Alfred Harmsworth, the son of an English barrister, was born in Chapelizod near Dublin, on 15th July, 1865. An indifferent scholar he was educated at St John's Wood, a small, private day school in London. He developed an interest in journalism when he began editing the school magazine.
After leaving school Harmsworth found work with Youth, an illustrated magazine for boys, owned by the Illustrated London News. In 1886 he was employed by Edward Iliffe to edit his magazine, Bicycling News.
The great publishing success at the time was Tit-Bits, a magazine that was selling 900,000 copies a month. In 1888 Harmsworth decided to join with his brother, Harold Harmsworth, to publish a similar type of magazine called Answers to Correspondents. He told his readers that every question sent in would be answered by post, and the answers of those of general interest would be published in the magazine. Answers to Correspondents was a great success and within four years he was selling over a million copies a week. This success helped him finance the children's paper, Comic Cuts and a woman's magazine, Forget-Me-Nots.
In 1894 decided to become involved in newspaper publishing. The Evening News was nearly bankrupt when purchased by Harmsworth for £25,000. With the help of Kennedy Jones, he dramatically changed the paper. Although he retained the traditional seven column layout, advertisements were reduced to a single column on the left. Six columns of news were presented in a crisper style with eye-catching headlines such as Was it Suicide or Apoplexy?, Another Battersea Scandal, Bones in Bishopgate, Hypnotism and Lunacy and Killed by a Grindstone. Harmsworth also began to use illustrations to break-up the text.
By 16th November the Evening News was able to state that sales had now reached 394,447. Harmsworth claimed this as a world record for a newspaper and added that sales would be over 500,000 if they owned more printing presses. By 1896 circulation approached 800,000 with annual profits of £50,000.
Harmsworth now decided to start a new paper based on the style of newspapers published in the USA. By the time the first issue of the Daily Mail appeared for the first time on 4th May, 1896, over 65 dummy runs had taken place, at a cost of £40,000. When published for the first time, the eight page newspaper cost only halfpenny. Slogans used to sell the newspaper included 'A Penny Newspaper for One Halfpenny' and 'The Busy Man's Daily Newspaper'.
The Daily Mail was the first newspaper in Britain that catered for a new reading public that needed something simpler, shorter and more readable than those that had previously been available. One new innovation was the banner headline that went right across the page. Considerable space was given to sport and human interest stories. It was also the first newspaper to include a woman's section that dealt with issues such as fashions and cookery.
Another innovation introduced by the Daily Mail was the publication of serials. Personally supervised by Harmsworth, the average length was 100,000 words. The opening episode was 5,000 words and had to have a dramatic impact on the readers. This was followed by episodes of 1,500 to 2,000 words every day.
The Daily Mail was an immediate success and circulation quickly achieved 500,000. With the strong interest in the Boer War in 1899 sales went to over a million. Harmsworth encouraged people to buy the Daily Mail for nationalistic reasons making it clear to his readers that his newspaper stood "for the power, the supremacy and the greatness of the British Empire".
Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate in the United States was so impressed with Harmsworth's achievements that he invited him to edit his New York World on the first day of the twentieth century. Harmsworth accepted the challenge and decided to change its size for the occasion. He gave this new small paper the name tabloid (compressed) that was later to become the main size of newspapers in Britain.
Harmsworth used his newspapers to promote inventions such as the telephone, electric light, photography, motorcycles, motor cars and aircraft. He was so passionate about cars that Harmsworth prohibited the editor of the Daily Mail from reporting details of automobile accidents.
On some issues Harmsworth held traditional views. He became concerned about the popularity of white bread and began a campaign to support the wholemeal loaf. In one article he wrote for the Daily Mail he argued that "better teeth, stronger bones, steadier nerves and a greater natural immunity against disease, particularly consumption, will be found if the people of England will discard the present white loaf for a more wholemeal bread".
In 1903 Harmsworth produced the first newspaper, The Daily Mirror, aimed at women. Kennedy Jones was put in charge of the project and spent £100,000 in publicity, including a gift scheme of gilt and enamel mirrors. On its first day, the circulation of the Daily Mirror was 276,000. However, sales dropped dramatically after the initial launch and by January, 1904, circulation was down to 24,000 and the newspaper was losing £3,000 a week.
Harmsworth decided to change his original plan. The editor, Mary Howarth, was replaced by Hamilton Fyfe, who changed it to a picture paper for men as well as women. As Harmsworth later recalled: "Some people say that a woman never really knows what she wants. It is certain she knew what she didn't want. She didn't want the Daily Mirror. I then changed the price to a halfpenny, and filled it full of photographs and pictures to see how that would do." Within a month sales had increased sevenfold.
Fyfe also experimented with using different types of photographs on the front-page. On 2nd April, 1904, the Daily Mirror published a whole page of pictures of Edward VII and his children, Henry, Albert and Mary. This was a great success and Harmsworth now realised the British public had an intense interest in photographs of the Royal Family.
Another successful innovation was the sponsorship of special events. In June, 1904, the Daily Mirror paid D. M. Weigal to drive a twenty-horse power Talbot on a 26,000 mile motor run. A month later the newspaper offered a hundred guinea prize for the first person to swim the Channel.
Harmsworth was offered a knighthood but turned it down saying he wanted to become a baronet. This he received on 23rd June, 1904. The following year he became the youngest ever peer of the realm when he took the title Lord Northcliffe. As he had once said that "when I want a peerage I will buy one" his enemies accused him of corruptly purchasing the honour.
In August 1905, the Daily Mirror began to pioneer the idea of the "exclusive". The first example was the "exclusive" interview with Lord Minto, the new Viceroy of India. This approach was popular and later that year the circulation of the newspaper had reached 350,000.
