‘Do dogs commit suicide?’ ‘Can monkeys smoke?’ ‘An electrical flying machine?’ Those who were intrigued by such matters in 1888 sought enlightenment from a new weekly magazine, Answers to Correspondents, which also explained ‘How to Cure Freckles’, ‘Terrors of Top Hats’, and ‘The Destiny of Lost Luggage’. The magazine’s title wasn’t quite accurate, since the answers were rarely definitive and most of the questions actually derived from the fertile brain of the editor, the 22-year-old Alfred Harmsworth. He quickly realised how to generate ‘talking points’ that would boost the paper’s circulation. The third issue addressed the mystery ‘Do Jews ride bicycles?’ with an assurance that the editor, a keen cyclist for many years, had never met a fellow enthusiast ‘of the Hebrew persuasion’. Within weeks he had been refuted by Alfred Cohen, a cycling club treasurer, among other genuine correspondents who produced lists of medal-winning Jewish riders. The paper itself was now a ‘talking point’. Eight years later, Harmsworth imported this technique into his most significant creation, the Daily Mail. In 2012, the journalist John Rentoul produced a satirical essay on the art of the newspaper headline called Questions to Which the Answer Is ‘No!’ It was a homage to Harmsworth, the Mail and their many imitators.
Harmsworth had a lifelong thirst for curious facts. On a world tour in 1921, he observed a caterpillar with a small tree growing out of its head. In Tasmania, he saw carrots two feet long and was told that ‘one man in twenty is a giant.’ As an ingenuous youth of eighteen, he was hoaxed by some Etonians into publishing the story that they threw puddings at each other annually in honour of Elizabeth I. He claimed to have bonded with Cecil Rhodes after urging him to buy an ingeniously long-handled brush for washing one’s back. His boyish enthusiasm for new technologies never left him. At fifteen, he was the daredevil rider of a high-wheel 52-inch bicycle. (Cycling also gave him his first breakthrough in journalism: the son of a feckless barrister, he had left school at sixteen to write freelance articles; a Coventry publishing firm made him editor of Bicycling News, then helped him set up Answers to Correspondents.) He bought his first motor car in 1899 and had ten of them by 1911. He got the Mail to offer big prizes for the first flight across the Channel and later the Atlantic. He championed the safety razor. He insisted that his newspapers adopt the latest machinery for disseminating news quickly and clearly: linotype printing, tickertape, the typewriter, the electrophone.
Fascinating facts were commodities; Harmsworth developed a unique skill at trading in them profitably. In October 1889, Answers offered a pound a week for life to the reader who submitted the best estimate of the amount of gold held by the Bank of England on a given future day. Circulation rose enormously because of canny publicity, and because entrants had to find five witnesses for their guess. Harmsworth was the one who made real money from the competition: the winner died of TB eight years later. He branched out into new publications, notably Comic Cuts. Helped by his brother Harold’s managerial and financial acumen, his titles were selling a million copies a week by 1892, two million by 1894. The brothers then took over the moribund Evening News and made it the country’s most successful evening daily by expanding the sports coverage, introducing women’s pages and focusing on high-profile trials. James Canham Read was hanged for the murder of Florence Dennis, having slept with both her and her sister. His last words, according to the Evening News, were ‘Will it hurt?’ This was perhaps a question to which the answer was ‘Yes’.
In retrospect, all these gambits seem to have been practice runs for the Daily Mail, launched in 1896. Aimed at commuters who wanted interesting and easily digestible reading matter, and carrying the slogan ‘A penny newspaper for one halfpenny’, it was selling 500,000 copies daily by 1899. It boasted that, unlike its rivals, it did not carry a page of verbatim parliamentary reports. Instead, there were women’s pages, daily features, and ‘talking points’ raised by letters to the editor (‘Are veils injurious?’). Harmsworth’s principle was that ‘the three things which are always news are health things, sex things and money things.’ Food was a major preoccupation. Any news shortage could be remedied by a well-publicised campaign – one for pasteurised milk, another for more wheat in bread. In 1911, the paper offered £1000 (ten years’ wages for many working men) to the amateur gardener who grew the best bunch of sweet peas: 38,000 bunches were submitted for exhibition at the Crystal Palace, fifteen times more than the space allowed.
