The Daily Mirror

The Daily Mirror has a good claim to be Britain’s most successful and influential newspaper. During its heyday, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it offered a tremendously powerful, if stylised, expression of left-of-centre working-class popular culture in a country dominated by conservative, middle-class voices. At its peak, in 1967, it reached the unprecedented daily circulation of 5.25 million copies, a figure that none of its rivals has come close to matching, or likely ever will.  In the final decades of the century it was eventually eclipsed by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, but the tabloid template that it developed was still widely imitated, and the paper itself remained a distinctive counter-weight to the right-wing, Eurosceptic journalism that characterised the British popular market.


Launching the Paper

The Mirror was launched in November 1903 by Alfred Harmsworth (1865-1922), an Anglo-Irish businessman who by then had fifteen years of experience in the magazine and publishing sector and had, in 1896, transformed British popular journalism with the introduction of the Daily Mail. The Mail, which provided bright, concise journalism packed with human interest for half a penny, demonstrated the existence of a significant lower-middle class audience hungry for news. It was a new type of morning paper, and it dramatically outpaced its rivals, reaching a daily circulation of a million copies a day by the turn of the century. Sales on that scale inevitably encouraged imitators, most notably in the form of the Daily Express, launched by Arthur Pearson in 1900. Before others joined the fray, Harmsworth wanted to start another title of his own, but he knew that it needed to be different from the Mail. Buoyed by the Mail’s appeal to female readers, and encouraged by the success of a similar paper in France, La Fronde, Harmsworth decided to launch the Mirror as a newspaper written by, and for, women, under the editorship of Mary Howarth, the original editor of the Mail’s women’s columns. The paper was a spectacular failure, eventually losing him £100,000. Complacent after a string of successes, Harmsworth had not properly prepared or researched a title of this type. For once, he misread the demands of his audience, and the Mirror’s mixture of crime and human-interest stories, fashion advice, and domestic articles did not hit the right note for the ‘high class’ journal for ‘ladies’ that he had promised.


A Change of Approach

The resourceful Harmsworth retrieved the situation with another of his commercial masterstrokes:  turning the Mirror into an illustrated paper. Although woodcut illustrations had featured prominently in weekly magazines and newspapers during the nineteenth century, daily papers were still dominated by columns of closely packed text and had not yet fully taken advantage of the emergence of photography.  In 1891, the Daily Graphic had printed the first half-tone newspaper photograph, but the paper’s printing technology could only produce 10,000 illustrated copies an hour, and the paper’s editorial team demonstrated little flair in appealing to the emerging mass market. Harmsworth spotted an opportunity to take advantage of technical advances enabling the rapid rotary printing of half-tone photographs to launch a modern, illustrated paper that would be aimed at both sexes but would have a different appeal to the Mail. The Daily Illustrated Mirror, as the paper briefly became, prioritised human-interest stories and chatty feature articles even more than the Mail and the Express. Its main appeal rested on its pioneering photography, however, which at certain dramatic moments – such as when it famously secured pictures of the recently deceased Edward VII – enabled it to reach circulations exceeding the Mail. But its unusual tabloid format and its partiality to pictures of glamorous society women allowed it to be stereotyped by traditionalist critics as more of a fashion magazine than a newspaper, a ‘lowbrow’, ‘feminine’ publication not to be taken seriously. Such condescension did not prevent others recognising the commercial opportunities, however, and in 1908 Edward Hulton launched a rival, the Daily Sketch. But as Alfred Harmsworth – ennobled in 1905 as Lord Northcliffe – saw his newspaper empire expand with the purchase of the Observer and The Times, he became less interested in the Mirror. In 1914, he transferred ownership to his brother Harold, Lord Rothermere. Rothermere was a talented financier but lacked his brother’s journalistic acumen, and became increasingly right-wing in his political views. This would not be a happy period for the paper.


Falling Behind

After the First World War, the Mirror gradually fell behind its rivals in the increasingly competitive popular market. As other papers started integrating photographs into their pages, much of the Mirror’s original appeal was lost, and it lacked a distinctive editorial personality to set it apart from the other popular dailies on the right. By 1934, its circulation had slumped to 720,000, barely a third of the Daily Express, and Rothermere was courting controversy by shifting the paper’s editorial line, albeit temporarily, to support the British Union of Fascists.  The paper’s core audience was now middle-class women in the south of England, and it lagged far behind all its main rivals in working-class households. It was at this low point that personnel changes brought an infusion of new ideas and, eventually, a new direction for the Mirror. At the centre of the reinvention was Harry Guy Bartholomew – ‘Bart’ – who became editorial director in 1934, having joined the paper as a cartoonist thirty years earlier. The son of a clerk, and with no more than an elementary education, Bartholomew relied on his visual flair and technical expertise to rise in journalism. Self-conscious about his lack of articulacy, he harboured a deep-seated suspicion of social elites and detested pretension and snobbery. He immediately sought to make significant shifts in the style and content of the Mirror, and in this process he was supported by Cecil King, Northcliffe’s nephew and a key member of the paper’s board of directors. 


