A Paper that Broke the Mould
The British popular press is often seen as a reactionary force in British politics and culture: newspapers run by rich, profit-seeking proprietors, propping up right-wing parties and promoting jingoistic and conservative world-views. For its first three decades, the Daily Mirror fitted exactly that pattern, but it then it broke the mould. From the mid-1930s it gradually developed a populist, left-of-centre political appeal, and after the Second World War, it became the only paper in British history to sustain a market-leading position while supporting the Labour party. The Mirror was never dominated by politics - it recognised that its readers wanted entertainment as much as education - and in the final decades of the twentieth century it was unable to meet the challenge of the reinvigorated Thatcherite tabloids, the Sun and the Mail, but it remained an important alternative voice when covering both domestic and international events.
A Conservative Start
The first two proprietors of the Mirror, Alfred Harmsworth (1903-14, enobled as Lord Northcliffe), and his brother Harold (1914-36, enobled as Lord Rothermere) were both robustly conservative and imperialistic in their politics and ensured that the paper echoed these values. Because the Mirror was launched first as a publication for women, and then swiftly transformed into a picture paper, political content was rarely a priority, and the editorial line tended to follow that of its sister paper, the Daily Mail. After the First World War, Rothermere increasingly used the Daily Mirror to champion his personal crusades, such as the Anti-Waste League, which sought to mobilise opinion against ‘excessive’ government spending. The paper also sought to associate the emerging Labour Party and its trade union supporters with the ‘Red Peril’ of the Communist threat. The Mirror stoutly fought against the General Strike of May 1926, called by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in support of the miners’ action to maintain their wages and conditions. The strike was, in the stark words of the Mirror, ‘the most formidable weapon ever presented at the head of a democratic Government by its own nationals’, and it insisted that the government must use every power to resist. The government, it argued, ‘represents the nation and must refuse to be intimidated into surrender. In protecting the national interests the Government can count upon the support of the people at large.’1 The ‘nation’ and the ‘people’ were silently conflated with the respectable middle classes, and opposed to the trade unions, a sectional and selfish interest group out to defend their own interests. When the strike was called off, the Mirror declared ‘The Nation Has Won’: the unions had failed ‘in their attempt to substitute Government by force for Government by law.’ ‘We can already see,’, the paper observed gravely, ‘in diminished employment, in the suffering of workers, in the waste of millions, the hideous results of the action of a group of fanatics who have posed as the friends of working men and women.’ Such was ‘the inevitable evil of industrial war’.2 Over the subsequent years, the Mirror drifted further to the right. Its political nadir came in 1934, when Rothermere instructed the paper to support Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF): ‘Give the Blackshirts A Helping Hand’ declared a signed article from the proprietor.3
New Talent Brings Transformation
From this low point, though, the paper’s fortunes soon changed. With Rothermere stepping back, and an influx of new editorial talent entering the office (see ‘Introduction to the Daily Mirror’), the paper transformed itself into a brash working-class tabloid, and in the process repositioned itself politically. The main existing popular paper on the left in the early 1930s was the Daily Herald, which was part-owned by the TUC, and loyally followed the Labour line. Although it briefly became market leader when its daily circulation topped two million, over time the Herald struggled to sell beyond its main constituency of trade union members. The Mirror, by contrast, sought to appeal to a non-unionised working audience perceived to be largely uninterested in the intricacies of party politics. To do so it developed a new model of political reporting. The coverage of routine parliamentary business was reduced even further than it had been in other popular papers – in 1937, only 8% of the Mirror’s total news space was devoted to ‘political, social and economic news’, and even on the main news page, only 15% of the Mirror’s stories were about public affairs.4 The coverage that remained, though, was more opinionated and provocative, with a greater use of feature articles, columnists, and readers’ letters. The paper gradually developed a left-of-centre crusading rhetoric that expressed discontent with the political status quo and demanded a greater voice for its working-class constituency. It updated established populist traditions for a modern, mediated mass democracy.
