“Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail”—the first insanity

I’m currently reading “Mail Men: The Unauthorized Story of the Daily Mail – the Paper That Divided and Conquered Britain” by Adrian Addison. The book starts from the beginning of the family who founded the tabloid, in the early 20th century, and about 15% into the book, it describes the demise of one of its founders, “Lord Northcliffe“, simultaneously displaying how insanity and austerity really blends well, and are quite impossible to tell apart; then, and now.

First, a little on how another founding member thought he could tell a person’s insides from their outsides, akin of phrenology:

‘Fashioning the New England’ was a long portrait around a big photograph of the new premier ‘By Lord Northcliffe’ for his Weekly Dispatch. ‘He is constantly referred to as “the little Welshman”, but he is not at all little. You probably have his portrait before you as you read these lines. The head is not that of a little man, mentally or physically. It is the head of a man with the sparkle of genius, combined with Celtic energy and intense industry.’ Sunny Harmsworth, still measuring a man by the size of his skull.

To me, that just points out one of the core issues that I have with tabloids like the Daily Mail: it abhors facts, and wallows in being a cowardly bully.

Further, on how The Daily Mail profiteered from the first World War:

The Daily Mail’s theme from the very start of the war was, in effect, that Germany be annihilated, with the charge being led by Northcliffe himself and Lovat Fraser.


Northcliffe and Fraser wanted Germany crushed, penniless.


Seven weeks before the war ended, Fraser wrote under a headline that had been used many times in the Mail, ‘Why Prussia Must Pay’. We have nothing to discuss with either Germany or Austria. We shall never discuss peace with them. We shall drive their armies headlong, march into their country, state the terms we intend to impose, and compel their acceptance . . . Prussia must pay. She must pay to the uttermost mark . . . The German is a bully and has all a bully’s cowardice . . . If we warned the Germans that for every town they destroy in France the Allies will wipe out one in Germany, if we named the towns we intended to raze, if we advertised our intentions, if we told the German armies exactly what we meant to do, I believe the enemy would slink out of France – without knocking another brick off a wall.

Then the war was over. The abdicated Kaiser was on the run and the Daily Mail was branding itself ‘The Soldiers’ Paper’ under its front-page masthead. ‘A Glorious End’, the paper proclaimed on 12 November 1918.

On to the insanity (not that it’s distinguishable from what would be considered sane, when discussing tabloids):

Some people, including his nephew Cecil Harmsworth King and the Times editor Wickham Steed, believed syphilis had damaged Sunny’s mind. There is no hard evidence for this, though he did have a serious breakdown that left him incapacitated in 1910 which included a trip to Frankfurt – the centre of research into a ‘magic bullet’ cure for the disease at the time. Syphilis was a loaded, decadent word that was, therefore, useful to his enemies – it meant wicked sex driving one mad. His family insisted that a blood test for syphilis towards the end of his life was negative.


No matter, his mind was deteriorating whatever the cause. During a stop in Bangkok as a guest of the King of Siam in 1921, Northcliffe sent a secretary tumbling down the palace stairs when the man couldn’t find a newspaper he’d requested. On another occasion around the same time, Northcliffe was with the editor of The Times standing by a window miserably watching the rain fall, frustrated and bored because he’d wanted to play golf. The wind blew a window blind cord and the acorn on the end hit the glass. He jumped. ‘Somebody shot me, did you shoot me?’ he asked. On another evening, he asked another man on a balcony: ‘How many moons do you see?’ ‘One,’ the man replied. ‘I thought so,’ said Sunny, ‘but I see two.’


On his final foreign trip, he even began to assume the identity of a man called ‘Mr Leonard Brown’.


On the station platform the next day as he left for Paris, Northcliffe insulted railway officials, said God was a homosexual and claimed someone had tried to murder him with a Perrier bottle.


Northcliffe spent his fifty-seventh birthday on 15 July 1922 as a deluded prisoner in his own luxurious cage, but it’d be another full month of deep suffering before he passed away.


Sunny’s grip on the world came and went. In a lucid moment, his thoughts turned to his Australian protégé Keith Murdoch and he managed to write to him to boast of the Daily Mail ’s ‘stupendous figure’ of 1,735,000 copies sold a day.51 Some days he was delusional. He promised one of his two male nurses £1,000 a year and a chicken farm, another he attacked with a fire poker.


One of the last things he ever said was: ‘Tell mother she is the only one!’


Rain fell gently on the shelter’s roof as Cecil and Vyvyan Harmsworth sat with their big brother when he died on the morning of 14 August 1922. The Star beat Sunny Harmsworth’s first ever newspaper, the Evening News, to the story; Northcliffe would have been furious.

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