Mail Men, page 1
Introduction: The Voice of Middle England?
PART I – Schemo Magnifico
1 Magazine Boy
2 Newspaper Man
3 Mr Leonard Brown
PART II – Bunny & Son
4 Whose Mail Is It Anyway?
5 The Wrong Side of History
6 Faster Than the Mail
PART III – The Mail Pill
7 Win a Pub
8 A Compact Double-act
9 How to be Different
10 Tall Stories
PART IV – King of Middle England
11 Daily Mail Country
12 Scorpio Rising
13 The Pencil and the Knife
14 Two Funerals and a Promotion
15 At the Court of ‘King Paul’
16 The British Invasion
17 People Like Us
18 The Death of the Newspaper
For Anna & Santi
The Voice of Middle England?
It’s only a newspaper.
Yet some believe the Daily Mail is imbued with almost supernatural powers – it can handpick government policy and almost single-handedly scared over half the electorate into taking Britain out of the European Union. For its fans, it has been a welcome guest at breakfast tables for over 120 years; it is simply a cracking good read and the voice of good old-fashioned common sense. Its voice, however, does carry far beyond its loyal readers; it howls through Westminster corridors befuddling politicians and infuriating metropolitan liberals before whistling on through the nation’s newsrooms to help define the media agenda for the day. And for many, the Daily Mail is the jackbooted stomp of a bully who makes scapegoats of the weak and the vulnerable. Indeed, to them, even the very sound of its editor’s name is akin to Darth Vader’s tin lungs on a darkened cinema screen.
Paul Dacre, the clumsy and shy middle-class son of a well-known Sunday Express showbiz writer, has been in the top chair for a quarter of a century and, unlike so many of his peers, has never sought personal ‘fame’, yet he has still managed to become one of the most hated men in Britain. Ever more people now know his name. He even became the butt of an ad-lib joke during a live and televised Monty Python gig in London in July 2014, as John Cleese later explained to fellow Python Eric Idle.1
‘One night, the last night of all,’ Cleese said, ‘when there were millions of people watching around the world, Michael [Palin] went off and I said: “I heard on the radio this morning that the editor of the Daily Mail ” – which I hate – “Mr Paul Dacre, has had an arsehole transplant.” And Michael came back on and said, “I’ve just been listening to the television and apparently the arsehole has rejected him.”’
The joke2 probably got the biggest laugh of the night.
‘Is he still alive?’ Idle asked.
‘Oh yes, he’s still alive. But he’s quite crazy now. And, of course, nobody is allowed to write about an editor of a major British newspaper being crazy because they censor it. This is a new concept, press censorship in the sense of censorship of the Press by the Press. So, they criticize everyone else, they criticize politicians and businessmen and the church and doctors and sportsmen and, you know, actors and everyone – but they never actually get criticized themselves and I think that’s why they get so power mad.’
Cleese isn’t alone in reviling the Dacre name. During the media firestorm in 2013 when the Mail accused Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s late father of hating Britain, Match of the Day presenter and former footballer Gary Lineker tweeted: ‘[It’s] Only a matter of time before [Paul] Dacre resigns. It’s what he would demand of another in this situation. Unless of course he’s a hypocrite.’3 More recently, fifty thousand people signed a petition demanding Dacre be sacked over his paper’s coverage of migration and the EU referendum in the summer of 2016, claiming it spread ‘misinformation and fear’.4
Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail ’s millions of readers, of course, disagree with this mockery and distaste. Dacre and countless Mailmen and Femails over the years have dedicated their lives to giving their readers a newspaper in which many of its staff (but not all) do, truly, believe.
‘Mailmen (not the Express’s reporters) had to be the first on the story, and the last to leave,’ Dacre once wrote, in an obituary for the modern-day Mail ’s founding editor, Sir David English.5
A Mail salary helped pay staff mortgages and the paper gave them the best resources in the business to do their jobs, but at the cost for many of being bullied daily at its swanky west London offices, once lampooned in a media column as ‘The Death Star’,6 in which, for some – including Dacre himself – fifteen-hour working days were the norm.
‘Everyone will have told you how culty it was and probably still is,’ a former Mailman told the author, ‘but that’s a definite part of the theme.’7
The Mail machine, the product of this ‘cult’, is feared and courted by politicians in equal measure and the tension between the two has frequently caused a political punch-up. ‘What you’ve got to understand about the Daily Mail,’ former Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell told the BBC’s Newsnight programme, is that ‘it is the worst of British values posing as the best . . . If you do not conform to Paul Dacre’s narrow, twisted view of the world – you get done in.
‘All I say, to all the politicians in Britain, [is that] once you accept you are dealing with a bully and a coward you have absolutely nothing to fear from them.’8
Dacre and Campbell, of course, loathe each other, and Paul Dacre does not share Campbell’s low opinion of his Daily Mail nor does he agree that he wields real political power.
