Monday, 4 June 2012

Orson Wells: pointing the way out of today's problems?

Wandering through a Madrid street the other day, I was struck by the sign on the side of a van: 'Hearst Magazines España'.

A name rich in associations
Hearst. Now there’s a name to conjure with. At a time when we’re all being put to the metaphorical sword by the immensely wealthy and immensely powerful, it was amusing to be reminded of one of the great magnates of the past.

William Randolph Hearst. Newspaper proprietor and for a while a man of influence in US politics, though perhaps not quite as much influence as he liked to believe. Apocryphal stories often contain a grain of truth, if only for what they say of the profile a public figure enjoys. It is almost certainly untrue that when Hearst received a telegram from his reporter in Cuba, Frederic Remington, saying that the situation was quiet and ‘there will be no war’, he replied, ‘please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.’ Hearst is most unlikely to have been personally responsible for the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, but it’s telling that many believed he might have been.

That makes it all the more ironic to see the Hearst imprint alive and well in Spain, the country he was so keen to drive out of one its last colonial possessions.

My interest in Hearst, though, goes beyond the obscure complexities of a minor war. Hearst was the principal model of Charles Foster Kane and therefore the inspiration behind a film which still appears near the top of most people’s list of the best ever, Citizen Kane. The film did lasting damage to both its protagonists, Hearst whose abuse of power it denounced and Wells who found himself the victim of Hearst’s counter-attack, a withering campaign which consigned the film to the RKO studio’s vaults for a quarter of a century.

A battle of titans from which both emerged diminished: it’s the stuff of tragedy.

Hearst also marked my early career in one small way. He came up with a principle of news management that struck me as a brilliant insight, one of those truths which seem self-evident when you hear them but which you’d never independently grasped.

‘News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising.’

At a time when I did a little PR work this became a principe that I constantly aspired to but found difficult to achieve. Press releases are so anodyne, so dull, announcing some minor success somewhere, of little interest to anyone but the company that achieved it. The only way to give them a little spice is to include some juicy titbit that will raise a little controversy, cause a little irritation. Not easy to do since the aim of most companies in their PR work is to advertise themselves without courting anything that could possibly rile a competitor.

And then the Hearst name re-emerged explosively one more time, in 1974, when the newspaper magnate’s granddaughter Patty was kidnapped by an obscure outfit called the Symbionese Liberation Front. The next thing we knew of her, she had joined the ranks of her captors and was actively participating with them in a bank raid as well as appearing in their publicity material.

Portrait of a victim:
Patty Hearst in Symbionese Liberation Army propaganda
In 1976, she was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. She served 22 months before her sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter and finally quashed when Bill Clinton gave her an amnesty.

A true parable for our times. Her grandfather bought himself a slice of politics but left enough money for his granddaughter to purchase some judicial relief. One imagines that it might not have been so easy to pass herself off as the victim of the group she so actively supported had she been born in a trailer park or, perish the thought, had black skin.

What a relief that from time to time an Orson Wells comes along to speak out against abuses of power. In our own way and at our own level, we need to do the same as loudly as ever.

Amusing that a van sign briefly glimpsed in a Madrid street can spark off such a chain of reasoning.

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