Campaigns were dropped at short notice: Harmsworth, and the Mail, had brief attention spans. The aims were always novelty and higher circulation. Harmsworth was a master headline-writer. He pored obsessively over each edition. All his journalists had to brace themselves for unpredictable volleys of complaint or praise. He was a model entrepreneur: manically energetic, pushing, perfectionist. He could occasionally be amusingly self-deprecating, or flamboyantly generous to staff, but only within the bounds of an imperious egotism. No one doubted that he was ‘The Chief’. He stimulated competition within his empire in the hope of making a product good enough to destroy all rivals outside it. For a while, he assumed that the newspaper industry would tend towards monopoly, and he intended to be the monopolist. By 1911, the Harmsworths owned the Mirror, the Observer and the Times, as well as the Mail; in 1914, they controlled 40 per cent of the morning and 45 per cent of the evening daily circulation.
The takeover of the Times in 1908 sent the same message as the peerages bestowed on Alfred in 1905 (Lord Northcliffe) and Harold in 1914 (Lord Rothermere). The message was that the Harmsworths had made it. Northcliffe’s struggle with the crusty management at the Times was the stuff of comedy, though not for the protagonists themselves. In the end his respect for the institution tempered his ruthless energy so effectively that he achieved only superficial changes (the main one being to lower the price to a penny). He complained that reforming the culture at Printing House Square was ‘like filling a pneumatic tyre with a leak in it’, and suggested that ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ should be inscribed over its portals. Nonetheless, ownership of the Times strengthened his campaign in 1911 to persuade the Tories, in opposition, to give up the food taxes which supporters of full-scale imperial preference advocated but his poorer readers disliked. That year he sold the Observer rather than force it to adopt the same stance. For the rest of his career, he was more interested in using his papers to push whatever causes took his fancy than in building a monopoly for the sake of it. In 1915, the Mail’s circulation plummeted, albeit briefly, because of his relentless attacks on Lord Kitchener for the shortage of shells on the Western Front.
Northcliffe never doubted that the Mail was his real achievement and powerbase. Its campaigns revealed his egotism but also the genuineness of his belief that he was a public educator. Like many late Victorians, he felt that the gulf between elites and people had to be bridged if the nation was to survive and thrive. He wanted his writers to be proud of their role in bridging it, paid them premium rates, nurtured women columnists especially and did more than anyone to make journalism a profession. He opposed vulgarity of any sort, banning ‘constipation’ from adverts. Of course he preferred that readers be educated in some subjects more than others. His main anxiety from 1906 was the nation’s ignorance about the scale of the German sea and air threat. The Mail ran the first of its invasion scare stories that year, about German soldiers rampaging through England. It was publicised by actors dressed in uniforms with spiked helmets, walking round with sandwich boards. Northcliffe instructed that they shouldn’t lurk in remote villages ‘where there was no possibility of large Daily Mail sales’.
Naturally, he made a lot of enemies. Educated liberals, especially, accused him of lowering the tone of national debate. George Gissing was levelling this charge even before the Mail was founded. Once its anti-German campaign started, many claimed that it was making foreign tensions worse. Northcliffe has never ceased to be an object of fascination; fourteen books about him had already appeared by 1959, when Reginald Pound and Geoffrey Harmsworth’s enormous official biography was published. Reviewing it, A.J.P. Taylor set out a line which wise commentators have followed ever since. He appreciated Northcliffe’s unique contribution to the newspaper industry and his brilliance as a businessman, but punctured the liberal intelligentsia’s claim that he had poisoned national life. Taylor insisted that his campaigns were mostly ineffective, his philosophy superficial, his enthusiasms boyish, his occasional political manoeuvres easily outwitted. Liberals had demonised him as ‘an early sketch for Adolf Hitler’, when in fact politicians had his measure. For Alfred Milner he was just a ‘scarecrow’, for Lloyd George ‘a great journalistic Barnum’.
