Lord Northcliffe – The Press baron at the heart of World War One

Posted by: Dr John Jewell

In his diaries, cataloguing his time as Director of Communications and strategy at Number 10 during the Prime Ministership of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell notes that in the week before the fateful vote on Iraq in Parliament in March 2003, Rupert Murdoch telephoned Blair 3 times. Campbell writes that Murdoch warned the PM of the dangers of delay and that was he was, ‘pressing on timings, saying how News International would support us etc’.

And, as we know, that support from the Murdoch press was unwavering and unequivocal. The much maligned editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, said in written evidence to the Leveson enquiry in 2012, that Murdoch expected his advice to acted upon. ‘I don’t think there’s any doubt that he had strong views which he communicated to his editors and expected them to be followed. The classic case is the Iraq War. I’m not sure that the Blair government or Tony Blair would have been able to take the British people to war if it hadn’t been for the implacable support provided by the Murdoch papers. There’s no doubt that came from Mr Murdoch himself.’

Dacre’s views about Murdoch, caused to me to think, during the during the week that a 100 years ago the Great War began, about the press baron of that era with whom Murdoch can on many levels be compared: Alfred Harmsworth, the 1st Lord Northcliffe.

On the outbreak of WW1, Northcliffe’s position at the forefront of British newspapers was established. He had launched the Daily Mirror and bought and sold the Observer by 1914 – by which time he was in control of the Weekly Dispatch, the highest circulation Sunday newspaper, the Times and, most famously, Dacre’s future employer, the Daily Mail. The statistics are enlightening. In 1914 Northcliffe controlled 40% of the morning, 45% of the evening and 15% of the Sunday total newspaper circulations. No wonder that the politicians of the age sought his approval and support during this most uncertain and unpredictable of times.

The influence of Northcliffe and his newspapers on government policy during the war is indeed striking. As J. Lee Thompson points out, Northcliffe ‘intruded’ upon all the major issues of the conflict – from recruitment, to propaganda, to the composition of the cabinet itself. He became, according to Northcliffe historian, Richard Bourne, ‘a political and national figure…a stalwart of the war effort and maker and breaker of governments’.

Northcliffe’s political standing at the outbreak of war was very high partly because of his newspapers’ prescience in predicting that war would come. For the best part of a decade he had displayed personal antipathy toward Germany. Later in the war, he would reveal himself to be capable of repeating the crass, xenophobic stereotypes which became a feature of the Daily Mail’s coverage of the conflict. In 1916 he wrote, ‘Germans are naturally…..extremely cruel. German NCO’s taken prisoner with their men treat their private soldiers with a bullying savagery that is astonishing.’

But in 1914, as Adrian Bingham tells us, the Mail was styling itself as ‘the paper that foretold the war’. The aggressiveness of the Kaiser’s regime and the threat to the British Empire had been predicted. Such was the tone and frequency of anti German sentiment in the Northcliffe press some critics were moved to say that it was part of the reason for the heightened tensions in Europe which precipitated actual war. The poet Hilaire Belloc publicly charged Northcliffe with ‘scare journalism’.

If, in the days before Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914, there was any doubt that Britain should come to the aid of its allies then they weren’t articulated in the Northcliffe titles. The Times of July 31st stated, ‘Our duty is plain. We must make instant preparations to back our friends if they are made the subject of unjust attack….We cannot stand alone in a Europe dominated by any single power. ‘ The editorial of the Mail on August 3rd, the eve of war, was suitably grave, ‘The shadow of an immense catastrophe broods over Europe today…..our duty is to go forward into the valley of the shadow of death with courage and faith – with courage to suffer, with faith in God and our country’.

Once war had begun the Mail began (as did the political classes and the majority of the rest of the media, to be fair) to reduce the struggle to the simple binary oppostions of good versus evil. Germany became the evil hun intent spreading her pernicious influence across the globe whilst the Kaiser became the devil incarnate. As Phillip Knightley points out, in one solitary report on September 22nd, 1914 the German King was referred to as a ‘lunatic’ a ‘barbarian’ a ‘madman’ a ‘monster’ a ‘modern Judas’ and a ‘criminal monarch’.

Reported atrocities in Belgium, as the Germans caused the deaths of some 5,000 civilians, were seized upon as evidence of collective Teutonic barbarism. The Times of 8th of January , 1915 stated: ‘the stories of rape are so horrible in detail that their publication would seem almost impossible were it not for the necessity of showing to the fullest extent the nature of the wild beasts fighting under the German Flag.’

It seems that that the primary function of Northcliffe and his newspapers in the first years of the war was to act, as Bourne states, as a solidifier of British public opinion behind a total war. However, in 1917 the United States entered the  fray Prime Minister Lloyd George made him Head of the British war Mission in the US, evidently hoping that Northcliffe’s skills as a persuader and propagandist would be effective in a country where the anti war lobby was large and vociferous. Whether Northcliffe was successful in the regard of selling the righteousness of conflict to the dissenters is open to question. What is most certain though, is that the rosy picture he painted of life in the front line would have seemed ludicrous then, let alone some one hundred years later. In his 1917 essay for US families of troops entitled, ‘What to send your soldier’ he wrote: ‘at the front, health is so good….. The open-air life, the regular and plenteous feeding, the exercise, and the freedom from care and responsibility, keep the soldiers extraordinarily fit and contented.’

Northcliffe ended the war as director of propaganda in enemy countries with direct access to the Prime Minister. A clear indication of how close the whole of press was to government is illustrated by the fact that alongside him in 1918 Lord Beaverbrook, later the owner of Express newspapers, was made Minister of Information,  whilst Robert Donald, editor of the Daily Chronicle, was made director of propaganda in neutral countries.

Northcliffe and his newspapers were at the forefront of keeping the realities of war away from the British public. They were not interested in truth, the prevailing mentality was to make the war seem palatable and righteously necessary. What I’ve written elsewhere  bears repeating – as David Jessel, in his wonderful documentary on war reporting, highlighted : World War One was the first time that ordinary people began to realise that newspapers did not necessarily tell them the truth. What was being written in dispatches or analysis about the glorious progress toward victory was not the experience of those on either the war or home front. Lieutenant Ulrich Burke of the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment wrote in 1916, ‘When we did read the newspapers it made us angry…[Y]oud read in the newspapers, ‘No action on the Western Front’. It didn’t seem to warrant, when you’d lost fifty men killed and an equal number wounded, a mention. …..It used to annoy everybody terribly. Very little action on the Western Front.’

it seems apposite to end with the now infamous quote from Lloyd George, who in conversation in 1916 with C.P. Scott editor of the  Manchester Guardian said: “If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

An edited version of this article appears in the Conversation 


In the summer of 2010 to early 2011, the Department of History & Welsh History at the School of History, Archaeology & Religion at Cardiff University ran its ‘Welsh Voices of the Great War Online’ project. The mission was to gather material from the Welsh public related to the First World War. And, in the words of the academics involved in collating and analysing the material collected, the public shared an enormous amount of valuable and interesting material: written material, such as contemporary letters and diaries; visual material, such as photographs and sketches; and physical memorabilia, which includes everything from decorated items brought home from places such as Mesopotamia to German weapons picked up on the field of battle.

You can view some of the contributions provided by the public here  and the academic analysis here