British Journalism Review    
HomeCurrent EditionArchiveBlogSubscription & Back IssuesAbout the BJRLinksContact the BJR


Jeff Wright

The myth in the Mirror

British Journalism Review
Vol. 14, No. 3, 2003, pages 59-66

Print this articlePrint this article

Jeff Wright is a former press photographer who became a mature student and for his master's degree researched the origins of British press photography. He works as a freelance producer in regional television, and is the author of Forty Years of British Television.

Contents - Vol 14, No 3, 2003

Editorial - A matter of conscience 3

Rod Liddle - Hands off the BBC 6

Description in the media

John Owen - Now you see it, now you don't 11

David Bradbury - Of course it happens here

The greatest columnist?

Geoffrey Goodman - The write brigade 22

Bernard Shrimsley - Columns! The good, the bad, the best 23

Stein Ringen - Why the British press is brilliant 31

Quentin Letts - Still thriving, the daily sketch 39

Freedom of the press

Nicholas Jones - Can Alastair open closed doors? 45

Sondra M Rubenstein and Tamar Lahav - Uncivil society 52

Jeff Wright - The myth in the Mirror 59

Joy Francis - Where are the ethnic minorities? 67

Michael White on Joe Haines 74

Keith Waterhouse on William Davies 78

Julian Petley on media regulation 80

Sandy Gall on Christina Lamb 84

Peter Stothard on war and the media 86

  The Daily Mirror is about to celebrate its centenary, no mean feat in a century that saw many other new titles launching and crashing, presses stopping in the night never to restart, and mastheads absorbed by rivals. The Mirror deserves its hundredth birthday and, no doubt, a telegram from the Queen. But one of the great stories of Fleet Street – that the paper pioneered newspaper illustration with real photographs and in doing so created press photography as we know it today – may be a myth, or at best a considerable exaggeration.

The birth of the Mirror at the beginning of the 20th century, when it became desperate to survive one year, let alone 100, is part of the folklore of the Street. It was, history has recorded, another victory for the press barons' press baron – Lord Northcliffe, then still plain Alfred Harmsworth. He transformed near defeat into triumph and turned round an unusually bad idea of his own, a daily newspaper for women, with something new – pictures. When he relaunched the Mirror as a picture tabloid, so the story goes, he became the first pioneer of press photography. But did he?

The paper's relaunch as the Daily Illustrated Mirror in January 1904 seems to provide a simple answer to the question: when did newspapers start using photographs? Somewhere, sometime there had to be a first. Today's newspapers are full of pictures; the Victorian newspapers were devoid of such illustration. It had not been technically possible, not until the Mirror found a way to publish photographs on the fast running presses that popular daily newspapers needed to feed their circulations. Or had it?

The use of the word “first” is as dangerous in newspaper history as in any other. It is always possible for someone to stumble on new evidence that undermines a pioneering claim. But there is so much evidence to sort through. Who will bother to look through editions of something like the 11,000 titles on offer on Britain's newsstands at the turn of the last century to prove or disprove the belief that the Mirror was first with pictures? Yet, without wanting to destroy the important status the Mirror without doubt achieved in the development of the modern newspaper – shaking off the typographical constraints of Victorian journalism – the paper wasn't the first. It didn't break through the technological barrier that had kept photographs out of the press since Daguerre and Fox Talbot “invented” photography 70 years before, and it didn't invent news or press photography. By examining the events surrounding the birth of the Daily Mirror, we can spoil a good story with some facts.

First this myth, as variously published: “The Mirror was seized by a revolutionizing hand and the world found itself provided with photographs of the news of the hour...” and: “Alfred [Harmsworth] changed the Mirror into an illustrated tabloid, pioneering in the process a technique for printing photographs...” The first of these quotes come from 1914, the second from 70 years later. In between, many historians and writers on the press and press photography wrote about Harmsworth's “creation of news photography”, “new techniques” and “initiative”. He was a giant and attracted acclaim from genuflecting writers in his day: “No-one dared doubt the genius and the star of Alfred Harmsworth since the time when he saved the Daily Mirror from the abyss.”

