When Paul Dacre defended the Daily Mail’s widely criticised article about Ralph Miliband in a comment piece for the Guardian last month, one aspect of his response that went unremarked was his description of the Daily Mail’s readers.
Those who read his newspaper are, he suggested, “ordinary people who are… too often ignored by today’s ruling elite”. He went on to say they have mostly unfulfilled dreams of a decent education and a health service they can trust; are suspicious of the state; and are “decent working Britons” who are “the backbone of this country” but are often subjected to an “unpleasant intellectual snobbery” from the left.
There is nothing surprising about that. It is what you would expect him to say.
But the picture he paints of Daily Mail readers as having modest hopes and dreams and being the victims of snobbery is very different to the way they were seen by Lord Northcliffe, the man who founded the Daily Mail in 1896.
Far from having modest hopes and dreams, Northcliffe thought Daily Mail’s readers were highly aspirational and, rather than being the victims of snobbery, might even be guilty of it themselves.
In his biography of Northcliffe, Tom Clarke tells the story of him giving an insight into his view of his readers while entertaining a group of journalists at a villa near Monte Carlo.
He asked the assembled journalists whether they realised Daily Mail readers had incomes of £1,000 per year (then a lot of money).
“Do you really mean that, Chief?” one of the journalists asked.
Northcliffe looked angry at being challenged, but then a smile formed on his face.
“Well, my boy,” he said, “they like to imagine themselves £1,000-a-year people and they certainly prefer reading the news and doings of £1,000-a-year people. That’s why I’ve brought you boys here, to learn how your readers live, or would like to live; so that you’ll know how to report things to their liking.”
“Well, that just sounds like reporting just for snobs,” one of the reporters replied.
“There are worst vices than snobbery,” said Northcliffe, sharply.
“Yes, Chief,” the reporter said, “but are we to forget the Man in the Street in our news?”
“Who is this man in the street?” Northcliffe asked. “He’s tomorrow’s £1,000-a-year man. So he hopes – and thinks. He likes reading news about people who have succeeded. He sees himself as one of them eventually and he’s flattered.”
“So we are to flatter our readers?” asked the reporter.
“What else have we ever done?” Northcliffe said. “And what’s wrong with that? Read Disraeli on flattery of royalty. If kings like it, why not the ordinary man? Our papers have flattered him all along by putting reading matter in his reach when pompous academic folk who taught him to read had forgotten to provide it. They created a demand and offered nothing to satisfy it. We did. We let the man in the street realise he was someone who mattered. That flattered him and won for us his admiration and support. Cynical? Not at all! We helped him to have hope and confidence; gave him something to aim at and strive for.”
The journalist Hamilton Fyfe, who worked for Northcliffe as a reporter for the Daily Mail and the editor for the Daily Mirror, also touched on the press baron’s view of the psychology of newspaper readers in his book, Sixty Years of Fleet Street.
Referring to Northcliffe’s concern that the Daily Mirror’s content was too focused on appealing to “cabmen”, Fyfe wrote: “He was firmly persuaded that newspaper readers were pleased if they thought they were reading something prepared for a class above their own.”
The contrast between Northcliffe’s and Dacre’s views of their readers is interesting, particularly as they are considered to be among the very best in newspaper history at understanding how to appeal to their readership.
But any difference in their approach may have as much to do with the people they are/were trying to appeal to as about any fundamental difference in outlook. While the Daily Mail has maintained its campaigning style and its willingness to take controversial positions over the last century, its readership has changed.
When the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, said in the late nineteenth century that the Daily Mail was produced “by office boys for office boys”, he meant it disparagingly. But his insult nevertheless captured the essence of irreverence and ambition that made it successful. These days, some three quarters of its readers are over 45 and so it would hardly be surprising if they were less aspirational.
Also, whatever their differences in approach, there is one thing Dacre and Northcliffe have absolutely in common: a sense of personal identify with their readers.
When Dacre was asked at the Leveson Inquiry whether he empathised with his readers’ fears and prejudices, he replied that he hoped so, before adding that “’anxieties’ rather than ‘prejudices’, is the word I’d use”.
Northcliffe was less reticent about using the word. When on that same balmy evening in the South of France, one of the journalists was bold enough to suggest that the Daily Mail reflected the prejudices of its readers, Northcliffe’s response was typically forthright.
“Prejudices?” he asked. “Well, most of the ordinary man’s prejudices are my prejudices – if you want to call them that – and are therefore the prejudices of my newspapers.”