In 1979, Piers Brendon took this approach further. Sixty years earlier, in Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey had exposed 19th-century mores in four sharp, elegant biographical essays. Now Brendon repeated the trick with Eminent Edwardians, Northcliffe serving as his first and most apposite subject. Brendon presented him and his newspapers as mainly reflecting – and perhaps amplifying – prewar chauvinism, imperialism, snobbery and prudery. He followed Taylor in belittling Northcliffe’s originality, depth and political power. Liberals hated him not because he sapped the national fibre, but because he revealed that modern British culture did not correspond to the fantasies they were used to peddling. Brendon’s essay was slick and reductionist, but in that respect it matched its target. Its major service, as with Strachey, was to show that short lives read better than long ones – that portentous, shapeless biographies usually disguise more than they reveal. They sanitise individuals, exaggerate their impact and restore tired, jejune generalisations that analytical historians abandoned long ago.
Yet publishers still produce these tombstones, even though 90 per cent of the story has been told before, usually in the same order. Biographies can be published every few years because their predecessors normally go out of print, and because the journalists who review them haven’t usually encountered the subject before. Sometimes a cache of new letters adds telling detail in a few areas. Andrew Roberts justifies his new volume on Northcliffe partly by revealing a DNA analysis of descendants of the children brought up by Northcliffe’s mistress Kathleen Wrohan, which suggests that they were not his. Roberts also stresses his good fortune in being able to consult the Harmsworth family papers, though the two most thorough previous biographers, Lee Thompson (in 2000) and Pound and Harmsworth, did so as well. Creditably, he does not hide how much of his account retraces these authors’ steps; there are 144 footnote references to their two books, and 57 to Brendon’s essay. He is, as ever, industrious in handling the facts, though his relentlessly chronological treatment greatly reduces the impact of Wrohan’s story. There is little here in any case to alter the long-established view that no woman meant nearly as much to Northcliffe as his mother.
The book is most interesting for what it says about Roberts’s approach to biography. He likes to pitch his volumes as demolitions of ‘straw men’ – reflecting the fact that at the time when both of us were writing university history essays, the commonest way of attempting originality was to find a flawed interpretation to assault. Roberts’s main straw man in The Chief is the liberal intelligentsia that sneered at Northcliffe’s populism. He does not admit that other writers have been poking fun at this humourless indignation for more than sixty years. Worse, in his desperation to find authors to attack, he completely misreads Taylor as having alleged, ‘most unjustifiably’, that Northcliffe was an early sketch for Hitler. Taylor and Brendon offered deft, punchy and amusing satire of Northcliffe’s baiters, but Roberts entirely lacks their lightness of touch. This is because his main aim is a serious one: to suggest that Northcliffe was a ‘Great Man’.
One way in which he attempts to sanitise his subject is by a deadening determination to qualify or excuse potentially unattractive character traits. He carefully explains that Northcliffe’s veneration for Napoleon is not proof of megalomania, as critics have alleged; he simply admired a ‘youthful ambitious self-made man’. (Those who have alleged megalomania, incidentally, include a younger and friskier Roberts, in a Times review of 2000.) Buried in a long quotation from Northcliffe’s niece is the fact that he kept a live alligator in a hot greenhouse at his Broadstairs house. Roberts remarks mildly that this was ‘something of an affectation, perhaps’. Well, perhaps. He admits that Northcliffe had a cruel streak and was prone to rages, but tends to downplay them. He skirts around his rants to Geoffrey Robinson, his Times editor, about the Gallipoli crisis, warning us that Robinson’s account gives only his side of the story. Where Thompson’s biography effectively evoked the Daily Mail’s sensationalist prewar coverage of the German menace, Roberts alludes to it as briefly and vaguely as possible. He criticises Brendon for saying that Northcliffe stirred up racial hatred during the war, but Brendon meant only what Roberts himself admits, that the Mail’s campaigns against Prince Louis of Battenberg, Richard Haldane and Francis Trippel for supposed German sympathies were disgraceful. His account of the politics of 1914-16 gets too deeply mired in the detail of Northcliffe’s various crusades, interspersed with special pleading, for him to effectively make the point – now generally accepted – that Northcliffe did not have a plan to oust Asquith as prime minister. All this fence-sitting achieves the scarcely possible and makes Northcliffe dull.
