Propaganda is nothing new, the early Christians were reported to worship an Ass, Jews were said to eat Christian and Muslim babies, the Society of Jesuits and the Protestants each blood libeled the other, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has plagued the world since 1897, forged by Russia’s secret police, the Okhrana. These days newspapers and television news are increasingly irrelevant to the public, reduced to serving as a “bully pulpit” for the creators of “reality” in politics and the press. Edward Bernays (1891-1995) is often called the father of propaganda, however the use of press propaganda and advertising as a means of changing the public’s perception of reality had its English-speaking roots in London in the 1890’s, under baby-faced Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, who served as Director of Propaganda to enemy countries in the Great War.
Alfred Harmsworth was born Saturday, July 15, 1865, in Chapelizod, near Dublin. He loved books and newspapers as a child, and, while his favorite author was Dickens, he also dipped into the penny dreadfuls, then accused of poisoning the manly minds of British youth. A friend of his family ran a local newspaper and young Alfred visited the composing room on press days. On his eighth birthday he received a gift of a toy printing set from the proprietor. Harmsworth entered the printing trade as a sub-editor on James Henderson’s Young Folks’ Budget, and supplied squibs for George Newnes Tit-Bits, a cheap magazine of scrap-book oddities gleaned from various periodicals. This type of scrapbook compilation went back a long way. The Thief, edited by Gilbert Abbott a’ Beckett in 1834, was aptly named, all of the contents were the result of the judicious use of scissors and paste.
After a stint as editor of the Bicycling News, Alfred started Answers to Correspondents in 1888. In Answers Harmsworth let his guns loose on the penny dreadfuls. “-- shop boys and factory hands, pit boys and telegraph boys, devour them eagerly and fill their foolish brains with rubbish about highwaymen, pirates, and other objectionable people.” Harmsworth liked to pretend his publications were different from the penny dreadfuls, but even in Answers he adored stories of cannibalism, or the woman buried alive only to wake up screaming and scraping her fingernails to the bone in her anxiety to be freed. He began offering prizes of a pound a week for life; each entry had to be countersigned by five people, resulting in a circulation of 205,000 weekly.
In 1890 he issued Comic Cuts a halfpenny eight page weekly and in 1890, Illustrated Chips. Although he later distanced himself from the boys’ story papers he published, he was always proud of his comic publications. At this time he came up with something called the ‘Schemo Magnifico.’ This was a written plan to overwhelm the competition with loads of magazines featuring ‘bad paper and cheap printing.’ He published For-Get-Me-Not, aimed at ladies and shop-girls, and in 1892, the Funny Wonder. A new comic, Funny Bits: or Roars of Laughter, was registered but never published.
Harmsworth began to investigate the boys’ story paper market. First he investigated the American boys papers, asking an American journalist about circulations. “I mentioned the Munro papers, The Fireside Companion and Family Story Paper; The Street & Smith publications; Frank Tousey’s Boys of New York; and Frank Munsey’s The Golden Argosy.” In 1893 he brought out the Halfpenny Marvel, and in 1894, the Sunday Companion. There were “Thrilling serials,” short stories and illustrated articles. Alfred offered the following bizarre incentives to his subscribers; Bottled Water from the River Jordan, Bethlehem Earth, and “The Harp of David,” a musical instrument. His competition received a double blow in 1894 when he launched the Union Jack and the Pluck Library. The Union Jack offered prizes of ‘Pocket Money for a Year.’
In 1893 Answers ran a serial by William le Queux, entitled “The Poisoned Bullet.” England is invaded by France and Russia in 1897, the story “deals not with the vague, shadowy and distant future, but with the almost immediate present.” The streets of England were crammed with corpses, but in the end England had a glorious victory. One promotional poster showed aircraft dropping bombs on St. Paul’s Cathedral while London burned. Alfred Harmsworth and Le Queux would return to the invasion theme with a serial called “The Siege of Portsmouth” in his newly acquired newspaper The Evening Mail in 1894 and “The Invasion of 1910” in 1906. By now he was well off and could afford to have a stuffed polar bear in the hall and American alligators in his greenhouse.
