Relaunching an identity
After the Mirror slumped to an uncompetitive circulation of 720,000 at a point in the early 1930s when its main rivals in the popular market were all passing the two million mark, only a drastic reorientation would remedy its plight. The magic ingredient in successfully relaunching this paper’s identity was a radical approach to its language. The owners turned in desperation to American marketing pioneers J. Walter Thompson for advice. They suggested remodelling the paper on the lines of an American tabloid with headlines in bold heavy type, colloquial language, and sensationalism, all designed to appeal to a hitherto neglected daily readership: the politically uncommitted working classes and especially the young and the female. In British press terms this was an astute commercial exploitation of at least the rhetoric, if not the substance, of a longer radical tradition. Cecil King, nephew of the newspaper and publishing magnate Lord Northcliffe, and a key member of the board of directors, later admitted that it was an enterprise ‘launched in cynicism’, a ‘technical exercise in journalism…..dissipated by the waves of affection and loyalty which came swelling up from the band of readers’.
Harry Bartholomew, who had become editorial director in 1933, was an ideal candidate to drive an anti-Establishment editorial identity. As the son of a lowly clerk with only an elementary education he was hugely suspicious of the snobbery and sense of entitlement of social elites. He developed an explicit appeal to readers who saw themselves as outside privileged elites and a corresponding critical approach to those elites, both political and social. Such an approach had always been central to a successful manifestation of popular culture, keeping in mind Raymond Williams’s tripartite definition of popular culture (1977, 198-199) when considering the success of the tabloid as it embraced a complex range of characteristics that included 1) being well-liked, 2) appropriating the tastes of the public and 3), to its critics, being of poor quality and dubious taste.
The type and the tone of the headlines slowly began to embrace more of the American tabloid tradition of sensationalised reporting, as here in a series on crime in Brighton from the front page of the 26 November 1934 issue, tiered with persistent typographical emphasis:
‘MURDER ON GOLF LINKS
Girl Shot, Strangled & Thrown Into Water
MAN CHARGED AFTER TORCHLIGHT HUNT ON THE DOWNS’
In pursuit of its objectives, the Daily Mirror began to articulate a more stridently proletarian voice than any other commercial newspaper. This was supported politically by the work of Richard Jennings, who came into his own as a socialist polemicist, and working class features assistants Hugh Cudlipp and William Connor (as ‘Cassandra’), who began work for the new Daily Mirror on the same August Bank Holiday in 1935. Smith has claimed that it was this particular editorial combination that enabled the newspaper to find its finely tuned representation of the lived experience and voices of its audience. ‘Cassandra’ updated the tradition of populist criticism of the privileged and powerful in society in a modern form of class resentment. To this mix, Basil Nicholson added his insights to their editorial project from the perspective of a successful advertising career.
The paper soon moved to explicitly reflect the readership, mirroring it, as in its title. To capture the interests and vernacular of this readership, the Daily Mirror began to shift from editorially themed letters as the sole space for engagement with readers’ concerns to more sustained editorial engagement and commentary from its journalists on the letters themselves. This involvement aimed to ventriloquize the language of the working classes in their locations of consumption, characterized as ‘four-ale bars, works canteens, shopping queues, fish-and-chip saloons, dance halls and jug and bottle departments’. (Richards, 170-171). The prominence of readers in generating the topics to be aired grew as the editorial strategy gained confidence. In the run-up to the General Election of 1935 the anti-Establishment credentials of the newly re-launched paper were captured in a series of letters rejecting any deference to political candidates and rather stressing the negative response of individual readers to the deficiencies of politicians: ‘The Man Who Won’t Get My Vote’ (4 November 1935).
Working class readers, unaccustomed to such direct involvement in the discourses of the press, were being asked more consistently than ever to read and write for their paper. Claiming to be “By the Readers of the Daily Mirror” the whole page from Saturday 8 February 1936 is devoted to their views:
‘Today They tell You What They Think on Politicians, Film Stars, World Conferences and – NUTS.
Opinion, Information, Grumbles, Advice.’
On 16 April 1936 we have an explicit commentary on readers’ correspondence from the editor of the letters pages under the headline:
‘Drama in the Post-Bag
I read letters – thousands of them every week from the British Isles and all the world. To the postman each one is just another letter for the Daily Mirror. But I read them.
Drama, humour, pathos – these are the ingredients of every batch. A wrecked life struggles to express itself in one smudgy note, the next is a joke about Belisha beacons, and the next again an illegible scrawl which can mean nothing except to the man who wrote it.
Behind each one is a man or a woman with something to say. Often the letter is sent because the writer has no one else to whom he can unburden himself.
My mailbag is the safety-valve of thousands.’
‘Cassandra’ often shaped his comments via the content of such letters, with his columns placed facing the features page and posting provocative questions on the same themes with invitations to answer in the epistolary cycle. In the 7 August 1935 issue he brought a characteristically critical stance to the topical subject of mass unemployment, structured through the device of the letter as ‘The Two Millionth Man’ writes to the Daily Mirror claiming with typographic emphasis on the reader as ‘YOU’ and ending with a prompting, open question, rhetorically demanding an answer from the reader based on the evidence provided in the words, which are presented as those of the man himself:
‘One of them has written this for YOU to read to-day. Bitter? Yes. True?’
