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The Chief: The Life of Lord Northcliffe, Britain's Greatest Press Baron by Andrew Roberts

Simon & Schuster, 2022

If Ukraine is the first TikTok war, the Arab Spring the first Twitter war and Vietnam the first TV war, then World War I was certainly the first newspaper war, as Andrew Roberts shows in this biography of one of the world’s greatest media entrepreneurs - and a key shaper of Britain’s history during the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Born the eldest of six brothers into an educated, middle-class family, Alfred Harmsworth – later 1st Viscount Northcliffe – was close to his mother, but disdained his profligate barrister father who, although erudite and sociable, was terrible with money, which meant that the boys grew up in straightened circumstances which caused them both discomfort and embarrassment.

Determined to rectify the situation for both himself and his family, Alfred’s chief ambition from a young age was to make money, in keeping with the pattern identified in several recent books and podcasts (notable Matthew Parris’s Fracture: Stories of How Great Lives Take Root in Trauma) of having something to prove or overcome being the biggest driving force behind successful entrepreneurs.

Eschewing university (to his father’s immense disapproval), Alfred started as a journalist whilst still a teenager, quickly becoming interested in the business of journalism and founding a series of periodicals aimed at a mass readership, and bringing his brother Harold (the future 1st Viscount Rothermere) into the company as his business manager. In a family tradition which has continued to this day, Alfred would later involve others of his brothers.

Northcliffe was a born visionary, combining an acute understanding of consumer behaviour with a fascination for new technologies, and an ability to forsee how the one could enable and influence the other – placing him squarely in a long tradition of media entrepreneurs, from Johannes Gutenberg to Mark Zuckerberg.

His career breakthrough was the founding of the Daily Mail in 1896. His genius was to recognise that near universal literacy amongst the lower middle classes combined with a burgeoning commuter lifestyle opened a huge gap in the newspaper market, not served by the existing, high-minded broadsheets.

His other key realisation was that women did not read newspapers, and that the likes of The Times and Telegraph made no attempt to appeal to them – thus presenting an opportunity to double his readership. And he achieved all this whilst keeping the Daily Mail’s cover price at half that of the broadsheets.

From the start, the Mail distinguished itself from other tabloids by being aspirational, offering plenty of human interest stories and lifestyle features. Disdaining gossip, Northcliffe was meticulous about facts, resulting in the air of middle-class prudishness which has permeated the paper to this day.

He made significant investments into developing and adopting new technologies – whether in telegraphing stories, print or distribution – including establishing his own paper mill in Newfoundland to enable him to control supply, and at one point chartering its own trains to ensure that copies reached readers hours before the Mail's rivals.

But he was also well ahead of his time in understanding the power of brand extension, tapping into all aspects of the consumer ecosystem of his readership. He ran innovative competitions to keep his audience engaged, and branched out into lifestyle events and exhibitions, much as Condé Nast are doing today.

A competition to design the ideal cottage morphed into The Ideal Home Exhibition, which of course is still going strong. Northcliffe also made attempts to make the brand international, with various foreign editions of the paper, which still survive in the English speaking world, notably the US and Australia.

As an independent media outlet grows in reach, campaigning inevitably creeps onto its proprietor’s agenda, with contemporary examples ranging from Murdoch to Musk. Roberts shows that Northcliffe took the interoperability of the media and politics to levels unknown before or since, employing the clout of the Mail in everyday causes such as lobbying Chamberlain on food taxes, but also using it as an instrument to effect much broader change.

A good twenty years before World War I broke out, Northcliffe was beset by two key pre-occupations: a conviction that Germany was going to invade the rest of Europe, and a conviction that the key to winning any such war would be to develop air capability. He went as far as commissioning a novel about a German invasion so that he could serialise it in the Mail, and he held various competitions offering large amounts of money for anyone who could advance the development of aero-engineering.

And indeed, when it came, it was the Great War that defined Northcliffe. Roberts shows convincingly that, as well as playing a key part in predicting its outbreak, Northcliffe was instrumental in deciding its outcome. In 1914, he controlled 40% of the UK’s press (including the prestigious The Times) in an era of near-universal literacy. This, combined with developments in technology, made for a public hungry for news - which Northcliffe was perfectly positioned to shape and provide.

