The Daily Mail, as it will be the first to remind you, is a modern miracle. It recently announced that its circulation outperformed all other newspapers in the quality market and was at its highest for 32 years.
It’s no mean boast. The paper’s success is hard won in a fiercely competitive industry. But behind its enduring popularity there lies concealed a heart-warming truth: for all the extraordinary upheavals of the last century, moral, social and political, we stand at the brink of a new millennium the same curious, half-educated, superstitious, and superficial people we were when Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, launched the Daily Mail in 1896.
Harmsworth, for all his brainstorms, lunatic rages and, in the words of Lloyd George, “diseased vanity”, was a genius. He saw that the Education Act of 1870 had grafted onto the natural curiosity and prejudices of the masses a measure of literacy. He brilliantly exploited the latter to satisfy the former.
His first journal, launched in 1888, was Answers to Correspondents, a miscellany of snippets designed to feed the inquisitiveness of the popular mind, with topics such as “Can Monkeys Smoke?”, “How to Cure Freckles”, “Why Jews Don’t Ride Bicycles”, “What the Queen Eats”, and “Narrow Escapes from Burial Alive”.
The circulation of Answers took off as a result of a chance conversation between Harmsworth and a tramp on the Thames embankment. The down-and-out confided that his idea of luxury was 1 a week for life. That became the prize in the next Answers competition and was advertised as “The Most Gigantic Competition the World has Ever Seen”. Sales rose to more than 200,000 a week.
Alfred used that success to launch a string of publications, before buying the ailing London Evening News in 1894. He transformed its fortunes by applying the Answers formula and in the process created modern popular journalism. He insisted on short paragraphs in simple English, he introduced a woman’s page, saw that sport and crime featured prominently, and peppered the paper with articles such as “Secrets of the Dissecting Room”. It was the blueprint for his greatest triumph.
The first edition of the Daily Mail sold almost 400,000 copies, prompting Alfred to declare, “We’ve struck a goldmine.” He ran the paper with a manic energy. Ideas, instructions, edicts, whims, fancies, daily poured forth from the bubbling ferment of his half-crazed brain. “Each day we must have a feature, something different, a surprise,” he boomed. It was the Answers prescription again. Mail readers learned “The Truth about Night Clubs”, pondered “Do We Eat Too Much?”, and sought to unravel “The Riddle of Spiritualism”. Though “attention span” was yet to be coined, Alfred instinctively knew that his readers had a short one. They were showered with gimmicks, stunts and competitions, including the Daily Mail’s Golden Slipper contest for the actress with the smallest foot.
In 1922, his mind quite gone, he died and was given a funeral “fit for a king” at Westminster Abbey Were he, by some riddle of spiritualism, permitted to part the celestial clouds and take a peep at today’s version of the paper he founded, the old monster’s heart would well with satisfaction and pride. For the Daily Mail remains as true to the code of its creator today as ever it did in his demented prime.
What would the old tramp on the Embankment make of “50,000 a year for life – Your Chance to Win the Greatest Prize in Newspaper History”? He would surely feel that, but for inflation, time has stood still. The brains behind the Golden Slipper competition, with their special knowledge of pedal digits, would have understood the modern Mail’s interest in the size of Claudia Schiffer’s feet, which incidentally you first read of in Marketing Week.
The great grandchildren of readers who wanted to know whether they ate too much or how to cure freckles can find in the Mail’s pages the answers to such pressing questions as “Is make-up poisoning your body?”, “Could a 12 test save your life?”, “Can a banana give you the perfect skin?” , “Could this mouthwash save your life?”, “Could a laser help you to quit smoking?”
The descendants of readers who pondered the mysteries of spiritualism are invited by today’s Mail to consider “Does a long dead alien civilisation on Mars really hold the key to human survival?” If that surprising possibility overheats the brain, don’t worry: have you heard the one about “The top politician and the bride young enough to be his daughter” or “The Army chaplain and the fusilier’s wife”?
With an unerring instinct that is the lasting legacy of a populist madman, the Mail devoted the centre spread of its Chelsea Flower Show supplement to a study by astrologer Jonathan Cainer of the “link between popular flower arrangements and the sector of the sky they seem to match”.
Dear old Alfred would have clapped his chubby hands in glee to see in today’s Mail, “Why your destiny lies in a thumbprint”. “If your thumb narrows as it gets nearer the knuckle and then flares out again, it indicates you are exceedingly diplomatic.”
At once a living breathing organ and a mummified monument to its begetter, the Daily Mail is truly a modern miracle.