The most potent exponent of the new approach was the columnist William Connor, who wrote under the pen-name ‘Cassandra’. With his informal, plain-speaking style, and a seething impatience with pomposity, official inactivity and bureaucratic obfuscation, he communicated with his readers as if they were talking politics in a pub. In February 1937, for example, he complained that despite the advances of modernity, ‘life is pretty grim to forty million out of the forty-five million people who live in these islands. They lack money, and because of it their bodies are diseased, their homes filthy, and their minds twisted and dull.’ His anger really hit home when he observed sardonically that the baboons at London Zoo ‘live cleaner, healthier and probably happier lives; special glass lets through ultra-violet rays and the food is expensive and well prepared in the modern cheerful monkey house.’5 Before the Second World War, Cassandra, like the Mirror more broadly, refused to support any political party, preferring to develop broad attacks on the political class for their inability to understand the needs of the people and bring about real change. In March 1939, for example, Cassandra criticised the past four Ministers of Labour, from both main parties, for sitting, ‘like glorified clerks’ watching the unemployment figures rise and fall: ‘At no time have these ineffective public servants attempted to provide work on a measurable scale’. He criticised the lack of investment in programmes of public works, especially because ‘idle capital is available in quantities that make Croesus look as if he was on poor relief’.6 Left-of-centre political positions were conveyed in a simple, but powerful, populist rhetoric that played on working-class frustrations with the rigidities of party politics and the harshness of social inequality.
The Mirror and World War Two
During the Second World War, the Mirror positioned itself as the ‘Forces’ paper’, the authentic voice of the Tommy and his wife back home. The Mirror frequently criticised the blundering and amateurism of the political and military authorities, which increasingly riled Churchill and his cabinet, and eventually led, in March 1942, to an official warning and the threat of closure. The paper made clear its support for a far-reaching programme of social reconstruction, and in December 1942 it swung its full weight behind the Beveridge Report which laid down the blueprint for the post-war Welfare State. Beveridge’s plan for social insurance, covering everyone from ‘Duke to Dustman’, promised to ‘Banish want’, and provided a specific vision to rally around and campaign for. Within days of the war ending in 1945, the Mirror adopted the slogan ‘Forward with the People’ and used a class-based appeal to campaign for the defeat of the Conservative party in the forthcoming general election. The paper repeatedly reminded readers of the broken promises after 1918 and the misery of the mass unemployment:
‘The land “fit for heroes” did not come into existence. The dole did. Short-lived prosperity gave way to long tragic years of poverty and unemployment. Make sure that history does not repeat itself.’7
The paper sought, in particular, to mobilise the wives, mothers and sisters of the men who had served in the war – many of whom remained overseas and unable to participate in the election – with its daily slogan ‘Vote for Them’: ‘You know what the fighting man wants. You know which party is likely to give him what he wants. You know the only way to make his future safe’. By demanding a progressive ‘people’s peace’, the country could ‘March forward to new and happier times’.8 One Conservative cabinet minister’s suggestion that the Mirror’s support was worth a hundred seats for Labour was a hopeless exaggeration, but it is nevertheless significant that in 1945, for the first time, the Labour party went into a general election with the support of a truly popular paper that seemed to be connecting with parts of the electorate that were not firmly politically aligned. The Mirror helped Labour reach past its usual constituency of trade union-affiliated supporters.
The 1945 election campaign represented an important staging-post in the ongoing reinvention of the Mirror. Having thoroughly transformed its editorial identity and market position since the mid-1930s, the paper’s political voice grew in confidence and authority after Labour’s landslide election victory, Cassandra’s acerbic columns were supplemented by a range of other left-of-centre contributors. The Mirror never approached the Daily Herald’s dutiful commitment to the Labour Party – and even less to the trade unions – but it became an important critical friend, and senior editorial figures such as Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp mixed regularly with party leaders. In the second half of the 1950s, indeed, Richard Crossman, the prominent Labour MP, became a columnist for the paper. The paper continued to offer powerful class-based critiques of the ineptitude and complacency of social elites. In 1955 the Mirror roundly condemned the ‘monstrous stupidity’ of the ‘chaps at the Foreign Office’ – the ‘Old School Tie brigade, long-haired experts and the people-who-know-the-best-people’ – after they failed to spot the treachery of Soviet spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.9 Cassandra and columnist Keith Waterhouse repeatedly attacked the ‘farce of the Honours List’ and the aristocratic insularity of the Royal Circle, while, particularly at election time, the Mirror highlighted the continuation of poverty and urban squalor despite Conservative protestations that most people had ‘never had it so good’. The Mirror also vigorously opposed Prime Minister Eden’s duplicitous interventions during the Suez Crisis of 1956, arguing that it was it was ‘folly’ to act alone in the face of world opinion.