Modernising for Success

Bartholomew took the advice of the American advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, and drew up a new editorial template heavily influenced by successful American tabloids such as the New York Daily News. The new format included the liberal use of heavy black type and bold block headlines; the writing became more colloquial, the pursuit of sensation more pronounced, and the sexual content more explicit. Further momentum was given to these editorial changes by a raft of new appointments in 1935, including Basil Nicholson, who moved from a career in advertising; the young Welsh journalist Hugh Cudlipp, who joined as Nicholson’s assistant in the features department; Peter Wilson, who provided punchy sports-writing; and William Connor, a former copywriter for J. Walter Thompson, who became the star columnist ‘Cassandra’. Cassandra provided an abrasive, politicised commentary that railed against inequality, social rigidity and unthinking traditionalism. He employed a potent language of class that drew on, but modernised, an older populist radicalism, and which focused insistently on the remoteness, selfishness and insensitivity of the political and social elites. An expanded ‘Live Letters’ column gave space to the concerns of ordinary readers in suitably demotic language. ‘Pin-ups’ became more brazen, with picture editors choosing shots that exposed more flesh and had an erotic allure. The ‘Jane’ strip, drawn by the artist Norman Pett, had been launched in December 1932 as a satire on a guileless ‘bright young thing’; in the late-1930s it was transformed into a saucy feature in which the protagonist and her female companions contrived new ways of losing their clothing. During the Second World War, ‘Jane’ started brazenly displaying her breasts, becoming one of the forces’ most popular pin-ups, and one of the central elements of the Mirror’s brand.  Sport, film and popular entertainments were covered extensively, while the sentimental streak in working-class culture was catered for with romantic and heart-warming tales, and pictures of babies and animals. The Mirror’s skilfully balanced tabloid miscellany catered for almost all tastes. The result was a new style of paper in the British daily market: a brash populist tabloid aimed directly at a working-class audience, updating and refreshing Northcliffe’s popular newspaper model with the insights of American commerce and the democratic instincts of a reform-minded editorial team.  The paper’s sales started to rise dramatically.


The Mirror’s patriotic but class-conscious editorial strategy was perfectly attuned to the climate of the ‘People’s War’, and it became a valued mouthpiece for popular frustration at the inefficiencies and peculiarities of officialdom. The Mirror was widely seen as the forces’ paper: a survey of newspaper consumption in autumn 1941 found that no fewer than 30% of military men were regular readers. Wartime newsprint rationing prevented a quicker circulation growth, but in 1949 the Mirror overtook the Express as Britain’s most popular paper. By 1951, it was selling over 4.5 million copies a day, about 350,000 more than the Express, and more than its next two rivals, the Mail (2.2 million) and the Daily Herald (2.1 million), combined. The Mirror’s success did not, however, immediately lead to a wave of tabloidisation. The Express, the Mail, the Herald and the News Chronicle all preferred to retain the broadsheet format that was perceived to convey greater seriousness and respectability. The Mirror therefore remained in a category of its own, a noisy eruption of mass culture that was admired and loathed in equal measure. Conscious of the condescension it received, the paper frequently explained and justified it approach, notably in 1949 when the editor, Sylvester Bolam, penned a famous definition of ‘public service sensationalism’:


‘The Mirror is a sensational newspaper. We make no apology for that. We believe in the sensational presentation of news and views, especially important news and views, as a necessary and valuable public service in these days of mass readership and democratic responsibility… Sensationalism does not mean distorting the truth. It means the vivid and dramatic presentation of events so as to give them a forceful impact on the mind of the reader. It means big headlines, vigorous writing, simplification into familiar everyday language, and the wide use of illustration by cartoon and photograph.’1


For Bolam, sensationalism was a democratic imperative, providing the only way to inform a mass readership and enable them to participate in the public sphere. ‘Every great problem facing us,’, he argued, ‘will only be understood by the ordinary man busy with his daily tasks if he is hit hard and hit often with the facts.’ Sensational treatment, he concluded, ‘is the answer, whatever the sober and “superior” readers of some other journals may prefer.’ After the Second World War, this paper used this ‘sensational presentation’ to articulate its support for the Labour Party, and, while it did not slavishly follow the party line, and could be sceptical of left-wing radicalism, it developed a powerful reformist, anti-Conservative voice.


