Liar, liar

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In this week’s blog, journalist and author Eugene Byrne shares a British left-wing historical joke dating back to the 1960s, based on antipathy to Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook, and investigates the story that lies behind the joke.

 


In this week’s blog, journalist and author Eugene Byrne shares a British left-wing historical joke dating back to the 1960s, based on antipathy to Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook, and investigates the story that lies behind the joke.

The joke

In the deepest recesses of Hell there is a special pit of boiling oil reserved for the special torment of the greatest liars in history.

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Naturally, all the top Nazis are there. Goering is in it up to his chest, while Hitler is in it up to his neck. Goebbels is there, too, but he’s only waist-deep.

This annoys Hitler no end, and one day he says to Goebbels: “Why are you only in here waist-deep? You were the Nazi minister of propaganda! You invented the Big Lie technique, and yet here I am much deeper than you! What’s going on?”

To which Goebbels replies: “Well obviously I would be in over my head, but I’m standing on Beaverbrook’s shoulders.”
 

The story

Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1964), was a dominant force in British politics and business from the First World War until his death. A figure of furious energy, he was often followed by controversy; some allege he only came to Britain from his native Canada because he was fleeing possible fraud charges. He held several ministerial offices – most notably Minister of Information at the end of the First World War and Minister of Aircraft Production during the Second World War.

It was as proprietor of the Daily Express, however, that he earned his special place in left-wing demonology. The Express was a bright, populist, crusading paper filled with pictures, hugely-popular cartoons (Rupert Bear, Giles) and written by many of the most talented journalists and columnists in Fleet Street.

By the late 1940s circulation was approaching four million copies daily, making it the biggest-selling paper in the world. The Express under Beaverbrook, and particularly the editorship of Arthur Christiansen (1904-1963) was never a knee-jerk Conservative-supporting paper. It had a much surer feel for its readers than that. But of course it was never a friend of the left, and in the 1945 election notoriously likened Labour’s manifesto to “national socialism”.

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The joke presumably dates from the 1960s, and it’s interesting to see how one of the constants of British politics for several decades is that there’s always a newspaper the left loves to hate. Right now it’s the Daily Mail, while before that it was The Sun, but when Lord Beaverbrook was in his pomp – and for some years afterwards – it was the Daily Express.