Out of Touch
After a sense of disillusionment at three consecutive Labour electoral defeats, the Mirror’s political fire was reignited by the appointment of the relatively youthful Harold Wilson as Labour Party leader in 1963 and the general election campaign against the faltering Conservative party the following year. The paper pulled out all the stops in its coverage, and leading figures at the Mirror, notably Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp, contributed to Labour’s manifesto and advised on key speeches; Cudlipp later claimed to have coined Wilson’s most famous phrase of the campaign, ‘the white heat of the technological revolution.’ The paper helped to portray Wilson as a modernising, classless figure standing against the aristocratic, elitist and out-of-touch Conservative leader, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. ‘It is Eton, forever Eton, when the Tories are in power’, the Mirror sneered: ‘It is insane that the corridors of power in Westminster should be forever bolted and barred against scientists and engineers and intelligent grammar school boys’.10 But the paper was gravely disappointed by Wilson’s performance in power, and particularly by his inability to improve economic productivity or prevent the devaluation of the pound in November 1967. By May 1968, King dramatically called on Wilson to resign in a signed front-page article, ‘Enough is Enough’; it was King, in fact, who was forced to stand down, after being accused of inappropriately using his proprietorial power for personal political ends.
Although Cudlipp, as King’s replacement, was able to rebuild relations with the Labour Party, the Mirror never again seemed to be as politically in tune with the times as it had been at mid-century. Columnists such as John Pilger and Paul Foot articulated powerful left-wing positions, but as Thatcher’s Conservatives rose to power and the Labour party was consumed with internecine struggles, the Mirror in the 1980s struggled to find persuasive responses to such crises as the Falklands War and the Miners’ strike. The take-over of the paper in 1984 by the aggressive and idiosyncratic businessman Robert Maxwell did not help win the sympathy of the left. The paper mourned the inexorable and inevitable decline of the industrial working class, recognising that the decline could be managed, but not prevented. The miners’ desire to fight was natural, perhaps even admirable, but history was against them, and the Mirror despaired at the sight of Thatcher exposing and exploiting the fractures within the working class: ‘A national strike would only lead to humiliating defeat’, the paper argued in March 1984. It accepted that ‘Fighting to save jobs may be the right battle,’ but insisted that ‘it comes at the wrong time.’ Rather than support the strike, the Mirror appealed for the miners to retain their decency, reported the difficulties of the mining communities, and focused its ire on the ‘militancy’ and aggression of the supposedly neutral Thatcher government.11
With the Iraq War of 2003, the Mirror returned to its campaigning traditions. While the Sun and the Mail accepted the Blair government’s claim that the threat of Saddam Hussein’s regime possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) justified military intervention, the Mirror, under the editorship of Piers Morgan, argued against the use of force without wider international support. The paper drew on its full repertoire of crusading techniques, harnessed to a campaign led by social movements and extra-parliamentary protest groups. Readers were invited to sign a petition against the war, which was taken not just to Downing Street but also to Capitol Hill in Washington; a 30-foot ‘No War’ banner was unfurled as George Bush landed in Azores for talks; and the Mirror’s ‘No War’ slogan was projected onto the House of Parliament. The Mirror also attempted to underline its argument that the invasion of Iraq was distracting attention from the genuine terror threat by organising a helicopter flight over the Houses of Parliament and breaching the security of a nuclear power station. Despite the substantial and striking protests on the streets of London, attracting over a million people (and with Mirror banners conspicuously showing), the anti-war movement of 2003, as in 1956, failed to stop military intervention. The Blair government had enough support in Parliament and the press to ignore or outmanoeuvre the opposition. Morgan himself was later fired when photographs the Mirror had published of British soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqi prisoners were shown to have been faked.12 The paper had, however, successfully recaptured its radical voice. At its mid-century peak, the Daily Mirror, was a powerful champion of social democratic reform, and gave expression to some of the frustrations and discontents of working-class people against a society stacked against them. The paper’s radicalism should not be exaggerated: it continued to support, for example, the monarchy, empire, and the maintenance of great power status, as well as the capitalist market and associated consumerism from which it profited. Nevertheless, in a tabloid market dominated by right-wing titles, it kept alive a popular left-wing rhetoric and encouraged its readers to question some of the governing assumptions of the British elites - a contribution which should not be dismissed.
Adrian Bingham, ‘The Daily Mirror and Left-Wing Politics’, Mirror Historical Archive 1903-2000, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2019.
1 Daily Mirror, 3 May 1926, p. 7.
2 Daily Mirror, 11 May 1926, p.2.
3 Daily Mirror, 22 January 1934.
4 Royal Commission on the Press 1947–9, Report, (London: HMSO, 1949, Cmd. 7700), app. VII, table 4, p. 250
5 Daily Mirror, 9 February 1937, p. 12.
6 Daily Mirror, 1 March 1939, p. 14.
7 Daily Mirror, 3 July 1945, p.2.
8 Daily Mirror, 5 July 1945, p. 1
9 Daily Mirror, 24 September 1955, p. 1
10 Daily Mirror, 12 October 1964, pp. 16-17.
11 Daily Mirror, 8 March 1984, p. 2