THANK HEAVEN for English writers who bring wits and pens sharpened at Oxbridge to bear on subjects that, over here, fatally attract ponderosity. Piers Brendon's witty study of the press lords of England and America is empty of statistical and demographic charts of audiences and ownership. It does not probe the psyches of a "Cissy" Patterson or a Rupert Murdoch in search of father fixations or suppressed anality. It lacks a doomsday-ridden finale, predicting the ultimate disintegration of the newspaper in the blast of electronic revolution.

All that it contains is some 250 of the funniest and shrewdest pages of business and cultural history that you are likely to find between covers in any given year.

You must understand, to begin with, that these journalistic empire-builders were a special breed. On one hand, they conformed to the standard big-business pattern, being creations of the age of democracy, increased popular literacy and income, swift communications and mass production. They were molded by the same forces that gave us Rockefeller and Carnegie.

But there was a difference. The newspaper makers--especially in the days when they wrote their own editorials--were carried away by their spectacular opportunities to preach daily to millions. Hence, the trumpets of their egotism had a fiercer blast, a loftier summons. Just listen to James Gordon Bennett, the founder (in 1835) of the New York Herald. "A newspaper can send more souls to Heaven, and save more from Hell, than all the churches and chapels in New York." Or Horace Greeley, father of the New York Tribune and inveterate boarder of reformist bandwagons. He promised that his journal would diffuse "intellectual freedom, industry, skill and virtue" among the people, and abolish "ignorance, slavery, idleness, pauperism and vice." Even a minor-leaguer, Samuel Bowles, of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican proclaimed that the newspaper was "the right arm of liberty" and would "melt and mould the jarring and contending nations of the world into one great brotherhood."

For such as these--for a Hearst or Pulitzer, a Northcliffe or a Beaverbrook--there was no inconsistency in mouthing such idealism while peddling sensation and scandal and using all available means to inflate their enterprises. Like other business winners, they bought out, squeezed out and merged competitors, lobbied for special privileges, bullied unions, fought progressivism whenever it touched their pockets, and rarely distinguished between the public welfare and their own.

They were villains, but "heroic villains" (in Brendon's phrase), because the press freedoms they claimed were in fact vital--and because, as was said of Beaverbrook, "they possessed the common mind to an uncommon degree." (That's still a secret of success, as a moment's reflection on the lives of Walt Disney, De Witt Wallace and Henry Luce will show.)

But celebration is not the presiding spirit of this book. Brendon is best when he depicts how these tribunes of the people, bound by a common thread of megalomania, behaved in their triumphs. They were all as richly cuckoo as Caligula. There is James Gordon Bennett Jr. urinating into a grand piano or a fireplace (accounts differ) at a party. And chain-builder E.W. Scripps, allegedly consuming a gallon of whiskey and 40 cigars per day. Lord Northcliffe, rampaging naked one night through a Boulogne hotel. Lord Beaverbrook receiving subordinates Ma la Lyndon Johnson, while sitting on the toilet. Joseph Pulitzer, half-blind, insomniac, tormented by the slightest noise, occasionally beating a (male) secretary with a riding crop. And, of course, Hearst, belaboring editors with midnight calls from his California castle, demanding either some new crusade or the immediate procurement of an exotic object of his fancy such as a pair of Pomeranian pigeons.

Such relentless tales of tyranny, grand and petty, explain to me why so many old newspaper hands drank to excess and yearned to escape (while incapable of forsaking the drug of their trade's excitement).

My own favorite moment in the book is the one in which Colonel Robert R. McCormick and Joseph Medill Patterson, both in the AEF, meet in France in 1918 to divide the Chicago and New York markets between them-- standing, legend says, on a a symbolically satisfying dunghill. My favorite quotation is Rupert Murdoch's instruction to an editor: "I want a tear-away paper with a lot of t--." And my favorite characterization (among many) is of public relations as "an apparatus of dissimulation."

There's only a glimmer of concluding "message." Brendon is no romanticist about the old titans, but he does respect their "tigerish independence," and he wonders if today's press can truly be a fourth estate, now that so much of it is owned by a dwindling number of conglomerates with interests in other communications and general business undertakings. (For the record, he finds Murdoch an intriguing combination of old-time editor-publisher and international businessman.) Conglomerates are, of necessity, run by cost-conscious managers, responsible to stockholders and, unlike the pioneers, more likely to be troubled by red ink than by injustice or corruption.

There is, he admits, another side to that coin. A news corporation may be able to buck political pressures that even a millionaire owner, harried by debt, could find intimidating. It can even buck the will of the old press barons' one master, mass opinion. He quotes Katharine Graham's opinion that a "publicly owned firm" is specially able to "take risks for news stories, and . . . do what . . . First Amendment obligations require." Clearly he hopes that today's working journalists, in a "contracting market-place of thought and information," a jungle of special union, corporate and governmental interests, can preserve some of the old seigneurial autonomy.

But these reflections are subordinate to the story--as if Brendon had added a Times editorial to a "Crazed Mom Boils Tot" story. Readers should be warned that he takes a good deal of background information for granted, and Americans may get lost amid the names of British papers and peers. No matter. Brendon, who has dealt earlier with eminent Edwardians and the Oxford (high church) Movement communicates a sense of what a good time he must have had among these rogue elephants. And, come to think of it, for all their dyspepsia and nervous ailments, what a good time they must have had.