Tabloid Century

The Popular Press in Britain, 1896 to the present

by Adrian Bingham (Author) Martin Conboy (Author)
Monographs VIII, 258 Pages
Series: Peter Lang Ltd.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction: The Rise of the Tabloid
  • The cultural roots of the tabloid
  • The emergence of the modern popular daily press
  • The birth of the modern tabloid
  • The tabloid unleashed
  • Chapter 1: War
  • Empire, patriotism and the First World War
  • The dangerous legacies of the Great War
  • ‘Standing alone’: The Second World War
  • Cold War, decolonisation and ‘decline’
  • Iraq, Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’
  • Chapter 2: Politics
  • Tabloid politics
  • Right-wing dominance 1900–1930s
  • Reform and reconstruction: 1930s–1960s
  • Right rises again: 1970s–1990s
  • Shift to the centre? 1990s–present
  • Chapter 3: Monarchy and Celebrity
  • Duty and distance: The monarchy before the Second World War
  • Society, gossip and the emergence of modern celebrity
  • Growing intrusiveness: Monarchy in mid-century
  • Mid-century celebrity culture
  • The convergence of royalty and celebrity: The pursuit of Diana
  • Caution to the winds: Celebrity coverage in the 1980s and after
  • Chapter 4: Gender and Sexuality
  • The Northcliffe model
  • The sexualisation of the popular press: Problem pages
  • The sexualisation of the popular press: Pin-ups
  • The popular press and homosexuality
  • The popular press and the ‘permissive society’
  • Feminism, post-feminism and the appeal to women
  • Chapter 5: Class
  • Reaching the suburban middle classes
  • Winning over the working classes
  • Rewriting class in an age of affluence
  • The decline of the industrial working class
  • Defending ‘middle England’
  • Chapter 6: Race and Nation
  • Britain ruling the waves
  • War, Empire and the rewriting of patriotism
  • Immigration and the emergence of multi-cultural Britain
  • Keeping Europe at bay?
  • Race and nation in the twenty-first century
  • Conclusion: The Life and Death of the Tabloid Model
  • Notes
  • Introduction: The Rise of the Tabloid
  • Chapter 1: War
  • Chapter 2: Politics
  • Chapter 3: Monarchy and Celebrity
  • Chapter 4: Gender and Sexuality
  • Chapter 5: Class
  • Chapter 6: Race and Nation
  • Conclusion: The Life and Death of the Tabloid Model
  • Index


The popular newspaper was one of the most successful products of the twentieth century. After the launch of the Daily Mail in 1896, the habit of regular newspaper reading gradually spread so that by the early 1950s around 85 per cent of the population saw a paper every day and the market was effectively saturated. The British public consumed more newspapers per head than any other nation, and the leading London titles, such as the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and the News of the World, achieved some of the biggest circulations in the world. Although readership levels declined in the second half of the century as competition from other media forms, particularly television, intensified, newspapers retained much of their political and cultural power, and they shaped British society in countless ways. They provided millions of people with one of their main windows on the world. This book examines how the popular press represented Britain to its readers, not only narrating major public events such as wars, political campaigns and coronations, but also describing and defining personal and social identities such as gender, sexuality, class and race. This mixture of public and private, serious and trivial, lies at the heart of the tabloid model and helps to explain its popularity and resilience.

There are, of course, plenty of histories of the press, but most of them focus on the production of newspapers – on the owners, editors, reporters and printers who wrote, packaged or paid for the news – rather than on their content. Those that do examine content tend to look at specific journalistic genres, such as war reporting, or limit their focus to particular titles or periods. This book sets out some of the broad patterns of continuity and change in popular newspaper content over the twentieth century in the belief that understanding the political and social impact of the press requires an awareness of this wider context. We hope that it will be of value both to readers interested in the press’s past, and also to those wanting to learn more about the trajectories that have led to the high-profile ← vii | viii → controversies and debates of recent years. Such expansiveness inevitably means much has had to be omitted or passed over quickly. We have generally focused our attention on the market-leading national newspapers, and on dailies more than Sundays. Some important types of content, such as sports reporting or crime news, receive little coverage, and we have not been able to explore national or regional variation in the detail we would have liked. We hope that the payback for such selectivity is a breadth rarely found in other volumes.

This book attempts another difficult balancing act. We have tried to pitch our writing some way between the chatty reminiscences found in many Fleet Street memoirs, and the dense and self-referential writing of much of the academic literature. We have tried to synthesise the scholarly work in a serious but accessible way, adding plenty of colour from the tabloids themselves. For those interested in delving more deeply, we have included references to the best work in the field.

This book has taken longer to write than we had anticipated, and we’d like to thank everyone at Peter Lang, especially Lucy Melville, for her patience. The Departments of History and Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield have provided pleasant and friendly working environments, and the events hosted by our Centre for the Study of Journalism and History have brought plenty of intellectual stimulation from many scholars working in this area. On a personal note, Adrian would like to thank Felicity, Anna and Thea for all their love, support and smiles, and Martin has benefitted as always from the dynamic patience of Lara and Simone. ← viii | 1 →

Introduction: The Rise of the Tabloid

On 1 January 1901 the readers of the New York World woke up to find that their newspaper had shrunk. Some thought it was a hoax, but it was actually an experiment – and a sign of the future. Joseph Pulitzer, the World’s owner and one of the leading figures in American journalism, had invited Alfred Harmsworth, a thirty-five year-old Anglo-Irish businessman who had made his name in Britain by launching the Daily Mail five years earlier, to take control of his paper on what contemporaries regarded as the first day of the twentieth century. Harmsworth decided to take the opportunity to test his ideas about how journalism could be transformed for the modern age. He reduced the newspaper pages to half their usual broadsheet size, and told reporters to boil down stories to no more than 250 words. The front page declared the paper was ‘The Daily Time-Saver’, providing ‘All the News in Sixty Seconds’. Harmsworth told readers that ‘by my system of condensed or tabloid journalism hundreds of working hours can be saved each year’. The term ‘tabloid’, a contraction of ‘tablet’ and ‘alkaloid’, had been copyrighted by the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome and Co. in 1884 to advertise compressed medicines in the form of small tablets. It now provided the perfect metaphor for Harmsworth’s paper, conveying the combination of reduced dimensions with speed and power. The World was sold out by 9 in the morning and extra editions were printed as curious readers flocked to see ‘the 20th Century newspaper’. Professional journalists were sceptical, and the experiment would not be soon repeated. The world was not yet ready for the ‘tabloid’, and its punchy, digested journalism, but it was a powerful marker of things to come.1

The tabloid that eventually dominated twentieth-century British journalism would combine many of the innovations of Harmsworth’s World, including its size and emphasis on concise writing, with a number of other populist elements: chatty, vernacular language, a visual style based on bold ← 1 | 2 → black headlines and eye-catching images, and content driven by the insistent pursuit of sensation and scandal. It emerged from an extended process of editorial experimentation and consumer testing over several decades. Harmsworth’s Daily Mail, Britain’s first morning daily newspaper aimed squarely at the mass market, was full of brightly written human-interest stories, but it retained a broadsheet format and a respectably conservative visual appearance. In 1903, Harmsworth tried something different, launching the Daily Mirror in the half-broadsheet size, and using more illustration, but its conventional language and tone marked it out as a publication aimed at a (lower) middle-class readership. It was not until the Mirror underwent an editorial reinvention in the mid-1930s, drawing inspiration from the brash, populist approach of American city papers such as the New York Illustrated Daily News, that it adopted a recognisably tabloid style. For all its subsequent popularity – the Mirror’s circulation steadily rose and it became Britain’s best-selling paper in 1949 – its main rivals, the Express, the Mail and the Herald, all stuck to their broadsheet format. It was only with the introduction of an even more brazenly sensational title, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, in 1969, that a wave of tabloidisation occurred. By the end of the 1970s, the popular market had fully converted to the tabloid model. Indeed, so appealing was the new format that by 2004, the most stolidly traditional paper of all, The Times, had adopted it, even if it preferred to describe itself as a ‘compact’ to underline its stylistic distance from the tabloid ‘red-tops’.

This book explores how the tabloids reported the century that they dominated. We employ a broad definition of the term ‘tabloid’ to include all the papers that embraced the populism, accessibility and brevity of Harmsworth’s World, whatever the size of their pages or their typographical style. Before examining the tabloids’ content, though, we offer a brief overview of the editorial strategies, commercial pressures and audience expectations that did so much to shape it. This Introduction starts by outlining the deep cultural roots of the tabloids, before turning to the three waves of editorial innovation – at the turn of the twentieth century, and then during the 1930s and the 1970s – that led to the triumph of the tabloid model. ← 2 | 3 →

The cultural roots of the tabloid

The popular dynamic which is at the heart of tabloid journalism preceded the emergence of tabloid newspapers or even popular mass newspapers. With the development of printing in Western Europe from the fifteenth century, a range of newssheets and political pamphlets was targeted at the landowning and commercial classes. The market for these relatively expensive offerings was limited, however, and printers seeking to make money turned to chapbooks and printed ballad broadsheets which were distributed on a wider scale. Cuckolds, scolding wives, terrifying monsters, freaks of nature, saints and kings, great heroes in battle, villains, murderers and moral exemplars were all common fare. These characters took their place within narrative structures which provided a great deal of continuity with the established patterns of popular culture. Printed ballads, in particular, could generate profit for both printer and hawker by combining entertainment with a commentary on topical events. They have been described as ‘a kind of musical journalism, the forerunner of the modern prose newspapers, and a continuation of the folk tradition of minstrelsy’.2

Early popular printed materials, like the modern tabloid, sought to make themselves accessible and, where possible, visually appealing. At a time when literacy rates were low, they were designed to be sung or read out loud to groups of listeners. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was a great deal of continuity between popular printed material and the characteristics of the spoken language of the ordinary people. Cheap woodcut illustrations were often included to attract those with limited or no reading ability. These ephemeral printed ballads and almanacs, sold on the streets and at markets, provided a carefully reworked version of everyday life. They claimed the allegiance of the people commercially and even politically.3

Until the early nineteenth century, regular periodical print publications, such as newspapers and magazines, were largely restricted to the wealthier classes, not least because their price was inflated by the various duties and taxes imposed by a state fearful of the circulation of popular ← 3 | 4 → literature. These included a stamp duty imposed on every page, thereby encouraging the production of densely packed broadsheets, as well as advertising and paper duties. The poor had to make do with more ephemeral literature. It was only in the Napoleonic period that weekly newspapers targeted readers outside the traditional circles of political and commercial elites, as publishers and editors such as Thomas Wooler, William Cobbett and Richard Carlile engaged in a critique of political corruption and the plight of the rural poor. They constituted highly successful attempts at addressing the common people, representing them and their concerns in a direct vernacular aimed at constructing a tangible, effective and radical political community. These papers, cheap, popular and politically radical, were swept away by the passing of the draconian Six Acts in 1819 but they left their mark in the fabric of the popular periodicals which followed. William Benbow, who had been an agent for Cobbett, set up the Rambler’s Magazine in 1822, which published material in the French libertine tradition, illustrating the sexual depravity of the aristocracy and clergy. John Cleave’s Weekly Police Gazette from 1834 was a short-lived but influential indication of how the sensationalism of the courts could provide scandal and entertainment for working-class readers. Both sexual and criminal sensationalism could stake claims for radical intent in that they exposed the wrongdoings and corruption of the establishment.

The radical tradition, which reemerged in the 1830s, found that its clear political goals were often compromised by the desire for the sensational which had become established within the popular press. The radical publisher Henry Hetherington introduced a periodical broadsheet entitled Twopenny Dispatch which provided a diet of ‘Fun and frolic’, ‘Police intelligence’, ‘Murders, Rapes, Suicides, Burnings, Maimings, Theatricals, Races, Pugilism’ – in effect, everything which tickled the popular public’s fancy. But the more seriously committed, class-oriented newspaper had not disappeared from the streets. The Chartist Northern Star was published successfully between 1837 and 1852 with a circulation rising to half a million. Identifiably a newspaper rather than a political pamphlet, it helped to focus and sustain the Chartist community by providing information about the movement, fund-raising and supporting petitions to Parliament. Using a didactic rhetoric which claimed to speak on behalf of the working-class ← 4 | 5 → readership and assist in the improvement of their lot, it drew upon and extended the political traditions of the open-air political meeting.4

In the middle of the nineteenth century, changes to Britain’s economic, political and cultural environment created new commercial opportunities for publishers. Greater prosperity increased the spending power of many ordinary families, while the emergence of a range of new technologies, including the train, the telegraph, steam printing and the rotating cylinder press, enabled news to be collected, printed and circulated far more efficiently than ever before. Over the same period, the state gradually lifted the heavy burden it had imposed on the market. Advertising duty was halved in 1833, and abolished in 1853; paper duty was halved in 1836 and abolished in 1861, and stamp duty was reduced by three-quarters in 1836 and abolished in 1855. A new wave of publishers emerged who drew on earlier radical rhetoric but diluted it with entertainment to appeal to the tastes of advertisers and less directly political readers. Sunday newspapers targeted working-class families looking for reading material on their day of leisure. They combined the vernacular and the sensational with aspects of popular theatre and fictional narratives, enlivened with copious woodcut and engraved illustrations. The best known and most commercially successful of these papers were Lloyd’s Illustrated London Newspaper (1842, subsequently renamed Lloyd’s Weekly News), the News of the World (1843) and Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper (1850). From this point on, any newspaper aiming at a popular audience had to design a market-orientated mode of address to its readers: entertaining them, informing them but most of all appealing to them in a language that represented their everyday experiences.

