Research report into ‘Financial heroism’ and The Economist magazine

— 09.10.15

by Simon Spode

The Economist has been published since 1843 and is one of the international financial journals currently the subject of the “Economics in the Public Sphere” (ECONPUBLIC) research project funded by the EU studying the creation and dissemination of economic knowledge in the USA, UK, France, Brazil and Argentina.

On 24th-25th September 2015, University College London, the UK partner in the project, held a ECONPUBLIC workshop looking forward to 175 Years of The Economist, attended by international delegates including four of the journal’s five editors from 1974 to today.

Sheffield University Management School’s Prof Josephine Maltby, with Janette Rutterford from the Open University, presented a draft research paper at the workshop looking at the role of The Economist in 1914-1918.

Its 1914 editor, Hirst, who called the war ‘the triumph of… force over reason, of brutality over humanity’ was dismissed in 1916 for being ‘distressingly pacifist’. Hartley Withers, who replaced him, initially advocated ‘financial heroism’ through patriotic self-denial and support for the war effort in the form of War Loan and War savings.

But Withers became less and less enthusiastic about government policy – he began to point out that whilst the workers were funding the war effort, the wealthy (and the companies profiting from armaments and military supplies) were having an easier time, ‘gently handled’ by British taxation policies.

His criticisms can be contrasted with the tone taken in Germany, where the wartime press was consistently positive about the success of the national financial effort.

Prof Maltby and her collaborator are currently completing a revised paper which will look in more detail at the parallels and differences between British and German finance in wartime.