In 1905 Northcliffe obtained the Sunday Observer and three years later he purchased The Times for £320,000. Circulation of the paper had fallen to 38,000 and was losing money. Northcliffe re-equipped its outdated printing plant, reduced the newspaper's price by a penny to twopence, and appointed a new editor, Geoffrey Dawson. In March, 1914, Northcliffe reduced the price even further and it was not long before the one penny Times was selling 278,000 copies a day.
Harmsworth was a great supporter of flying and in 1906 offered a prize of £1,000 for the first airman to cross the English Channel from Calais to Dover and £10,000 prize for the first completed flight from London to Manchester. The idea seemed so preposterous that Punch Magazine decided to poke fun at Harmsworth by offering a prize of £10,000 for the first flight to Mars. However, by June 1910, both of Harmsworth's prizes had been won by French pilots.
Harmsworth was worried about the possible consequences of aircraft for the defence of Britain. He realised that it would soon be possible for foreign pilots to drop bombs on Britain. He wrote a letter warning Richard Haldane, Secretary of War, about his concerns, but failed to persuade the government that this danger existed.
Before the outbreak of the First World War Harmsworth was accused of being a war-monger. As early as 1897 he had sent the writer G. W. Steevens to Germany to produce a sixteen-part series entitled Under the Iron Heel. The articles praised the German Army and warned that Britain was in danger of being defeated in a war against Germany. Three years later Northcliffe wrote an editorial in the Daily Mail predicting a war with Germany
In October 1909 Northcliffe employed Robert Blatchford, the Socialist editor of the Clarion, to visit Germany to write a series of articles on the dangers that the Germans posed to Britain. Blatchford agreed with Northcliffe on the problem and in one article wrote: "I believe that Germany is deliberately preparing to destroy the British Empire" and warned that Britain needed to spend more money in defending itself against attack.
Northcliffe was determined to make the Daily Mail the official newspaper of the British Army. Every day 10,000 copies of the paper were delivered to the Western Front by military motor cars. He also had the revolutionary idea of using front-line soldiers as news sources. In August 1914 he announced a scheme where he would pay soldiers for articles written about their experiences.
During the early stages of the conflict Northcliffe created a great deal of controversy by advocating conscription and criticizing Lord Kitchener. In an article he wrote on 21st May, 1915, Northcliffe wrote a blistering attack on the Secretary of State for War: "Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell - the same kind of shell which he used largely against the Boers in 1900. He persisted in sending shrapnel - a useless weapon in trench warfare. He was warned repeatedly that the kind of shell required was a violently explosive bomb which would dynamite its way through the German trenches and entanglements and enable our brave men to advance in safety. This kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them."
Lord Kitchener was a national hero and Harmsworth's attack on him upset a great number of readers. Overnight, the circulation of the Daily Mail dropped from 1,386,000 to 238,000. A placard was hung across the Daily Mail nameplate with the words "The Allies of the Huns". Over 1,500 members of the Stock Exchange had a meeting where they passed a motion against the "venomous attacks of the Hamsworth Press" and afterwards ceremoniously burnt copies of the offending newspaper.
Although the leader of the government, Herbert Asquith, accused Northcliffe and his newspapers of disloyalty, he privately accepted that shell production was a real problem and he appointed David Lloyd George as the new Munitions Minister.
Northcliffe also attacked the government for the failed operation at Gallipoli. He wrote about the "forty thousand killed, missing or drowned; three hundred millions of treasury thrown away" and argued that even if the campaign had been successful "to win this war, the German line itself must be broken" on the Western Front.
Northcliffe continued his attacks on Lord Kitchener and when he heard he had been killed he remarked: "The British Empire has just had the greatest stroke of luck in its history." After the death of Kitchener he concentrated on having Herbert Asquith removed. Not only did he criticize Asquith as a man of inaction but claimed that Germany was afraid that David Lloyd George would become prime minister.
When Asquith resigned in December, 1916, the new prime minister, David Lloyd George decided that it was be safer to have Northcliffe in his government. However, Northcliffe refused an offer of a place in Lloyd George's cabinet as he knew it would undermine his ability to criticize the government.
Although David Lloyd George offered Northcliffe a cabinet position he disliked the man intensely. In a confidential letter to his Parliamentary Private Secretary he wrote at the time he claimed that: "Northcliffe is one of the biggest intriguers and most unscrupulous people in the country."
In March, 1918, Northcliffe was approached by Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express and the government's new Minister of Information. Northcliffe now agreed to join the cabinet and take charge of all propaganda directed at enemy countries. Over the next few months Northcliffe organised the dropping of four million leaflets behind enemy lines.
On Armistice Day Northcliffe resigned from the government. In the 1918 General Election Northcliffe refused to support David Lloyd George after he refused to accept a list of people who should be in his new government. During the election campaign Northcliffe called for Kaiser Wilhelm to be hanged and the imposition of severe financial penalties on Germany.
After the war Northcliffe retained his interest in new technology. He began a campaign to promote wireless communication by arranging for the Daily Mail to sponsor the world's first wireless concert. In an editorial Northcliffe argued: "Once before the Daily Mail stirred the national imagination to realise the vital importance of flying. It has now taken the lead in private wireless experiments with the object of cultivating national receptivity for the new science and of bringing minds in train for achievements to come."
Northcliffe's health deteriorated rapidly in 1921. He was suffering from streptococcus, an infection of the bloodstream, that damages the valves of the heart and causes kidney malfunction. Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, died in August, 1922. In his will he left three months' salary to each of his six thousand employees, a sum of £533,000.