By the final decades of the century, the commercial possibilities of mass publishing were moving beyond the Sunday market into weekly magazines and then daily newspapers. One of the most influential and successful experiments was George Newnes’s penny weekly Tit-Bits, launched in 1881, and soon reaching a circulation of around 700,000 copies. The magazine provided brief articles on a wide range of subjects designed for easy reading – dismissed by condescending contemporaries as ‘snippet-journalism’ – and sought to develop what has been identified as a ‘sympathetic intimacy’, a direct, personal and informal form of address which became central to the popular market. Alfred Harmsworth himself was an early contributor, and ← 5 | 6 → his first entry into the world of publishing, in June 1888 at the age of 22, was to launch an imitator, Answers to Correspondents. Answers supplied intriguing and unusual nuggets of information in response to readers’ questions, and was soon a resounding success: within four years it was selling over a million copies a week. The magazine’s profitability enabled Harmsworth to set up a company, Amalgamated Press, to launch other titles, including the pictorial magazine Comic Cuts, and the women’s weekly, Home Chat.5

National and local daily evening newspapers also started to develop brighter, more accessible and less politically dominated content – an approach that the critic Matthew Arnold famously described in 1888 as the ‘new journalism’ – for a broader readership. Its most famous proponent was W. T. Stead, who from 1883 was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, a London evening paper. Stead introduced into the British market innovative American techniques in interviewing, cross-head layout and aggressive self-promotion. His most striking editorial strategy, though, was to run sensational campaigns, most notoriously the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ series of 1885 investigating child prostitution, which ended with Stead in prison for procuring a thirteen-year-old girl. Other titles, such as T. P. O’Connor’s Star, followed suit, providing sensational daily journalism with a radical edge, and covering stories such as the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders with a grim relish.

This new and vibrant style of journalism changed the relationship between newspaper and reader. Newspapers cultivated the impression of a close bond with their readers, assisted by sub-editors ensuring a more consistent ‘voice’ across the publication and journalists adopting a more personalised tone. The popular press in Britain had, by the late nineteenth century, shifted from representing the collective interests of working people as a way of enabling political change to expressing those interests within market-orientated imperatives. They sought to appeal to the tastes of ordinary readers, report on their pastimes and entertainments, and voice their frustrations and complaints, with a more individualistic, rather than class-based, form of address. For all the focus on a ‘new journalism’, though, newspapers and magazines retained many of the longer traditions of popular print culture which had already proved their commercial worth. ← 6 | 7 →

The emergence of the modern popular daily press

Having amassed a considerable fortune, as well as a wealth of experience, in eight years of publishing popular magazines, Alfred Harmsworth in May 1896 transformed the newspaper business with the launch of the Daily Mail. Harmsworth applied the populist techniques previously found in the Sunday and evening press, weekly magazines, and American journalism, to the more traditional and conventional, but more high profile and culturally significant, morning newspaper market. Hamilton Fyfe, a trusted contributor, recalled that ‘the Chief’ wanted his new paper to ‘touch life at every point’: ‘He saw that very few people wanted politics, while a very large number wanted to be entertained, diverted, relieved a little while from the pressure or tedium of their everyday affairs.’ Like Stead, Harmsworth sought to create news as well as reporting it by launching campaigns on a wide range of issues – from the type of bread that people ate to the hats they wore – generating controversy and publicising his papers in the process. He also reached out explicitly to female readers, a previously neglected newspaper audience, by ensuring that the Mail provided the kinds of material that had been successful in women’s publications – features on fashion and domestic life, serialised fiction, and a gossip column. At the same time, he understood that the morning daily market had particular requirements and expectations, so he ensured that the Mail had a ‘respectable’ appearance in terms of typography and illustration. He accepted the convention of placing advertisements, rather than news, on the front page. Harmsworth wanted to the Mail to be popular, but not vulgar, and he disapproved of the use of slang and Americanisms.6

As significant as the Mail’s editorial template was the business model that it developed, in which high levels of investment in staff, technology and publicity were matched by large revenues from mass readership and lucrative advertising. Harmsworth changed the economic basis of the daily press by placing much greater emphasis on the competition for circulation, printing ‘certified’ figures detailing the exact numbers sold every month. With retailing and consumer industries developing rapidly, and branding ← 7 | 8 → increasingly significant, advertising space was becoming ever more valuable, especially where large audiences could be delivered. The Mail ’s advertising department began to expand the space allocated to display advertising, especially for the products of major drapers and department stores. This illustrated advertising gradually came to occupy a central place in newspaper finances; indeed one advertising historian argues that these pioneering operations in the Mail ‘effectively ushered in the industrialization of the press’. Here was a powerful extra incentive to chase the mass circulation: the greater the number of readers that could be promised to advertisers, the more expensive was each inch of space. Circulation managers chartered trains and devised elaborate delivery systems to ensure that newspapers produced in London circulated as widely as possible throughout Britain. The task was considerable easier when there were multiple production sites and in 1900 the Mail opened a printing plant in Manchester that produced an edition for northern England and Scotland. The Mail was the first paper to become a truly national, rather than metropolitan, operation.7

The Daily Mail was a commercial triumph, soon reaching a circulation of a million copies a day – well beyond any previous daily newspaper. Harmsworth’s revolution ushered in the tabloid century, where developments in the popular newspaper began to drive the practices of the entire press and beyond that, the media in general. The very scale of his success left other proprietors little choice but to adapt their newspapers to match or improve upon his template. Inevitably others took up the challenge.

Harmsworth’s main rival was Arthur Pearson, a year younger than the Mail proprietor and with a striking similar career trajectory. He worked as a manager at Tit-Bits before launching a popular magazine, Pearson’s Weekly, and a successful publication for women, Home Notes. In 1900, he joined Harmsworth in the newspaper market by launching the Daily Express. He imported American techniques, most notably by placing news – rather than advertising – on the front pages to encourage street sales, and introducing banner headlines to underline this immediate visual appeal. The paper’s Americanisms and abbreviated writing style were both reinforced by the hiring of several American journalists, notably Ralph Blumenfeld, ← 8 | 9 → who served as editor from 1904 to 1932. Although relatively successful at first, it was not until the Canadian businessman Lord Beaverbrook bought the Express in 1916 that it began seriously to rival the other daily popular newspapers. Beaverbrook had strong political opinions and launched numerous campaigns – the famous ‘Red Crusader’ appeared on the masthead in 1933 – but it was his considerable investment in a first-class news service, bright design, and enticing serialisations, combined with the optimistic, aspirational tone that he encouraged, that enabled the Express to catch and then surpass the increasingly gloomy Mail in the late 1920s and early 1930s.8

Before the First World War, the Mail’s main rival was, remarkably, another paper established by Alfred Harmsworth: the Daily Mirror. The Mirror was launched in 1903 as a daily newspaper specifically for women. Encouraged by the success of a similar paper in France, La Fronde, and hopeful of securing lucrative advertising revenue, Harmsworth established the Mirror with an all-female staff under the original editor of the Mail’s women’s columns, Mary Howarth. The paper was a spectacular failure, eventually losing him £100,000. Complacent after a string of successes, Harmsworth had skimped on the essential preparatory work and market research. Misreading the demands of his audience, the Mirror’s mixture of crime and human-interest stories, fashion advice, and domestic articles did not hit the right note for a ‘high class’ journal for ‘ladies’.

Harmsworth retrieved the situation with another of his commercial masterstrokes: turning the Mirror into an illustrated paper. Although woodcut illustrations had featured prominently in weekly magazines and newspapers during the nineteenth century, daily papers generally remained visually austere, and had found it difficult to take advantage of the emergence of photography. In 1890 one notable London illustrated weekly, the Graphic, run by the artist and entrepreneur William Luson Thomas, launched a spin-off publication, the Daily Graphic, which the following year printed the first half-tone newspaper photograph, featuring George Lambert, a Liberal parliamentary candidate. The Daily Graphic’s printing technology could only produce 10,000 illustrated copies an hour, however, and the paper’s editorial team demonstrated little flair in appealing ← 9 | 10 → to the emerging mass market. Harmsworth spotted an opportunity to take advantage of new techniques enabling the rapid rotary printing of half-tone photographs to launch a modern, illustrated paper that would be aimed at both sexes but would have a different appeal to the Mail. The Daily Illustrated Mirror, as the paper briefly became, demoted politics and the public sphere even further than had the Mail and the Express, in favour of human-interest stories and feature articles. Its main appeal rested on its pioneering photography, however, which at certain dramatic moments – such as when it famously secured pictures of the recently deceased Edward VII – enabled it to reach circulations exceeding the Mail. But its unusual tabloid format and its partiality to pictures of glamorous society women allowed it to be stereotyped by traditionalist critics as more of a fashion magazine than a newspaper, a ‘lowbrow’, ‘feminine’ publication not to be taken seriously. Such condescension did not prevent others recognising the commercial opportunities, however, and in 1908 Edward Hulton launched a rival, the Daily Sketch.9

In little more than a decade from the birth of the Mail in 1896, therefore, a number of imitators and rivals had been launched and a flourishing popular daily newspaper market had emerged. These newspapers were the most potent symbols of the commercialised mass culture that was to characterise the twentieth century, and their owners became wealthy figures with a powerful public profile. Alfred Harmsworth was ennobled in 1905 as Lord Northcliffe (the name he will be given hereafter in this text), and his brother Harold, who oversaw the financial operation of Associated Newspapers and would inherit the papers on Northcliffe’s death in 1922, soon became Lord Rothermere. In this new market, high circulations, and thus high profits, could only be maintained by concentrating on a popular formula. Alternative editorial strategies, reminiscent of the older radical press, were hard to sustain, as the Daily Herald discovered.

The Herald had started as a strike sheet founded by print workers in 1911, and the following year George Lansbury, a prominent Christian socialist and Ben Tillett, a trade union leader, transformed it into a daily newspaper with capital of only £300. The Herald was dedicated to ← 10 | 11 → expounding the workers’ perspective against the ‘dope’ peddled by the capitalist press, but with a lack of resources and investment, and a left-wing stance and relatively low readership that did little to entice advertisers, it struggled to compete. During the First World War it barely managed to survive as a weekly, broadly maintaining an anti-war stance, before relaunching as a daily in 1919. The editorial team refused, however, to dilute its political beliefs or compromise with the populism that characterised the daily market. Human-interest stories and racy crime and divorce reports were regarded as unwelcome distractions that merely obscured from the worker the need for collective political action. Ernest Bevin, a trade union leader involved in the running of the Herald, insisted in 1919 that ‘Labour’s press must be a real educational factor, provoking thought and stimulating ideas’; it should not ‘be full of the caprices of princes, the lubricities of courts and the sensationalism produced by display of the sordid.’ The Trades Union Congress (TUC) formally invested in the paper in 1922, but its political purity and relative lack of resources ensured that it could not compete with rivals such as the Mail and Express. By the end of 1926 it was still only receiving 20 per cent of its revenue from advertising, compared to more than 50 per cent brought in by the market leaders.10

Finally, in 1929, the TUC accepted that it could not buck the market, and sold half of its stake to J. S. Elias’s Odhams Press, the commercially successful publishers of the weekly magazine John Bull and the popular Sunday paper, the People. The terms of the sale ensured that the Herald remained committed to the TUC line in its political and industrial news, but Elias was given a free hand to develop the rest of the paper. The transformation when it was relaunched in March 1930 was spectacular. News values were reoriented, human interest entered the columns, and the amount of space given over to photographs, features, and advertising increased dramatically. Far more attention was now paid to the women’s market. The reinvention of the Herald was the clearest sign yet of the triumph of the Northcliffe revolution. It was no longer possible to sustain the nineteenth-century model of popular political journalism amidst the cutthroat competition of the twentieth century. ← 11 | 12 →

