Berry, (James) Gomer, first Viscount Kemsley 1883-1968, newspaper proprietor, was born at Merthyr Tydfil 7 May 1883, the son of Alderman John Mathias Berry, estate agent, and his wife, Mary Ann, daughter of Thomas Rowe, of Pembroke Dock. He was the youngest brother of (Henry) Seymour Berry (later Lord Buckland) and of William Ewart Berry (later Lord Camrose) [qv.]. He was educated at Merthyr Tydfil and, after apprenticeship on the Merthyr Tydfil Times, was invited at eighteen to join his brother William in a newspaper partnership in London which lasted thirty-five years. Gomer Berry's career until 1937 may be studied in the notice of his brother, William [qv.].
When the brothers, who had been joined by Sir E. M. (later Lord) Iliffe [qv.] in 1924, divided their business in 1937 because of their growing families, Kemsley became chairman of Allied Newspapers (renamed Kemsley Newspapers in 1943). The group owned the Daily Sketch, later renamed the Daily Graphic, Sunday Graphic, and Sunday Times in London and in the rest of Britain six morning, seven evening, six weekly, and four Sunday papers. This holding, maintained for twenty-two years at much the same size, made him the largest newspaper owner in the kingdom. By 1947 he was selling 26— million newspapers a week.
From the start, Kemsley concentrated his energies on the Sunday Times, which he had retained on the last-minute intervention of Lady Kemsley. In 1937 its circulation was already 263,000; by 1959 the figure was 885,000. As a benevolently autocratic editor-in-chief he held, in matters of politics and morals, to an unreflective conservatism. Near the beginning of his rule he supported Neville Chamberlain's pacific approach to Hitler, mainly out of a belief that Hitler offered the best hope for the containment of international Communism; an attempt to bring about an exchange of articles between Kemsley papers and the German press culminated on 27 July 1939 (six weeks before the outbreak of war) in a fruitless visit to Hitler at Bayreuth. When (Sir) Anthony Eden (later the Earl of Avon) identified a new Hitler in Colonel Nasser and British troops joined Israel and France in an attack on the Suez Canal, Kemsley was the simple patriot aligning his newspapers behind his Government. As a nation, declared the Sunday Times of 4 November 1956, we are in this together.
Because of the uncomplicated appeal of the Graphic papers and parts of his provincial holding (including the Daily Dispatch, Sunday Empire News, and Sunday Chronicle in Manchester, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail in Glasgow, and the Sunday Sun in Newcastle), Kemsley found it necessary to fight a number of libel actions against the charge that he ran a gutter press. In August 1946 he obliged Sir Hartley (later Lord) Shawcross, Labour's attorney-general, to apologize for having used that very phrase in by-election speeches. The extent, and the political colour, of Kemsley's empire made him the chief target for Labour MPs during the Commons debate in October 1946 which resulted in the setting up of the 1947-9 royal commission on the press. He gave robust evidence before it—In its freedom, its honesty and its sense of responsibility the British press is unsurpassed—and took the opportunity to explain the Kemsley Plan for the training of journalists, forerunner of the National Council for the Training of Journalists. The commission report concluded that ownership was not so concentrated as to threaten press freedom, and that an industry that lives by the sale of its products must give the public what the public will buy.
It was in the 1950s that the gradual lifting of wartime restrictions on competition made the ownership of popular newspapers an increasingly hazardous business. Kemsley now made a crucial error of judgement. When commercial television began in Britain in 1955 he could have had a share in it. With Maurice Winnick, an impresario, and (Sir) Isaac Wolfson he had formed a consortium to which the Independent Television Authority awarded the franchise for week-end broadcasting in the midlands and the north. But Kemsley's sons (to whom the conduct of the new company would in part have fallen) were cool, Kemsley and Wolfson pulled out, and the consortium collapsed. Kemsley lost an insurance that his newspapers badly needed. He had already sold the Daily Graphic to Lord Rothermere in 1952. Late in 1955 he merged his two Sunday papers in Manchester and sold his morning paper there. In 1957 he parted with his Glasgow holding.
By 1959 he was in no mood to go on. He and his immediate family—always influential in his calculations—had spent heavily to increase their shareholding, yet they still felt vulnerable to a take-over bid. A recent strike had been expensive. Taxation was heavy; death duties would be crushing. The sons, all directors, were not averse to selling and Lady Kemsley was ill. At first Kemsley sought to retain the Sunday Times: but in August 1959 he sold the family shareholding for £5 million to the Canadian newspaper owner and proprietor of the Scotsman, Roy H. Thomson (later Lord Thomson of Fleet)—who could find the money on the strength of his commercial-television franchise in Scotland. Kemsley had first approached a surprised Thomson, who some years before had tried to purchase one of his Scottish newspapers.
Kemsley's withdrawal from the newspaper world was total, and his sons kept no connection with either the firm or the newspapers. They were his children by his first wife. In 1907 he married Mary Lilian, daughter of Horace George Holmes of Brondesbury Park, London. She had died in 1928, after having borne him six sons, four of whom survived him, and a daughter. In 1931 he married Edith (died 1976), daughter of E. N. Merandon du Plessis, of Constance, Flacq, Mauritius, who had been divorced from a Dutch diplomat, Cornelius Dresselhuys. She was appointed OBE in 1953 and was a commander of the Legion of Honour. Kemsley sold Chandos House, scene of his London entertaining, but kept Dropmore, his country estate.
With Northcliffe [qv.], Rothermere [qv.], Beaverbrook [qv.], and Camrose [qv.] gone, Kemsley was the last survivor of the old-style self-made newspaper barons. His air of being a man out of his time was heightened by his chosen trappings—his great London house and the Buckinghamshire mansion, the high-bodied Rolls Royce, the striped black silk tie and pearl tie-pin, the private lift at Kemsley House with the gates opened five minutes before he arrived, the office atmosphere like a medieval court. Though his role was limited to advertising and finance until 1937, the fact remains that once he was in sole command the circulation of one good newspaper, the Sunday Times, more than trebled. Certainly he was aided by an advance in public taste, and by a staff of able journalists under W. W. Hadley [qv.] and H. V. Hodson. But he contrived, by supporting them and encouraging the young, to draw from them loyalty and enthusiasm; and although he reserved to himself final authority in all matters of policy, he allowed them in practice substantial liberty.
Berry became a baronet in 1928, a baron in 1936, a viscount in 1945, and was appointed GBE in 1959. He died in Monte Carlo 6 February 1968 and was succeeded in the viscountcy by his eldest son, (Geoffrey) Lionel (born 1909). His portrait by Sir Oswald Birley hangs in the offices of Times Newspapers. A portrait by Henry Carr was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1960.
Viscount Kemsley, the Kemsley Manual of Journalism, 1950
Viscount Camrose, British Newspapers and their Controllers, 1947
Harold Hobson, Phillip Knightley, and Leonard Russell, The Pearl of Days: An Intimate Memoir of The Sunday Times, 1922-1972, 1972
evidence to the royal commission on the press, 27 May 1948, cmnd. 7503
commission Report, 1949, cmnd. 7700
Peter Black, The Mirror in the Corner: People's Television, 1971
Lord Thomson of Fleet, After I was Sixty, 1975
The Times, 7 February 1968
Sunday Times, 11 February 1968
Contributor: C. D. Hamilton