An identity forged in combat
Having begun the process of establishing itself as a paper for ordinary people through the late 1930s, the tabloid entered World War Two flexing its populist credentials, losing no time in announcing on 13 September 1939 that ‘we cannot endure fools in high places as we did after 1914’. Its ‘War on Tomfoolery’ had begun. Tom Wintringham, a well-known left-wing journalist, coined the fight for a ‘war to win the peace’ designed to make readers aware of what was needed to provide a better Britain if it ever emerged victorious.
The paper continued to shape its editorial identity to great effect through the years of the war. Having called the appeasement debacle correctly, it was in the foreground of aggressive demands for the resignation of Neville Chamberlain and, subsequently, the inclusion of Winston Churchill in the War Cabinet. It cast a retrospective critique at the political culpability of the late 1930s in general, in particular the impact of harsh Conservative measures on employment and welfare, successfully reading the popular mood of frustration with the established political class and using this as fuel to sustain its appeal through to the end of the war. The language that it used, a mixture of sensation and plain-speaking, proved an integral part of its appeal; forthright, bold headlines, using the tabloid traditions of brevity and wit to strike a chord and draw working class readers into the stories it promoted. Staunchly patriotic but always on the side of the ordinary soldier while providing entertainment and a window for women readers. The paper gained in credibility by presenting its criticism as inclusive of a reader that should be trusted and indeed included in the political conversation. Such was its critical stance that, in 1942, it was threatened with closure, although many in Parliament were as supportive as Churchill was aggrieved.
The paper crafted a blend of dark humour, world-weary resignation and admiration for the efforts of working men and women in the war effort in contrast to the haughty pronouncements of senior politicians, generals and admirals. Moreover, in consolidating this position of the ‘Forces’ paper’, it was further perfecting the language of this appeal.
It quickly became the paper of the rank-and-file: easy to read, uncomplicated in its politics, incontrovertibly on the side of the underdog. This enabled it to broaden out its target category of the ordinary people in an increasingly democratic arc as the war progressed to include the personnel in the Armed Forces, factory workers supporting the war effort and the wives and mothers of those fighting. Its importance in representing the views of service personnel in particular was underlined in a Mass Observation report of 1942 that noted that the newspaper was, ‘probably the biggest source of opinion forming’. In addition, it was able to do all this in a form that advertisers found appealed to the new sense of solidarity among the working classes as the Second World War drew to an end. Its physical format meshed with the language it used to articulate the aspirations of its idealised readers, creating, as Smith has commented: ‘a paper that will conveniently stuff into the pocket of overalls, and that can be read in brief intervals between manual work’.
Above all strategies, it was a letter from 25 June 1945 that ushered in a new level of intensity to the election campaign in the ‘war to win the peace.’ A Mrs C. Gardiner from Ilford, Essex, concludes that, ‘I shall vote for him’ and this becomes, first, the headline on the page, ‘I’ll vote for him’ with underlining to emphasise its significance. The letter highlighted many continuities with the poverty and political dissatisfactions of the 1930s and incorporated these memories of the ‘bad old pre-war days’ into the experience of the sacrifices of the war years and the run-up to the General Election, expressing disgust for ‘politicians who are trying to scare us and stir up our fears’. It may well be that this letter, promoted to page one and destined to become the lynch-pin of a concerted fortnight’s campaign, may have had more than a little of the editorial construct about it, yet the Daily Mirror was quick to exploit the content of the letter and reinforce something that had been emerging in its correspondence columns over the preceding weeks and months. The call from a woman to vote on behalf of the values fought for by her husband was not an individual cry but a collective expression of opinion. Mrs Gardiner had become Everywoman and the paper reinforces that perspective:
‘The ‘Daily Mirror’ believes that this letter expresses something more than the intention of one woman.
It offers wise advice to all women.’
By the end of the war, the Daily Mirror had become ‘the newspaper of the masses, the Bible of the Services’ rank and file, the factory worker and the housewife.’ The role of the letters in the formation of its editorial character had been significant. It was a key component in its ‘successful projection of personality’ and in its language and address to readers the paper was considered by A. J. P. Taylor as giving ‘an indication as never before what ordinary people in the most ordinary sense were thinking. The English people at last found their voice’. The letters had enabled the paper more generally to tap into the language of the ordinary reader and this successful editorial construction had become the signifier of association between reader and newspaper institution. It was the key innovation that enabled the popular newspaper to continue its successful commercial articulation of the voice of those who felt they were located outside the confines of elite political culture and society. To reinforce its left-leaning credentials it adopted the slogan ‘Forward with the people’ in 1945.
Sylvester Bolam, the Mirror’s first post-war editor, was explicit in the function of sensationalism in his paper and saw it as plain good journalism, designed for its target audience:
‘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 everyday language, and the wide use of illustration and cartoon.’