The birth of the modern tabloid

The relaunch of the Herald kicked off one of the fiercest periods of competition the British media have ever seen. The Mail and its rivals had originally targeted the lower middle classes, while picking up readers in other social classes too. The Herald was aimed squarely at the (unionised) working classes, but it had only been able to scratch the surface of this expanding audience. By the early 1930s, as other markets became saturated, the working class provided the main growth area. The battle to entice the previously uncommitted into the habit of daily newspaper readership saw every trick in the editorial and commercial books being used. There was an intensive use of door-to-door canvassers, offering free gifts, such as the collected works of Charles Dickens, for subscribers, along with competitions and free insurance. It was estimated in June 1933 that the four main papers were spending between £50,000 and £60,000 a week – some £3.5 million pounds today – on buying readers. At the same time, editors made their papers as bright, accessible and appealing to as wide a readership as possible. The result was the most spectacular circulation growth in the history of the popular press, and the emergence of the modern tabloid format, providing the template for the journalism of the rest of the century.11

The Odhams Daily Herald soon demonstrated the potential of the working-class market. Within weeks of its relaunch it broke through the 1-million circulation barrier and in 1933, it became the first daily newspaper to sell 2 million copies. The Herald’s success forced its competitors to respond. The Daily Chronicle and the Daily News, two liberal dailies which had always struggled to keep up with their right-wing rivals, merged in 1930 to form the News Chronicle. In August 1933, both the Express and the Mail introduced significant redesigns. The Express’s redesign – overseen by Arthur Christiansen, a journalist of technical genius who would edit the paper for almost twenty-four years – was particularly influential in Fleet Street. Christiansen devoted himself to making the Express more readable. He gave the paper cleaner print, better spacing, bolder headlines, and concise cross-headings to break up the page into more accessible sections. ← 12 | 13 → Photographs became bigger and more numerous, and were integrated into the editorial in more inventive ways. Under Christiansen, newspapers started to break free of the tyranny of the column that had defined their appearance for over two hundred years, and moved towards a more fluid and visually appealing ‘jigsaw’ design. This dynamic, attractive and well-resourced paper soon matched and surpassed the Herald’s circulation, and was market leader from the mid-1930s until 1949.12

The most significant and commercially influential relaunch of all, though, occurred at the Daily Mirror. After the First World War, the Mirror gradually fell behind its rivals. As other papers started integrating photographs into their pages, much of the Mirror’s original appeal was lost, and it lacked a distinctive editorial personality to set it apart from the other popular dailies on the right. By 1934, its circulation had slumped to 720,000, barely a third of the Daily Express. Its core audience was now middle-class women in the south of England, and it lagged far behind all its main rivals in working-class households. It was at this low point that personnel changes brought an infusion of new ideas and, eventually, a new direction for the Mirror. At the centre of the reinvention was Harry Guy Bartholomew –‘Bart’ – who became editorial director in 1934, having joined the paper as a cartoonist thirty years earlier. The son of a clerk, and with no more than an elementary education, Bartholomew relied on his visual flair and technical expertise to rise in journalism. Self-conscious about his lack of articulacy, he harboured a deep-seated suspicion of social elites and detested pretension and snobbery. He immediately sought to make significant shifts in the style and content of the Mirror, and in this process he was supported by Cecil King, Northcliffe’s nephew and a key member of the paper’s board of directors.13

Bartholomew took the advice of the American advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, and drew up a new editorial template heavily influenced by successful American tabloids such as the New York Daily News. The new format included the liberal use of heavy black type and bold block headlines; the writing became more colloquial, the pursuit of sensation more pronounced, and the sexual content more explicit. Further momentum was given to these editorial changes by a raft of new appointments in 1935, including Basil Nicholson, who moved from a career in advertising, the ← 13 | 14 → young Welsh journalist Hugh Cudlipp, who joined as Nicholson’s assistant in the features department, and William Connor, a former copywriter for J. Walter Thompson, who became the star columnist ‘Cassandra’. The result was a new style of paper in the British daily market: a brash populist tabloid aimed directly at a working-class audience, updating and refreshing Northcliffe’s popular newspaper model with the insights of American commerce and the democratic instincts of a reform-minded editorial team. If papers like the Mail and the Express had aimed to be ‘popular not vulgar’, the Mirror now portrayed itself as ‘vulgar but honest’. The paper’s sales started to rise dramatically.14

By the outbreak of the Second World War, the Mirror had developed a distinctive left-of-centre appeal, seeking to articulate a working-class political perspective that, in contrast to the Herald, was not tied to the institutions of the labour movement. The Mirror was patriotic and pro-monarchy, but railed against the complacency of the ruling elites and the conformities and rigidities of British society. It offered a prominent platform for the working-class voice by the extensive use of letters in columns such as ‘Viewpoint’ and ‘Live Letters’, while also providing some earthy replies to correspondence through the voice of the so-called ‘Old Codgers’. Yet while politics was taken seriously, it never dominated as it did in the Herald or even the News Chronicle, and the editorial team retained a keen eye for the sensational, bizarre and curious. Sport, film and popular entertainments were covered extensively, while the sentimental streak in working-class culture was catered for with romantic and heart-warming tales, and pictures of babies and animals. The Mirror’s skilfully balanced tabloid miscellany catered for almost all tastes.

The Mirror’s patriotic but class-conscious editorial strategy was perfectly attuned to the climate of the ‘People’s War’, and it became a valued mouthpiece for popular frustration at the inefficiencies and peculiarities of officialdom (see Chapter 1). The Mirror was widely seen as the forces’ paper: a survey of newspaper consumption in autumn 1941 found that no fewer than 30 per cent of military men were regular readers. Wartime newsprint rationing prevented a quicker circulation growth, but in 1949 the Mirror overtook the Express as Britain’s most popular paper. By 1951, it was selling over 4.5 million copies a day, about 350,000 more than the Express, ← 14 | 15 → and more than Mail (2.2 million) and the Herald (2.1 million) combined. In 1967, the Mirror reached the unmatched, and now unmatchable, daily circulation of 5.25 million sales. It had become the most influential expression of British popular print culture.15

The Mirror’s success did not, however, immediately lead to a wave of tabloidisation. The Express, the Mail, the Herald and the News Chronicle all preferred to retain the broadsheet format that was perceived to convey greater seriousness and respectability. Only the lacklustre Daily Sketch, constantly struggling along with a circulation of around 1 million, shared the tabloid format. The Mirror remained in a category of its own, a noisy eruption of mass culture that was admired and loathed in equal measure. Conscious of the condescension it received, it frequently explained and justified it approach, notably in 1949 when the editor, Sylvester Bolam, penned a famous definition of ‘public service sensationalism’:

The Mirror is a sensational newspaper. We make no apology for that. We believe in the sensational presentation of news and views, especially important news and views, as a necessary and valuable public service in these days of mass readership and democratic responsibility … Sensationalism does not mean distorting the truth. It means the vivid and dramatic presentation of events so as to give them a forceful impact on the mind of the reader. It means big headlines, vigorous writing, simplification into familiar everyday language, and the wide use of illustration by cartoon and photograph.

For Bolam, sensationalism was a democratic imperative, providing the only way to inform a mass readership and enable it to participate in the public sphere. ‘Every great problem facing us,’ he argued, ‘will only be understood by the ordinary man busy with his daily tasks if he is hit hard and hit often with the facts.’ Sensational treatment, he concluded ‘is the answer, whatever the sober and “superior” readers of some other journals may prefer.’16

Such protestations did little to assuage the many critics of tabloid journalism, and there was a widespread belief in Fleet Street that it was futile to compete with the Mirror on its own terms. In 1963, for example, Beaverbrook asked one of his executives to explain why the Mirror was outperforming the Express. The reply made no attempt to disguise the disdain for the tabloid rival: ← 15 | 16 →

The Daily Mirror is easier to read. It doesn’t take a lot of effort on behalf of the youngsters to look at the Daily Mirror in the bus or the train early in the morning and enjoy the humour of the Daily Mirror. It appeals to busy housewives who will not be bothered to read more serious newspapers. It has also been described as a handbag newspaper, for typists and other females can stick it in their handbags to read during their lunch break and this is valuable because they can improvise items of gossip.

The executive emphasised that it was his strongly held view ‘that it would be a mistake for us to go after the Daily Mirror and compete for their readers in the D and E classes’.17

Indeed, secure that there was no downmarket challenger, and desirous of the respect they believed they deserved, Cudlipp and King in the 1960s sought to push the Mirror gently upmarket. Believing that its working-class audience was becoming better educated and more affluent, in 1962 the Mirror introduced ‘Mirrorscope’, ‘two pages of serious and informed comment on the night’s late news’. This editorial strategy was reinforced in 1964 when Mirror Group Newspapers sought to relaunch the Daily Herald, which it had bought three years earlier, as The Sun. The sociologist Mark Abrams, commissioned to investigate the ‘newspaper readership of tomorrow’, and thereby provide data for the relaunch, emphasised the blurring of class distinctions since the war. ‘Some working-class families have incomes as high as some white-collar families,’ he reported, ‘and there is little to choose between their styles of living and the goods and services they consume.’ Seeking to reach this audience, the new Sun made a significant play of its modernity, aspirationalism and classlessness. It was a resounding failure, and within four years, IPC, as the Mirror Group had become, was looking to get rid of it. They saw little danger in selling it to the young Australian entrepreneur, Rupert Murdoch.

The tabloid unleashed

By the end of the 1960s the tabloid had demonstrated its commercial value, but it was a model that few others seemed inclined to develop. Rupert Murdoch and Larry Lamb, the first editor of the relaunched Sun, ← 16 | 17 → overturned the status quo. By demonstrating so powerfully the appeal of an updated tabloid, they altered the basic assumptions of the market, and tabloidisation quickly came to be seen as essential for survival. Not only did existing titles change their format, new papers entered the fray, and in the bitter competition for readers, the desire to move gradually upmarket soon seemed hopelessly outdated.

Murdoch and Lamb’s central insight was that the Mirror was losing touch with its market and failing to refresh its now rather tired formula. While Abrams’s identification of rising affluence and education was entirely reasonable, he didn’t fully appreciate how the inexorable rise of television was altering the wider media environment. With ITV’s launch of the thirty-minute News at Ten in 1967, and BBC’s subsequent lengthening of its Nine O’ Clock News bulletin, broadcast news services were expanding rapidly. The BBC and ITV duopoly provided a considerable amount of respectable, entertaining ‘middlebrow’ content. The gaps for the press were either in the provision of greater detail and analysis, or by offering more outspoken, disreputable, and intrusive content. At the same time, a more youth-focused, consumerist and permissive pop culture had emerged which mainstream outlets, including the Mirror, were failing to cater for. Class identities remained resilient, but they were expressed in different forms. There were opportunities for a paper which could tap into this younger, less socially deferential, working-class audience.18

Murdoch and Lamb grasped the opportunity with considerable commercial shrewdness. The relaunched Sun was remarkably open in its borrowings from the Mirror. The paper’s slogan was ‘Forward with the People’, which had been adopted by the Mirror in 1945 and only recently dropped. ‘It is not original’, the Sun admitted, ‘But we make no apology for it. Because that is what we believe in’. Robert Connor, the son of the Mirror’s star columnist, ‘Cassandra’, was given a column brazenly entitled ‘Son of Cassandra’. The letters column was entitled ‘Liveliest Letters’, to outdo the Mirror’s ‘Live Letters’; even the Mirror’s popular cartoon, ‘Garth’, was copied with the Sun’s version featuring a female protagonist, ‘Scarth’. There was, however, an evident difference in tone, too, most obvious in the treatment of sex. With topless models included from the second issue – if not initially on page 3 – and major serialisations of Jacqueline Susann’s ‘bonkbuster’ ← 17 | 18 → novel The Love Machine and Jane Garrity’s sex guide, The Sensuous Woman, the Sun identified itself as a sexually permissive, hedonistic paper, at least within the parameters of the heterosexual ‘family newspaper’ genre. At the end of the first week, the paper produced a statement of its core beliefs, and it emphasised that it was ‘For youth, for change and always for the people’:

The permissive society is not an opinion. It is a fact. People who pretend that yesterday’s standards are today’s, let alone tomorrow’s, are living a lie. The Sun believes that any man – from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Mick Jagger – is entitled to put forward his own moral code. And people are entitled to accept it or to reject it.19

