Towards the end of The Chief, his keenly researched biography of Lord Northcliffe, the Daily Mail founder and “Britain’s greatest press baron”, the historian Andrew Roberts observes: “Great men are seldom nice men.”
Northcliffe, or Alfred Harmsworth as he was born, possessed several unpleasant characteristics. He was an outspoken antisemite – alas, not unusual in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; he was a devoted imperialist and jingoist, a remorseless bully and, in the inglorious tradition of the job, a towering hypocrite in matters of social morality.
Yet the portrait that Roberts paints is largely sympathetic and frequently admiring. This may be because, as the author asserts, Northcliffe was a great man, and one of “ineffable charm, genuine journalistic genius and immense drive”. But perhaps it should also be noted that Roberts is himself a frequent contributor to the Mail, and the Rothermere family, which owns it, gave him access to the privately held Northcliffe archive papers and sit at the top of his acknowledgments.
That said, there’s no question that Northcliffe was indeed an exceptional character. Born in 1865 in Ireland to an alcoholic father, who soon after moved the family to London, the young Harmsworth lived a precarious middle-class life of genteel poverty – there were 14 children, three of whom died in infancy – until his father found employment as junior counsel for the Great Northern Railway.
He was fascinated by newspapers from an early age, setting up and editing his school magazine, and then working as a freelance journalist on leaving school. He also left home at 16 after impregnating the family maidservant. She gave birth to a son whom Harmsworth supported but never publicly acknowledged. Roberts says there is no evidence to confirm the rumour that the illegitimate son spent years working as a doorman at the Daily Mail headquarters, nor, he admits, is there any to refute it.
Aware of a growing new literate class, thanks to Victorian educational reform, the young Harmsworth was particularly appreciative of the rather downmarket publications that catered to the aspiring lower middle classes. And it was in this looked-down-upon sector of the market that the precocious young talent gained his publishing foothold when he set up Answers to Correspondents (later to become just Answers), which answered such vital questions as why there are two buttons on the back of morning suits. It was a raging success, and several similar titles followed as Harmsworth ruthlessly eased out his backers.
With the help of his brother, Harold (later Lord Rothermere, who was a Nazi sympathiser in the 1930s), he bought the ailing Evening News and made it a success. By 1895 he was earning annually £80,000 (the equivalent of £11m today). The following year, when he’d only just turned 30, he set up the Daily Mail, which would become the biggest selling daily newspaper in the world during the Boer war and make him one of the richest men in Britain.
Right from the outset the Mail bore the imprint of Harmsworth’s preoccupations. It was populist, campaigning and fiercely nationalistic, all of which remains in the DNA of the present-day paper – though I don’t know what Northcliffe, who derided “intangible trivialities about precious nobodies”, would have made of MailOnline’s “sidebar of shame”. In any case, the paper’s huge success gave Harmsworth political influence, which he was determined to turn into power.
The political class of the era seemed to walk in fear of his publications, which after he had bought the Times and the Observer and set up the Daily Mirror amounted to 40% of the nation’s newspapers. The closest figure to that kind of political influence in our age would be Rupert Murdoch – tellingly, Murdoch’s father, Keith, a friend of Northcliffe’s, called the press baron his “biggest influence”.
Harmsworth had joked that when he wanted a peerage he would buy one, “like an honest man”. Another rumour has it that his peerage was granted by the resigning prime minister Arthur Balfour on the advice of Edward VII, after the publisher had given financial assistance to the king’s mistress. Roberts is not convinced, although he acknowledges there is some supporting evidence. In any case, Northcliffe became the youngest peer ever created, though it’s fair to say it didn’t inhibit his criticism of politicians, including Balfour.
That criticism reached its peak during the first world war. For years, Northcliffe had been issuing dark warnings about German expansionism and the need to remilitarise. When the war began, he – and in particular the Daily Mail – did nothing to conceal his contempt for the prime minister Herbert Asquith, whom he characterised as a ditherer and ineffectual. It was in no small measure Northcliffe’s opposition to Asquith that led to his replacement by David Lloyd George, whom Northcliffe initially supported before becoming a restless antagonist.
In his own mind at least, Northcliffe saw himself as speaking for his readers or, as the saying then went, the common man (Northcliffe was no supporter of the women’s suffragette movement). And insofar as he, as a self-made man, viewed the aristocracy-dominated establishment with suspicion, then it was an argument that held some merit, even if Northcliffe’s vast wealth removed him from many common experiences.
The problem was that the more influence he wielded, the more he felt empowered to meddle in democratic politics. To get him out of the way, Lloyd George sent him to the US to rally American support for the British war effort, a job at which he excelled, even if he alienated the British ambassador in Washington.
Meanwhile, his childless marriage was largely a sham kept up for public appearances. His wife maintained a long-term affair that Northcliffe encouraged, while he himself had at least two mistresses, one of whom, Kathleen Wrohan, in Roberts’s curious terminology, “acquired” three children that Northcliffe appeared to believe were his own. Roberts insists that these children were adopted, in which case, why did Northcliffe not notice that Wrohan was not pregnant? There is no answer offered. Like rather too many of the mysteries surrounding the Harmsworth family and their descendants, it is destined to remain a mystery.
A workaholic who drove himself to the point of nervous exhaustion, Northcliffe dealt with his bouts of ill health by taking long tours abroad. It was on one of these that he is thought to have contracted the bacterial endocarditis that would ultimately kill him, though not before sending him mad (it had been assumed that he was suffering from syphilis). His last months were spent in a state of delirium that manifested as extreme megalomania – consequently, those close to him thought he was only being a more pronounced version of himself.
His empire passed to his brother, a notably less combative figure. His legacy is the Mail, which remains highly profitable. The Rothermeres have reaped the profits, but left the limelight and controversy to their editors. They will doubtless be pleased with Roberts’s respectful account of the man who set them on their way.
The Chief: The Life of Lord Northcliffe, Britain’s Greatest Press Baron by Andrew Roberts is published by Simon & Schuster (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply