Best bits of Hamilton Fyfe’s autobiography

hamilton fyfe
Hamilton Fyfe

I’ve just finished reading My Seven Selves, the autobiography of the journalist Hamilton Fyfe, who was an early editor of the Daily Mirror and later a First World War correspondent for the Daily Mail.

It’s by no means a classic autobiography (Fyfe’s history of Fleet Street is better) but I thought it would be worth noting down the best bits.

Winston Churchill

It is interesting to hear Fyfe looking back at the career of Winston Churchill and, writing in 1935, viewing him as someone who failed to become Prime Minister. Describing Churchill’s decision to join the Liberals, he wrote: “By his decision then Churchill, I consider, ruined his career. If he had supported the [Joseph] Chamberlain policy [of tariff reform] he would have established himself as future leader of the Conservative Party.”

Fyfe was also editor of the left-wing Daily Herald during the General Strike in 1926, also described Churchill’s stint as editor of the British Gazette (which was run by the Government during the strike):

“Churchill… was detested by his staff. They were all delighted when a leading article written by him was heavily censored. He sent for the censor, who did not disclose the nature of the interview, but who, after that, passed everything put before him, in case Churchill might have had some hand in it.”

The experience of First World War

Fyfe’s summary of what it was like to report on the bloodshed of the First World War is, I think, a really good description of the futility of war:

“The first cart of dead that I saw, legs sticking out stiffly, heads lolling on shoulders, all the poor bodies shovelled into a bit and covered with quicklime, made me wonder what their owners had been doing when they were called up, crammed into uniforms, and told to kill, maim, mutilate other men like themselves, with whom they had no quarrel. All of them had left behind many who would be grieved, perhaps beggared, by their taking off. And all for no purpose, for nothing.”

Daily Mail’s approach to Germans

In my biography of Daily Mail reporter Basil Clarke, I noted with admiration that one of Clarke’s reports mentioned an act of kindness by German soldiers. So it was interesting to hear about Fyfe’s experience of the Mail’s approach to Germans during its war coverage:

The war atmosphere in the Mail office was indicated by a reproving cable, [Thomas] Marlowe, the editor, sent me once when I had mentioned some kindly act by enemy soldiers. “Nothing wanted,” he said, “about good kind Germans. There are no good Germans but dead Germans.”

Ramsay MacDonald

Given the often difficult relationships between politicians and journalists, I was interested in Fyfe’s response when Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald wrote to him to complain his newspaper had become “a dumping-ground for rubbish which would be put in the waste-paper basket by anyone who knew his business, or who was not out for mischief.”

Fyfe replied: “I have had to do with so many Prime Ministers that I am not surprised by the petulant tone of your letter… You tell me I don’t know my business as an editor. Assuredly I have much yet to learn, but I have been in training for 30 years. You have been Prime Minister for eight months without any previous experience. Isn’t it just possible that you have some things to learn to?”

The Daily Mail and the shells crisis

Those who saw Britain’s Great War on the BBC this week would have seen Jeremy Paxman looking at an old copy of the Daily Mail.

Jeremy Paxman looks at the Daily Mail's shells article
Jeremy Paxman looks at the Daily Mail’s shells article

As Paxman suggested, it is difficult to reconcile the unassuming look of the news page with the impact the article had. It was perhaps the single most important article published during the First World War and one of the most incendiary leader columns in the history of British newspapers.

I thought it would be useful to set out the story behind it. And, like many stories about the newspaper industry, its origins lie in the fear of being outdone by the competition.

On May 20, 1915, with speculation rife about changes in government, Lord Northcliffe was in a foul mood. He was angry that the Mail was getting what he called a “good hiding” on the emerging story from rival newspapers such as the Daily Express and the Daily News.

But as well as being a newspaper proprietor who was feared for the great influence he wielded, Northcliffe was one the greatest journalists of his age and so he decided to take responsibility for the newsgathering himself.

Lord Northcliffe: one of the greatest journalists of his age
Lord Northcliffe: one of the greatest journalists of his age

“It is a very big crisis,” he announced, “and we haven’t got a man to get the news. I will go out tonight and get this thing myself.”

He was not, in fact, successful in managing to get the inside track on any planned government changes. Instead, he returned with something different: a leader column criticising the type of shells the British were using and laying the blame at the door of Lord Kitchener, the War Secretary.

There was nothing exceptional about this. As Northcliffe’s biographer, Paul Ferris, has pointed out, the article contained neither new news nor fresh opinion, as The Times and the Manchester Guardian had already raised the issue of the shells and the Guardian had even called for Kitchener to go.