These worthy declarations were not necessarily honoured of course, any more than its other pledges that it was ‘strongly opposed to capital punishment’, ‘for entering Europe’, and concerned about the ‘colour problem’ (‘The Sun is for building bridges, not walls’). When combined with its risqué content, though, they helped to position the paper in the readers’ minds as fresh and up-to-date. It was thoroughly modern, too, in its attitude to television, embracing it far more energetically than other papers, and recognising it as an important source of celebrity stories and gossip. The inclusion of a detailed weekend television guide helped to make the Sun’s Saturday edition its best-selling one of the week. The Sun also demonstrated the value of television advertising, publicising the paper from the start with a series of cheeky commercials that deliberately sought to bait the television authorities (the paper was banned from including references to Sir Thomas Crapper and the River Piddle). Lamb noted that ‘We bought books, commissioned series, dreamed up offers and competitions, all with an eye on their suitability for television promotion’. Drawing on Rupert Murdoch’s expertise, the Sun was able to exploit the opportunities provided by different media forms.20

The results were spectacular. Within a year the paper was selling over 1.5 million copies a day, more than twice the circulation inherited from the IPC’s broadsheet Sun. By autumn 1974, it had overtaken the Express, and its 3.5 million daily sales were double the Mail’s. The seemingly inexorable rise continued until 1978, when it overtook the Mirror as the nation’s bestselling paper, and briefly reached circulation figures of 4 million in an ← 18 | 19 → otherwise declining market. The potential of the tabloid model could no longer be doubted.21

Other papers inevitably responded. When Vere Harmsworth succeeded his father, Esmond, the second Viscount Rothermere, as chairman of Associated Newspapers in 1970, he was determined to revive the Daily Mail after decades of relative underperformance, and was clear that decisive action was required. He hired a talented new editor, David English, and in 1971 merged the paper with the Daily Sketch in a new tabloid format. ‘In years to come,’ the Mail ’s first tabloid issue declared confidently, ‘the old broadsheet papers will look as dated as Victorian playbills.’ Vere Harmsworth was clear that ‘the size was a great advantage in every possible way,’ because ‘with a tabloid, the whole page can be given a tremendous impact, and you get twice the number of pages for the same total of newsprint.’ The Mail, under English and his successor Paul Dacre, became renowned for the ‘tremendous impact’ it made with a rather different form of tabloid journalism from the Sun’s working-class populism. It used its pages to articulate and dramatise the moral and cultural preoccupations of the respectable middle classes, defending marriage and ‘family values’ against the threats of ‘permissiveness’ and moral ‘relativism’, arguing for a tax and welfare system that rewarded hard work and saving, and robustly criticising ‘scroungers’ and ‘immigrants’ who took advantage of the system. It did this much more dynamically than the Daily Express, which had lost its way since the death of its driving force, Lord Beaverbrook, in 1964. The Express went tabloid in 1977, in an attempt to stem the steady decline in its circulation which had seen the loss of some 1.5 million daily sales in the previous ten years. The shift had a limited impact, though, and in the mid-1980s, it finally fell behind its long-term mid-market rival, the Mail.22

The success of the Sun also suggested to some that there was more space in the working-class market. In 1978 Victor Matthews, who the previous year had led Trafalgar House’s take-over of the faltering Beaverbrook Newspapers, decided to launch the Daily Star as a downmarket stablemate for the Express. The Star aped the Sun as blatantly as the Sun had copied the Mirror nine years earlier. The Star’s editors Derek Jameson and Peter Grimsditch were open in their intention to outdo Murdoch’s paper for titillation: ‘Sex sells – that goes for pictures and words. So the Star will have ← 19 | 20 → its daily quota. Bigger and better than anyone else’. Instead of ‘page 3 girls’, then, the paper offered full-colour topless ‘Starbirds’. The opening issue also promised an ‘easy-to-find TV guide, the best in newspapers’. Like the Sun, the Star lavishly advertised itself on television. If the content was unoriginal, the paper did have two selling points which concerned Murdoch: a cover price (6p) that was a penny lower than the Sun, and a production centre in Manchester, which, the paper claimed, allowed it to provide an ‘unbeatable late news and sports service for readers in the North and Midlands.23

The Star was never able to threaten the better-resourced Sun, but its entrance into the market did lead to a circulation war that rivalled in intensity that of the early 1930s: the result, in the 1980s, was the emergence of an increasingly aggressive, outspoken and jingoistic journalism accompanied by a rash of £1 million bingo contests and celebrity exclusives. In this pitiless contest, the Sun’s abrasive editor Kelvin MacKenzie emerged as champion. In the Thatcherite 1980s, with its celebration of bold opinion, no-holds barred competition, profit-seeking and flag-waving patriotism, the tabloid had truly found its moment. With the breaking of the unions and the move out of Fleet Street from 1986, moreover, the profitability of the tabloid model increased still further.

Few realised how brief this moment would be. By the late-1980s, Rupert Murdoch’s attention was increasingly focused on satellite television, while the rapid spread of the internet, mobile phones and computer technology from the 1990s started to overwhelm consumers with media content. While newspaper circulations started on a steady, and seemingly unstoppable, decline, tabloid instincts and insights were applied to other media forms and young men and women stopped picking up the newspaper habit. The reputation of the tabloids was also severely damaged by revelations about phone hacking and the payment of officials that led to the closure of the News of the World, the holding of the Leveson inquiry and the conviction of former Sun editor Andy Coulson. By 2014, daily newspaper circulations were less than half the level of the 1950s. The tabloid century, ushered in by a triumphant Alfred Harmsworth, in 1901, was coming to an ignominious end.

If the tabloids’ power is starting to slip away, however, their political and cultural significance across the twentieth century can hardly be denied. ← 20 | 21 → This is not, of course, to suggest that the press were able to determine the opinions of a passive and uncritical public. Readers could ignore, resist or misunderstand newspaper content, and their views on most subjects were shaped by a variety of sources. Most people did not trust the tabloids to the same extent as the BBC or the elite press, and they often remained suspicious of the reliability and accuracy of the more outrageous or unlikely stories. The tabloids’ emphasis on entertainment ensured that they were often treated as a bit of fun. Consumers also tended to choose newspapers that matched their own political inclinations: there was always an extent to which newspapers were preaching to the converted. Nevertheless, the longer-term, cumulative influence of the tabloid representation of the world should not be underestimated. The influence of the press rested not on its short-term power to convince readers of the merits of specific individuals, parties or policies, but rather on a more subtle process of framing of issues in particular ways, helping to set the agenda for public and private debate, and enabling certain types of people and institutions to dominate discussion, while marginalising others. The press mattered, too, because politicians, policymakers, officials, campaign groups and other media professionals thought they mattered. Many of the key participants in public life were acutely concerned about how they or their institutions were covered by the press, and often shaped their behaviour or policies accordingly. For all the increasing power of television, tabloids were unconstrained by requirements of impartiality and were noisier, more opinionated, intrusive, and persistent. Their huge circulations seemed to give them authority in representing key swathes of public opinion, and they played a crucial role in setting the tone of popular culture. They were a daily reference point that was difficult to ignore, and it was a serious risk for anyone in public life to take them on, because they usually had the last word.

The cumulative influence of the popular press is best appreciated by taking a long view. This book is therefore based on six broad thematic chapters which explore how the tabloids reported, and thereby shaped, this dramatic century. The first three chapters focus on the coverage of key public events, institutions and people: the wars that Britain fought, the political debates that shaped the nation’s internal development, and the individuals that topped its social and status hierarchies, namely the royal ← 21 | 22 → family and popular cultural celebrities. The second three chapters explore the personal and social identities that structured tabloid content and the world-views of readers: gender and sexuality, class, race and nationality. The diversity of this material precludes the drawing of simple conclusions – indeed, perhaps the main conclusion to draw is that tabloid culture is more complex and nuanced than many have given it credit for. Those making the familiar criticisms of popular newspapers – that their journalism is crude, reactionary and hypocritical, that they pander to majority opinion and stigmatise minorities and minority tastes, that their desire for profit drives a materialistic and individualistic ethos – will all find plenty of evidence here. At the same time, popular newspapers should not be measured against an abstract, ideal standard, but against the culture of which they were a part. Viewed in this way, we can find instances when tabloids were progressive and generous, when they provided a powerful voice for ordinary people against elitism and vested interests, and when they challenged the entrenched majority view. They offered a platform for a wide range of voices and contributors. Love them or loathe them, we need to take the tabloids seriously and understand how they contributed to the unfolding of British life over the last century. ← 22 | 23 →



War provides the most dramatic, intense and urgent news stories of all. It imperils the lives of citizens and the security of nations; after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it seemed to threaten the very existence of the human race. Because of the stakes involved, though, wars are also the hardest stories to cover. Information becomes a priceless commodity, which the state scrutinises, manages, restricts and distorts. Reporters operate in dangerous and uncertain conditions, facing the deeply entrenched suspicion and hostility of military authorities whose default position is secrecy. Journalism is never more inaccurate, deceptive and dubious than during wartime.

The popular press has frequently been accused of retailing a toxic mixture of belligerence, jingoism and myopia in their coverage of international affairs and military conflict. Critics of the Daily Mail argued that by irresponsibly stoking anti-German sentiment, the paper actually helped to create the conditions which enabled conflict to break out in 1914. ‘Next to the Kaiser,’ wrote the esteemed liberal editor and journalist A. G. Gardiner, ‘Lord Northcliffe has done more than any other living man to bring about the war.’ Similar charges had been levelled at Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspapers in the United States in the run-up to the Spanish-American war of 1898. War reporters are commonly portrayed as state lackeys, slavishly following the official agenda rather than informing readers about the grim realities of war. The soldier-poets of the Great War lambasted the press for its preoccupation with military heroism and glory while millions were dying in atrocious conditions in the trenches; the Sun’s bombastic coverage of the Falklands War was seen by some as reducing the conflict to little more than vicarious entertainment for an audience eager for Britain to reassert ← 23 | 24 → itself on the world stage once more. Tabloids are charged with underpinning a militaristic culture that has fomented war, imperialism and military interventionism.1

If jingoism has been a striking feature of the British popular press, the overall picture is more complex than critics often allow. The default position of the popular press during wartime was certainly to try to unite the national community around a patriotic vision of resolution, togetherness and virtue – in opposition to a demonised and caricatured enemy, whether ‘Huns’, ‘Japs’ or ‘Argies’ – while also offering unflagging support for the bravery and gallantry of the troops on the front lines. During the First and Second World Wars, and the first Iraq war, most papers adopted this line. The Suez and Second Iraq conflicts, by contrast proved far more controversial, and papers on the left took up a position of principled opposition, while seeking to avoid suggestions of a lack of patriotism. Even during the more consensual wars, moreover, most tabloids sought to maintain sufficient critical distance to attack ineffectual leadership, and stand up for troops against bureaucracy. During the First World War, for example, the Daily Mail proved to be a ferocious critic of the Prime Minister, Henry Asquith, and his War Minister, Lord Kitchener, while during the Second World War, Churchill’s government was so exasperated by the Daily Mirror’s coverage that it considered closing it down.

State-imposed censorship regimes, and the culture of secrecy in the military, also left the press with little choice but to hide some of the more brutal truths of the war from the public. During the First World War, the press made heavy use of the official rhetoric of honour, glory and imperial greatness, but it did not – and could not – disguise the entirety of the catastrophe that was unfolding. ‘The ‘high diction’ of 1914 did not withstand the bloodshed of the trenches, and the language surrounding the Second World War was far more measured and pragmatic. As the war came to the British mainland with the Blitz, moreover, it was harder to hide the realities of the conflict. After 1945, the press did not downplay the awesome power of the atomic bomb, and frequently speculated about the damage to civilian areas in the event of a nuclear war. For the more remote and less immediately threatening wars of the later twentieth century – particularly the conflicts in Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan – the tabloids’ reporting ← 24 | 25 → did tend to lapse into a jingoistic, rather uncritical, style, but even then, there were some notable exceptions, and scepticism about engagements in the Middle East inevitably grew as the military operations dragged on and became ever more costly.

