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Lord Northcliffe

( Originally Published 1907 )

I WAS talking one day in the garden of a friend of mine on the subject of Stevenson, when he brought forth a file of Young Folks for 1881, containing the " Sea Cook," and another for 1884, in which appeared the " Black Arrow." Turning the yellow pages, he casually pointed to an article, one of a series, on " Amateur Photography."

" There," said he, are the modest beginnings of greatness. To-day the writer of that humble article is master of the Times, a member of the House of Lords, owner of half the papers you see in the hands of the people, the Napoleon of the Press; whether you like it or not, the most influential man in this country." For the name under the article was " Alfred C. Harmsworth." " How has it been done? " he asked. " What manner of man is this Lord Northcliffe? "

" I have," I said, " the privilege of not knowing Lord Northcliffe. I am that miracle in these days,a journalist who has never been through his mill,never written a line for him, nor met him, nor, except when he has been in the Peers' Gallery of the House of Commons, even seen him. I am therefore well qualified to answer your question, for I can view him without any personal emotion, which, I believe, is a rare thing in a journalist. Lord Northcliffe is the type of ' the man in the street.' There is no psychological mystery to be unravelled here, no intellectual shadow land. He is obvious and elementary a man who understands material success and nothing else. He has no other standard by which to judge life. Napoleon's question was, ' What have you done? ' Lord Northcliffe's question would be, ' What have you got? For he not only wants success himself ; he admires it in others. It is the passport to his esteem. It is the thing he under-stands. If you will watch his career you will see that, as far as he has a philosophy at all, it is this, that merit rides in a motor-car. You become interesting to him, as Johnson became interesting to Chesterfield, immediately you have succeeded. When he went down to that memorable meeting at Glasgow at which Mr. Chamberlain formally opened his fiscal campaign, he changed his policy in a night. His papers had been full of denunciations of what he had christened ' the Stomach Tax '; but this meeting, so great and so enthusiastic, seemed the presage of success. He was going to be left in company with that dismal thing, failure. The thing was unthinkable, and he leapt the fence on the instant. For he believes with Mr. Biglow that

A merciful Providence fashioned us hollow,
In order the* we might our princerples swallow.

The one principle to which his loyalty never falters is to be on the side of the big battalions.

" This habit of swift decision, dictated without regard to principle, is the key to his success. He carries no intellectual or moral impedimenta, has no sentiment, is subject to no theory, holds no view of life. He simply asks, ' What will win? ' and then, to quote Mr. Biglow again, ' goes inter it baldheaded.' He is, in a word, the Stock Exchange man in the sphere of journalism. He represents the conquest of Fleet Street by Capel Court. Go on the Stock Exchange and you will find it crowded with Lord Northcliffes, men of that rapid, decisive type who bull and bear with happy indifference to intrinsic merit, and to whom the issues of peace and war are of importance only as they affect the price of stock and shares.

" When Lord Northcliffe set out to feed the war flame in South Africa, he did so, I think, without any real feeling against the Boers. He is not, I fancy, a man who bears malice. For to bear malice involves attachment to some point of view, indicates some reality of character. Had the Boers won he would probably have written them a letter of congratulation. But the mood of the country was high and turbulent. We were full of such boastings as the Gentiles use, And lesser breeds without the law.

And his conception of journalism is to give the public the meat it craves for. If it wants a war, then it is his duty to paint the enemy black and horrific; if it wants a sensation, then it is his task to provide it. Does the temper of the moment demand the immolation of France, then he is the fiercest of Francophobes:

If the French cannot cease their insults (he says in 1899), their Colonies will be taken from them and given to Germany and Italy. . The French have succeeded in thoroughly convincing John Bull that they are his inveterate enemies. . . . England has long hesitated between France and Germany. But she has always respected the German character, whereas she has gradually come to feel a contempt for France. Nothing like an entente cordiale can subsist between England and her nearest neighbour.

Does the mood change and Germany become the object of national suspicion, then who so ready to throw faggots on the flame :

Yes, we detest the Germans and we detest them cordially (he says in 1903). They render themselves odious to the whole of Europe. I would not tolerate that anyone should print in my journal the least thing which might to-day wound France; but, on the other hand, I would not like anyone to insert anything that could please Germany.

Lord Northcliffe

" He blots out the foolish word ' consistency ' from his bright lexicon and repudiates his yesterdays with fearless indifference to criticism. He knows that the mob has no memory and only asks for its daily sensation with its daily bread. And so in the midst of the great German panic, his newspapers made our flesh creep with their revelations of Germany's designs, and Mr. Robert Blatchford was engaged to reduce us to the last pit of fear. Then, the mood of the public being exhausted, he turned and slew the monster of his own invention. He went to Berlin, and from thence sent to his paper a sublime reproof of our silly behaviour, and told us that all Germany was laughing at our panic-stricken folly. Such agility leaves one breathless.

