The big man

Northcliffe: press baron in politics 1865-1922

J Lee Thompson <em>John Murray, 362pp, £28</em>


Northcliffe's invasion of Fleet Street, which began with the founding of the Daily Mail in 1896, altered the terrain of British journalism for ever. Northcliffe was the first to recognise that the introduction of universal education would lead to a mass reading public. "The Board Schools," he told a friend, "are turning out hundreds of thousands of boys and girls annually who are anxious to read. They do not care for the ordinary newspaper . . . but will read anything that is simple and is sufficiently interesting."

In setting out to create a newspaper that would capture the attention of these new readers, he developed an entertaining mix of news, features, recipes, patterns and puzzles that would become the template for the modern newspaper. On the way, he chronicled the advent of the autocar and aeroplane, the instantaneous trans- mission of news and photographs, the introduction of the wireless and the conduct of war. Northcliffe eventually owned two-thirds of London's national newspapers, including, at one stage, the Times and the Observer, earning for himself the unofficial title of progenitor of the modern newspaper.

Northcliffe's rise from poverty and obscurity to become one of the most influential figures of the 20th century was characterised by a ruthless disregard for the opinions of the leaders of the age. As his influence grew, he incurred the enduring enmity of those whose power he invariably challenged. By limiting the focus of Northcliffe to the magnate's political and imperial connections, J Lee Thompson goes some way towards explaining why the Establishment viewed Northcliffe as such a dangerous character.

Born Alfred Harmsworth in 1865, Viscount Northcliffe was the eldest of 11 children born to an English barrister and an Irish matriarch. His father, also Alfred, although undeniably clever, grew increasingly indolent, perhaps from his propensity to drink. He died young, leaving his widow and family in gruelling poverty.

His eldest son, Alfred, was determined to deliver the family from its plight and, in this, he was singularly successful. By the time he was 27, he had founded a huge magazine empire. With the help of his younger brother Harold, later Viscount Rothermere, whose financial acumen was impressive, he was, in the words of Thompson, "earning a ducal living by the time he was 30". But, to Northcliffe, the accumulation of riches was as nothing when compared to the exercise of power, and he was driven by a moral zeal that his rivals and enemies could never understand.

Tirelessly cataloguing the letters, memoirs and publications of the age,Thompson reveals the growing alarm and distrust with which Northcliffe's contemporaries (among them Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and Lord Beaverbrook) viewed the baron - a megalomaniac, as they saw him, bent on upsetting the delicate balance of British power.

With the world at war, Northcliffe was the first to discredit the plan of Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to effect a supply route to Russia through the narrow straits of the Dar-danelles, which were held by enemy Turks. He mercilessly denounced Churchill for diverting desperately needed men and munitions from the Western Front, thus inspiring Churchill's lasting enmity.

Northcliffe's greatest moment came on 21 May 1915, when he published, in the Daily Mail, the best-known leading article of the First World War - "The tragedy of the shells: Lord Kitchener's grave error" - in which he chastised the secretary of state for war for sending to the front shrapnel, useless in trench warfare, instead of the urgently needed high-explosive shells.

For this, Northcliffe was subjected, as Thompson puts it, to a "deluge of criticism", culminating in the burning of thousands of copies of the Mail on the London Stock Exchange. Overnight, the circulation of the paper dropped by more than a million. But, by the end of the month, Northcliffe had regained that circulation and his reputation. The despised Liberal government collapsed, and Northcliffe's determination to see Lloyd George installed in the newly created position of munitions minister was successful.

Thompson's documentation of these events is encyclopaedic in its scope. An astounding work of scholarship, his volume must take its place as a casebook for scholars and historians who are interested in the era.

Sally Taylor is the historian of the Northcliffe family

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?