HCJ: Tabloid Nation

October 10, 2010

This week’s seminar focused on Tabloid Nation, written by our very own lecturer Chris Horrie. The book looks at the birth of the tabloid newspaper, and how it has changed since its launch in 1903.

Alfred Harmsworth, later known as Lord Northcliffe, was one of the richest and most powerful men in British Journalism in the early 1990's. He owned papers such as the Daily Mail, the London Evening News and the Daily Mirror.

When the Daily Mirror was launched it was intended to be 'the first daily newspaper in the world for and produced by gentlewomen'. The paper was soon labelled the laughing stock of Fleet Street, and was his first financial set back in 20 years.

Northcliffe realised that the paper needed to be drastically changed in order to survive. He approached Hamilton Fyfe, editor of the Morning Advertiser. Fyfe was on the verge of being fired, so took the editorship without hesitation.

Every female Journalist the paper employed was fired, except Mary Howarth. She was the Daily Mirrors first editor, and out of respect was offered a job at the Daily Mail as a fashion writer.

Northcliffe did not enjoy dismissing the female journalists; he later wrote “the poor things were squawking like chickens', “it was a horrid experience... like drowning kittens'.

The paper has just been re-launched as the picture paper The Illustrated Daily Mirror in 1904. Hannen Swaffer was one of the first journalists to be hired by Fyfe, and was given the position on ‘art editor’.

Swaffer helped transform the paper overnight. It was designed ‘not to supply serious information’, but to instead provide something ‘to entertain them, occupy their minds pleasantly and prevent them from thinking’.

Hannens first achievement was the King Edward VII feature. The article included pictures of the king, his wife and children -It gave an insight into the Royal Family like no one had seen before, and the relationship with the public and Royals was created. The feature was a huge success and circulation trebled to 71,000 overnight.

Hannen continued to cover the front pages and spreads with pictures of celebrities, such as actors, lesser Royals and sportsmen. This proved very popular as circulation increased to 14, 000 in the first month, and on its first anniversary was selling 290, 000 daily (the title had now reverted back to the simple Daily Mirror).

Fyfe left the paper in 1907, and was replaced by Alexander Kenealy. Kenealy was head hunted from the New York Journal, and was placed in charge of text, whilst Swaffer remained on pictures.

Swaffer started a campaign to improve the conditions of ‘Pit Ponies’. He chose pit ponies instead of poverty or child labour as pictures of the ponies were much easier on the eye. The Pony they saved was shown at The Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, were the Lord Mayor of London bought it.

Swaffer’s approach to photography was revolutionary. Before Swaffer pictures where thought of as a simple substitute for illustration. Cameras where bulky and subjects had to sit completely still; they were not seen as news worthy. Camera’s became more portable, and Swaffer encouraged his reporters to get into dangerous situations in order to get exclusive pictures.

Kenealy also took a revolutionary approach to generate news, such as the Daily Mirror Bees. 50, 000 honey bees were covered in white flour, and it became a bit of a craze to identify the bees around London.

The papers most controversial feature in its early days were that to print death bed pictures of King Edward VII, the playboy son of Queen Victoria. The paper sold it the minuet it hit the stands, and was being traded at black market prices. The next day the pictures were run again, and kept three lines of pressers running day and night to meet the demand. A world record 2, 013, 00 copies were sold in one day. The Queens reaction the pictures was a positive one, she stated that she had given the paper permission to print the pictures as it was her ‘favourite paper’. This disappointed Kenealy as time in the Tower would of been a great article to publish in the paper.

However, Northcliffe was starting to dislike The Mail, refereeing to it as a ‘ghastly mess’. His other paper, The Daily Mail went to press before The Mirror, and Northcliffe ordered Swaffer to offer his pictures first to the mail –which Swaffer resented.

Swaffer now felt that he, and not Kenealy, ran the Mirror and responsibly for it profits and high circulation. Swafeer, being the drunk he was, would constantly battle with Northcliffe over editorship. Northcliffe finally had enough with Swaffer over a set of pictures from the boxing and race riots. Swaffer produced a paper with around 30 pictures of the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jefferies. Northcliffe stated he did not want the pictures in his paper, apparently the advertisers had objected due to the racial tension surrounding he fight. Swaffers answer was that if he wanted it changed, he could do it himself.