Rather than stereotyping tabloids as invariably being crudely bellicose, it is more accurate to see them as conforming to – or, less charitably, being imprisoned within – the underlying logic of Britain’s ‘warfare state’. If there was sometimes disagreement about particular interventions, there was almost unanimous support for Britain as a strong nation with an international role, fulfilling the role bequeathed by its glorious history. Journalists were consistently seduced by the danger and glamour of military endeavour, and they fed a public fascination with the technologies and strategies of war. Newspapers devoted their resources to narrating the twists and turns of diplomatic crises and to recording the cut and thrust of the military campaigns, rather than asking deeper questions about the seeds of conflict and the underlying tensions of the international system. Leader-writers and columnists adopted a pragmatic outlook on world affairs, and portrayed peace campaigners as being hopelessly idealistic and unworldly; correspondents at the front-lines tried to live up to the esteemed tradition of war reporting. For all its horror, wars sold papers, and the risks and rewards of covering them were prized more highly than recording the painstaking search for peace.2

Empire, patriotism and the First World War

The tabloid template was forged in an imperialistic nation in which British greatness was rarely questioned and Britain’s right to rule broad swathes of the globe was widely accepted. Pledging allegiance to the empire seemed to be a natural part of appealing to the national reading community. Northcliffe’s first editorial as a newspaper proprietor, having taken over the Evening News in 1894, set out his ambition to ‘preach the gospel of loyalty to the Empire’. The Daily Mail, founded two years later, took this ← 25 | 26 → policy a step further. Its editorial team believed that public interest in empire was ‘one of the greatest forces’ for the new mass press to exploit, and it sought to double the amount of space newspapers typically devoted to recording colonial events and the courageous exploits of British pioneers. This policy bore fruit very quickly. Patriotic coverage of the Second Boer War (1899–1902), penned by reporters such as G. W. Steevens and Edgar Wallace (later famous as a novelist), enabled the Mail to become the first daily paper to break the one-million circulation barrier. The Daily Express, launched during the conflict, in April 1900, was similarly insistent about its loyalty to the nation. Its first editorial declared: ‘Our policy is patriotism; our party is the British Empire.’ The Express’s belief in empire only became more resolute when it was taken over by Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian, in 1916. Beaverbrook was adamant that ‘the cause of Empire is the greatest issue in public life’, and he famously told the Royal Commission on the Press in 1948 that it was the mainspring of his newspaper ‘propaganda’ efforts. Liberal papers such as the Daily News were more critical of Britain’s imperial ambitions, and from 1912 the Daily Herald gave space to pacifist views, but these papers could not fully counter the noisy patriotism of their right-wing competitors.3

In the two decades before the outbreak of the First World War, imperial engagements in places such as Sudan, South Africa and Nigeria enabled the popular press to provide numerous stories describing British heroism and manliness in exotic locations. One of the best ways for reporters to counter the military’s scepticism about their presence was to polish the reputation of the officers and admire the pluck and bravery of the troops. Celebratory dispatches turned figures such as Herbert Kitchener and Robert Baden-Powell into national celebrities. ‘When Shall Their Glory Fade? History’s Most Heroic Defence Ends in Triumph’ declared the Express’s front-page after the relief of the siege of Mafeking in May 1900. The paper highlighted the ‘indomitable spirit, and the unconquerable pluck’ of Baden-Powell, who had overseen Mafeking’s defence, and described the ‘very orgie [sic] of rejoiceful patriotism’ with which London greeted the news of the garrison’s safety. ‘The number of sentimental young women who sleep with a photograph of the heroic Baden-Powell under their pillows is legion,’ noted the Express approvingly, adding that ‘one hero-worshipping damsel’ put ← 26 | 27 → fresh flowers by his picture every day. Yet such triumphs revealed more than admirable leadership; in a society saturated by racial thinking, they seemed to demonstrate the continued fitness of the British people in an increasingly competitive world. ‘Men, and women, and children have shown so bravely the characteristic British quality of bull-dog pertinacity’, wrote an Express editorial. ‘We can only thank God for Mafeking, as a perpetual memorial of the courage and strength of our race.’ Such sentiments were frequently voiced by popular papers, which helped to spread and consolidate this form of Social Darwinism. As the historian Glenn Wilkinson has noted, war was portrayed by newspapers not as a catastrophe to be avoided but as ‘beneficial and desirable to the societies engaged in it’ because it staved off degeneracy and decline.4

There was, nevertheless, a darker side to this form of reporting. The press investment in military achievement and national greatness provoked anxiety as well as triumphalism. The press accordingly gave voice to growing concerns that the dominant international position Britain had enjoyed during the mid-Victorian period was coming to an end, and that military and economic competition was intensifying. For all the perceived heroism of Baden-Powell and others, the Boer War was a lengthy and gruelling conflict which demonstrated how difficult it was for Britain to impose its will throughout its empire. The popular press did not disguise the setbacks or the level of casualties; by the end of the conflict moreover, the Daily News, a popular liberal paper, had joined in the criticism of what the Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman denounced as the ‘methods of barbarism’ used by the British military against the Boer peoples (including gathering families into inhospitable ‘concentration camps’). The high proportion of men rejected for military service fed fears of ‘degeneration’, and the Mail and other papers took up the popular cry of ‘National Efficiency’, demanding that social problems be tackled so that the British people did not lose their vigour and virility.

The travails of the Boer War, combined with the greater diplomatic assertiveness of Germany, Japan and the United States, also generated considerable momentum for the campaign to strengthen Britain’s armed forces. ‘This is our hour of preparation,’ wrote Northcliffe in 1900, ‘tomorrow may be the day of world conflict.’ The same year, the Daily Express declared that ← 27 | 28 → ‘Our navy is unsound, and it is largely a paper figment dangled before the eyes of the people’; pre-emptively disarming accusations of irresponsible sensationalism, the paper added that ‘Our articles are alarmist: they are meant to be alarmist.’ Throughout the Edwardian period the right-wing press lent their considerable weight to the prominent and well-organised movement for greater military strength and preparedness, led by pressure groups such as the Navy League and the National Service League.5

The Mail focused, in particular, on the growing threat posed by Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. In spring 1906 the Mail commissioned and lavishly serialised popular author William Le Queux’s Invasion of 1910, documenting the consequences of a German incursion into Britain. The series was a sensational collision of commerce and polemic. Le Queux had carefully researched military strategy, but the route of the invasion was determined by towns where the Mail hoped to increase its circulation. In London, the series was advertised by the alarming sight of men in Prussian-blue army uniforms and spiked helmets marching down Oxford Street wearing Daily Mail sandwich boards. The serialisation was a great success, and, with such publicity, the novel eventually sold over one million copies. But Northcliffe was not content with fictional warnings of the German menace. In 1909 he commissioned the socialist journalist Robert Blatchford to visit Germany and assess its diplomatic aspirations. The resulting articles were suitably inflammatory, declaring that Germany was preparing to undermine the British Empire and ‘force German dictatorship upon the whole of Europe’. Reprinted as a penny pamphlet, the articles sold some 1.6 million copies. The warnings continued to flow until 1914. Indeed, so consistent had been paper’s anti-Germanism that when war finally broke out the Mail styled itself as ‘the paper that foretold the war’ and proudly published a selection of its ‘scaremongerings’ as a sixpenny pamphlet.6

The popular press entered the conflict with Germany in 1914 with a combination of self-confident patriotism, Christian faith and a professional determination to rally the nation around the war effort. It was certain both of the rightness of the British cause and of the suitability of the ‘official rhetoric’ of the war: the language of honour, glory, heroism, and sacrifice that expressed traditional martial and patriotic values. On the day before war was finally announced, the Mail told its readers that ‘Our ← 28 | 29 → duty is to go forward into this valley of the shadow of death with courage and faith – with courage to suffer, and faith in God and our country’. ‘On us of this generation has come the sharpest trial that has ever befallen our race,’ the paper continued: ‘We have to uphold the honour of England by demeanour and deed.’ ‘England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty’ ran a streamer headline on the front page of the Express on 5 August. ‘[T]he nation accepts the challenge of an arrogant foe, and with confident courage commits its cause to God.’ The war was presented as an opportunity to demonstrate the valour and virtue of individuals and the nation as a whole. If ‘England had grown fat and slothful with prosperity’, the Express declared, ‘… Germany’s threat has called to life again the England of Henry V, the England of Drake … the England of Nelson.’ Female readers were equally expected to relish the opportunity to serve the nation. The Express ran ‘The Diary of a Soldier’s Wife’, which professed to share the national sense of duty: ‘It is a wonderful time for us to live through – and to come through with laurels. I, for one, am truly thankful, and there must be many a soldier’s wife who feels the same.’ Such patriotic resolution did not generate overconfidence. The press repeatedly underlined the magnitude of the task – the lament of Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, that war would be ‘the greatest catastrophe’ ever to befall Europe, was widely publicised – and it is very difficult to find any of the ‘over by Christmas’ triumphalism of popular memory. Calmness was the order of the day: ‘let us bear our part with equanimity’, wrote the Mirror, ‘without silly flag-waving, food-flustering, gaping and idling, and useless clamour in the streets.’7

In the early months of the war, the censorship regime was so tight that the press was forced to feed off scraps. The British Expeditionary force was sent to France without any accompanying reporters, and a newly instituted War Press Bureau scrutinised newspaper content with a stern gaze. The War Minister, Lord Kitchener, gave orders that reporters found in the field were to be arrested. The press was expected to rely upon the official dispatches penned by Colonel Ernest Swinton, an officer in the Royal Engineers who wrote under the name ‘Eyewitness’ (he was soon dubbed ‘Eyewash’). With such limited scope for independent reporting, the popular press devoted much of its space to stories that emphasised the savagery and brutality of ← 29 | 30 → the German war machine as it moved through Belgium and France. Only two days after war had been declared, the Mail was claiming that German troops in Belgium had ‘disgraced themselves by unpardonable atrocities’. A week later the Express argued that ‘Germany’s conduct of the war has been characterised by a barbarism which would make a South American revolutionary blush with shame’. German soldiers, it seemed, were being encouraged by their leaders to flout all the rules of civilised warfare. The destruction at Louvain, the Mail reported in September 1914, was ‘almost incredible in its wickedness’:

[men were] remorselessly shot down by the guards. They drove the women and children into the fields, perpetrating upon them atrocities which cannot be detailed in cold print. They then bombarded the city and destroyed the best part of it in a few hours … Germans have been systematically taught by their military to be ruthless to the weak. The Kaiser, a single word from whom would have stopped this riot of savagery, has, on the contrary, done his best to kindle the lowest passions of his men.8

Although the ‘atrocity stories’ of the early months of the war were not entirely without foundation, there can be little doubt that the press colluded with the military authorities to publicise and sensationalise the events in Belgium. The British armed forces were, after all, reliant on volunteers, and such stories offered a direct challenge to the masculinity of the men back home: military service was not just the defence of an abstract ‘King and Country’, but protection of innocent women and children. These messages were hammered home by the use of fonts and pictures larger than any previously used in national newspapers. The bombardment of Rheims prompted the first ever full-page photograph in the Mail on 22 September 1914, with the paper portraying the town’s cathedral in all its magnificence before its destruction.9

If German soldiers demonstrated mechanical brutality and an insatiable lust for destruction, the British troops were models of patience, bravery and valour. Reporters soon developed the ability to transpose almost any series of events into a glorious narrative. Philip Gibbs’s report for the Daily Chronicle on 3 September was headlined both ‘German Army Closing in on Paris’ and ‘Wonderful Story of British Heroism’. A substantial concession ← 30 | 31 → of territory was rewritten into ‘the most heroic story which may be read by any man now living’. The Allies were ‘always retiring before an overpowering and irresistible enemy, but never in actual retreat, never fighting a rear-guard action with their backs to the foe, but always face forward, yielding every mile with stubborn and sublime gallantry’. Even children could see through the optimism of the coverage. Jim Flowers, an engineer’s son born in 1905, would later recall his headmaster reading aloud rosy dispatches from the Daily Chronicle: ‘It struck me that if ever the British had to go backwards they wouldn’t say it was a retreat, it was a strategic withdrawal so that they could swallow up the enemy later on.’ It was unsurprising that the troops at the front lines resented such reporting, believing that it glorified the conflict, or, at best, prevented civilians from understanding the realities of the war. They preferred to seek consolation in the grim humour of the trench newspapers. In his war memoir Good-Bye to All That, Robert Graves observed that returning soldiers were often disturbed that ‘civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.’ The denizens of Fleet Street accordingly became prime targets for the bitter soldier-poets.10

Yet if editors and journalists were generally prepared to accept that they had a duty to restrict or put a positive gloss on their reporting, they did not lose their critical faculties. The press’s preoccupation with military strength and efficiency ensured it demanded greater dynamism and urgency in the prosecution of the war. For Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, in particular, this became an almost all-consuming duty. At a time of party political truce, the press, in its self-appointed role as representative of the people, became the main voice of opposition to Asquith’s administration.

By the end of 1914, Northcliffe’s restlessness was fed by his growing conviction that the strict censorship regime was serving only to hide failures in the management of the war effort. ‘What the newspapers feel very strongly,’ wrote Northcliffe to Lord Murray of Elibank, the former Liberal chief whip, ‘is that, against their will, they are made to be part and parcel of a foolish conspiracy to hide bad news. English people do not mind bad news.’ Drawing both on the experiences of his visits to the front, and on private sources of information from his many correspondents, Northcliffe became increasingly convinced that several men in leading positions were ← 31 | 32 → not up to their job – including Asquith, Kitchener, and Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty.11

The episode that crystallised this concern, and which saw Northcliffe putting both his and the Mail ’s reputation on the line, was the ‘shells crisis’ of May 1915. Northcliffe had received letters from the front claiming that British military operations were being undermined by the lack of the right kind of shell, and after the Allies failed to capitalise on an initial breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle due to a lack of munitions, these criticisms began to be publicly aired. On 15 May 1915, The Times (also owned by Northcliffe at this time) published a telegram from its respected military correspondent, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles à Court Repington, highlighting the problem, and Northcliffe decided to go on the offensive. After some critical editorials, the Mail on 21 May published an incendiary piece personally written by Northcliffe and headlined ‘The Tragedy of the Shells: Lord Kitchener’s Grave Error’. Northcliffe pinned the blame for the shells scandal directly onto Kitchener:

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 … He persisted in sending shrapnel – a useless weapon in trench warfare … The kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them.

Such a direct, and grave, public attack on a widely esteemed figure at a time of national crisis was shocking, and generated fury among many of Northcliffe’s critics. Members of the London Stock Exchange burned copies of both the Times and the Mail, and anxious advertisers cancelled contracts. Thousands of readers stopped buying the papers. Northcliffe, though, was undaunted: at this point he was concerned not with circulation, but with what he perceived as his national duty. It was clear even to Northcliffe’s opponents, moreover, that there were problems with Britain’s munitions supply. Northcliffe was soon vindicated. By the end of the month, the Liberal Government had fallen, to be replaced by a Coalition administration. Asquith remained as Prime Minister, and Kitchener stayed in post, but Lloyd George, whom Northcliffe admired, was appointed as Minister of Munitions to address the supply problems. There were also changes in the censorship regime. From mid-1915, a system of official accreditation ← 32 | 33 → was established, with a small number of correspondents attached to British forces on the Western Front, in the Middle East, and at Gallipoli. These reporters were still heavily restricted, but there was now some more variation in the coverage of the war.12

These changes were not enough to stem the criticism from the Mail. When Northcliffe read a devastating report by the Australian journalist Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert) on the failures of the Dardanelles operation, the Mail went on the offensive once again. The paper accused the government of using censorship to hide mistakes:

Unless the British public takes the matter into its own hands and insists upon the dismissal of inefficient bunglers among the politicians and at the War Office, we shall lose the support of our Allies, the enthusiasm of the Dominions; we shall waste the magnificent efforts of our soldiers and sailors; and, eventually, we shall lose the war.

The Mail adopted a typical tabloid crusading pose, contrasting its fearless truth telling with the ‘Hide-the-Truth’ newspapers which ‘have chloroformed the masses into the belief that everything is going well with us.’ And while Asquith and Kitchener remained in power, the attacks continued. The Mail argued, for example, that the existing cabinet of 23 was unwieldy and inefficient: a more focused ‘war cabinet’ would be more decisive. The paper repeatedly pushed the government to end the ‘recruiting muddle’ and introduce conscription to ensure that Britain had the necessary manpower to take on the German military. It also showed its support for the ‘magnificent men’ at the front by demanding that they be properly equipped: during 1915 and 1916 there were numerous calls for more machine guns and shrapnel helmets. Convinced that the nation’s leaders were dangerously lethargic, the Mail passionately believed in its duty to awaken the public to the need for a more strategic and interventionist government.13

Over the course of 1916, the tide seemed to turn in the Mail ’s direction. The Military Service Act of January 1916 introduced conscription for unmarried men aged 19 to 40, and this scheme was gradually extended. The Mail’s chief enemies were also dispatched. Kitchener’s death at sea in July 1916 was greeted by Northcliffe with barely concealed relief, while ← 33 | 34 → by the end of the year, Asquith was losing his authority. Once again, the Mail pressed home the attack, attacking the ‘limpets’ that were clinging onto power:

A moment in our struggle for existence has now been reached when Government by some 23 men who can never make up their minds has become a danger to the Empire … The notorious characteristic of our ‘Government’ of 23 is indecision … It just waits till the Press and the Germans have done something which forces it to decide in a hurry – and too late.

Behind the scenes, Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, the new owner of the Daily Express, assisted the manoeuvres of those conspiring to replace Asquith as Prime Minister. Asquith eventually stepped down and was replaced by the far more dynamic Lloyd George. These dramatic events did much to enhance the myths of the ‘press barons’ wielding political power, and many now saw Northcliffe as the power behind the throne. The Mail’s harassment of wartime governments was, as the historian Niall Ferguson has noted, ‘quite extraordinary’, and at times ‘Britain seemed to be heading for a Press Government’.14

If a Press Government never quite arrived, Lloyd George was shrewd enough to bring the press barons into his administration, rather than having them rail against it. In 1917 Northcliffe was appointed head of the war mission to the United States, before becoming Head of Propaganda in Enemy Countries. Lord Rothermere, Northcliffe’s brother and since 1914 the proprietor of the Daily Mirror, became Air Minister, while Beaverbrook was appointed Minister of Information. While these appointments encouraged troublesome papers to throw themselves behind the government, there was widespread concern at the power being accumulated by the press barons. Austen Chamberlain, a leading Conservative MP, accused Lloyd George in the House of Commons of creating an ‘atmosphere of suspicion and distrust’ by allowing his government ‘to become so intimately associated’ with ‘great newspaper proprietors’. Lloyd George’s cynical use of patronage would have damaging long-term effects on his reputation.15

The troops at the front remained insulated from the criticism levelled at those running the war, however, and the descriptions of the fighting continued to be couched in a patriotic and sanitised language of determined ← 34 | 35 → optimism. The newspaper reports on the first day of the battle of the Somme in July 1916 – the single worst day in the history of the British army, when almost 60,000 casualties were sustained – were all similar in their avoidance of the grim realities of the trench slaughter, their downplaying of the terror of the soldiers involved, and their refusal to recognise the strategic failure of the assault. Beach Thomas, the Mail’s main correspondent in France, was sure that ‘we have beaten the Germans by greater dash in the infantry and vastly superior weight in munitions’, and praised the unfailing pluck of the men going over the top: ‘The ‘Up-and-at-’em’ spirit was strong in our Army this summer morning.’ The Mirror was similarly positive: ‘Our splendid men will not hear of any doubt or difficulty! They mean to win through (they add) very quickly too. Never has such a buoyant spirit been observable all along the front’. The Daily Express’s reporter claimed to have heard ‘men declare that they were getting fed up with life in the trenches, and would welcome a fight at close quarters.’ He concluded that the ‘day’s operations’ were ‘entirely satisfactory to ourselves and our allies.’ The ‘toll of blood’ may have been ‘fairly heavy’, but it was ‘by no means excessive, having regard to the magnitude of the day’s operations’.16

As the losses mounted and the failures of the Gallipoli and Somme offensives demonstrated the difficulty of finding a way out of the bloody stalemate, this self-confident patriotism was severely tested. Philip Gibbs, the Daily Chronicle’s war correspondent, was soon writing in a markedly more bitter vein: ‘If any man were to draw the picture of those things or to tell them more nakedly than I have told them … no man or woman would dare to speak again of war’s “glory”, or of “the splendour of war”, or any of those old lying phrases which hide the dreadful truth.’ By the end of 1917 the Daily News feared that the traditional certainties were collapsing: ‘The spirit of the nation is darkening. Its solidarity is crumbling. We began this war with a splendid faith in our aims and with a unity of moral purpose that was priceless … but our faith has grown dim.’ Despite the growing exhaustion and the questioning, though, the silences and the sanitisation continued. If morale was sagging, it had to be sustained. In December 1917, Lloyd George heard Philip Gibbs privately describe ‘what the war in the West really means’. As he told C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, the following morning, ‘If people really knew, the ← 35 | 36 → war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship would not pass the truth.’17

Eventual victory in November 1918 seemed to vindicate the press’s support of Lloyd George and the Allied commanders. Grief at the cost of the conflict mingled with the exhausted relief that it was finally over. ‘The wraiths of the heroic slain will march with their comrades when they come home’, declared the Express. Forgiveness of the ‘Hun’ was far more difficult. The Mail’s insatiable determination to intensify the war effort now transmuted into a passionate desire to see a punitive peace imposed on the Germans. During the election campaign that was launched shortly after the signing of the armistice, the Mail encouraged candidates to pledge that the Kaiser be tried, that the nation receive ‘full indemnity from Germany’, and that the authorities secure the ‘expulsion of Huns’ from Britain. The Mail’s determination on these points seems to have hardened Lloyd George’s own stance on peace-making; and after a decisive victory for his Coalition government, the Prime Minister went to Paris the following year conscious that wide sections of the public wanted to see Germany made to pay for the unprecedented bloodshed of the Great War. But Lloyd George rejected any suggestions that Northcliffe have an official role in the peace-making process, and in April 1919 decisively turned against the ‘press baron’ for presuming to interfere in the diplomatic negotiations and ‘sowing dissension between great Allies.’ With his reputation threatened by his close relations with newspaper proprietors, the Prime Minister now cast them adrift.18

The dangerous legacies of the Great War

The celebration of the peace enabled a final flowering of the traditional imperialistic and patriotic rhetoric that had characterised the popular press since the Victorian period. The nation was exhorted to prove itself worthy ← 36 | 37 → of the ‘heroic slain’ and the public were encouraged to ‘pay tribute to the gallant Dominion troops who so readily responded to the Empire’s call and won renown on many a hard-fought field’. ‘Kitchener’s men’, the original volunteers, remained secure in their status as ‘the pick of the nation’s manhood’. After the signing of the Versailles peace treaty on 7 May 1919, the Express rejoiced ‘What a great day it is!’

[T] he greatest grandeur of England is now and here … No man … should ever forget that he is in some sense set apart in the eyes of history both from those who came before 1914 and those who come after, because he was privileged to serve his country in her greatest need and speed her to her greatest glory.

The valiant exploits of the ‘war generation’ were celebrated by regular serialisations of their autobiographies and journals in the Sunday papers. Those who missed out on wartime service admitted ‘a little envy of those who had the years to prove their manhood’.19

This rhetoric did not long survive the disappointments of the peace – economic dislocation soon put paid to electoral promises of a land ‘fit for heroes’ – and the gradual recognition of the full scale of the horror and brutality of the war. The Herald, relaunched as a daily in March 1919, highlighted the political and social realities obscured by the appeal to patriotism and military valour, pointing out that wartime sacrifice and service did not guarantee lasting security or even recognition for working men. It argued that the war had been a fundamental betrayal of working-class interests, a time when the ‘peace and happiness of the world’ had been allowed to fall into the ‘murderous hands of a few cynical old men’. The Versailles treaty was denounced as ‘a dangerous peace’ that would ‘make new wars inevitable’; its aim was simply ‘to make the world safe for Plutocracy’. Will Dyson’s eerily prescient cartoon ‘Peace and Future Cannon Fodder’, published in the Herald in May 1919, portrayed a child representing the ‘1940’ class weeping at the treaty. This sense of disillusionment gradually spread beyond the pages of the Herald into the liberal press. An editorial in the Daily News in November 1922 scathingly observed how ‘ex-soldiers – the men who won the war – sell matches from door to door; their children huddle in the rat-infested slums’, while politicians ‘patter platitudes about patriotism ← 37 | 38 → and about the “prestige” of a country in which such things are done.’ The war and its legacy were becoming a cause of serious political division.20

During the late-1920s, a wave of bitter and anti-heroic memoirs by former soldiers such as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon fundamentally altered the popular understanding of the war. It was at this point that the right-wing popular press started to rework and reassess its traditional jingoism. In these years, indeed, it reflected, and contributed to, the wider social reaction against militarism. The Sunday Express, for example, prominently serialised Erich Remarque’s anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. The serialisation seemed to tap straight into the popular desire for a different sort of war literature. Despite being a serious novel written by a largely unknown German author, the paper’s circulation manager informed Beaverbrook in September 1929 that it was ‘a winner and the best single thing for circulation that the Sunday Express has ever done’.21

As the global mood darkened in the early 1930s, with the onset of economic depression, the rise of fascism and the outbreak of war between China and Japan, resignation and bitterness were far more evident in Britain than jingoism and militarism. As it became obvious that the Great War had not been ‘the war to end all war’, it was easier to portray the conflict as a futile tragedy; the elevated language of 1914 was badly tarnished. In February 1932 the Express, contemplated the ‘war weariness of the human race’, because ‘civilians have learned that in modern warfare no one wins’. When the paper produced a photographic history of the First World War the following year, warfare was portrayed as the ‘crucifixion of youth’ rather than as the testing ground of manliness. ‘There is no glamour left in war after turning these pages’ noted an editorial, while George Lansbury, leader of the Labour Party, announced that it was ‘the best anti-war document I have ever seen.’ Accounts of the war increasingly focused on the strategic mistakes that had contributed to the slaughter of the trenches. A Daily Mirror editorial discussing Lloyd George’s memoirs in 1934 described the ‘ghastly failure of the higher command’, whose tactics consisted in ‘continually and vociferously demanding “more men” to hurl into deathtraps.’ ‘What has been done,’ the paper asked, ‘to get some brains into the Army …?’ The sort of unthinking militarism and conservatism that was now widely regarded as having triumphed during the First World War was satirised in ← 38 | 39 → David Low’s ‘Colonel Blimp’ cartoons, which appeared regularly in the Evening Standard from 1934. (‘If I wanted to attack the officer class very successfully,’ complained Captain Frederick Bellenger, a Labour MP, in the Commons in 1942, ‘I would employ the methods adopted by David Low in his cartoons of “Colonel Blimp”’).22