‘My own view,’ Dacre told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 2004, ‘is that the politicians’ kind of estimation of papers being great, great political forces is a reflection of their weakness rather than newspapers’ strength. I don’t feel powerful, no. I feel rather humble.
‘Every paper has to have a soul. And the Mail ’s is based on family values, on the two words “self-reliance” and “aspiration”. My job is to represent millions of people who don’t have a voice . . . especially in countering that liberal, politically correct consensus that dominates so much of British public life.
‘It says Britain is a shameful nation with a shameful history and a culture and a people who are inherently racist, sexist and anti-European. It says the nuclear family is outmoded and that injustice in education and liberal progressive values must prevail.
‘Well, the fact is that most Britons don’t believe this. They simply don’t.’9
‘There is an unpleasant intellectual snobbery about the Mail in leftish circles, for whom the word “suburban” is an obscenity,’ Dacre wrote in the Guardian in 2013.‘They simply cannot comprehend how a paper that opposes the mindset they hold dear can be so successful and so loved by its millions of readers.’10
Whichever viewpoint you hold, the Daily Mail is as British as the Royal Mail and the pound sterling. It’s consumed in quaint village cafés with cream tea and scones and at breakfast tables across England’s green and pleasant land.
It is a product aimed at these readers, not a political party. It’s not funded by a television tax like the BBC nor controlled by a trust like the Guardian nor kept from the abyss by a billionaire like The Times. The people who make the Daily Mail are in the business of selling newspapers and have been, aside from a bleak period when it was almost crushed by the faster and hungrier Daily Express, rather good at it.
Or they used to be. The printed Daily Mail, like almost all newspapers, is dying. The numbers say it all: in May 2016, th
The Independent went online-only at the end of March 201613 because its 55,000 daily circulation14 was not enough to sustain it – a figure that was less than what a decent weekly newspaper in a small town would have sold not so long ago.
Will the Daily Mail follow the Independent into a paperless newspaper world? ‘One’s looking way into the future there,’ Vyvyan Harmsworth, whose great uncles founded the paper, told the author. ‘It’s rather like hanging up your rugby boots; you know when it’s time to do so but you don’t look forward to it at all. We will continue to publish until a time when nobody wants newspapers. But I think that may be thirty years in advance, it may be a hundred – who knows.’15
Those who despise the Daily Mail ’s often shrill voice shouldn’t get their hopes up. The Mail now reaches far more readers, far more young readers, than ever before, all over the planet. MailOnline, its celebrity-fuelled website, is the biggest English-language news website in the world and its revenues have started to offset those lost to declining print sales. The website has a different staff to that of the newspaper but its inner voice is very much that of the Daily Mail.
Its voice is, ultimately, that of just one man. And it’s not Paul Dacre. It’s that of a man who has been dead for almost a century: the paper’s founding master, Alfred C. Harmsworth, a boy from the suburbs of Victorian London who would go on to become Lord Northcliffe, whose voice was once thought so powerful that the Germans shelled his seaside home during the First World War. Young ‘Sunny’ Harmsworth had a hobby: he liked to press words in ink on to paper and soon discovered, with impeccable timing, that he also had the knack of knowing exactly what millions of people wanted to read. Lord Northcliffe wasn’t just the father of the Daily Mail, he was the founder of the popular press as we know it.
Sunny Harmsworth began in the middle.
The Harmsworth family weren’t wealthy. They were just members of a growing class within Victorian society that sat somewhere between the gentry perusing the land on horseback and the urban poor scratching out an existence down on their manure-strewn streets. The Harmsworths had not even been ‘middle class’ all that long. Sunny’s grandparents were actually Hampshire peasants sucked in from the shires by the ever-expanding city of London. They set themselves up as grocers on the edge of London, in what is now known as St John’s Wood.
Alfred Charles William Harmsworth was actually born in Dublin on 15 July 1865, at a house on the River Liffey called Sunnybank Cottage, and was given the pet name ‘Sunny’ by his father, Alfred senior, the only son of those Hampshire peasants. Alfred senior had sailed to Ireland to take up a post as a teacher at a school for the sons of dead British soldiers in the days when restless Éire was still part of the United Kingdom.
Sunny’s mother was a Maffett, from a wealthy family who were pillars of the Irish Protestant ascendancy, the minority that held the Catholic majority in their yoke. She could even trace her lineage back to a colonel in Cromwell’s invading army. Harmie, as Alfred senior was known to his countless friends, had charmed Geraldine Mary off a park bench and they had married. But the Harmsworths didn’t stay long in Ireland. Geraldine had grown up with servants and governesses, and a mere schoolteacher couldn’t hope to provide her with the life to which she was accustomed, so she persuaded her husband to study law and the family moved to London.
Alfred senior was duly called to the bar and became a barrister, at which he was to prove no great success. His true calling was to an altogether different kind of bar – pubs like the King of Bohemia in Hampstead, where he’d flourish his hat, bow from the waist to the barmaids and greet them with a warm silky voice. Folk were forever buying Harmie a drink but he rarely had the cash to pay for a round himself. He was a man in a tall hat telling tall tales, his favourite yarn being how his real father was in fact the ‘grand old’ Duke of York. He’d stumble up from his pew like a man born a peer of the realm, lift a hand in the air and solemnly declare: ‘I am descended from kings.’