He, in fact, regards himself simply as the purveyor of a popular commodity. If the public taste changes, then he is the man to change with it, for he is wedded to no old clothes. He is, truly considered, a humble-minded person. His opinions are of so little consequence that he is always prepared to adopt those of other people, provided that they represent the majority. In 1904, when the Progressives looked like winning, he supported them; in 1097, when they were certain to lose, he filled his papers with fantastic stories of their misdeeds. It was not that he disagreed with them, for disagreement implies convictions of some sort. It was simply that he was with the crowd. He backs an opinion as he would back a horse because he believes it will win. He reminds me of that story of Lord Chancellor Thurlow and the Nonconformist deputation that went to him to protest against some unjust advantage he had given to the Established Church. Why,' asked the deputation, 'do you always show this partiality for the Established Church? ' ' I show partiality for the Established Church,' said Thurlow, because it is established. Get your sect established and then I'll show partiality to you,'

" It is this absolutely commercial conception of journalism which is Lord Northcliffe's contribution to his time. Journalism was a profession: he has made it a trade. It had a moral function: in his hands it has no more moral significance than the manufacture of soap. The old notion in regard to a newspaper was that it was a responsible adviser of the public. Its first duty was to provide the news, uncoloured by any motive, private or public; its second to present a certain view of public policy which it believed to be for the good of the State and the community. It was sober, responsible, and a little dull. It treated life as if it was a serious matter. It had an antiquated respect for truth. It believed in the moral governance of things.

Lord Northcliffe has changed all this. He started free from all convictions. He saw an immense unexploited field. The old journalism appealed only to the minds of the responsible public; he would appeal to the emotions of the irresponsible. The old journalism gave news; he would give sensation. The old journalism gave reasoned opinion; he would give unreasoning passion. When Captain Flanagan, from the calm retreat of the debtors' prison, was drawing up the prospectus of the Pall Mall Gazette, he said proudly that it ` would be written by gentlemen for gentlemen.' Lord Northcliffe conceived a journal which, in Lord Salisbury's phrase, was written by office-boys for office-boys.' It was a bitter saying; but Lord Northcliffe has had his revenge. He, Lord Salisbury's ` office-boy' of journalism, was raised to the peerage by Lord Salisbury's nephew.

" It was not the only case in which time passed an ironic comment on Lord Salisbury's views on the Press. When Gladstone repealed the stamp duty and made the penny paper possible, Lord Robert Cecil asked scornfully what good thing could come out of a penny paper. A cheap Press, like an enlarged franchise, meant to his gloomy and fatalistic mind ' red ruin and the breaking up of laws.' And he lived to see himself kept in power by the democracy which he had feared, and deriving his support from the half-penny press, at which he would have shuddered. He lived, in fact, to realise that there is a better way with the office-boy than to drive him into revolutionary movements. It is to give him a vote and the Daily Mail.

" I have said that Lord Northcliffe is the man in the street, that is, that his mind is always in tune with the mood of the populace. You see it in this article in Young Folks. Amateur photography had just become popular. He, a lad of eighteen, seized on it as a stepping-stone to fortune. A little later came the boom in cycling, and Master Harmsworth, still in his teens, became a cycling journalist in Coventry. Sir George Newnes had touched the great heart of humanity with Tit-Bits, and Mr. Harmsworth, now a man of twenty-one, felt that here was a field for his genius also. He, too, would tell men that the streets of London, put end to end, would stretch across the Atlantic, and that there were more acres in Yorkshire than letters in the Bible. Why should he conceal these truths? Why should the public thirst for knowledge be denied? And so, in an upper room in the neighbourhood of the Strand, Answers came to birth, the prolific parent of some hundred, or, perhaps, two hundred I am not sure which-offspring, ranging from the Funny Wonder to the Daily Mail, all bearing the impress of the common mind in an uncommon degree, the freedom from ideas, the love of the irrelevant and the trivial, the admiration for the flagrant and the loud, the divorce from all the sobrieties and sanities of life. The fate of the Times was long in doubt, and the secret of its new control was carefully concealed. But one day it appeared with several columns describing the dress at some society ' function,' Lady Midas' wonderful creation from Worth's, and the Duchess of Blankshire's rapturous pearls, and I knew the touch of the master-hand. The marvellous ' office-boy ' had no more worlds left to conquer.