Northcliffe, as he soon became, had a habit of writing colourful memos, often calling his papers or magazines his “children”. So the fairy story might go something like this:

Once upon a time there was a mighty press baron who had a large family. But the baron was unhappy because one of his children was ailing. He was much troubled because this was the first sickly child that he had sired. His courtiers could not understand why the child was in decline. They blamed the nannies who had been hired to raise it. Then one day it was announced that one of the baron's lowly subjects from a distant part of his empire wished to have audience. This was Arkas Sapt, a bohemian foreigner who edited Home Sweet Home magazine, and he told the baron: “I have the magic formula for turning pictures into print and I can save the child.” The court laughed at the idea, but the baron was desperate – he would try anything to save his sick infant. “Give him money, materials, printers and a Hoe press,” ordered the baron. So for many nights and many days Arkas toiled and experimented, each day improving his formula. “Here is the answer,” exclaimed the baron. “Sack the nannies and we'll use pictures to cure the child.” And so the Daily Mirror lived happily ever after – even if the baron didn't.
Where Northcliffe's idea for a daily paper for women came from is not known. One had been launched in Paris in 1898; plans for another in New York were mentioned in the trade press; publisher George Newnes and journalist W T Stead had noted the success that Northcliffe's new Daily Mail had with women readers and both had plans to attract women. It's been said that rumours of Stead teaming up with the Suffragette Women's International Progressive Union in the summer of 1903 was the spur for Northcliffe to act. But Northcliffe needed no pointers in selling to women. His magazine company, Harmsworth Brothers, was selling almost 200 million copies a year of its various publications in the 1890s, and many of those sales were gained in the “women and home” sector of the business.

The Mirror's editor was to be Mrs Mary Howarth, then the woman's editor of the Mail, and Northcliffe initially hired an (almost) all-female editorial staff for a “paper for gentlewomen by gentlewomen”. The paper went on sale on 2 November and in that first edition Northcliffe promised “...that the transition from the shaping of the flounce to the forthcoming arrangements for Imperial defence, from the arrangements of flowers for the table to the disposition of forces in the far east, shall be made without mental paroxysms.”

It wasn't a winner

When the first issue was being prepared in November 1903, Northcliffe wrote in his diary: “Came down to the ‘Mirror' office, found [managing editor] Kennedy Jones in full swing, and after the usual pangs of childbirth produced the first copy at 9.50pm. It looks a promising child but time will show whether we are on a winner or not.” The next day he wrote: “Numerous letters and telegrams of congratulations on the appearance of the new child. Great demand – machines going until the afternoon; total 276,000.”

Time soon showed he wasn't on to a winner – the Mirror's circulation collapsed. After the first day curiosity sale, day two was down to 143,000; after a week it was 100,000. Three presses were needed for launch day; soon two were idle. There was consternation at Carmelite House. Had Northcliffe lost his touch? It is unlikely that any of the yes men surrounding were bold enough to say “Alfred, this woman's thing – it really is a duff idea.” Losses were mounting as Hamilton Fyfe joined the story. Fyfe was to become the new editor of a relaunched Mirror and it is to him we can turn for much of the injection of drama and building of the myth.

Fyfe later set himself up as the white knight: Northcliffe, deep in trouble, sends for him after weeks of losses; he wants someone outside the organisation to make changes rather than just pull the plug. Enter our hero to save the paper. But a look in the Northcliffe Papers at the British Library tells a different story, one which challenges the idea that Northcliffe was determined on an all-woman Mirror. In fact, Northcliffe sent for Fyfe before the first edition of the paper was published. On 3 November Northcliffe saw Fyfe and offered him the job of editor – not the action of a single-minded man believing in the success of a paper staffed totally by women. Fyfe wrote to Northcliffe the following day: “I am ready to take up the work of editing the Daily Mirror as soon as I can arrange to leave the Morning Advertiser. As you said yesterday, it will be two or three years at least before the paper can assume the form which you intend it to be given eventually.” In a second letter, dated 6 November, he replied to what must have been Northcliffe's remarks on the future shape of the paper: “I quite understand the difficulty of the transition stage in which the paper is in at present.” Transition? After only five issues?

