Changing London

Popular press: the birth and re-birth of the Daily Mail

When the first copies of the Daily Mail hit the newsstands 120 years ago, prime minister Lord Salisbury dismissed the new newspaper as “run by office boys for office boys”. But it was an immediate success, selling nearly 400,000 copies on the first day and it soon would reach a daily circulation of more than one million.

The Mail was by no means Britain’s first newspaper but it was pioneering in what it offered readers – and the new market it created. Before the eight-page edition launched in 1896, daily publications had been little more than a series of dry articles, which had been thrown together by a head printer with little thought of how stories would sit together.

Alfred “Sunny” Harmsworth, the founding editor, had different ideas for his Mail. The press baron insisted journalists use more immediate narrative and said their mission was clear: “Explain, simplify, clarify!”. News was very much at the heart of the new Mail. “The only thing that will sell a newspaper in large numbers is news, and news is anything out of the ordinary,” said Kennedy Jones, Sunny’s second-in-command.

Previously newspapers had largely been aimed at the upper classes, rather than clerks. Riding on the success of an 1870 Act which introduced compulsory education for the masses for those aged five to 13 (previously only one in seven people could read), the Mail reached a new generation readers. “There is no doubt that the Daily Mail has discovered a new reading public,” said a newspaper vendor at King’s Cross at the time it was launched.

But from the outset, the Mail was more than just a newspaper. From page seven, the publication adopted a magazine-style, benefitting from the insight Sunny had learned from building up a portfolio of titles which were extremely popular with both women and men. “The object of the ‘Daily Mail’ is to give every item of important news…. The object of the ‘Daily Magazine’ is to amuse, interest and leisure moments of the day,” he wrote in the first edition. The latter included everything from dinner tips to discussion of the latest fashions.

The Mail’s story – from its launch and quick success to its struggles and subsequent re-birth – has been expertly told by Adrian Addison in his new fascinating book, Mail Men. The author focuses on the proprietors and editors who, over the past 120 years, have not only made the newspaper, but also those who nearly killed it off. It is also however a portrait of the life and times of Fleet Street and includes amusing anecdotes, such as when page proofs were brought into a nightclub for the editor to review before the edition hit the presses.

Northcliffe House, near Fleet Street – the Mail’s home from the 1920s to 1980s

Popular press

The son of an alcoholic lawyer, Sunny left home at the age of 16 after making the family’s nurse pregnant and headed for Fleet Street. He started stringing for a magazine called Tit Bits, writing articles that were very different to what dry newspapers were offering at the time. But not content to let someone else profit from what at the time seemed a growing market for popular journalism, Sunny quickly decided to start his own magazine.

“Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject under the Sun,” which was launched in 1888 and sold by hawkers in Fleet Street,” published articles on topics as diverse as the Royal family and the wages people earned. But despite Sunny’s optimism and enthusiasm, not all thought his magazine would work, with one journalism saying it looked “amateur” and that it “had not a million to one chance of succeeding.”

It was indeed tough getting it off the ground, but things looked up when Sunny’s brother Harold (known as Bunny), who had an eye for numbers and focused on keeping costs under control, joined the firm. Competitions were successful in bringing in new readers and by 1893 the company had broadened its portfolio to seven titles, selling almost 1.5 m copies a week.

William Gladstone, who as primer minster had introduced the 1870 education Act, was a fan: “I consider the gigantic circulation of Answers an undeniable proof of the growth of sound public taste for healthy and instructive reading,” he said. But Sunny, who had by now become a millionaire and had a posh country pad Broadstairs called Elmwood, wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels and decided he wanted to become a newspaper proprietor.

After providing the backing for the Evening News and Post, he put all his efforts into the launch of the Mail, opening overseas offices and running a number of dress rehearsals to ensure everything was in place for the first edition. The day when the publication finally hit the presses came.

Sunny brought to the Mail the popular approach to journalism that he had learned from Answers, but he also invested heavily in covering foreign news, with its first major event being the Boer War. Today, most people remember this conflict for the terrible conditions civilians faced in concentration camps, however for the Mail these weren’t considered such bad places. “To the Daily Mail, the tent cities on the scorched South African planes sounded almost like holiday camps,” said Addison.

It was not be the last time that the Mail would be on the wrong side of history. Bunny, who took over the paper after his brother Sunny died in 1922, aged 57, spoke highly of Benito Mussolini and an editorial branded his Fascists ‘The saviours of Italy”. And he was equally positive about Sir Oswald Mosley’s party in Britain: ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’.

