The Chief: The Life of Lord Northcliffe, Britain’s Greatest Press Baron by Andrew Roberts (Simon & Schuster, £25).

Having produced magisterial biographies of Churchill and George III, Andrew Roberts is now well established as setting the biographical canon, cutting through forests of black propaganda and myth with a revisionist chainsaw, to reclaim historical characters from distortion and caricature. It is the very essence of what historians are meant to do, but often neglect. In a Western world drowning in a tsunami of lies, in which Churchill and every other British giant are regularly “cancelled”, the Roberts school of historiography becomes even more vital to sustaining civilisation.

In his latest biography he has descended a pace from the heights of monarchy and statecraft to chronicle a man who epitomised the new power that emerged in the 19th century, grew exponentially in the 20th and is now out of control in the 21st: the Fourth Estate, specifically the mass media, pioneered by press baron Lord Northcliffe. 

Alfred Harmsworth was unique: by the age of 27 his magazines had the largest circulation in the world; he later owned The Times and the Observer, and founded the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Those commanding heights of the media conferred great power so that a biography of Northcliffe is not so far removed from Roberts’ previous subjects as at first appears.

This is a conscientious and comprehensive account: the smooth flow of the narrative might make the reader overlook the prodigious amount of research and detail it encompasses (Roberts had access to the Harmsworth family archive). The young Alfred’s childhood, spent in genteel poverty in Dublin (for two years only) and London, and his love and admiration for his mother, whose businesslike approach kept the family financially afloat) leads Roberts to sensibly dismiss any Freudian interpretation of the mother-son relationship: Northcliffe, in later life, consulted his mother for a detached opinion on major business decisions. She can hardly be accused of having stifled her sons’ initiative: two became viscounts, one a baron and two baronets.

There are several particular points of interest in the book. Andrew Roberts breaks new ground by identifying Northcliffe’s mistress Kathleen Wrohan as actually Beatrice Maude Cromie, an Irishwoman who had left her husband and disappeared, rumoured to have drowned (causing her husband, a policeman, to contract a bigamous marriage). Under Lord Northcliffe’s patronage, she not only became rich but was presented to the King and Queen. This identification, through a myriad of disconnected documents in England, Ireland, Europe and North America is a diverting piece of Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing and a triumph of patient research.

As Roberts highlights, there was one characteristic of Lord Northcliffe and his journalism that strongly differentiates it from today’s cosmopolitan media platforms: he was a strong British patriot and put national interests first, as did the papers he owned. For this he was denounced as jingoistic; he would have responded that he simply wanted Britain to win the First World War. In some respects, his views were prophetic, as when, in a rare speech in the Lords in 1916, he demanded the creation of an air ministry. His support for conscription, however, leaves him open to the accusation that he encouraged the feeding of Britain’s youth into the meat grinder of the Western Front.

Nor was his journalism infallible, as on the occasion when the Daily Mail wrongly reported that all the personnel in the British Legation in Peking, including the ambassador, had been “put to the sword” by the Boxer rebels. A memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral for the victims was aborted just in time, when the legation staff were found to be alive and well. Northcliffe, however, was ahead of his time in demanding the right for correspondents to be sent to the front lines of war.

But the single most outstanding achievement of Northcliffe was his uncanny, almost intuitive, understanding of what the public wanted and how most profitably to exploit that knowledge. “There is a great art in feeling the pulse of the people,” he observed. That did not necessarily mean, as his detractors claimed, pandering to the lowest common denominator and peddling trash. The difference between quality journalism on newspapers of record and the popular prints was proportionally less in Victorian and Edwardian times than the equivalent gulf today, including online platforms. He recognised the importance of female readers, a tradition that continues on the Daily Mail to this day.

Lord Northcliffe’s nickname, “The Chief”, which also furnishes the book’s title, is revealing of the relationship between him and his employees. Until his final days of illness and madness, he had a rather modern relationship with his staff. At afternoon conferences, if a very junior member of staff had a constructive idea, he was welcome to suggest it to the Chief, though he ran the risk of a heavily sarcastic response if it did not find favour. Within the limits of his overall strategy, Northcliffe gave his editors considerable independence.

Northcliffe was often accused of megalomania and, considering his early success, it is unsurprising that he sometimes displayed that trait. But Roberts’ account of his terrible death, over several months, from bacterial endocarditis, which made him paranoid and increasingly insane, being desperately rude and venomous to all around him, brandishing a revolver and making a humiliating spectacle of himself, may be the root of much of this belief. Last impressions are the most lingering and the megalomania induced by mental illness may largely have effaced from public memory the courteous, charming newspaperman of earlier years.

As a propagandist, Northcliffe was formidable; Roberts cites quotes from his enemies to demonstrate the fact. The German commander Erich Ludendorff said: “We were hypnotised… as a rabbit by a snake.” In his exile, Kaiser Wilhelm II said of Lord Northcliffe: “What a man! If we had had Northcliffe, we would have won the war.” Roberts’s account is informative in its description of Northcliffe’s relations with various British governments and the chronic establishment distrust of him.

It is a well-written account, too, though Homer occasionally nods (“appraise” for “apprise”, p.118). Many features of the media world today might look very different, and some well-known newspapers would not exist, had it not been for the career of Alfred Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe, of whom his fellow press baron, Lord Beaverbrook, said: “He was the greatest figure who ever strode down Fleet Street.” Thanks to the labours of Andrew Roberts, we have an opportunity to know this driven genius better.