Edinger’s foundation of Cherwell ensured that the story would be published as an exclusive and in the article which shortly appeared, ‘The Truth About Dr Emil Busch’, Edinger waxed lyrical about his prank: “At the moment we all feel very pleased with ourselves.” He added, “Anyhow, let our intellectuals learn to laughat themselves. The fact Dr Busch does not exist did not prevent many people from having heard of him.”
Bigger newspapers adored this quaint example of an Oxford scoop, and the hoax was written about in both the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail once Cherwell tipped them off.
In the early days, this kind of chicanery was Cherwell’s prime method for getting attention. But as a quirky literary magazine morphed into a tabloid newspaper during the 1950s, the size and tone of Cherwell scoops changed. Suddenly there were stories about secret abortions, drug abuse and exposés of respected academics. In 1956, Cherwell planned to publish a survey about student life. A rumour escaped to the national press that the as-yet unpublished questionnaire would ask students personal questions about their sex lives and religious beliefs. A flurry of phone calls swept the Cherwell office and after two weeks of bidding, the editor sold an exclusive deal to Illustrated magazine for £600 (now worth £10,500). For a survey whose results were anything but shocking or surprising, the amount of money that changed hands demonstrates that value was clearly placed not on the actual material of the poll, but on the idea of an Oxford scoop as something which was somehow significant.
This is a theme which constantly re-surfaces. Cherwell editors knew they had a unique selling point and that the national press’s fetish for Oxbridge news was in many ways their greatest ally. Indeed, sometimes Cherwell, being at Oxford, being a prominent publication, felt that it had the power and even the duty to act on issues that really mattered. Sir Nicholas Lloyd, former editor of the News of the World and the Daily Express, remembered a concerted campaign to stop the rustications of “freshmen lovers” (undergraduates found with a woman in their rooms).
Actively engineering a story was, as much as uncovering one, seen as a valid way of breaking news. The unspoken truth that Oxford is a relatively unexciting place meant that editors were eager to throw their weight behind fundraisers and political campaigns that would imbue their front pages with a sense of the important; a sense of the now. When Jonathan Freedland edited Cherwell in Michaelmas 1987, he helped orchestrate a campaign to free Jewish physicist Boris Nadgorny, a so-called refusenik, from the clutches of the Soviet Empire. Nadgorny, whose scientific research had all but stopped thanks to sanctions placed against him by Gorbachev’s regime, sought an exit visa but had been denied one. It was the Oxford Campaign for Soviet Jewry, supported by Cherwell, that would succeed in freeing him through a telephone blockade of the Soviet embassy in London and an extraordinary event at which Sergei Shilov, cultural attaché to then-ambassador Leonid Zamyatin, was ambushed and dialled into a phone call with Nadgorny in front of hundreds of Oxford students. He was obliged, there and then, to promise Nadgorny the exit visa.
Freedland’s memories of the post-event interview with Nadgorny are stirring. “Even the idea of a phonecall to Moscow was itself very dramatic,” he told me. “A crackly line and a guy with heavily accented English saying, ‘All I want to do is to be free.’ The emotions ran very high.” But Freedland also commented on how this moment influenced his conception of working in newspapers, thinking: “‘Yeah, this is what journalism is going to be.’ And really journalism is very rarely like that. If anything, it was never really like that again.”
The guardianship of free speech and democratic principles is plain to see in back issues of Cherwell. Although many editors now dismiss the front-page stories for which they were once responsible, the brash headlines now consigned to dusty archives still speak volumes. While questions such as “who guards the guardians” must be asked, of both student journalists and old hacks, the actions of certain scurrilous scribblers do not represent all headline hunters. There are some scoops which deserve to be romanticised – and those in student newspapers are, it seems to me, all the easier to cherish.
When I spoke to Roger Alton, now Executive Editor of The Times, about Cherwell, he captured the original feeling of excitement over seeing the newspaper come to life. “You’d sit there while you could see the presses roll producing your little paper and you’d think, ‘Fucking hell, this is exciting...’”
Chris Baraniuk (Somerville, 2006) lives and works in London. He has completed the first draft of a book about the history of Cherwell newspaper.