Tension raised between the pair again when Swaffer demanded more money for the paper’s photographers. Knowing he was on the verge of being sacked, Swaffer transferred to the rival paper The Daily Sketch. He eventually gave up drinking and became a spiritualist, conducting a series of interviews with famous dead people. He named himself ‘The Pope of Fleet Street’ and continued to do these readings until he died.

In 1905 Harmsworth became a member of the House of Lords after donating money and giving political support through his papers to the Liberal Party. He was now names Lord Northcliffe, and fancied himself as a potential Kingmaker, but his papers held him back.

Northecliffe’s Mother, a woman who he respected greatly, sent him a cable, stating ‘I cannot make up my mind which of your two principle papers is more vulgar this morning’.

Northecliffe knew he had to dispose of the mail to make it in politics, but couldn’t afford to do so. Instead he bought the loss-making Sunday Observer and The Times –the only paper that was read by the King.

Northecliffe began to cut his links to The Mirror in 1910, and soon started selling his shares. He finally sold his remaining controlling shares to his brother Lord Rothermere in the same year for £100, 000 –The same amount of money he lost when launching the paper.

Under Rothermere the Mirror suffered huge budget cuts, and after Swaffer lefts his apprentice Harry Guy Bartholomew took over as arts editor. The First World War was a gift to Bart, and in the first year of battle the readership darted from 1.2 million to 1.7. The Mirror was transformed into the ‘forces paper’ and distributed in the trenches.

The Daily Mirror came out of the First World War in a very strong position, with over a million daily readers. The Mirrors income increased from £20 million in 1907 to £59 million in 1938, but Rothermere still kept to the budget cuts. One reason for this is that Rothermere inherited The Mail from Northcliffe.

By 1922 Northcliffe had began to go completely insane; he claimed that the German economy would collapse unless something was done about the price of eels. He slept with a gun and figure on the trigger, and once fired at his dressing gown in the middle of the night thinking it was an intruder.

Northcliffe died on August 14, 1922, aged 57. The official cause of death was heart disease, but it is more likely to be from syphilis, a condition he was treated for in secret since his visit to Germany in 1909.

In 1925 Rother mere set up an Anglo-Canadian Pulp and Paper Mill Company in Quebec, which failed miserably. This again meant more cuts to the Mirror.

Rothermere became a huge supporter of fascism and joined with Lord Beaverbrook to launch the United Empire Party in 1929.

In 1934, the first fascist movement was supporting the Blackshirts. Rothermere used his papers to support the party and influence to public, with such titles as ‘give the Blackshirts a helping hand’.

Rothermere was an admirer of Hitler. He supported his movements and called him “a simple and unaffected man who was obviously sincere in his desire for peace in Europe” as well as referring to him as “a perfect gentleman”.

In 1940, Rothermere died of Cirrhosis in the liver after being forced into exile to the Bahamas. His last words were “there is nothing more I can do to help my country now”.

Harry Guy Bartholomew, former apprentice of Hannen Swaffer, took control of the Daily Mirror in 1934. His greatest technical accomplishment was the “Bart-McFarlane System” which was used to transmit photos by radio. This meant the Mirror could obtain pictures from around the world in hours (it was also rumoured that Bartholomew was one of Northcliffe’s illegitimate sons).

Cecil Harmsworth King, nephew of Northcliffe and Rothermere led the demands for change. King and Bartholomew formed an allegiance soon to become the new lords of Fleet Street.

Within a small amount of time, they created the biggest selling newspaper in the world and set up the grounding for Tabloid Britain.


  1. It's a great pity Swaffer didn't stick with the Pit Ponies and get the practice banned. Who would have thought it would still be legal to use Pit Ponies in the 21st centuary? There are some short video's of pit ponies at wotk in the 1990's search for pitponyman on You Tube to see them.

  2. I just looked at the videos, they're rather disturbing!
    I think it's terrible pit ponies are still used; it's not necessary in this day and age!
    Thanks for commenting :)


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