In the run-up to the 2010 general election, while some national newspapers agonised over backing the Liberal Democrats, there was no doubt where two would position themselves. The immigrant-bashing, rabidly right-wing Daily Mail was resolutely pro-Tory. The Daily Mirror was solidly behind Labour – although perhaps a little less enthusiastically this time, since it worries about backing losers.
This should not have come as a surprise to anyone. The Mail supported British fascists before the Second World War. The pre-war Mirror stood virtually alone in Fleet Street and opposed fascism so violently during the 1930s that its directors were on a Nazi hit list. The Mirror has a long and honourable history of standing up to the far right. It gave vital support and resources to the Hope not Hate campaign against the British National Party, for instance.
However, sometimes things are not entirely what they seem. Last year, I revised and republished Publish And Be Damned, originally published in 1953. This is Hugh Cudlipp’s classic history of the tabloid revolution and the first 50 years of the Daily Mirror. It contains his the memory of Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, who founded the paper and also owned the Daily Mail which he “dedicated to many causes, some noble, some repellent”. Rothemere “contrived to cajole the nation into accepting Hitler and his unholy clique as a group of energetic right-wingers. His allegiance to the Germans was viewed in Britain with suspicion; his admiration for Oswald Mosley was received by the public at large with the contempt it deserved.”
But a look at the archive files tells a slightly different story. On January 20 1934, the Daily Mirror contained a photograph of a Mosleyite giving the fascist salute in a puff for a piece in following day’s Sunday Pictorial (later to become the Sunday Mirror). “Give the Blackshirts a helping hand” was the headline, followed by a quote from the article. “The patriotism and discipline of the Blackshirts set a practical example to the young men and women of Britain, who are being defrauded by old gang politicians of the share to which they are entitled in the control and organisation of their country’s affairs.” The author was Lord Rothermere.
By that time, he had sold most of his Mirror shares in order to invest more in the Daily Mail. So he was effectively a guest writer. The Daily Mirror not only promoted the article in the Sunday Pictorial, it reprinted it word for word the following Monday – along with addresses in seven major cities at which its readers could enrol in the Blackshirt movement, which was described as “the party of youth”.
The newspaper noted: “Its leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, is only 37 and a man of proved courage and outstanding ability, well fitted by his gifts of personality and eloquence to marshal the vast but neglected energies of his own generation for an effort of national reconstruction similar to that which has imparted such vigour to Italy and Germany.
“The idea that this new factor in our political life is linked with some foreign organisation has no foundation whatsoever. The British Blackshirt movement is 100 per cent constitutional and national. Persuasion, not violence, will be its path to power. Blackshirts use force only in self-defence against the attacks of revolutionary communism, which is the avowed enemy of the crown and constitution of this country.
“Nor is there the slightest ground for believing that the Blackshirts are, or ever will be, antagonistic to such bodies as the Jews, the trade unions or the Freemasons. There is no parallel in this respect between other countries and our own.”
Couldn’t that be interpreted as “admiration for Oswald Mosley”? And did the public receive it with contempt? We don’t know. If any Mirror readers reacted to this pro-fascist piece in any manner, they didn’t make it into print in the paper’s lively letters pages. Nevertheless, there was no more in similar vein in the daily paper, although the Sunday Pictorial in April contained a profile of Mosley as “Britain’s political white hope” in “a powerful and challenging article” by G Ward Price, its top special correspondent in the mid-1930s. And the Daily Mirror continued to cover Mosley’s activities, major speeches and rallies, generally reporting them neutrally, roughly one story a week throughout the rest of 1934.
In the months following Rothermere’s Blackshirt propaganda, sales of the Daily Mirror reached what Cudlipp described as “the bottom of its circulation curve”, with daily sales of around 700,000 copies. The following year, Cudlipp and Bill Connor (Cassandra) joined the editorial team and the balance changed slightly. The Mirror supported Stanley Baldwin’s National (predominantly Tory) Government in the 1935 election and then took the anti-appeasement line. A year or so later, Cassandra fetched up in Germany, covering Nuremberg rallies, visiting Berlin and Prague, poking sarcastic fun at Hitler and reporting on life under Nazi rule, which didn’t appeal to him.
Editorial director Harry Guy Bartholomew – the man largely credited with turning the Mirror from a failure into a massive success – believed that supporting fascism was costing the Daily Mail circulation. His paper threw itself firmly at the working class and promoted Winston Churchill instead. But it generally cut back on its political and foreign reporting and concentrated more on hearth and home. What was the use of bothering readers about an obscure revolution in Bolivia, features editor Basil Nicholson asked Cudlipp, if they were kept awake at night by indigestion.
Mixed with sensational crime coverage and the introduction of cartoons and pin-ups, this approach proved to be a winning formula. By the time war broke out and newspaper production was “pegged” to conserve newsprint, the Mirror’s circulation had increased by nearly a million a day. Cassandra, a former advertising copywriter, drew up a “Hitler: Wanted – Dead Or Alive” poster when war was declared and the paper became fervently patriotic. But when the Mirror later criticised senior officers and the war Cabinet, Cudlipp wrote: “Churchill demanded an inquiry and Government investigators examined the list of [Mirror] shareholders to ascertain whether Goebbels, or Himmler, or Hess, or even Hitler was among them.” Perhaps the war leader remembered the Mirror once providing a platform for fascists.
Its circulation doubled to comfortably above three million when paper rationing ended, the Mirror further antagonised Churchill by backing Labour in 1945 with its “Vote for him” (the returning ex-serviceman) campaign. The reaction of Tory Central Office was to advise its constituency officials not to buy the Daily Mirror and order the Daily Sketch instead. A Conservative Cabinet minister told Cudlipp that the Mirror’s support was estimated to have gained 100 seats for Labour.
“The Mirror is not and never has been a supporter of any government”, the paper proclaimed. But. “We are of the left and so is the majority of the nation.” Its future path was clear and the Blackshirt-supporting days were consigned to the dustbin of history.
Revel Barker is a former Daily Mirror reporter and managing editor who now edits a website for mainly retired journalists. Publish And Be Damned by Hugh Cudlipp is published by Revel Barker at £12.99