But what was different about Northcliffe’s article was its force. Given that Kitchener was a national hero at a time of struggle for national survival, the bluntness with which Northcliffe accused him of having caused the deaths of thousands of British soldiers was extraordinary:

“The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shells – the same kind of shell which he used 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 safely. The kind of shell our poor soldiers have has caused the death of thousands of them.”

The staff at the Mail fully realised the impact this article was likely to have. As they were preparing to go to press, Andrew Caird, the paper’s managing director, approached his colleague, Tom Clarke. “Have you read the leader?” he asked. “We are going to break some windows tomorrow.”

Kitchener: "caused the death of thousands"
Kitchener: “caused the death of thousands”

And break some windows they did. Tom Clarke later wrote that the article “fell like a bombshell on amazed England” and the public responded with outrage that the Mail had dared to condemn Kitchener so directly.

That morning, it quickly became clear that the public mood was turning against the Mail, but that Northcliffe himself seemed relaxed about the storm he had provoked. He even joked with journalists that “the verbose author of the leading article looked like getting the paper into trouble”.

But as the day went on, Daily Mail journalists became increasingly worried by the reaction to the shells article. All day, the phone lines were jammed with people calling to complain and hundreds of angry letters and telegrams arrived. Copies of that day’s paper were burned in the street and at the London Stock Exchange and an “Allies of the Hun” sign was hung at the Daily Mail’s office. The situation became so tense that a police guard was put on the gate in case public anger boiled over.

“The view of people in the office is that the Chief did not realise last night the size of the gun he was firing,” Tom Clarke recorded in his diary. Clarke even seemed to think the article so provocative that the Government might order Northcliffe to be arrested. There is no evidence  this was the case, but the fact that Clarke thought it was a possibility shows just how serious the situation seemed.

But when Northcliffe arrived at the office at 5pm that evening, he was in ebullient mood. Wearing a blue suit with a spotted tie and a green hat and chewing a big cigar, he dropped into an easy chair and told the staff he had written another article for the following day’s paper. “I have thrown off another string of pearls for you,” he announced.

Not even being shown the scathing criticism of him in that evening’s newspapers seemed bother him. “That shows they don’t know the truth,” he said dismissively.

In fact, Northcliffe was so adamant that he had done the right thing that he grandly declared that “the circulation of the Daily Mail may go down to two and the Times [which he also owned] to one – I don’t care”.

And as unpopular as his article might have been, the substance of it was correct. As time went on, it became clear that there was, indeed, a serious problem and, while Kitchener kept his place in government, responsibility for munitions was passed to David Lloyd George.

So from an unpromising start, the Mail emerged from the shells crisis as the clear victor and, unsurprising, it did not let people forget it. When it would take contentious positions later in the War, which it  did on a number of occasions, it would  offer the shells crisis as proof that it could be trusted even if its position was an unpopular one.

The shells crisis seemed to confirm the independent-minded nature of the British press in general, and  the Northcliffe press in particular, and some people have even argued that the fact the press was relatively free to criticise the conduct of the War was one of the reasons the Allies ended up winning it.

But while a proud episode in the history of the British press, the journalist Hamilton Fyfe has argued that, paradoxically, the whole thing actually diminished public trust in newspapers.

“The mass of people remembered only the abuse and the burning and the official assurances that all was well,” he wrote, “and belief in the newspapers sank to a lower level.”

Did Lord Northcliffe invent the phrase “When a man bites a dog”?

Lord Northcliffe
Lord Northcliffe – did he come up with the saying?

One of the best known definitions of news is that when a dog bites a man, that is not news because it happens so often. But when a man bites a dog, that is news.

It is a great quote; it’s memorable and concisely gets across the essence of what gives something news value.

I had always thought it was from Daily Mail founder Lord Northcliffe, but it seems he may not have been the author of it after all.

While reading Hamilton Fyfe’s history of the British newspaper industry, Sixty Years of Fleet Street, recently, I came across a passage about it. Fyfe suggests that, while Northcliffe often used it, it was actually Charles Dana, the American newspaper editor, who said it first.

Fyfe wrote:

Northcliffe was very fond of that ancient yarn about the nature of news and the definition given by Charles Dana, a famous American editor: “If a dawg bites a man, that isn’t noos. If a man bites a dawg, that is.” Dana meant that ordinary everyday occurrences were not worth notice; it was the unusual, the exceptional, that the public cared to hear about.