But Bunny’s biggest praise was saved for Adolph Hitler who he met for the first time in 1934. He played down complaints against the Nazi leader for attacking the Jewish community, while saying he was a “rare combination of dreamer and doer” and added: “Hitler is in the direct tradition of those great leaders of mankind who appear rarely more than once in two or three centuries. He is the incarnation of the spirit of the German race.”

Even after Jews had started disappearing into to concentration camps Bunny described Hitler as a “great gentleman” and that “his courtesy is beyond words, and men and women alike are captivated by his ready and disarming smile”. And through a series of ranting, one-sided columns, which many of his own journalists got fed up with, he urged Britain to get into bed with Hitler. “He has assured me of his desire to meet the British Government halfway,” he wrote.

Bunny may have been the money man, keeping a close eye on costs and profit, but he did invest in the 1920s in plush new headquarters for the Mail, down by the Thames and just off Fleet Street. Northclife House, which was built three years after his brother’s death and was essentially an overflow of the still-standing 1898-constructed Carmelite House nearby, was granted Grade II status when the Mail moved out in 1988 on account of it being a pioneering purpose-built structure for printing. Today, although it is now used as an office complex and has been heavily renovated, the wonderful old facade remains.

Struggling on

“Sunny nailed the popular taste like no other publisher before or since, aside, perhaps, from Rupert Murdoch,” wrote Addison. While Bunny would arguably become richer, he didn’t have the same eye that his brother had on his watch the demise of the Mail kicked in. Addison added that “money men can be hired, and without Sunny’s own particular genius and eye for the popular taste there would simply never have been the need for a Bunny Harmsworth.”

In 1939 Bunny handed over the reigns of the Mail to his son Esmond. Although he was proprietor for three decades, he didn’t leave the same mark on the paper as his father did in terms of writing highly politicised columns praising the likes of Hitler and criticising the Labour movement. Esmond was happy to take a more neutral approach to coverage and didn’t crave fame, but like Bunny he did little to stop the rival Daily Express stealing its readers.

“The Daily Mail entirely lost its way under Bunny & Son – Esmond would appoint an editor to take it upmarket and when that didn’t work, he’d fire the man and then head half-heartedly the other way,” wrote Addison. During Esmond’s reign, he seemed happy to let his wife call the shots and the ‘Monster’ became loathed by journalists for her words of advice on how to cover a story. It did nothing to stop the decline however.

“By the end of the 1960s Fleet Street was a raucous, drunkenly dangerous place,” wrote Addison. “But the dull Daily Mail wasn’t even at the party. It was a seventy-three-year-old middleweight in a land bristling with younger, lighter, faster, far more vicious pugilists led by a young Australian named Rupert Murdoch. And the Mail had lost its voice long before. It had changed direction so many times, its staff barely knew right from left.”


The Daily Mail was in desperate need of a fix – it was a do or die moment – and merging with the Daily Express, the enemy, to create a domineering mid market title was even floated. But then Esmond handed over control of the Mail to his son, Vere, and things started to look up. They had developed a good working relationship with David English when he ran the Daily Sketch and the decision was taken in 1971 to merge the two titles.

English, the Mail’s new editor, had radical ideas for the newspaper, the most controversial of which was to re-launch it as a compact newspaper (he avoided ‘tabloid’ because he considered it to have downmarket connotations). He embarked on a clear-out of the newsroom, with a number of key positions filled by journalists he had worked with on the Daily Sketch. To many, it was less of a merger and more of a wholesale takeover.

The new Mail initially did well, with sales topping two million. But then circulation dipped to 1.5 m as readers were lost to the Sun and others to the still-broadsheet Express. But conscious of all the chopping and changing in the past, Vere kept his faith in English and allowed him time for his changes to bed in (by 1975 circulation had stabilised at 1.7m, pretty much the same level as when Northcliffe died, and Express’s sales were declining fast).

English sought to reclaim the connection that Sunny, the founding proprietor had with readers, covering topics that were of interest to them. He invested in the Femail section and nurtured new columnists that would resonate with the paper’s middle class audience. And he loved a stunt, including once chartering a British Midland plane to airlift one hundred babies and children out of Southern Vietnam before Saigon fell in 1975.

