Rt. Hon. John Freeman MBE
John Freeman spent only ten years as a Labour MP but during that time he made a sizeable impression on the Attlee Government as well as the Parliamentary Labour Party. Yet his subsequent career considerably eclipsed the period spent as a politician.
Born on 19 February 1915, the son of Horace Freeman a Barrister-at-Law, Freeman was educated at Westminster School and Brasenose College, Oxford (where he was made a Honorary Fellow in 1968). He joined the Labour Party in 1933. He made his career in the immediate pre-war era as an advertising consultant (1937-40) and his political path followed one similar to that of his contemporaries. From 1940-45, he saw active service in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy and North West Europe and was commissioned in the Rifle Brigade in 1940. He was awarded the MBE in 1943. Rising to the rank of Major, he stood as the Labour candidate for Watford in 1945. He seconded the King's Speech following the war in his major's uniform. Roy Jenkins described Freeman as 'the very model of a modern Labour major'.
Freeman was a protégé of Hugh Dalton, who was one of the most respected members of the Labour Party leadership and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Attlee. Dalton's patronage of Freeman ensured that he was put on the fast track to a Cabinet position and much was expected of him. Freeman held a number of positions under Attlee. From 1945-46 he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Rt. Hon J.J. Lawson MP (Secretary of State for War); 1946-47 as Financial Secretary to the War Office; and in 1947 he spent time as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for War. In addition, he led a UK Defence mission to Burma in 1947. Yet, it was his elevation to the junior position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply in 1947, which ensured that Freeman would have an impact - not for his work in the Ministry but for his resignation from the post on 22 April 1951.
Freeman was always associated with the Bevanite group of Labour MPs (formerly called the Keep Left group) - those who took their lead from the charismatic Aneurin Bevan. When Bevan threatened to resign from his position as Minister for Labour over Hugh Gaitskell's (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) plans to impose charges in the health system for dentures and spectacles, he was supported by Harold Wilson and John Freeman. Although both men tried to dissuade Bevan from resignation, they failed and also felt obliged to resign. Freeman was more concerned with the issue of rearmament, which the charges were imposed to pay for, rather than the charges themselves. He was even offered promotion if he did not resign. The resignations rocked the Labour Government and the party, later that year, lost the general election. As far as the Left was concerned, Freeman was a more important figure than Wilson who was regarded with some suspicion. By the time that he decided to stand down from Parliament in 1955, he had distanced himself from Bevan by failing to support moves against an official Labour Party amendment to a Defence White Paper.
Freeman's decision to stand down disappointed his left-wing colleagues. Yet he had already begun to position himself as a serious political journalist, having already contributed articles to Tribune and written pamphlets for the Fabian Society, and in June 1951 became the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He had outmanoeuvred Richard Crossman, an influential Labour MP, future Cabinet minister and future New Statesman editor, to gain the position. Freeman remained assistant editor until 1958 when he became deputy editor, and then, eventually, editor in 1961. He had always lusted after the editorship. The period of his editorship lasted until 1965 but is not recalled as one of the greatest periods in the history of the New Statesman. Freeman failed to stamp his personality on the publication and, along with several of his successors (Paul Johnson and Richard Crossman), the New Statesman became more conservative and closer to the opinions of the Labour Party leadership. He appeared happier adopting a 'backseat' role as opposed to the constant exposure of a frontline position in politics.
During the 1950s and 1960s he also presented the television programme 'Face to Face' - a hard-hitting, innovative and ground-breaking interview programme, which he chaired for three years. The programme went on to become the standard by which all others were judged. During his time on the programme, Freeman undertook a series of classic interviews with the likes of Herbert Morrison, Adam Faith (a popular singer of the time) and even made the late Gilbert Harding (a combative radio personality) cry openly. Freeman was often criticised for his 'aggressive' interviewing technique, also employed by him on other television programmes such as Panorama, but it came to be accepted practice.
Freeman had continued to enjoy a good relationship with Harold Wilson since their joint resignations in 1951with Wilson having gone on to become Prime Minister in 1964. This association led Wilson to appoint Freeman to two diplomatic posts - British High Commissioner in India (1965-68) and British Ambassador in Washington (1969-71). His appointment to India appeared to be an indication of Wilson's desire to have a more active role in India and Pakistan, as well as a level of trust in Freeman which he did not have in the Commonwealth Office. The appointment to America took place in the expectation that Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat, would win the Presidential election. However, the election of Richard Nixon created some consternation as Freeman had openly criticised him as being 'a man of no principle' during his time at the New Statesman. Freeman initially offered to resign but at the first dinner attended by Wilson, Freeman and Nixon, the newly elected President used humour to 'clear the air'. Nixon claimed he understood that Freeman had criticised him in the past but now the tables had been turned and now 'he has become the new diplomat while I have become the new statesman'!
Freeman continued his impressive career in the media when he was appointed Chairman of London Weekend Television Ltd in 1971. He saw the company through some challenging times until his retirement in 1984. He recognised the need to win peak time audiences at the expense of local and minority coverage with the advent of cable and satellite television. Channel Four also started broadcasting and became a competing station (which initially led LWT to lose revenue especially from advertising). He had originally planned to retire some three years earlier but the LWT board wished for rather more time to consider the future of the Group and he agreed to stay on. He also held a number of posts which increased his overall contribution to the media such as his presidency of ITN (1976-81), governorship of the British Film Institute (1976-82) and vice-presidency of the Royal Television Society (1975-85). The RTS awarded him a gold medal in 1981 in recognition of his 'long and distinguished service to independent broadcasting and his outstanding services to television'. He was even considered to be a candidate for the position as secretary of the British Board of Film Censors when the position became available in 1985. In addition, due to his post with LWT Freeman was also chairman of LWT (Holdings) plc (1976-84) and Page & Moy (Holdings) Ltd (1976-84), as well as Hutchinson Ltd (1978-82, and a director until 1984).
Following his retirement he commentated on bowls for Granada TV. A fan of the sport, he considered himself to be only 'a very ordinary bowler'. Despite protestations that he wished to 'drop out and do nothing on retirement', his final role was as Visiting Professor of International Relations at the University of California, Davies (1985-90).
Freeman has had four marriages - to Elizabeth Allen Johnston (1938, dissolved 1948), Margaret Ista Mabel Kerr 1948, died 1957); Catherine Dove (1962, dissolved 1976) and Judith Mitchell (1976).
Although remembered in Labour Party circles for his resignation from the Attlee government it could be argued that his greatest contribution, and higher public profile, resulted from his subsequent media career.