The man who invented the tabloid press; and the people who defeated him

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There are few things wrong with Britain that cannot be traced back to the influence of our tabloid press. But where did this model of journalism originate? The usual answer is to date the tabloids’ rise to Lord Northliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail in 1896, or his younger brother Lord Rothermere who ran the same paper in the 1930s when it backed Mosley’s blackshirts. Before the career of either took off, however, the distinctive forms of the tabloid newspaper, its reliance on celebrities, its dumbing down of the news, its defence of the police, as well as its advocacy of tax and welfare cuts, had all been set in place. The founder of this model was a journalist five years older than either of them: Horatio Bottomley MP.

Bottomley launched his career with the Hackney Hansard, written for the local parliaments movement of the 1880s, in which local Conservative and Liberal politicians would meet and hold set-piece debates in emulation of their counterparts in Parliament. From there, Bottomley moved to the Municipal Review, which published puff-pieces abut local mayors, and then to a penny weekly, Youth magazine, which published improving short stories aimed at an audience of teenage boys. Bottomley was paid £150 to take over the magazine, also recruiting the paper’s ambitious sub-editor a barrister’s son named Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe).

In 1888-9, Bottomley served for a year as the first Chairman of the Financial Times. Bottomley turned that paper into a gossip sheet, puffing up the companies who were willing to advertise on his pages, and printing hostile rumours about those who refused. “Gold discovered – good prospects,” a typically baseless Bottomley story began.

In 1902, Bottomley bought an evening newspaper, the Sun (no connection to today’s paper of the same name). Bottomley hoped to build a mass readership by reporting crimes, especially murders. Alone among the Liberal press, the paper supported the Boer War. Bottomley tried to boost its circulation by recruiting celebrity guest editors, including the Test cricketer Ranjitsinhji. There was also a racing column and a lottery of sorts (‘Sunspots’).

His real breakthrough came in 1906, shortly after Bottomley was elected to Parliament as the MP for South Hackney. Bottomley launched a weekly newspaper, John Bull, which had achieved by 1916 a paid sale of around 2 million copies an issue – making it not merely the best-selling news weekly of its day but a far more successful publication that any equivalent magazine since – selling ten times more copies than today’s Economist or Private Eye.

The idea of “John Bull” had been coined around 150 years before, by a Tory journalist John Arbuthnot, who lampooned his eighteenth-century enemies as wasters of the public finance, wrong because they listened to England’s enemies abroad. By the 1850s and 1860s, John Bull was a regular character in Punch magazine, the incarnation of the patriotic Englishman.

Bottomley did not create that image, but he was content to plagiarise it. John Bull was “populist” in the sense that the term is often used today: to mean that it spoke constantly of the people, while excluding from the ranks of the people all sorts of enemies including trade unionists, suffragettes, and campaigners for Irish independence.

John Bull was at the height of its influence between 1914 and 1918. Bottomley wanted his paper to the most patriotic magazine you could buy – and was unafraid of seeming violent, cruel or even unhinged. There were tens of thousands of German civilians living in Britain. Of them, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.”

Nor was extermination a mere linguistic flourish. He had put careful thought into how to murder them – without wasting the precious resources needed for the war. “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.”

Within days of that article, riots broke out against German civilians living in Britain. Bankers gathered in their top hats on the steps of the Stock Exchange to pass a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City of London”. In Poplar, crowds broke into the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans.

The British and the German populations had mingled for several generations. In thousands of homes, in all social circles, there was anger and disgust at the position he had taken. Yet rather than being isolated for such violence, Bottomley was rewarded. Lord Northcliffe, previously employed by Bottomley, made him one of the best-paid columnists in Britain Northcliffe’s papers spread the story that Bottomley was on the verge of a Cabinet appointment, covering London with placards reading “Bottomley wanted”.

And this message of war to the death was applied to all of British capital’s enemies. When miners struck, Bottomley and John Bull insisted that any workers following suit must be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law”.

It is from the rise of John Bull onwards that we can see the essential character of the British tabloid press: its craven attitude towards the rich and those with the most social power, its hatred towards workers and the poor.

Yet there were always people trying to fight it. One of the first was a shorthand copyist Clarence Henry Norman, a member of the Independent Labour Party, the Society for Abolition of Capital Punishment and the Penal Reform League. Norman was a conscientious objector, one of 16,000 people in Britain to refuse conscription. Imprisoned, he had fought with his jailors. Confined to a straitjacket, he was force-fed through a nasal tube.

From his prison, Norman grasped that if he was going to defeat the war, he had to campaign against the people propagandising for it. He smuggled out a pamphlet: “Mr Horatio Bottomley has never ceased to claim that he is the best interpreter of the mind and morals of the ordinary hard-working decent British citizen.” He wrote about Bottomley’s career outside the media and politics, as a businessman whose scheme had repeatedly ended in business failure.

Norman ended his account, “With that we leave Mr. Horatio Bottomley, only reminding our readers that nothing could be more conclusive proof of the rottenness of British democratic and political life than the fact that such a man is consulted by the rulers of this country.”

Bottomley schemed to have Norman’s pamphlet banned. He found an intermediary, a Birmingham printer named Reuben Bigland, and asked him to find someone to have Norman’s pamphlet copied. Bottomley sued the printer who reproduced it, John Greaney. Greaney did not attend court, but sent a barrister to plead his case on his behalf. Greaney’s barrister (paid for by Bottomley) admitted libel and called on the judge to order the harshest punishment of his own client: “Whatever may be the result of the case, Mr Bottomley may leave the court at all event with the certainty that in one respect he has performed a public service, and that is by the skilful and temperate manner in which he has conducted his case”.

Bottomley was acting at the furthest edges of the law: inventing cases, bribing his supposed opponents, securing a conviction with the help of a naïve judge, Mr Justice Darling.

Three years later, however, the memory of this scheme came back to haunt him. Bigland broke with Bottomley, admitted his part in the fraud and then when Bottomley sued Bigland for criminal libel, Bottomley found himself in front of the same judge, Darling. This time, he was no longer willing to believe the lies Bottomley spun.

In 1922, Bottomley faced his last court case. After the war had ended, he had launched a Victory Bond Club, offering shares at £1 each, supposedly mirroring the value of the government’s War Bonds. He was accused of fraudulent conversion (in other words, using investors’ money for his own ends). Bottomley was sentenced to seven years in prison.

At the heart of his criminal trial, was the question of whether Bottomley had defrauded the patriotic former soldiers who bought shares in his Club, and whose support had made John Bull into a commercial success. “The dear boys”, Bottomley insisted, “whether they are sleeping or still with us, know that I have not betrayed them.”

But this is exactly what Bottomley had done, and what the tabloid press always does. It turns to its readers and invited them, on the basis of the patriotism they share with the editors of their newspapers, to suspend all critical intelligence. Having found a paper that agrees with them, they are expected to think that Conservatives are to be trusted, that the royal family is a model to the nation, and that no-one better understands the British economy than the ghouls who dominate the City. Bottomley used the gullibility of his audience to make himself rich. In the long years since, not one of his followers has behaved in any way differently.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which is published by Routledge today].

[I’ll also be speaking about the book at a meeting of the Socialist History Society, later today (24.11.22) – all welcome].

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