There is no evidence of royal blood in the Harmsworth line, and drink would kill Harmie long before his eldest two boys became the next best thing: viscounts. The future Press Lord’s father, in fact, firmly disapproved of the trade that would lift the Harmsworth name into the higher echelons of British society, where he felt it belonged. A newspaper office was not the place for a gentleman; he wanted Sunny to follow him into the law. But the addictive nature of ink seeped into Sunny’s skin early.
He was only about twelve when he first sat down in front of an amateur printing press at a small London schoolhouse and began to press words on to paper. He spent hours, days, forming letters into words, sentences, paragraphs. He scribbled out the title of The Henley House . . .
. . . giving those two words their own space and lifting them out in tall, bold type. His inky little fingers then lined up EDITED BY ALFRED C. HARMSWORTH under that mouthy masthead.
‘He made a very poor impression on his teachers,’ wrote War of the Worlds author H. G. Wells, who later taught at the school and also wrote for Harmsworth’s publications. ‘And [he] became one of those unsatisfactory, rather heavy, good-tempered boys who in the usual course of things drift ineffectively through school to some second-rate employment. It was J. V.’s ability that saved him from that.’2
It had been John Vine (J. V.) Milne, the school’s kindly headmaster, who had spotted an opportunity to stimulate the boy, despite his unexceptional nature. Milne, a shy and lisping Scotsman – and father of Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne – gently encouraged the future Press Lord as he splattered himself with violet ink.
The first issue, in March 1881, showed a gift for hyperbole that would stay with the boy and his publications for his whole life. ‘I have it on the best authority,’ wrote Sunny, that the magazine ‘is to be a marked success’.3 A story about bad weather stopping the boys playing football, a subject he was keen on as captain of the school team, followed the boast. But the real scent of his future lay hidden on the back page. Here he printed questions sent in by other kids to which they hoped for an answer. It was innocuous enough, and not even original, yet this page would be the template upon which his entire empire was later built.
Another of Sunny’s passions was newfangled things called ‘bicycles’, huge beasts with a front wheel that reached the armpit. He loved the freedom of cycling down the open dusty roads, often covering great distances with his cycling club pals who wore uniforms and followed a bugler. Sunny was a leader among the boys of Hampstead but the girls liked him too – he was an unusually good-looking boy. Around this time, a friend of Harmie’s remembered seeing father and son dining together at the Middle Temple, where Harmie worked; ‘a dear old Bohemian gentleman’ and a teenage boy who had ‘the face and figure of a Greek god’.4
Two key formative features of Sunny Harmsworth’s early years were his perpetually pregnant mother – she’d give birth to eleven surviving children, none of them twins – and his frequent house moves, due to his alcoholic father’s inability to pay the rent and the need for ever more space to house the Harmsworth brood.
One day, around the time Sunny left school, Mrs Harmsworth hired a fifteen-year-old nurse called Louisa Jane to help care for all those kids. The younger boys remembered Essex girl Louisa for having a face like a pastry, dusted with way too
Periods of high stress would have a direct physical impact on Sunny his whole life, and the Harmsworths claimed it was a bout of pneumonia that had left their boy bedridden after a mammoth bike ride shortly after he left school. But it was not strictly true; a scandal had laid him low.
Sixteen-year-old Sunny had made Louisa Jane pregnant and she had run back to her Essex village to give birth to a boy named Alfred Benjamin ‘Smith’ on Bonfire Night, 1882. The box on the birth certificate for the father’s name was left blank, and the first teenage mum to grace the Daily Mail story had been impregnated under the stairs by the newspaper’s founder.
It was a nightmare for Mr and Mrs Harmsworth, who were advanced snobs even for Victorian London; the truth hardly mattered a damn and keeping up appearances was everything. So Sunny was hustled away safely out of town on a European tour after answering an advert in The Times. Father and son would never quite be the same again but, far worse for Sunny, his strict and deeply moral mother – whose affection he craved his entire life – felt he had disgraced the family. When he returned from his trip, Geraldine, who was pregnant herself as ever, refused to have him back in the house.
Sunny found digs with a friend nearby, put on a light suit his family had bought him for his European trip and set out on foot in the only direction he had ever really been heading: Fleet Street. All he had to do was follow the same route as the river that rises in the high ground of Hampstead and spills down over the clay upon which London rests. For over 1,000 years thirsty travellers would pause to sip the Fleet’s fresh waters and bathe in her healing ponds but, as humanity took root on her banks, she ran ever shallower and slower. The settling horde sucked her dry and she became a stream, an open sewer, a ditch and finally a drain. The Fleet still oozes on down in the dark under Farringdon Road to Ludgate Circus and crosses under the street that took her name before spilling out into the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge.