In 1887 the journalist Alfred Harmsworth formed a new publishing business. Early publications included Answers (1888) and Comic Cuts (1890) and in 1894 went into newspapers when he acquired the London Evening News.
Alfred Harmsworth now decided to start a new paper based on the style of newspapers published in the USA. By the time the first issue of the Daily Mail appeared for the first time on 4th May, 1896, over 65 dummy runs had taken place. For each of these the complete papers were produced at a cost of £40,000. The eight page newspaper cost only halfpenny. Slogans used to sell the newspaper included 'A Penny Newspaper for One Halfpenny' and 'The Busy Man's Daily Newspaper'.
The Daily Mail was the first newspaper in Britain that catered for a new reading public that needed something simpler, shorter and more readable than those that had previously been available. One new innovation was the banner headline that went right across the page. Considerable space was given to sport and human interest stories. It was also the first newspaper to include a woman's section that dealt with issues such as fashions and cookery.
Another innovation introduced by the Daily Mail was the publication of serials. Personally supervised by Harmsworth, the average length was 100,000 words. The opening episode was 5,000 words and had to have a dramatic impact on the readers. This was followed by episodes of 1,500 to 2,000 words every day.
The newspaper was an immediate success and circulation quickly achieved 500,000. With the strong interest in the Boer War in 1899 sales went to over a million. Harmsworth encouraged people to buy the Daily Mail for nationalistic reasons making it clear to his readers that his newspaper stood "for the power, the supremacy and the greatness of the British Empire".
Harmsworth also used his newspapers to promote inventions such as the telephone, electric light, photography, motorcycles and motor cars. He was so passionate about cars that Harmsworth prohibited the editor of the Daily Mail from reporting automobile accidents.
The popularity of the newspaper increased with the use of promotional activities. This included the offer of prizes for the first-ever flights across the Channel and Atlantic.
Alfred Harmsworth was a great supporter of flying and in 1906 offered a prize of £1,000 for the first airman to cross the English Channel from Calais to Dover and £10,000 prize for the first completed flight from London to Manchester. The idea seemed so preposterous that Punch Magazine decided to poke fun at Harmsworth by offering a prize of £10,000 for the first flight to Mars. However, by June 1910, both of Harmsworth's prizes had been won by French pilots.
Harmsworth was worried about the possible consequences of aircraft for the defence of Britain. He realised that it would soon be possible for foreign pilots to drop bombs on Britain. He wrote a letter warning Richard Haldane, Secretary of War, about his concerns, but failed to persuade the government that this danger existed.
Before the outbreak of the First World War Harmsworth was accused of being a war-monger. As early as 1897 he had sent the writer G. W. Steevens to Germany to produce a sixteen-part series entitled Under the Iron Heel . The articles praised the German Army and warned that Britain was in danger of being defeated in a war against Germany. Three years later Northcliffe wrote an editorial in the Daily Mail predicting a war with Germany
In October 1909 Harmsworth (now Lord Northcliffe) employed Robert Blatchford, the Socialist editor of the Clarion, to visit Germany to write a series of articles for the newspaper on the dangers that the Germans posed to Britain. Blatchford agreed with Northcliffe on the problem and in one article wrote: "I believe that Germany is deliberately preparing to destroy the British Empire" and warned that Britain needed to spend more money in defending itself against attack.
Lord Northcliffe was determined to make the Daily Mail the official newspaper of the British Army. Every day 10,000 copies of the paper were delivered to the Western Front by military motor cars. He also had the revolutionary idea of using front-line soldiers as news sources. In August 1914 he announced a scheme where he would pay soldiers for articles written about their experiences.
During the early stages of the conflict Northcliffe created a great deal of controversy by advocating conscription and criticizing Lord Kitchener. In an article he wrote in the Daily Mail on 21st May, 1915, Northcliffe wrote a blistering attack on the Secretary of State for War: "Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell - the same kind of shell which he used largely against the Boers in 1900. He persisted in sending shrapnel - a useless weapon in trench warfare. He was warned repeatedly that the kind of shell required was a violently explosive bomb which would dynamite its way through the German trenches and entanglements and enable our brave men to advance in safety. This kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them."
Lord Kitchener was a national hero and Harmsworth's attack on him upset a great number of readers. Overnight, the circulation of the Daily Mail dropped from 1,386,000 to 238,000. A placard was hung across the newspaper nameplate with the words "The Allies of the Huns". Over 1,500 members of the Stock Exchange had a meeting where they passed a motion against the "venomous attacks of the Hamsworth Press" and afterwards ceremoniously burnt copies of the offending newspaper.
Although the leader of the government, Herbert Asquith, accused Northcliffe and his newspapers of disloyalty, he privately accepted that shell production was a real problem and he appointed David Lloyd George as the new Munitions Minister.
Lord Northcliffe also used the newspaper to attack the government for the failed operation at Gallipoli. He wrote about the "forty thousand killed, missing or drowned; three hundred millions of treasury thrown away" and argued that even if the campaign had been successful "to win this war, the German line itself must be broken" on the Western Front.
Lord Northcliffe continued his attacks on Lord Kitchener and when he heard he had been killed he remarked: "The British Empire has just had the greatest stroke of luck in its history." After the death of Kitchener he concentrated on having Herbert Asquith removed. Not only did he criticise Asquith as a man of inaction but claimed that Germany was afraid that David Lloyd George would become prime minister.
When Asquith resigned in December, 1916, the new prime minister, David Lloyd George decided that it was be safer to have Northcliffe in his government. However, Northcliffe refused an offer of a place in Lloyd George's cabinet as he knew it would undermine his ability to criticise the government.
Although David Lloyd George offered Lord Northcliffe a cabinet position he disliked the man intensely. In a confidential letter to his Parliamentary Private Secretary he wrote at the time he claimed that: "Northcliffe is one of the biggest intriguers and most unscrupulous people in the country."
Even to live in the war zone without papers and credentials was hard enough, but to move about and see things, and pick up news and then to get one's written dispatches conveyed home - against all regulations - was a labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken in journalistic work. I longed sometimes to be arrested and sent home and done with it all.
I evaded the authorities in France and Flanders in 1914-1915 for five months - going to the Front on average two or three times a week. I had apartments or hotel rooms in three districts, and when things became hot in one place I moved to another of my bases.
The Germans have this advantage over us, that their public is kept interested in the war. By brilliant war correspondents and constantly changing kinematograph films and photographs, every man, women and child knows what the war means and how the nation is fighting. In this country anyone who goes about among the populace finds that few of the masses understand what the war is about. They are told very little of the horrors of war as waged by Germany. They do not understand what defeat would mean to us.
Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell - the same kind of shell which he used largely against the Boers in 1900. He persisted in sending shrapnel - a useless weapon in trench warfare. He was warned repeatedly that the kind of shell required was a violently explosive bomb which would dynamite its way through the German trenches and entanglements and enable our brave men to advance in safety. This kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them.
The daily losses in the war, on ordinary days, where there is no attempt to advance, are about 2,000, according to official casualty lists. We are growing callous about the size of the daily lists of killed, wounded and missing. Very few people read even the headings of them, comparatively few grasp the fact that after vast losses we are just where we were six months ago on our little line in the Franco-Belgian Frontier. Thousands of homes are mourning today for men who have been needlessly sacrificed.