Relaciones Internacionales – Comunicación Internacional

The Economist: 150 years

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BOOK REVIEW / Paper profits and high passions: ‘The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843-1993’ – Ruth Dudley Edwards: Hamish Hamilton, 30 pounds

JAMES WILSON, the founder of the Economist, wanted to be a lawyer. His Quaker father disapproved, so he became a businessman instead – an experience of huge significance to his journalism, if not to his bank balance. Ruth Dudley Edwards has made a lengthy assessment of his creation, which she sums up with admirable clarity: ‘The Economist was founded in 1843 to campaign for free trade, laissez-faire and individual responsibility through the medium of rational analysis applied to facts: its good fortune is that both its principles and its methods remain relevant 150 years later.’

The author manages to transmit Wilson’s zest and zeal in the cause of free trade: it is good to be reminded of the passion of the debate at a time when free trade again hangs in the balance. She is perhaps less successful in articulating the other great raison d’etre of the Economist’s life: interpreting America to the British, and (increasingly important) the world to America. For that you must turn to A1astair Burnet’s The Economist on America (Hamish Hamilton pounds 20), which displays an acute understanding of the paper’s long and successful involvement in the United States.

Even its earliest editors understood, and more remarkably did not resent, the growing US weight on the Anglo- American see-saw. They held that free trade between Britain and America would be the mechanism for spreading benefits worldwide – a good, powerful and necessary faith, now as then.

The Pursuit of Reason does not, of course, ignore the Economist’s special relationship with America. But it is a book of people as much as ideas. It gives an excellent account of the years of the six Wilson daughters, in whose hands the Economist remained right up until the 1920s. Not that this petticoat government of the paper ensured its consistency on female emancipation; and perhaps the Economist’s early promotion of women journalists (a noted feature of the paper in the 1940s and 1950s) can be ascribed more to a ruthless pursuit of cost-effectiveness than to any fading echoes of the Misses Wilson’s influence. Geoffrey Crowther, who is said to be the paper’s greatest 20th-century editor, argued with unattractive frankness that you could get a first-class woman for the price of a second-class man.


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