" Perhaps the crucial moment of his life was that day in the early nineties, when a young man who had been a reporter on the Birmingham Daily Mail, and afterwards on the Sun, called on him with a scheme. The Evening News was for sale, and the enterprising young man had got the refusal of it, and gave Mr. Harmsworth twelve hours to decide whether he would buy it, his own reward being the editorship and a share in the business. So far Mr. Harmsworth had only adorned the sphere of ' tit-bit ' journalism. He seized this opportunity to serve his country in a larger sphere, and out of that day's work came the Daily Mail, with which the ideals of American journal-ism were brought into our midst, and all the multitude of daily papers with which he has endowed us. He is, you see, a man of bold and swift decisions. When he found the women did not want a women's daily paper, he changed it in a night into a halfpenny picture paper. And instantly he found his way to the feminine heart. He is doubtful whether women want votes; but he discovered that they do want pictures, ` stuck in anyhow, with hardly any words at all.' " He has adroitness too. When the DailyTelegraph started a Sunday issue, he followed suit. Instantly there was a great outcry in the country against the Sunday newspaper. To that outcry Lord Burnham and Lord Northcliffe bowed with grave professions of respect for religious opinion. Subsequently Lord Northcliffe purchased two Sunday papers already existing, and nothing was said, though we may assume that Lord Burnham thought a good deal. There are few earlier birds about than Lord Northcliffe.

He touches nothing that he does not shall we say? adorn. The note of his mind is over all he does. I was looking the other day at one of his multitudinous publications—a children's cyclopedia. It contained a picture of the solar system, the sun blazing in the centre and the planets careering round it. And each planet was depicted by a motorcar! He can make even the splendours of the midnight sky speak in the terms of the momentary and sordid earth. No doubt the men sitting in those motor-cars were reading the Daily Mail. I am told that in his office he has a favourite phrase about the shop window.' ' What is wrong with the shop window to-day? ' he will say, as he points to the offending issue. It is an eloquent phrase. He is the "shop window ' journalist. The sign over the journalist's office in the old days was ` Marchand d'idées.' Now it is ` The Latest Novelties,' and the editor is the chief shop-walker. Is your mood for conquest ? Then here is the material to feed your hate or your fear of the foreigner. Is health the craze of the moment ? Then `Standard Bread ' becomes a gospel more urgent than the Decalogue. Are you tired of panics and in need of nature's balm ? Then the shop window is aflame with sweet peas and we are all turned out into our gardens to engage in a feverish competition for the finest blooms and the biggest prizes.

" He is all that is summed up in that desolating word ` smart,' He is a ` smart ' man, the representative man of a ` smart age. It is an age which, if it has ever heard of Lord Courtney, regards him only as a dull old gentleman who bores you with talk about principles. It delights in the man who will advertise himself in twelve-foot letters. It worships success, however it is achieved. You may be ex-posed as often as you like: all will be forgiven if only you will be smart. You may espouse one cause to-day and another to-morrow, one cause here and another there: it does not matter so long as you do it with effrontery and success. And its patriotism is that strange, inverted thing which makes ` Little Englander' a phrase of withering reproach, as though to love England were impious.

" It is not that it believes the wrong things: it is that it has ceased to believe anything. Its drama is the music-hall; its moral teacher Mr. Hall Caine; its instructor the inspired office-boy. As I came along in the Tube to see you, I took notice of the papers in the people's hands. The fat gentleman on one side of me was reading the Globe; the slim lady on the other the Daily Mirror; the smart office-boy in front the Daily Mail; the meek person next the Sunday Companion; the lad in the corner Comic Cuts. There were Evening Newses, and Red Magazines, Puck, and the World. The papers were different, but the accents were one. Where Lord Northcliffe was not, there was Mr. C. Arthur Pearson, his pale shadow. The revolution is complete. The old journalism is dead, the voice of Answers speaks in the thunders of the Times, and Lord Northcliffe ' bestrides the world like a Colossus,' the type of power without the sense of responsibility of material success without moral direction."

" You have spoken truly," said the other, " though I think Watts has put the thing more tersely in his picture of ' Mammon.' But you paint the time too gloomily. It is a time of change and disturbance and fickleness and strange forms come to the surface; but out of the welter the new England is emerging with a new social gospel and a new vision. Lord Northcliffe, with his shop-window novelties, is but a transition phase. He is only the echo of the passing mood and the shallow craze. The great movement is coming from below and is independent of all the inanities of the press. Be of good cheer. We are a people yet. And now to resume. When I met Stevenson at Bournemouth."

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