Politicians and the press: the case of John Walter, Member of Parliament and owner of The Times

This is the first in our series of ‘MP of the Month’ blog posts, where we look in more detail at backbench politicians whose careers shed light on the history of the Commons between 1832 and 1868.

With the Leveson inquiry today publishing its report, the relationship between politicians and the press is under extremely close scrutiny. For anyone interested in a historical perspective on this relationship, the career of John Walter provides a fascinating case study. Walter was not only a Member of Parliament but also the proprietor of The Times newspaper. The tension between his dual roles coloured his entire parliamentary career and earned him many critics at Westminster.

John Walter MP

Walter took over the proprietorship of The Times in July 1847 following the death of his father, also named John Walter. In a sad coincidence that prefigured the blurring of the lines between his two positions, he was elected as member for Nottingham on the same day that his father died. According to The History of The Times, Walter reigned over the newspaper with a ‘conscious despotism that was, notwithstanding, ever benevolent’, while his influence over the leader page was ‘marked and constant’. As a parliamentarian, he was less assured. As member for Nottingham from 1847 to 1859, then his native Berkshire from 1859 to 1865, and 1868 to 1885, he never attained political office and was not rated for his speaking ability. In 1847 he declared that ‘I acknowledge no man as my political leader’, but after 1852 he generally voted with the Liberals.

Walter’s conception of a free press came to light following a series of editorials in The Times in 1851 which called for the dismissal of Palmerston from the Foreign Office for his alleged sympathies towards what the paper felt was a despotic French government. Concerned by the tone of the newspaper’s coverage, the Earl of Derby spoke out in the Lords, warning that as the press aspired  ‘to exercise the influence of statesmen’, they were ‘not free from the corresponding responsibility of statesmen … to maintain that tone of moderation and respect, even in expressing frankly their opinions on foreign affairs’. In response, Walter ordered two editorials to outline ‘the different functions of statesmen and journalists’. Published on 6 and 7 February 1852, these leading articles argued that rather than being governed by the same responsibilities as statesmen, the press should act as an indispensable link between public opinion and the government.

Throughout his parliamentary career, Walter insisted that his roles as proprietor of The Times and as a Member of Parliament were separate, although his political opponents were unconvinced. In 1860, the criticism of Edward Horsman, MP for Stroud, who had been offended by an article in The Times that suggested that MPs were willing to postpone franchise reform in order to delay a dissolution of Parliament, led Walter to give an extraordinary personal statement to the Commons, in which he denied ‘any responsibility for any opinion or statement’ published in his newspaper. Horsman dismissed this rather unconvincing response, and argued that Walter was morally responsible for every word of it, a contention that drew ‘great cheers from the Tories’, who, according to the MP and diarist Sir John Trelawny, rejoiced in seeing this ‘great delinquent’ held to account.

Broadly speaking, the editorials in The Times mirrored Walter’s political opinions. After Walter had staunchly supported the prosecution of the Crimean War, the paper, in a departure from its earlier position, declared its support for Palmerston. Thereafter both Walter and The Times remained loyal to the Liberal leader, so much so that in 1864 the Radical John Bright mockingly suggested the elevation of Walter to a peerage ‘as a compensation for the services offered to the present Prime Minister of England’.

Walter was not the only owner of a national newspaper to be elected to Parliament in this period. For example, John Easthope, Liberal MP for Leicester 1837-47, was proprietor of the Morning Chronicle, while Herbert Ingram, Liberal MP for Boston 1856-60, ran the Illustrated London News. However, Walter, as owner of The Times, which enjoyed the highest circulation of all newspapers in the 1850s, was certainly the most prominent, and throughout a parliamentary career that spanned nearly three decades, he never fully convinced his critics that his dual roles were entirely separate.

For details of how to obtain access to John Walter’s biography on the House of Commons 1832-1868 preview website, please see here.

Suggested Further Reading:

  • The History of the Times (1939)
  • S. Koss, The rise and fall of the political press in Britain (1981)
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