The main exception to this anti-militarist trend was the Daily Mail, whose proprietor, Lord Rothermere, was attracted by the national regeneration supposedly offered by fascist movements abroad, and who briefly supported Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (see Chapter 2). Rothermere also maintained the Mail’s preoccupation with Britain’s military preparedness, and in 1935 the paper established and publicised a National League of Airmen, to encourage ‘a rapid advancement in our air force strength’. Rothermere was, however, deeply committed to avoiding the outbreak of another conflict, not least because his two elder sons had been killed during the Great War. With this rather confused and idiosyncratic position, it is little surprise that the Mail’s circulation stagnated in these years.23

Whereas the popular press had contributed to the momentum to war in the years before 1914, in the late 1930s Fleet Street largely fell in behind the National Government’s policy of appeasement. With the advent of the bomber, whose destructive impact was dramatically demonstrated during the Spanish Civil war, papers knew that their readers faced the terrifying prospect of being on the front lines. The failure of the Versailles treaties to secure lasting peace left little reason to believe in the effectiveness of a future war. When Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland in March 1936, the Mirror could do little more than voice its disgust with the old rhetoric, and pray that war could be avoided:

Who will be caught again by lying twaddle about war to end war, and about our sacred honour and our solemn oath? The futile pacts and obsolete treaties may lie in pieces wherever Hitler or anybody else has thrown them. Better flimsy fragments of imbecile documents on the ground than millions of rotting bodies of young men.24

The Express, which overtook the Mail and the Herald to be the most widely circulating paper in the second half of 1930s, became the leading popular ← 39 | 40 → cheerleader of appeasement – to the extent that critics suggested that its optimistic appraisal of the diplomatic situation was driven by advertisers desperate for consumers to keep spending. Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler at Munich in October was enthusiastically celebrated (‘Praise be to God and Mr Chamberlain. I find no sacrilege, no bathos, in coupling these two names,’ gushed the influential columnist Godfrey Winn in the Sunday Express), and as late as 7 August 1939 the Express confidently predicted on its front page that there would be ‘No War This Year’. Even after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Germany and the Soviet Union signalled that conflict was imminent, the paper declared that ‘the position is not critical yet’. If the rest of the press was not quite so determinedly positive, most papers maintained the belief that it was possible to negotiate with Hitler. There was, in any case, also a widespread determination to avoid inflaming the delicate diplomatic situation. These tendencies were reinforced by the aggressive information management policies of the Chamberlain administration. Ministers and officials cynically manipulated lobby briefings and put pressure on editors to support the government’s appeasement policy. There was, as the historian Stephen Koss has noted, an ‘epidemic of self-restraint’ in Fleet Street.25

The Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial, in the early years of their tabloid reinvention, were among the few major titles to challenge the thinking underlying appeasement. By the second half of 1938, the Mirror had dropped its earlier support for concessions to Hitler, and was calling on the public to heed the warnings of Winston Churchill. The paper was confident that ordinary people were prepared to stand up to Hitler: in a poll of its readers shortly before the Munich Agreement, more than 70 per cent declared themselves ‘ready to fight if Germany insists on a warlike solution to the Sudeten crisis’. Yet the Mirror’s language, best exemplified by the paper’s star columnist Cassandra, was markedly different from the elevated rhetoric of national glory, imperial manliness and Christian piety that had been so widely used in 1914. War, declared Cassandra, ‘may be lawful but it is also obscene, murderous, bestial, profoundly evil, and in general a thoroughly Satanic procedure. So if we are going to war let us remember that God is on neither side and to invoke his name is, in my view, blasphemy unbounded.’ Cassandra’s justifications ← 40 | 41 → for supporting the war effort were unapologetically pragmatic. ‘When the triggers start going off I’ll do some shooting myself to save my skin,’ he noted with grim humour. More broadly, though, he was adamant that ‘the rulers of Germany’ – he was careful not to demonise the ordinary German citizens – ‘are the biggest bunch of gangsters that ever clubbed a man to death’. ‘I’ll not be in it for love, for money, for glory or for honour,’ he concluded, ‘but because the most detestable regime since the days of Attila the Hun wants to carve up our way of life to fit its own evil purpose.’ Through columns like these, Cassandra was able to articulate for his working-class audience a persuasive form of the ‘temperate masculinity’ – which combined elements of inter-war anti-heroism with traditional soldierly qualities – that the historian Sonya Rose has argued was dominant during the Second World War.26

‘Standing alone’: The Second World War

When it became clear, in the final days of August 1939, that the outbreak of war was inevitable, the press defaulted to its standard role in times of crisis, namely reminding the nation of its glorious past and reassuring it of its ability in the present to withstand any external threat. The tone of the newspaper columns was markedly more muted and pragmatic than in 1914, because there could be no hiding the inevitable horror of the war to come. At the same time, the callous brutality of the Nazi regime, and the insatiability of its diplomatic demands, meant that justifying the war, and portraying it as a struggle of good against evil, was more straightforward than it had been twenty-five years earlier. The Mirror captured the national spirit of defiance by placing a photograph of a roaring lion on its front page and declaring its ‘sure faith that, through endurance and courage, we can save the world from one of the most ruthless and desperate tyrannies that have ever threatened mankind’. Editorials and opinion pieces emphasised the determination, resolution, calmness and unity of the British people. ‘Probably the greatest strength of Britain is its tenacity,’ wrote the Express’s ← 41 | 42 → star columnist, Viscount Castlerosse. ‘We may suffer, and suffer terribly. But we have a habit of seeing things through.’ Conscious that the military leaders of the First World War had been vilified in recent years for their incompetence, an Express editorial emphasised that Viscount Gort, head of the British Expeditionary Force, was a different breed – no ‘donkey’ but ‘a fighting man’, nicknamed ‘Tiger’ and holder of the Victoria Cross: ‘Much will be asked of British troops in the days to come. They will know that their commander asks nothing that he would not do himself.’ The Mirror warned, though, that the public would not accept the mistakes of the past: ‘In 1939 we cannot endure fools in high places as we did after 1914. The self-revealed blunderers must go.’27

The introduction of the Ministry of Information and the full apparatus of wartime censorship meant that the press, once again, operated under severe restrictions. Journalists broadly accepted these restrictions as being necessary, especially as the worst excesses of the Kitchener regime of 1914–15 were avoided. This was, however, a very different war which required a different sort of journalism. During the period of ‘phoney war’ until April 1940, there was relatively little to report, and before the Normandy landings of June 1944, Britain’s direct military involvement consisted mainly of the war in the air, and operations in North Africa. At the same time, the advent of the bomber meant that the war came crashing into the homes and workplaces of ordinary people in mainland Britain. Unlike twenty years earlier, then, a considerable amount of the press coverage was focused not on the front lines, but on the destruction caused by the bombing of civilians. This was usually a more human and empathetic style of reporting – sometimes, indeed, undertaken by female journalists such as the Express’s Hilde Marchant – than the rather stilted heroic narratives penned by the official correspondents of 1914–18.

The popular press’s most significant contribution was to articulate and entrench the mythology of the ‘People’s War’, especially once Winston Churchill assumed the premiership after the fall of Chamberlain in May 1940. Churchill’s speeches, and J. B. Priestley’s ‘Postscripts’ for BBC radio, are rightly highlighted for constructing a vision of shared sacrifice and indomitable spirit, but the popular journalism of the Express and, in particular, the Mirror – then coming into its own as the ‘Forces’ paper’ – was ← 42 | 43 → at least as important. The Mirror’s earthy, direct, conversational columns, with their skilful blend of realism, sentimentality and grim humour, gave working-class readers an account of the war in their own language, rather than the language of the officer class. Ordinary voices also came through strongly in the letter columns, to which the paper gave more space and prominence than its rivals. The paper became a valuable forum for the sharing of questions, anxieties and grumbles – a repository of hopes as well as an outlet for frustrations. The opinion research organisation Mass-Observation concluded in 1942 that the Mirror was ‘probably the biggest source of opinion forming’ for men in the forces.28

The Mirror played a key role, for example, in recasting the military defeat and evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940 into a symbol of British courage, endurance and togetherness. The troops of the British Expeditionary Force were celebrated as ‘Gort’s Unbreakables – “Unshaken, unbroken, unbeaten”’ – or, in the words of one editorial, ‘Bloody marvellous’. Two days before J. B. Priestley’s famous BBC radio talk about Dunkirk, Mirror reporters were detailing ‘How Little Ships Rescued the BEF’. Civilian sailors used ‘[e]verything that would move and float’ to transport men away from danger in France: ‘Open motor-boats, slick varnished motor-cruisers, hard-bitten tarred fishing boats, Thames barges and the “shilling trip around the lightship” pleasure boat of the peace-time beach’: here was the visible manifestation of British ingenuity and unity, as ordinary men and women worked tirelessly to assist – and save – the national military machine. The back-page headline ‘We’ll Be Back’ gave a stirring warning that the British troops would avenge their defeat in the future:

All of them gave one backward glance to the beach which spoke volumes. ‘We’ll be back, Jerry,’ they seemed to say … I saw men at the last gasp. I saw men die, shattered and bloody. I saw men die ashore before we could get to them. But I saw no dejection, no fear – just a grim intensity, so grim it frightened me29

If Dunkirk exemplified ordinary British citizens selflessly rallying to the military cause, the press portrayed the response to the Blitz as a demonstration of British resilience and fortitude under the immense pressure of ← 43 | 44 → direct attack. Fear and distress were minimised in favour of descriptions of resolute bombing victims determinedly carrying on under pressure. ‘They Took It, With Chins Up’ was a typical Mirror headline: ‘After the raid, these street residents rallied and helped each other as best they could. Their homes are wrecked, but not their morale. There’s nothing of despair about them.’ Herbert Mason’s front-page photograph for the Daily Mail of St Paul’s Cathedral rising unscathed from another night of German aerial bombardment became one of the iconic images of the war. Under the headline ‘War’s Greatest Picture’, the report declared that the photograph ‘symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.’ The mythology of the ‘Blitz spirit’ was produced most powerfully and influentially in the daily columns of the popular press.30

As well as celebrating the public’s bravery and grit during the Blitz, the press voiced the popular desire to repay the Germans in kind. In September 1940 the Mirror demanded a ‘gloves off’ approach, arguing that the bombing of Berlin was ‘the only effective method available to us in self-defence’. ‘Bomb for bomb and the same all round’ was ‘the only policy’ on which ‘our dauntless suffering people insist.’ In modern conflicts, in which the lines between military and targets were fuzzy and blurred, the paper suggested that the traditional rules of warfare were obsolete. ‘It is now “retaliate or go under”. We are not dedicated to passive and polite martyrdom. We must hit back’. These sentiments seemed to be widely shared amidst the public, and in valorising the RAF, and particularly Bomber Command, as epitomising the most modern, dynamic and fearless aspects of Britishness, the press offered readers hope and consolation at a time when the outcome of the war seemed so uncertain. At the same time, British journalists continued to claim ethical superiority. ‘Berliners are learning that their city is no more immune than is London from large-scale bombing, noted the Daily Mail in autumn 1940: ‘The one difference is that our airmen select their targets and concentrate on objects of military value.’ The intensification of the bombing of German cities after 1943 brought few moral qualms in a popular press fuelled by what the historian Mark Connelly has described as ‘righteous anger’: ‘The significance of Dresden,’ he concludes, ‘and the haunting, accusing, sight of Germany’s devastated cities, is a post-war ← 44 | 45 → imposition on British memory.’ If reservations were expressed in some of the elite papers, popular journalists learnt to channel the twin desires for military retribution and moral certainty, briskly dismissing any potential tensions or contradictions.31