Drowning kittens scenario

The truth is that Mary Howarth was only on loan from the Mail and returned to her job there after a week. And as we have noted, Kennedy Jones, one of Northcliffe's talented lieutenants, was a key executive from the start. It was he who actively managed the launch. In two volumes of memoirs, Fyfe builds up his own role and we have the “drowning kittens” scenario – how he described the upsetting task of having to get rid of some of the women journalists, removing the chintz from the office, turning a boudoir into a place where the boys could get on with saving the paper. Fyfe did make editorial changes, by cutting the woman's angle given to every story and making the paper more readable, with a lighter style and shorter pieces. He also started to use more illustrations and photographs. So it seems Northcliffe suspected from the start that the ladies' paper idea was suspect and always had plan B up his sleeve.

There's not much in Northcliffe Papers about the Mirror in the two month period between the launch and re-launch, but there is a letter, dated 26 November, from someone we must assume is a friend:

Dear Harmsworth

I have been taking the Mirror since its commencement but don't see a future for it in its present form. But I think that if you were to add the features of the Daily Graphic to it, it would boom. Where the Daily Graphic is taken in, the ladies always go for it. An ‘Illustrated Mail and Mirror' on the lines of the Daily Graphic with ladies pages added to it might go well. An up to date Daily Illustrated is needed. I asked Max P. [Pemberton] to tell you this but write in case it slips his memory.

How are you?

Yours sinc.

Douglas Sladen.

It's a nice idea from Douglas, but he was probably pushing at an open door. The hiring of Fyfe on day one suggests that the transition Northcliffe already had in mind was probably towards a picture paper.

It is in Fyfe's 1930 book, Northcliffe: An Intimate Biography, that we can read the brilliant inventor scenario explaining how photographs came to the Mirror and the daily press, and discover the first mention of Arkas Sapt, the man who was supposed to have made photographic illustrations possible. Fyfe created the folk story of one of Fleet Street's great characters. Sapt is variously described as resourceful, a visionary, a bohemian, a genius, unpredictable, eccentric, improvident, odd in manner and of Hungarian descent – all that's needed to paint a picture of an inventor-genius. It appears that Sapt was operating among people who thought that getting half-tone pictures to work on the type of presses the dailies were using couldn't be done. Sapt is credited with making a major breakthrough in the Mirror pressroom. A more mundane explanation is that the Mirror's presses simply weren't up to the job – within two years the paper had new presses. Nevertheless, Northcliffe was convinced of Sapt's contribution in helping to save the Mirror. He later gave him shares in the company and paid him a regular commission. Like many other Fleet Street characters, Sapt had a close relationship with the bottle and there are several pathetic letters in the Northcliffe Papers from him seeking either to get his job back or attempting to get an appointment to see Northcliffe. Apparently the pub got the money Sapt received for his work on the Mirror's renaissance.

But there was no brilliant discovery of the role photography could play in the popular press and no great secret invention or new printing technology breakthrough awaiting Northcliffe in 1904. Pictures on the page had been spreading through the press for decades. The illustrated press was a Victorian publishing phenomenon. There was a great raft of weekly and monthly titles that had multiplied when a cheap way of reproducing black and white line drawings on to chemically etched printing blocks — known as “process” — had displaced the expensive and slow hand-engraved wooden blocks in the 1860s.

