Don Bentley was sipping a new beer he had discovered, and thinking of newspapers as he always did. Beer and newspapers went together, Bentley was thinking, as neatly as hops and water, ink and newsprint, pen and paper. The more of the Greengrass Old Rogue ale that Bentley drank, the more the connection became clearer.
Real ale and real newspapers.
A newspaper, Bentley would eventually tell his wife, when she surveyed three or four empty bottles by the side of his chair, was like a fine ale: comfortable and familiar, smooth but at the same time jolting with a kick. It gave a sensual pleasure, a challenge to the senses, and a sense of geography, heritage and history, it was of time and place.
By now Bentley was studying the colourful, pop-art label on the outsized bottle more carefully and, like the beer itself, it was giving him a warm glow. Bubbles carrying the scent of not just hops but malted oats were transporting him to the glory days of his drinking, when he first discovered the magic of alcohol, and the art of its imbibing, as a teenage reporter on his first newspaper in the 1960s. It was also the glory days of newspapers, or at least how Bentley remembered them, so different from today.
What gave Bentley an added glow when he rolled the Old Rogue bottle, rounded and smooth, in his hand was the memories it evoked of the English countryside of the 1960s, when he would set off on his bicycle to do his village reporting rounds in rural Surrey.
The Old Rogue label was inspired by the character of Claude Greengrass in the television program, Heartbeat, a paean to the “Swinging Sixties’’ in Britain. Bentley was riveted by the crime series and always strained his eyes if a newspaper was shown to see what the headlines were saying. The newspaper might be a prop, helping to set up the suspense of a crime investigation, but Bentley wanted a window on the life of the local farming community where the program was set, in the bucolic sheep country of Yorkshire, and he knew a newspaper of the period would give it. Births, deaths, marriages, and a little crime; no murders but a break-in here and there, and the goings on at the local magistrate’s court. There were council meetings, too, and parish council meetings and someone who had lost a dog. It was the sort of news Bentley covered in his youth, dashing about town and country on his bike, dufflecoat flapping behind him, notebook sticking out of its pocket.
The smell of hops and malted oats rising from the Old Rogue ale evoked it all, as if Bentley’s newspaper cuttings from those far-off days, cut from the Woking News and Mail, of scoops usually gathered over pints of bitter in the Red House pub in Woking, were not enough.
As with newspapers, each town had its own particular beer in those days. They looked different in hues of golden yellows, ambers and browns, tasted differently. They were made from differing hop varieties and used water from local springs; some water soft, some hard, infused with the rock of the district. The beers were hand-tailored, brewers in different towns and cities in competition, exerting their own experience, expertise and influence on the taste. Not just the beer was different. Bottles came in a variety of shapes and sizes, and labels added their own stamp of exclusivity and character.
Travel throughout southern England became an adventure for the young Bentley. Different pubs and beers and different newspapers. The newspapers, too, were unique and exclusive in character, both in their layouts, their choice of typefaces and the news they covered.
All was not well in this idyllic world of real ale and real newspapers, however, but Bentley was too young and naive to notice it.
Big business, and economic rationalisation, was stalking the high street. It was a new age of empire building, this time stripping the assets created during the first one in the Victorian era.
Individual newspapers were slowly being taken over by larger newspaper groups, and the same was happening to the public houses in the towns they served. Suddenly a brewery with a string of pubs was absorbed into a one bigger one, the brewery itself closed down and its crafted beers replaced by generic ones, the beer pulled not from traditional pumps but served from a tap behind the bar.
Bentley was only a few months into his journalism career in 1964 when his first newspaper, the Woking News and Mail, was absorbed into the stable of a bigger one, in the nearby city of Guildford, and the editor who gave him his start reduced in rank to that of a mere sub-editor under the control of a group editor.
And Bentley’s beloved Friary Meux bitter brewed in Guildford was soon to vanish, along with the city’s brewery, taken over by a brewing giant swallowing up pubs throughout the nation.
Beer and newspapers soon became homogenised. As replica plastic pumps and barrels decorated bars and replaced the real thing, the shape of newspapers also changed. Broadsheet newspapers shrunk in size to a tabloid format, a shape that previously had been the preserve of the mass-circulation, racy dailies.
The tabloid format not only lent itself to greater-sized headlines but a more sensationalist treatment of news. The way newspapers gathered news was also changing. The bigger the group, the more centralised production. Reporters found themselves working for several titles, and at the same time the scope and depth of local news coverage was reduced. Two and three newspaper towns became single publication centres without competition. These single titles grabbed all the local advertising and represented to the owners a licence to print money.
Centralising news coverage also changed the type of news covered. Reporters now searched for stories – usually focused on the entertainment industry – that could be used across titles, or searched for sensational stories that might cross regional barriers and be of use to several newspapers in the group. There were less resources to cover council meetings and magistrate’s courts. Coverage of the parish council was no more.
The journalists were powerless to act, the readers seemingly indifferent to what was happening to their newspapers. The beer drinkers, however, were prepared to make a stand. Unlike the journalists, they were consumers with powers of their own. Revolution was being fermented in the ale houses of Britain.
In 1971, when four disgruntled beer lovers met in a public house in the northern city of Chester, they could not have foretold that the movement they were to start, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), would grow to become the biggest consumer organisation in Europe.
More importantly, it led to the revival of small breweries, and boutique brews. The beer that Bentley had discovered, Greengrass’s Old Rogue ale brewed by the small Daleside Brewery in the Yorkshire city of Harrogate, was a case in point.
“If only …’’ Bentley was muttering to himself contemplating the last of his beer, “If only we had done the same with newspapers, if only the journalists and readers had got together to stop the big expansion, had promoted the importance of the newspaper and what it represented.’’
Mrs Bentley had heard it all before. How newspapers were vital to democracy; no other medium could inform the public like a newspaper, with editorials and reader’s comment and letters pages; and much the better if there were several newspapers, competition, in a town.
Bentley, studying the manifesto of CAMRA, as he always did when he discovered a new ale shipped to Australia from Britain, read it aloud. The Old Rogue in Bentley was talking. The manifesto called for a reforming of the licensing laws and reducing tax on real ale, not to promote excessive drinking but to promote a greater range of beers from small breweries, and more small breweries themselves, and more local jobs.
Bentley had long advocated government support for newspapers, with possibly tax breaks for local owners to keep the big players, often multinationals, at bay.
In his home country, Bentley noted that three or four chains owned virtually the whole of the country’s regional and local press, one of them controlled from the United States. Another US-based company controlled more than a third of the national newspaper circulation.
The economics of the brewing industry could not be compared directly with newspapers, of course. Newspapers in the 1960s had to contend with the rise of television, and its inroads into advertising revenue, but Bentley still believed they could be profitable with government support that recognised their place in society, even as an art form and there was plenty of subsidy for the arts.
Bentley was on his hobby horse again, advocating tax breaks for local owners, which would enable them to compete with the bigger players with a national and international reach. Perhaps a city’s press could be divided between pop tabloids owned by the big players and serious broadsheets controlled by local interests. This balance worked in television, between state-sponsored and commercial broadcasters, he reasoned.
Bentley took a last sip of Old Rogue and raised his bottle in salute of the beer campaigners. Admiration, though, was tinged with sadness that people like himself who loved newspapers had not mounted a CAMRA-style campaign to save them when such action could have made a difference. Indifference, and even betrayal, sprang to mind and it was not just the Old Rogue ale Bentley was drinking that left a bitter taste in his mouth.