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  • Fleet Street Colossus:The Rise and Fall of Northcliffe, 1896-1922
  • J. Lee Thompson (bio)

The political influence and power wielded by Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe, remains one of the lurid little secrets of British history. From the 1890s, Northcliffe used a formidable array of press weapons to bludgeon the ruling classes of Britain over a wide variety of national issues. Northcliffe's power reached its peak in the Great War and, over the intervening years, his important role has been largely overlooked in part because three years after the signing of the Versailles treaty the press lord was dead at age 57. This premature end ensured that the history of his turbulent times would be written by a long list of other notable figures, including Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook, most of whom were, to varying degrees, the targets of the press lord's stinging criticisms. It became convenient for his many opponents to forget just how influential and feared Northcliffe was, particularly between 1914 and 1918. Until recently Northcliffe's substantial role had gone unnoticed or else relegated to narrow studies of the press and propaganda.1

As the pre-eminent journalistic force in Britain, by 1914 Northcliffe controlled roughly 40 per cent of the morning, 45 per cent of the evening and 15 per cent of the Sunday total newspaper circulations.2 By far the two most important weapons in his press arsenal were The Times and the Daily Mail.3 Created by Northcliffe in 1896, within a few years the Daily Mail reached a million, mainly lower and middle-class, readers. The paper was the end product of more than a decade of press innovations that have come to be called the 'new journalism' and, as the most successful practitioners, the paper and its owner Alfred Harmsworth became the symbols of this new commercial style. The Daily Mail used interviews, photographs, and typographical features, such as bold headlines, to break up a page. The sub-editors were instructed to construct their stories of many brief paragraphs to 'explain, simplify and clarify'.4 Though priced at only a halfpenny the DailyMail distinguished itself from [End Page 115] the competition by being printed on more expensive white newsprint, its front page devoted to advertisements, in the style of the penny journals. The paper deliberately courted the aspirations of a new readership who envisioned themselves 'tomorrow's £1000 a year men'.5 In its pages attention shifted away from parliamentary politics, with abridgments of speeches rather than the traditional unbroken verbatim columns, now relegated to the pages of Hansard. The abridged leaders on parliamentary affairs appealed to the new voters created by the Third Reform Act of 1884 and the political power wielded from the offices at Carmelite House in the articles and editorials of the mass circulation Daily Mail are often overlooked in favour of the pronouncements of The Times.

Though in shaky financial condition when Northcliffe acquired controlling interest in 1908, The Times remained the most politically influential newspaper among the élite classes of Britain and continued to be viewed by foreign powers as a voice of official Government opinion.6 By adding The Times to his newspaper regiments, the press lord gained control of what was considered to be a key organ of the British establishment, much to the fury of his Liberal critics. Many feared Northcliffe would destroy the paper that he had coveted for years. Instead, his reorganization at Printing House Square brought The Times up to date and, in March 1914, tripled sales from 50,000 to 150,000 copies by dropping the price from three pence to a penny. The paper was also left a large degree of editorial independence, in part because of the respect the new chief proprietor held for both The Times as a British institution and for its editor from 1912, Geoffrey Robinson (later Dawson).7 However, after the acquisition of The Times, Northcliffe continued to use the Daily Mail as his personal voice to the masses of Britain, supporting conscription, army modernization and a stronger navy.

Alfred Harmsworth and his newspapers were also at the very centre of another phenomena of the time...


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pp. 115-138
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2008
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