For Roberts, Northcliffe’s life is a balance sheet. He did Good Things and Bad Things (Roberts acknowledges his antisemitism), but the Good predominated. This is an exceedingly old-fashioned approach to biography. He grounds Northcliffe’s claim to be a Great Man on his defence of Britain and its imperial power, as well as his newspaper entrepreneurship. The book is best understood as a contribution to the recent culture war about the benefits of empire, which aimed to kindle our patriotism during the Covid lockdowns. But Northcliffe’s approach to empire was often critical, as well as self-interested. He certainly rode the wave of late-1890s jingoism to great advantage: the Boer War of 1899-1902 carried the Mail’s circulation over the million mark, the largest in the world. Technological progress also made the paper a global force; in 1904 an overseas edition was launched which digested the main news stories and told ladies living in Indian bungalows ‘What Is Being Worn at Home’. This reflected Northcliffe’s concern that newspapers shouldn’t simply celebrate empire, but provide a link between Britain and its territories, educating people at home to think imperially and responsibly.
The Mail sent 22 correspondents to cover the Boer War, but they proved a thorn in the government’s side when they reported the shortcomings of the British campaign. The paper also launched the Soldiers’ Families Fund to provide support for neglected dependants, raising £340,000. As the historian Chandrika Kaul has shown, Northcliffe’s first tour of India coincided with the shocking famine of 1896-97. He made the paper publicise the suffering and attack the government’s relief effort, blaming its inadequacy largely on the domestic public’s ignorance of Indians’ living conditions. He continued to demand that Parliament pay more attention to Indian issues, in order to normalise civilian rather than military rule there. His world tour of 1921-22 was planned to educate him in the new challenges facing British global power, and he saw that changed political conditions in India required a new policy. As Thompson points out in his biography, Northcliffe also criticised Australian complacency about Japan; it was not enough to judge the rest of the world by ‘its inferiority at cricket’. He was infected by endocarditis on that tour, which soon made him insufferable, paranoid and violent; by the time he died a few months later, at 57, many assumed he’d gone mad. Had he lived, however, who knows what campaigns he might have launched?
Northcliffe’s restless, indomitable energy guaranteed his position as a national ‘talking point’. His unique standing as a press proprietor gave him great mystique, which he boosted by restricting his public appearances. He was assumed to be a secret powerbroker. (The most interesting question about his role in the fall of Asquith in 1916 does not relate to his own objectives, but to whether Asquith mishandled Lloyd George out of panic, imagining that the two men were plotting together.) Northcliffe’s lavish lifestyle – the hotel suites in Paris, Biarritz, Switzerland and the Riviera, the sponsorship of air travel, the twenty trips to the US – also made him an international celebrity. His reputation helped him to succeed in two important roles during the war: his mission to woo American opinion in 1917 and his subsequent appointment as director of propaganda in Enemy Countries. One wishes that Roberts could tone down his performative moralism about Northcliffe the man and devote more space to the series of dazzling images he presented, and the fascination that he generated for over a quarter of a century. After he died, his brother Rothermere, who had already taken over the Mirror and the Evening News, inherited the Mail and the rest of Associated Newspapers, consolidating the reputation of the family dynasty even as he sold off the Times to meet death duties. By 1929, he owned fourteen daily and Sunday papers and had become, with Lord Beaverbrook, the epitome of the overmighty press baron.
It was Edward VII’s clear-eyed view of the Mail’s standing that led him to urge Northcliffe’s peerage on the Tory government in 1905. In the same way, Elizabeth II was reputed to interrupt her advisers’ summaries of broadsheet opinion on awkward royal issues in order to focus on coverage in the ‘real papers’. Liberal anger about the peerage stemmed in part from the suspicion that a dying and dysfunctional government was trying to prop itself up by courting the Harmsworth interest. They need hardly have worried: there was no Tory prime minister for the rest of Northcliffe’s lifetime and he adjusted easily enough to the era of Lloyd George and Churchill. His significance transcended politics; he was the world’s greatest disseminator of information, but most of it was apolitical. Nowadays, many people manage to make a living as fact merchants, piling ’em high and selling ’em cheap. Very few can expect to receive peerages, but occasionally someone gets lucky, if the government of the day sees some advantage in it. There’s no point in sneering at this. After all, the House of Lords includes many people who got there by trading in much grubbier commodities.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.