The BBC4 Edwardian series continued tonight with an enjoyable documentary on Lord Northcliffe, fronted by Kelvin McKenzie. It traced his career through from his first magazine, Answers, which invited readers to send in questions, and answered them. “Why don’t Jews ride bicycles?” was one of the questions, but we never got to hear the answer.
Then came the Mail, of course, and the Mirror, which McKenzie and his journo friends described with relish (And why not? The story of the fat boy of Peckham was well worth hearing.) Northcliffe’s war career, though, was a bit skimped.
The way they told the story of the 1915 shell scandal made it Northcliffe versus the Establishment, and didn’t take into account the political support he had in this campaign. Similarly, when it came to Northcliffe’s career at the Ministry of Information, they only touched the surface. They mentioned the leaflet-dropping from balloons without telling the more interesting story of why leafleting from planes was stopped.
And they certainly didn’t get into how Northcliffe debased the currency of propaganda. Where Masterman at Wellington House had maintained standards of truth and honesty, Northcliffe let them slip. Masterman, for example, was proud of refusing publication to texts about supposed German corpse factories, Northcliffe allowed these to be promoted.
When the propaganda effort was debated in Parliament, though, on 5th August, 1915, it was not publications like that that drew the most adverse comments, but the film Once a Hun, Always a Hun which urged Britons not to trade with Germany after the War. This drew the anger of Free-Trade Liberals, who saw Northcliffe as using his public position to push his own political programme.
But of course that wasn’t the focus of this programme, which was about the tabloid revolution of the early twentieth century. And it told that story very entertainingly.