Talented as English was a journalist and editor, he was prepared go to any length to produce a newspaper that was better than that of his rivals – including being accused of making up stories (or at least elements of them). “David English certainly seems to have had somewhat of a ‘flexible’ relationship with the truth,” wrote Addison. And if lost out on buying rights to a new book, he was known to have him team find out where it was being printed and steal copies, so they could print any revelations before rivals’ serialisations appeared.

And it was while English was editor that in 1989 the Mail moved from Northcliffe House (also known as New Carmelite House) just off Fleet Street to a former department store in Kensington. Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed became its landlord. A journalist described to Addison the sixth floor of building:

“It’s unbelievable up there, like walking into an amazing hotel. They’ve got this boardroom with oak panel walls and oil paintings all around….. down below it’s all grey Formica and this shit utalitarian carpet, and you go up there and it’s absolutely striking.”

Dacre years

Paul Dacre, the current editor of the Mail. has journalism in his blood. His father was a long-serving journalist at the Sunday Express, focusing on covering show business news (he was the first British correspondent to interview Elvis Presley). In 1970, Dacre himself entered the trade by joining the Express as a graduate trainee.

It was while he was working in the US, that English poached him to become the Mail’s new bureau chief in New York. Just 12 years later, after rising through the ranks on the newsdesk, he would be the paper’s editor. But people who knew him early on in his career were quite surprised at how far he would go – he was hard-working and kept long hours, however to them he was far from exceptional in those early days.

Dacre’s big break came when he was appointed editor of Associated Newspaper’s Evening Standard (of which English was editor-in-chief). He was regarded as doing a good job here – increasing readership, particularly amongst females through adding lifestyle pages. Dacre’s achievements at the Standard didn’t go unnoticed in Fleet Street and Rupert Murdoch offered him the editorship at the Times. This spurred his employers into coming up with a counter offer of the opportunity to be editor of the Mail (English resorted to the roles of editor-in-chief and chairman of Associated), which he excepted.

Like English, Dacre, was a supporter of Margaret Thatcher. “America told me the power of the free market, as opposed to the State, to improve the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people,” he told the British Journalism Review. “I left a Britain in 1976 that was ossified by an us-and-them, gaffers-versus-workers mentality in which a tribal working class was kept in place by subservience to the Labour authorities who owned their council homes, to the unions and the nationalised industries. Mrs Thatcher, in what was a terribly painful process, broke that destructive axis, empowered the individual and restored aspiration and self-reliance in this country.”

But Dacre was not a fan of Thatcher’s successor. He said Major was a “very weak man” and that the Tories by that stage were “exhausted”. He said Major was finished, which created tensions with English, his boss, who thought the paper should always support the Conservatives no matter what. Nevertheless Sir David – as he was then known – and the third Viscount Rothermere both supporter their editor until their deaths, 12 weeks apart from each other in 1998. Dacre had after all managed to increase circulation.

Working as a journalist at the Mail has been described at the toughest gig on Fleet Street. From English’s time, two reporters were often put on the same story, so they would go to head with each other. There is huge pressure on journalists to deliver exclusive stories day in day out – and tow the Mail’s line. They are criticised if they start warming to their their celebrity interviewees – the paper’s job is to rip them apart.

Dacre has described himself as a “big-mouthed, loud-mouthed tyrant” however he says that he “does his fair share and he gets the paper off at night and we all go home pretty proud of it. Yes, there ‘s a lot of shouting and a lot of swear words, but it’s never personal”. ‘Cunt’ is apparently his favourite word.

In the internet age, generating vast numbers of stories everyday for MailOnline that readers will want to click onto is vital. It is the most visited English-language website in the world and 120,000 comments are generating every week (interestingly typing ‘Rothermere’ is blocked), but it doesn’t rest on its laurels. However it is frequently accused of just re-packaging other journalists’ stories without giving any credit for their work.

The Mail came late to internet publishing, with its website launching long after the pioneering Electronic Telegraph in 1994. Dacre himself is not a big user of computers (apparently his PA prints out his emails for him to read), so the success has been driven by Martin Clarke, who launched MailOnline. The portal is helping to foster a new generation of loyal readers (online readers are very likely to be young, female, well-educated and well-off). And two thirds of its audience is now outside the UK, mostly in the US.

As for the future of the Mail, it future success lies in the development of its digital offering. Some have therefore suggested that Clarke has a strong chance of being Dacre’s successor, whenever he decides to step down as editor. The daily, printed edition of the Mail is likely to cease at some point, but its journalism will continue, providing a lasting legacy for the brand that Sunny created all those years ago.

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