Hard Times for the Mirror

The Mirror’s success continued throughout the 1960s, when its circulation occasionally topped the magical five million figure. It had become the most influential expression of British popular print culture. Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director from 1952, was the dominant journalistic force, working under the Chairman, Cecil King. Confident that there was no downmarket challenger, and desirous of the respect they believed they deserved, in the 1960s Cudlipp and King sought to push the Mirror gently upmarket. Believing that its working-class audience was becoming better educated and more affluent, in 1962 the Mirror introduced ‘Mirrorscope’, ‘two pages of serious and informed comment on the night's late news’. This editorial strategy was reinforced in 1964 when Mirror Group Newspapers sought to relaunch the Daily Herald, which it had bought three years earlier, as The Sun. During these later years of success, however, the Mirror was failing to refresh its now rather tired formula. King’s political ambitions, moreover, were starting to overtake commercial common sense. In a startling reprise of the proprietorial interventions of the inter-war years, Cecil King penned in May 1968 a front-page editorial under the headline ‘Enough is Enough’, accusing the government of ‘lacking in foresight, in administrative ability, in political sensitivity, and in integrity’, and demanding Wilson’s resignation.2 It was, in fact, King who was forced to resign: using the Mirror as a platform to make such a vitriolic and personal attack was deemed inappropriate in the media environment of the 1960s. It seemed that the Mirror had lost some of its political touch and was in danger of drifting away from its audience. Cudlipp took over as Chairman of IPC and took the fateful decision to sell the failing Sun to Rupert Murdoch, an Australian who had recently joined the British newspaper scene by buying the News of the World.


The relaunched Sun, under the editorship of former Mirror sub-editor Larry Lamb, sought to refresh the tabloid template for the permissive age, and was remarkably open in its borrowings from its rival. The Sun’s slogan was ‘Forward with the People’, which had been adopted by the Mirror in 1945 and only recently dropped. Robert Connor, the son of the Mirror’s ‘Cassandra’, was given a column brazenly entitled ‘Son of Cassandra’. The letters column was entitled ‘Liveliest Letters’, to outdo the Mirror’s ‘Live Letters’; even the Mirror’s popular cartoon, ‘Garth’, was copied with the Sun’s version featuring a female protagonist, ‘Scarth’.  Like the Mirror in the mid-1930s, it also pushed the boundaries in the treatment of sex. With topless models included from the second issue – if not initially on page 3 – the Sun identified itself as a sexually permissive, hedonistic paper, at least within the parameters of the heterosexual ‘family newspaper’ genre. The Mirror, so used to be the dominant force in the popular market, struggled to know how to cope, especially when it lost its inspirational force, Hugh Cudlipp, on his retirement in 1973. The paper veered between imitating the Sun – briefly introducing topless models, for example – and trying to offer something distinctive, but its appeal seemed rooted in the class-based rhetoric of the past. Politically, too, the Mirror’s moderate Labourism seemed exhausted as James Callaghan’s Labour Party was swept out of power in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher’s resurgent Conservatives. Whereas the Sun, which overtook the Mirror as Britain’s most popular paper in 1978, backed ‘Maggie’ wholeheartedly, the Mirror found it difficult to find coherent responses to events such as the Falklands War (1982) and the Miners’ Strike (1984-85). This editorial uncertainty was only compounded when the paper was bought by the mercurial businessman Robert Maxwell in 1984 and forced to respond to his publicity-seeking whims. Maxwell died suddenly in 1991, leaving behind considerable debts, and starting a decade of further turbulence for the paper, until it was bought by the regional newspaper company Trinity in 1999, to form Trinity Mirror. Trinity Mirror provided some stability, and indeed in 2018 bought former rivals the Daily Express and the Daily Star, before rebranding as Reach plc.


A Mainstay of British Culture

The Mirror has struggled in a declining market, and in the shadow of the Sun and the resurgent Daily Mail. It has remained true to its (post-1945) left-of-centre traditions, however, consistently supporting the Labour party at general elections (even if vociferously criticising leaders between polls) and, under the editorship of Piers Morgan, noisily opposing the Iraq War in 2003. It also stood apart from the other national popular dailies by voting ‘Remain’ in the 2016 EU referendum. By 2019, the Mirror’s circulation had fallen to around 500,000 copies, around a tenth of its peak, and its long-term viability remained unclear; it continued to represent, nevertheless, a significant strand of British popular culture.



Adrian Bingham, ‘An Introduction to the Daily Mirror', Mirror Historical Archive 1903-2000, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2019.



1 Daily Mirror, 30 July 1949, p. 1.

2 Daily Mirror, 10 May 1968, p. 1.