Lead book review

Lord Northcliffe’s war of words

Andrew Lycett on the pugnacious British press baron dedicated to fighting the first world war through newsprint

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

The Chief: The Life of Lord Northcliffe Andrew Roberts

Simon & Schuster, pp.547, 25

‘What a man,’ enthused Wilhelm II from exile in 1921. ‘If we had had Northcliffe we would have won the war.’ The Kaiser wasn’t describing a general or politician but a not- so-humble newspaperman, Lord Northcliffe, the pugnacious proprietor of the Times,Daily Mail and a host of other print publications, who had ended the Great War pumping news into Germany as the British government’s director of propaganda in enemy countries.

Northcliffe brought to that post the drive he had shown building up his media empire over three decades. The Germans so reviled – or perhaps admired – him that they struck a medallion depicting him, quill in hand, with an image of Satan on the back and the words: ‘The architect of the English people’s soul.’ Northcliffe obtained a copy, which still hangs in the Daily Mail boardroom.

Andrew Roberts picks up on that last assessment. He describes Northcliffe as shaping not simply the landscape of modern journalism, which is plain enough, but also ‘the mind of empire’, which is more intriguing. For Northcliffe had a knack of second guessing the aspirations of his average readers and nudging them into government policy at a time when Britain was being forced to adjust to growing threats to its traditional imperial ascendancy.

Northcliffe was born Alfred Harmsworth into a large, initially modest Anglo-Irish family in Dublin in 1865. His early success came from packaging magazines for aspiring products of the board schools introduced in the 1870 education act. Harnessing technological innovations such as electric presses, he turned a personal hobby into the popular Bicycling News. Following the model of George Newnes’s Titbits, he produced a similarly lucrative miscellany, Answers to Correspondents, the Twitter of his day, as well as a range of comics and magazines, such as the patriotic Union Jack. His brother Harold, later Viscount Rothermere, generally attended to the business while Alfred oversaw content, focusing on health, sex and money. A master of the pithy paragraph, he enticed readers with competitions – offering prizes like £1 a week for life.

Harmsworth turned this formula into a campaigning popular newspaper when, in 1896, he launched the Daily Mail, targeting the same office-boy readership. It traded on the popularity of empire, boosted by Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and then by the Boer War, to which Harmsworth sent 22 correspondents. A paper with an initial print run of 100,000 was soon selling a million, making Harmsworth not only a millionaire but a significant moulder of public opinion.


The Boer War strengthened his suspicions about German designs on British territory. He developed a strong – and, Roberts admits, today politically incorrect – enthusiasm for the adventurer Cecil Rhodes and his expansionism in Africa. He also admired Joseph Chamberlain, who wanted to abandon free trade and adopt a policy of imperial preference, protecting Britain’s economy with tariffs on non-empire goods. But while Harmsworth supported restrictions on foreign manufactures, he did not want them extended to imported foodstuffs, arguing that the poor would suffer from ‘stomach taxes’. This showed a social conscience, though cynics suggested he feared that his readers (not the real poor) would have little money left to buy his newspapers. Early on, his brother Cecil, a Liberal MP, said Alfred had no politics except to ‘protect and expand the British Empire’.

In 1903 he expanded his own stable by launching the Daily Mirror as a ‘news-paper for gentlewomen’, a formula quickly jettisoned when unsuccessful. He acquired the Observer, and in 1908, aged 42, he purchased control of the Times, a respected but economically failing newspaper. Such was its stature that his fiercely patriotic mother Geraldine warned that he would have no further horizons to conquer. But, after giving assurances to the contrary, he slowly altered the prevailing collegiate atmosphere and made it a powerful paper in his own style.

Rising at 5.30 a.m. every day, he redoubled his efforts, promoting preparedness for war, including rearmament. For example, he argued that the 1909 Declaration of London on neutral shipping in wartime might restrict the Royal Navy’s ability to blockade Germany. He showed similar vision in business. Fearing problems in sourcing newsprint from Europe, he opted for vertical integration, buying a 3,100-square mile chunk of Newfoundland to develop his own forests and industries.

Once hostilities were declared, he advocated conscription as part of a policy of total war. After deciding that Prime Minister H.H. Asquith was not equal to that, he backed his Liberal rival David Lloyd George. His most critical intervention was in 1915, when he personally penned a piece in the Daily Mail about the shortage of ammunition on the Western Front. This enhanced his reputation as an advocate for the voiceless – in this case, the long-suffering Tommy in the trenches. His forthright views did not come from any think tank. The only person he consulted was his mother.

A couple of years later he headed a British mission to the United States to garner funds and support. Appearing on radio shows, he became a popular figure and was rewarded for his services with a viscountcy. With the war’s end in sight, and he himself subsequently directing foreign propaganda, his papers kept up a tirade against any negotiated peace with Germany, which he wanted to squeeze until the pips squeaked.

His last few years were sad. Since his wife Mary couldn’t bear children, he maintained a series of mistresses who acquired (to use Roberts’s word) or adopted children on whom he doted. But he was overdoing things. In 1920 he went on an eight-month world tour, accompanied part of the way by a new friend, the young Australian newspaperman Keith Murdoch whose indictment of Allied policy in Gallipoli he had published. Murdoch, the father of Rupert, sought his help in financing his bid for Sydney’s Evening News, and apparently didn’t mind later being called Lord Southcliffe.

Northcliffe was now increasingly irascible and irrational. Contemporaries attributed his behaviour to general paresis of the insane, which is linked to tertiary syphilis, but Roberts says he suffered from bacterial endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, which could now be cured.

Northcliffe’s is a story of relentless ambition and achievement, not unlike his hero Napoleon. An enthusiast for cars and planes, he had little interest in literature or the arts (though he recognised good writing, making Kipling an offer of £10,000 to report on the Boer War, which was refused). He could be witty; when asked about his blood pressure, he replied that his circulation was in his newspapers. And he was clearly professionally astute, observing that what people try to get into the papers is seldom news; what they try to keep out is.

With an experienced historian’s use of contemporary documents, Roberts makes Northcliffe’s eventful life a panoramic account of his times. ‘There is properly no history, only biography,’ noted Ralph Waldo Emerson, a contentious statement Dominic Cummings touched on when he asked on Twitter recently for suggestions on a biography to explain the politics of 1866 and 1870-1 (the years of the Austro- and Franco-Prussian wars). The consensus was for Robert Blake’s brilliant life of Disraeli. Roberts has achieved something similar in this restrained, scholarly and very readable book.

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