Its tabloid recipe for commercial success, based on reader loyalty and appeal to advertisers keen to reach that demographic, reached a peak of 5.7 million daily sales in 1967.
By the 1970s, however, it had to some extent drifted from the core of its readership and its new rival, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, was about to take the language and tone lower and energise once more a younger, less respectful target audience in its push for ratings.
Articulating opposition to military adventurism
Building consistently on its critical approach to military engagement from World War Two, through the embarrassment of Suez, the politically staged recapture of the Falklands and on to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Daily Mirror provided an editorial voice of restraint to counter military adventurism, post-colonial dreams of glory or downright chauvinism. On 5 April 1982, for example, crossing swords with the sabre-rattling jingoism of its rival, the Sun, it declared that it was ‘a coarse and demented newspaper… fallen from the gutter to the sewer’. As recently as 2003, it employed radical journalists such as Paul Foot and John Pilger to provide alternative and, most importantly, accessible accounts of military engagement in the Middle East demonstrating that political critique need not be couched in abstract language.
Maintaining working class support
Its rivalry with the Sun included its political voice. The Mirror, in contrast to its rival, maintained an industrial relations specialist in Geoffrey Goodman, and continued to display a greater awareness and understanding of the labour movement. This was nowhere clearer than in its coverage of the long-running miners’ strike of 1984-85. It explains why the miners had been forced into action, and tried to humanise them in the early stages as ‘brutalised’ by the government’s economic policies:
‘Why the miners feel so angry – …miners do the toughest, most thankless job in Britain. Yet I know of no people who are more gentle at heart, more human in their responses and grasp of realities… No community has had to suffer such wholesale decimation as the miners in recent years’ (24 Feb 1985 p2).
Overall, the tone of the Mirror’s coverage is one of sadness at the inexorable and inevitable decline of the industrial working class. This is a decline that can be managed, but it cannot be prevented. The miners’ desire to fight is portrayed as understandable, even noble, but history is against them; the paper despairs at the sight of a working class fighting itself. The Mirror focused its attention on the ‘militancy’ of the Thatcher government and asserts, against most mainstream media attention, its interventionist role. It recognises that Thatcher is successfully exposing the fractures in the declining working class and playing ‘divide and rule’. It laments this tactic but can do little to oppose it. In contrast, the Sun represents the voice and views of a new generation of blue collar workers who buy into the Thatcher project; ambitious and consumerist, suspicious of unions, and the welfare state, who want to participate in the property-owning democracy and are fearful of threats to what they perceive as progress.
Declining deference and the monarchy
The language and political drive of the Daily Mirror certainly contributed to the declining deference that characterised the post-war era in Britain. Cudlipp (1976: 80) confirmed this perspective: ‘It was more than light-hearted impudence, it was a reflection of the new healthy mood of questioning authority, especially the Establishment’. One of the drivers of the new popular journalism pioneered in Britain by the Daily Mirror was a revitalised concentration on human interest stories and celebrity. As mass media evolved through the middle of the twentieth century, no commodity was in more demand than the Royal story. In this, the Daily Mirror was at the forefront with its distinct presentational style of addressing the subject. Typical of this was, ‘Come On Margaret! Please Make Up Your Mind!’ (19 August 1955). This demotic approach was immediately condemned by the Press Council but the Mirror was secure in the knowledge that it was swimming with the tide of public opinion. By 1982 it was joining in the consensus as it heralded Diana as ‘princess of the people and a princess of our times’.
Aping the language of its rival
Although in general supportive of the EU and reluctant to engage in the language of nationalistic bigotry, the Daily Mirror could still on occasions leap enthusiastically into the language of hostility especially with the convenient smokescreen of international sporting rivalries. At the European football championships, a semi-final with Germany brought populism, war-references and aggressive chauvinism together in an alarming headline:
For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over (24 June 1996, 1)’
Following its re-launch in the 1930s , the language of the Daily Mirror was a carefully constructed editorial device that enabled the newspaper to capture the tone and mood of the nation across a wide range of topics. It helped shift public discourse towards the interests and preferences of the working classes, contributing to and profiting from the emergence of a social democratic consensus through the middle of the twentieth century. By the 1970s, even though its commercial and political heyday had peaked, it could still claim to have set out the template for the success of its rival, competitor and nemesis, the Sun, as the tabloid genre and its language became the most influential of media formats.
Martin Conboy, ‘Language in the Mirror: An Idiom for the Masses’, Mirror Historical Archive 1903-2000, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2019.
Sylvester Bolam, Daily Mirror, July 30, 1949, 1.
Hugh Cudlipp Publish and Be Damned! The Astonishing Story of the Daily Mirror (London: Andrew Dakers, 1953).
Hugh Cudlipp, Walking on Water (London: Bodley Head, 1976).
Henry Fairlie, ‘Brilliance Skin Deep.’ Encounter, July, 1957, 8-14.
Huw Richards, The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left (London: Pluto, 1997).
Anthony. C. H. Smith, Paper Voices: The Popular Press and Social Change, 1935-1965 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1975).
Anthony J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).
Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana, 1976).