“The Poisoned Bullet,” was just the latest future war story that was begun with Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking,” published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1871. These fictional accounts were popular in England and the Continent until 1914. Harmsworth’s newspaper serials and editorial stance reflected his real fear of Russia, France, or Germany gaining naval dominance of the North Sea.
After 1900 Harmsworth concentrated on his newspapers and in 1901 the Amalgamated Press was formed to handle the story papers and magazines. By 1908 Harmsworth dominated the newspaper field. He controlled the halfpenny tabloid Daily Mail, the Sunday Dispatch, the Daily Mirror, The Observer, the Times and the Sunday Times, which gave him unprecedented influence over both the working class and the elite. Even his story papers and comics were drafted in his propaganda wars, Weary Willie and Tired Tim fought the Boer and the Hun in the weekly Chips. Harmsworth used his story papers, the Union Jack and Pluck, to recruit young men for the British Navy. Winston Churchill once wrote to his mother describing “Harmsworth’s cheap Imperialist productions” that were “produced for thousands of vulgar people at a popular price.” Churchill had no love of the common people, as he showed by drawing up plans for concentration camps for the mentally unfit, amongst others.
Harmsworth also awarded Pluck Medals, which would make a fine collectible today. “The Editor of the Pluck Library will make it his duty to search out and inquire into all such heroic deeds; and whenever he finds a deserving case, he will reward the plucky one with a silver medal, which has been specially made for the purpose. He hopes to be able to award a medal every week; enough cases will, we feel sure, be forthcoming.” Awarded Pluck Medals, the editor said, were instituted for “neither high nor low, but for all sorts and conditions of heroes.” The first medal was awarded to a British sailor.
The Daily Mail whipped up hatred against English born Germans, accused them of spying, and advocated deportation and the use of concentration camps for “aliens” born on British soil. Mail readers were whipped into a poisonous hatred that resulted in beatings, the burning of shops, and a boycott of all Germans working as managers and waiters. Even a German surname was enough to make a man unemployable for the duration of the war. The Weekly Dispatch on 16 May 1915 wrote that “the Germans are enemies and spies. We loathe them. We feel they pollute the air. We see blood on their hands… We demand that the wretched creatures be removed. The thought that there are 20,000 of them walking our streets was enough to make all London sick.”
Political careers were ruined by innuendo; a man might have a German cousin or a German chauffer and that was enough to ruin him. It was due to the rabid ranting of the newspapers that royalty adopted the English name Windsor, replacing Saxe-Coburg-Gotha by royal proclamation on 17 July 1917.
At war’s end Northcliffe demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender from the Germans. His newspapers thirsted for revenge; the Kaiser should be brought to London and hanged. The outcome of the “blighted peace” made World War II all but inevitable. Harmsworth was not the only publisher involved in the propaganda war but he might well be termed the “Godfather” of modern propaganda since he reached the largest audience.
It was one of Harmsworth’s writers who invented the term ‘Hun” for the Germans. Harmsworth had begun attacking the Kaiser in print in 1896, for the support given by Germans to the Boers. In 1918 Northcliffe was appointed Director of Propaganda to enemy countries at the newly formed Ministry of Information under Lord Beaverbrook. H. G. Wells resigned from the Ministry after only two months, apparently because of Northcliffe’s savage attacks on the German people. Northcliffe continued using his newspapers as a personal pulpit to promote the views of himself and his political allies while overseeing the operations of the Ministry.
Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, died on 14 August 1922 from a streptococcus infection. During his lifetime he pioneered the use of the newspapers as tools of propaganda. The lessons were not lost on the United States which formed their own propaganda ministry, the Committee on Public Information, under George Creel, (which employed Edward Bernays) in 1917.