The newspaper coverage of the government and military authorities was less critical than it had been in the First World War, not least because Churchill seemed a more vigorous and inspiring war leader than Asquith. There was, moreover, no dominant figure in Fleet Street ready to take up Northcliffe’s mantle as the voice of the press and public. Rothermere’s health was failing, and he died in November 1940, while Beaverbrook was soon brought into his friend Churchill’s administration as Minister of Aircraft Production. Nevertheless, newspapers consistently chivvied the government into fighting the war more urgently and efficiently. The Express, voicing the concerns of its proprietor, relentlessly focused on obstacles to industrial efficiency: the ‘chief foundation of victory,’ it declared, ‘is arms production’. The Mirror, for its part, was insistent that its working class readers at home and in the Forces should not suffer due to official incompetence. The fall of Chamberlain in May 1940 was greeted with relief, but the Mirror urged that the remainder of the pre-war appeasers, the ineffectual ‘Chamberlain gang’, should be removed too. Tom Wintringham, a noted left-wing writer and journalist, demanded in his regular Mirror column that the war be run by leaders with an understanding of modern weaponry and military strategies, rather than by those rooted in traditional thinking: ‘We need a clean sweep away from the old days of war. We need a war to win the war.’ Editorials offered similar thoughts: ‘Shall we never get rid of these boobies who cannot understand that anything may happen to those who will not be prepared in time for the new form of war?’ The paper noted its distaste for the ‘everlasting rot about valour and one Briton being the equal of a dozen Germans.’32

The columnist Cassandra was even more outspoken, attacking the timidity, inflexibility and pedantry of the military administration. The Dunkirk evacuation, he suggested, had exposed ‘the political botchers who, guided only by supreme ignorance and stubborn selfishness, did nothing during the first eight months of the war.’ A year later, he lamented that ‘[w]e are still not fully geared to fight. Our effort lacks punch … [and] some ← 45 | 46 → of the Service Chiefs are still thinking along the lines of strategies that they were taught about a dozen years ago at Sandhurst, Cranwell, or Dartmouth.’ By January 1942 he was adamant that ‘Bungling and mismanagement of the Army are on a scale that cannot be concealed and is obvious to all’. Unlike most of his colleagues, the acerbic Cassandra was prepared to puncture the myth of unity embodied in the ‘People’s War’. Noting in September 1941 that stock values had risen by £6 million after the government’s plan for renting the railways ‘was divulged by somebody in the know’, he surmised that ‘the wide boys cleaned up nicely’: ‘The Ministry of Transport stated firmly that “no leakage could possibly have occurred.” Just a curious coincidence. That’s all.’ Unwilling to accept the official line, Cassandra continued to point out how workers and ordinary soldiers were exploited and mistreated by those with power over them.33

Other papers attacked the government in the difficult early years of the war – the Daily Herald condemned ‘ostrichism’ in those overseeing both the war industries and the military strategy, while in March 1942, the Express led a high-profile campaign to open up a second front to assist the Soviet Union – but the Mirror’s criticism, rooted in a class-based appraisal of the amateurism of the political and military elites, significantly outdid its rivals in its directness and consistency, and increasingly riled Churchill and his cabinet. The Mirror and its sister paper, the Sunday Pictorial, received several warnings, both private and public. On 8 October 1940, Churchill told the House of Commons that the tone of ‘certain organs of the Press’ was ‘so vicious and malignant’ that it would be ‘almost indecent if applied to the enemy’; similar points were made in letters to and meetings with Cecil King, the director of the paper. Churchill’s patience finally snapped in March 1942 after the publication of an arresting cartoon drawn by Philip Zec, showing a wounded sailor clinging to a raft after his ship had sunk. The caption, penned by Cassandra, ran ‘“The price of petrol has been increased by one penny.”- Official.’ What Zec and Cassandra had intended as a warning to the public about wasting petrol was interpreted by the Cabinet as suggesting that seamen were risking their lives to bring ever-greater profits to the petrol businesses. The Mirror was given an official warning and was threatened with closure. This was no idle threat: in January 1941, the Communist-supporting publications the Daily Worker and The Week had ← 46 | 47 → been closed. In March 1942 the Mirror was the subject of a debate in the House of Commons where it was both attacked and defended with passion. Support for the Mirror in Parliament and Fleet Street encouraged the government to step back from the brink; Cassandra’s decision to join the army provided a convenient way out for both sides, although the paper ultimately emerged the happier. Mass-Observation found that this warning from above served only to ‘increase the proportion of people who feel favourably towards the Daily Mirror’, and reinforced the popular notion that the paper was for ‘us’ against ‘them’.34

The gradual turn of the tide of the war in favour of the Allies from 1943 eased the tensions between the government and the press, and enabled journalists to focus on the heroism of the troops rather than the weaknesses of leadership. ‘We Are In!’ celebrated the Sunday Pictorial after the Allies established a bridgehead in Sicily. The D-Day landings in June 1944 were presented as signalling the start of the final phase of the war. ‘The third and last episode in the rebirth of Britain is now beginning’ declared the Express. ‘Today our honour asserts itself. It shouts louder than any other noise in the world.’ For left-of-centre papers like the Mirror and the Herald, progress in the military arena was accompanied by a desire to look ahead to the reconstruction of politics and society. There was a determination that promises of a better future should not be betrayed as they had been in 1918. The Mirror gave considerable publicity to the Beveridge Report when it was released in December 1942. This blueprint for a post-war welfare state, covering everyone from ‘Duke to Dustman’, promised to ‘Banish want’, and provided a specific vision to rally around and campaign for. Shortly after the D-Day landings, a Mirror editorial entitled ‘Votes for Heroes’ was adamant that the troops were already looking beyond the military conflict to the political battles to come: ‘These gallant men are fighting and they know what they are fighting for. Their first task is to rid the world of tyranny. Their second, no less important, is to create a “new world” in which men may live in peace and fairly shared prosperity’. Garry Allighan, in his regular Forces column, implored soldiers to register and not to leave themselves voteless, because the next election ‘will be your opportunity to compel the politicians to give you “the better Britain” they now talk about’. Similar messages about the importance of political engagement were directed to ← 47 | 48 → female voters. The Mirror took every opportunity to emphasise the power of ordinary people, if only they would be prepared to use it.35

The final months of the war brought two stories of unprecedented magnitude that were immensely challenging for journalists to communicate to their popular audience. The first, from April to June 1945, was the discovery of the concentration camps and the gradual recognition of the full scale of the Holocaust. The conditions revealed in camps such as Belsen and Buchenwald were scarcely comprehensible and seemed to represent, as one shocked observer commented, ‘the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended.’ British newspapers had such a long tradition of demonising the enemy through the publication of sensationalised atrocity stories, from the gruesome accounts of German activities in Belgium in 1914 to the despairing tales of the Japanese incursions into Hong Kong in 1942, that it was difficult for papers to find the appropriate language to convey the entirely different scale of premeditated and calculated slaughter found in the camps. Newspapers gave space to what Picture Post described as ‘[h]orror stories that made the stories of Edgar Allan Poe read like fairy tales’, with key perpetrators described as being inhuman in their cruelty (‘The Beast of Belsen’, the ‘Mad Doctor’) – but for the Daily Express, this was insufficient to bring home to readers the extent of what had happened. In order to educate the public, the Express held a free exhibition in Trafalgar Square of twenty-two photographs from the camps under the title ‘Seeing is Believing’. The ‘Horror Camp Pictures’ were designed to provide ‘a terrible and convincing exposure of German brutality’; some of them were also sent to other venues. Such reporting powerfully reinforced British hostility to the German people: ‘A race which can produce so much foulness must itself be foul’ argued one article in the Mirror.36

The second story almost incomprehensible story was the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The British press immediately recognised, as the Express’s front-page declared, that this was ‘The Bomb That Has Changed The World’. The atomic explosion, argued the paper’s editorial, had ‘blotted ← 48 | 49 → out a whole universe of ideas’. ‘Steeled as people have become to news of weapons of destruction, they can but gasp in wonder at this revelation of man’s power over the forces of Nature’. Photographs of the mushroom cloud and the destruction on the ground were heavily restricted by the US military and were slow to filter out, but no one was in any doubt that this was ‘the most fearful device of war yet produced’. The cataclysmic nature of the bomb was significantly reinforced by the Express’s front-page scoop, penned by the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who was the first Allied reporter to enter Hiroshima unaccompanied by military minders. His famous report, published on 5 September 1945 and headlined ‘The Atomic Plague – “I write this as a warning to the world”’, infuriated the American authorities by drawing attention in dramatic terms to the radioactive fall-out from the bomb:

people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly – people who were uninjured in the cataclysm – from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague … They developed an acute sickness. Their gums began to bleed. And then they vomited blood. And finally they died. All these phenomena … [Japanese scientists] told me, were due to the radioactivity released by the atomic bomb’s explosion of the uranium atom

The evocative language of the ‘plague’ raised the terrifying prospect that modern science had manufactured a weapon whose after-effects were reminiscent of the medieval ‘Black Death’. Burchett also emphasised the sheer extent of the physical destruction caused by the initial explosion. ‘Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city,’ he wrote, ‘It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence … It makes a blitzed Pacific island seem like an Eden.’ The American authorities reacted to this report both by targeting Burchett and by working to calm public fears about the fall-out; as a result, there was little immediate follow-up to it. Nevertheless, as the Second World War came to end, the press had ensured that the British public recognised that a civilised society might not be able to survive a third such conflict.37 ← 49 | 50 →

Cold War, decolonisation and ‘decline’

After 1945, the wars and military operations Britain was involved in were smaller in scope, less immediately threatening to the public at home, and in places less familiar to most readers: Korea, Suez, Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and the various outposts of the declining Empire. In the sphere of war reporting, in particular, the press also increasingly lost its pre-eminence to radio and then television. Dramatic on-the-spot broadcasts and film footage had an immediacy that newspapers found it hard to match. The broader processes of tabloidisation, too, led popular papers to focus more intently on domestic news and entertainment, generally leaving the detail of international events and foreign affairs to the elite press. Rather than providing detailed reporting and analysis, the popular press was more preoccupied with defending and bolstering a vision of Britain as a strong and united national community determined to be a major player in the world arena. In the Cold War world defined by the military and diplomatic standoff between the two global superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, it was difficult to pretend that Britain had the status it had enjoyed in the past. Nevertheless, the popular press, and particularly the right-wing papers, demanded that Britain seek to preserve, and live up to, the perceived ‘greatness’ of the recent past, using its ‘special relationship’ with the United States, its role as head of the Commonwealth, and its influence in Europe, to shape the international politics of the post-war period. The Suez debacle of 1956 damaged, but by no means destroyed, this world-view. By focusing so resolutely on British power and the opportunities for using it, the press made it harder for the public to come to terms with ‘decline’; similarly, the emphasis on diplomacy with the United States, on the one hand, and the relations with the former Empire, on the other, marginalised coverage of the Continent and discouraged the view that Britain might have a place in the emerging project of European unification.

The resilience of the tabloid belief in British ‘greatness’ was evident in the demand for a British atomic bomb, despite the anxieties about its awesome power and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. The bomb was desired as a symbol of national virility; Britain was also regarded as having ← 50 | 51 → a special claim on it due to the significant contribution of British scientists to the Manhattan Project. After the destruction of Nagasaki, an Express editorial portrayed the weapon as a product of British genius: ‘let us British take pride in our achievement. Let us now praise the famous British, a race incomparable in ingenuity, unparalleled in swiftness of hand and brain.’ For the bulk of the popular press, possession of the bomb was, as Churchill would famously observe, ‘the price we pay to sit at the top table’. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Express, in particular, repeatedly criticised the Labour government for its failure to produce an atomic bomb, observing in August 1950 that Britain had as a result been ‘dwarfed and dwindled’ by the United States and Soviet Union. Without a nuclear capability, Britain could not operate independently on the world stage, and it was left in the humiliating position of relying on the might of the United States: ‘Britain’s aim should not be to lean on American strength. But to be able to buttress that strength with sure and adequate striking power of her own.’ When a British bomb was successfully tested in October 1952, the Express rejoiced that ‘Overnight it has restored Britain to the status of a major Power’ and that no longer was Britain ‘a weakling standing naked between American and Russian atomic might’. The Mirror was similarly celebratory. ‘Today Britain is Great Britain again’ wrote correspondent Bill Greig. The successful test


VIII, 258
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 258 pp.

Biographical notes

Adrian Bingham (Author) Martin Conboy (Author)

Adrian Bingham is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He studied for his D.Phil at the University of Oxford, and held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research in London, before moving to the Department of History at Sheffield in 2006. Martin Conboy is Professor of Journalism History at the University of Sheffield. He studied for his PhD at the Institute of Education, University of London. He lectured in the Institute for English and American Studies at the University of Potsdam, Germany for five years before moving back to Britain to develop critical linguistic and historical approaches to journalism studies. He joined the Department of Journalism Studies at Sheffield in 2005.


Title: Tabloid Century