Then came a halfway stage. With the growth of photography and the availability of pictures of events and people in the news, artists' impressions were drawn from photographs, rather than from the imagination, and often credited with a by-line for the photographer whose work was being copied. They lacked mid-tones or half-tones, but this simple chemical engraving reproduced well, especially on poor newsprint. The Daily Graphic, the sister paper of the weekly Graphic magazine, took advantage of this technique and for a number of years was the lone entrant in the illustrated daily newspaper field. But from 1884 there was a stable and successful method of reproducing the full tonal range of a photograph in print with half-tone blocks. Magazine titles multiplied further and literally thousands of photographs were used weekly across the magazine press. This in turn created a sub-industry within commercial photography, when those taking and processing pictures realised they could make a lucrative living out of supplying photographs to the press. So began press photography.

They all looked the same

The techniques and the conditions needed in the composing room and press room had had 20 years to improve before Northcliffe decided to have a go with a daily newspaper illustrated with photographs. Rather than ask the question why he did it, we should be asking why did he not do it earlier? The answer has more to do with the conservatism of journalism and typography of the period than with technological breakthroughs. Photography had made great strides in the publishing industry from 1884 onwards, but in newspapers, editors and publishers were hidebound by how a newspaper was perceived or, more accurately, how they perceived what a newspaper should be and how it should look. To be a serious newspaper you had to look like the exemplar – The Times. If you visit the British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale and look through the newspapers of the late Victorian period, pick any one from any part of Britain – local, weekly, regional or national – they all look the same except for their mastheads. Journalism was a serious business and it had to look serious and respectable, with column after column of text and the limited use of headlines. Northcliffe's new Daily Mail may have been the New Journalism, but it still looked like the old journalism.

The Victorian journalist approached photography with caution, refusing to see it as the ingredient that would transform the press, and instead invented a new category of publication – the “illustrated”. This offered entertainment, diversion and distraction and was not really “serious”. There was still an unstated prejudice that pictures were somehow for the less than literate and the gentlemen of the fourth estate were very careful to preserve their real or imagined status as highly literary purveyors of the written word. Basically, the Victorian Fleet Street journalist was a snob with a high opinion of himself and his trade. Ironically, the illustrated press pitched itself at the discerning reader too. With high cover prices, high society content and glossy production values, the illustrated magazines were for the middle and upper class drawing room and gentleman's club – not the pie and mash shop.

Faced with the success of papers like the Daily Graphic and eventually the Daily Mirror and then the Daily Sketch, the industry, still trying to cling on to old certainties, invented a new category for them – the Illustrated Dailies. This is how they were described until well into the 1920s, by which time even the most tradition-bound newspaper was carrying contextual photographs. The Times succumbed with a “picture page” from 1922 onwards.

On 28 January 1904 the Daily Mirror became the Daily Illustrated Mirror – “A Paper for Men and Women” – and the cover price was reduced to a halfpenny. The following day the paper made the announcement: “This is the first paper to produce photographic half-tone pictures on a rotary printing machine and success in this direction has only come after long and expensive experiments.” Rather than look to their own prejudices that had prevented the earlier adoption of photographs, the Mirror subscribed to the technical barrier scenario – photographs could only appear in newspapers when the technology made it possible, it suggested, and it had taken a Northcliffe to make that happen. And that's the version that has gone down in history.

The Mirror's claim to be a pioneer was shot down immediately after the launch. Letters from people such as Harvey Thomas, who ran the Graphic stable, Hulton who ran the Daily Dispatch in Manchester, Carl Hentschel, a leading half-tone block manufacturer, Fosters, the printing press manufacturer, and a couple of commercial contract printers all claimed that photographic half-tones had been running for a number of years in other newspapers on fast rotary presses. But gradual, evolutionary, slow, bit-bybit change has no place in Fleet Street history – big papers need big events. So although there is no doubt that the new Mirror was a hit – within five years of the relaunch it was the second best-selling daily in Britain, second only to Northcliffe's other star, the Daily Mail – the Mirror wasn't revolutionary. For at least 20 years, photography had been playing an increasingly large role in the press. The Daily Illustrated Mirror was no more than part of a shift in consensus, when at last it was seen that photography did not threaten journalism but was an obvious and valuable addition to 20th century newspapers.