Whoever came up with it, it has stuck. Not only is it regularly used to explain what news is, but it has also inspired a film and a PR agency.

It also means that any time a man does actually bite a dog, it is a story journalists can hardly disguise their glee at getting the chance to cover.

Take this Reuters article about an incident as India with the “It’s News!” in-joke in the headline (which seems a bit less funny when you get to the end and discover the dog has been beaten to death) or this about a man who bites a police dog.

But the earliest example I’ve found is about a man in London who bit an Alsatian in 1970. “I had no intention of hurting the dog,” said the man during the ensuing court case. “It was just an issue between me and him. He bit me, so I bit him back.”

UPDATE: I’m very pleased that this post has inspired the brilliant Quote Investigator blog to do a post on the origin of “man bites dog”. Its verdict? It’s unclear who said it first.

Hamilton Fyfe on newspaper readers and the future of journalism

Hamilton Fyfe
Hamilton Fyfe: “Newspaper reading… is like drug-taking or cigarette-smoking.”

I have just finished reading Sixty Years of Fleet Street by Hamilton Fyfe, a history of British journalism from the late 1800s to just after the Second World War.

It is brilliant, packed with anecdotes from someone who himself played a significant role in newspaper history, rescuing the Daily Mirror after its disastrous launch in 1903 and later writing the infamous report about the Allied retreat from Mons in 1914.

The bit that stood out most is how Fyfe was left with a rather bleak view of newspaper readers and about the apparent lack of enthusiasm with which they were consumed.

He wrote:

Newspaper reading has become a habit. It is like drug-taking or cigarette-smoking, not caused so much by the pleasure of indulgence in it as by the discomfort of abstention from it. Millions of men and women read newspapers, not for information, but to pass the time, to prevent thinking, to escape from the pressure of boredom or bad luck.

Few people take a real interest in news of any kind. They like a murder case, but would as soon read one of 20 years ago as that of yesterday. They are fond of gossip about film stars, but do not much care whether it is true or not. They enjoy being shown that aristocrats are a poor lot, vicious and idle, but are equally ready next day to believe them hard-working, self-sacrificing, patriotic men and women.

So was he right? Whatever you think, it seems a very depressing view to hold at the end of a long and distinguished career.

So was he right? Well, maybe, but it is certainly a depressing view take at the end of a long and distinguished career.

He added to this with a concern about the effect that increasing pressure on news resources was having on the ability of newspapers to proactively seek out news.

“Staff reporters are less and less in evidence,” he wrote, adding that “we have almost gone back to the antiquated method of sitting and waiting for stuff to be sent in.”

It is a lament that many people working in the media today will relate to all too easily.

At least, though, Fyfe held real hope for the future.

When the book was published in 1949, newspapers were still coming to terms with the rise of radio news. Counter intuitively, given that it offered people another way of getting news, Fyfe saw the radio as a good thing for the newspaper industry.

He envisaged a future where there would be a greater number of newspapers with smaller circulations and he believed this would result in better quality journalism. “Far better that 2 million people should support 20 papers with circulations of some 100,000 apiece than pay their 2 million pennies to one,” he wrote.

“Journalists are most of them agreed that the defects pointed out in the Report [of the Royal Commission of the Press in 1949] would tend to disappear if there were a larger number of newspapers with moderate circulations, appealing to different classes of reader and representing different points of view, instead of a very small number with enormous circulations,” he added.

“The Press will then be in the hands of men and women with a sense of responsibility to those whom they serve, admitting an obligation to give of their best and to aim high… The papers they produce… may have more to read in them and will certainly contain more mental nourishment.”

When Fyfe wrote this, he was thinking about what Fleet Street might look like 60 years into the future, which takes us up to 2009. And, as almost always happens with predictions for over half a century hence, he got it wrong. While the days of two newspapers (the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express) selling 4 million copies per day may have been gone forever, this is because overall newspaper circulation has gone down rather than because of a more level playing field.

But as wrong as he may have been about the future of the newspaper industry, doesn’t his prediction feel a bit more right when you think about the media as a whole? Isn’t there something about his vision of much more diverse media and of closer relationships between writing staff and readerships that hints, however vaguely, at the kind of journalism the internet is now in the process of creating?

Paul Dacre and Lord Northcliffe’s differing views of Daily Mail readers

Pauil Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail
Paul Dacre: Mail readers victims of “unpleasant intellectual snobbery”

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.

Lord Northcliffe: founder of the Daily Mail
Lord Northcliffe: Their “prejudices are my prejudices”

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.”