When the war broke out, there were 17 daily titles in London alone. This turning point in the democratisation of information marks an important step in the history of media; a story which arguably started with the invention of the printing press some 450 years previously, and continued at rapid pace with the advent of broadcast and then social media.

Northcliffe campaigned vociferously against Asquith, who he saw as ineffectual, and Kitchener, who hated the press, preventing British journalists from going to the Front – which meant that they ended up sourcing information from German papers, or paying soldiers for copies of their letters home. The government made numerous efforts to shape the narrative, in ways which would be greeted with outrage in today’s era of mass media - but the approach was widely supported as a matter of national security at the time.

Northcliffe would therefore have known that his Mail editorial on 20th May 1915, which explicitly called for the removal of both Kitchener as Secretary of State for War and Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, would potentially end his career. This extraordinary editorial addressed various issues, but particularly concentrated on Kitchener’s failure to equip British soldiers at the Front with appropriate ammunition - otherwise known as the Shells Scandal.

Rooted entirely in principle as it was, this move must have wrong-footed those of Northcliffe’s detractors who had long accused him of wanting to sell papers to make money at any cost - but any change of heart would have been eclipsed by the often violent hatred shown towards him rooted in lack of patriotism, putting his personal security at risk and leading to a near-devastating blow to his business.

It’s interesting to consider how this type of editorial would go down today. The main concern, of course, was that it would embolden the Germans, but it’s also likely that the general public (and Mail readers in particular) held with a basic sense of patriotism which would not apply now.

Both changes in attitude are a result of the now universal access to information at all levels. Propaganda – or fake news – on social media has its issues, but it’s nothing compared with the extent of what people didn’t know in a pre-digital age.

Northcliffe recovered and went on to push for David Lloyd-George to rise to power. Lloyd-George formed a National Government in December 1916, quickly sending Northcliffe off to Washington to head the British War Mission (which Roberts suggests was partly to get him out of the country, as their relationship had become fractious).

On his return, Lloyd-George appointed Northcliffe as Director of Propoganda in Enemy Countries. At the same time Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of the Daily Express, was running the Ministry of Information.

The extent of this enmeshment of government and the media would not happen today, and it’s remarkable how few people realise how central the likes of Northcliffe and Beaverbrook were to the outcome of World War I, particularly in an age now focused on social media’s role in shaping world events. Roberts’s biography goes a long way to illuminating this.

But it’s also the definitive study of a pivotal figure in the history of media and communications – an innovator who, like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey (and indeed Johannes Gutenberg) changed behaviour by developing new ways of accessing information, and by definition, changed the nature of “news” itself.

In a bold claim not unlike those made by the scions of Silicon Valley, Northcliffe believed “the independent newspaper to be one of the future forms of government” (p303). He had frequently criticised politicians for having no idea how to work the media, and astutely saw propaganda as “a highly complicated system of advertising” (p353).

Lloyd-George intriguingly described Northcliffe as having a “telephone mentality”, in the way that we might say that Generation Z have a TikTok mentality. New forms of media have always shifted behaviour, and Northcliffe was always ahead of his time.

As an entrepreneur, he predicted that the news would one day be communicated by electronic “sky signs” above Piccadilly Circus and that we might all have a personal device to communicate the news to us in our pocket.

But it would take his protégé Keith Murdoch’s son Rupert to develop radio and TV stations hand-in-hand with newspapers. One hundred years previously, Northcliffe had been concerned that the advent of broadcast media would detract from newspaper sales, but intriguingly for such a lateral thinker, he didn’t think to start a radio station himself.

Following his early death in 1922 from a rare medical condition affecting both his heart and his mental health (and which Roberts is the first biographer to properly identify), control of Northcliffe’s empire passed to his brother Harold, 1st Viscount Rothermere, and the Chairmanship of the Daily Mail & General Trust has been held by his descendants ever since.

Earlier this year (2022), the Trust delisted from the London Stock Exchange and reverted to the Rothermere family. 125 years after it was founded, the Daily Mail continues to be the market leader in exactly the space which Northcliffe originally identified. Roberts’s biography sheds light not only on a figure who shaped history, but whose ideas continue to shape our world today.

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