Apart from The Sunday Telegraph, no other Sunday newspaper of substance had been launched since the Second World War. Several had closed; even Associated Newspapers had closed the old Sunday Dispatch. The launch of a new Sunday newspaper was thought to be a licence to lose money. Fleet Street lore was replete with stories of mid-market tabloids that had failed to find a market. Those stories went back to the days of the great Lord Northcliffe himself and the original launch of the Daily Mirror as a newspaper written by ladies for ladies —a concept that did not prove profitable.
The myths included the story of Lady Kemsley and the prize bull. The Daily Sketch —another mid-market tabloid —had published a front-page photograph of an exceptionally well endowed bull, which had won first prize at an agricultural show. Lady Kemsley, the wife of the newspaper’s proprietor, saw the first edition and protested to her husband on the grounds of public decency. Lord Kemsley ordered the removal of what might now be called the bull’s lunchbox. His order was obeyed: the presses were stopped and the bull was ‘castrated’. The next day the Editor of the Daily Sketch received a libel writ from the bull’s owner, alleging damage to his, and no doubt to the bull’s, reputation. The damages were heavy. It is fair to say that all the smartest alecks of Fleet Street forecast The Mail on Sunday would be another example of the newspaper rule that broadsheets should be stuffy and upmarket and tabloids should be noisy and sensational, and that there was no middle ground on which to pitch one’s tent.
In retrospect, it seems strange that this doctrine survived as long as it did, since the Daily Mail had already been converted to a tabloid and had been increasingly successful in that shape for more than a decade.
I was a contemporary of three men who deserve a large part of the credit for the founding of The Mail on Sunday. I wish they were still here to celebrate their achievement, but none of them is still alive. They were the late Lord Rothermere, the proprietor who decided on the launch, David English, the brilliant Editor of the Daily Mail, who advised on the relaunch in the early days, and Stewart Steven, who was not the first Editor but was the Editor who established the character of the newspaper —complete with its iconic advertising slogan: ‘A newspaper, not a snoozepaper.’ All these deserve much credit; as the column I write now for The Mail on Sunday used to be written by Stewart Steven, it is particularly satisfying to be able to give them the credit they deserve on these pages. Although Lord Rothermere, then Vere Harmsworth, was the heir to a major newspaper dynasty, he is really the Christopher Columbus of this story in the sense that ‘they all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round’.
The Fleet Street of the Sixties had not taken Vere Harmsworth as seriously as he deserved, with the exception of old Roy Thomson, the genial Canadian who was the dominant proprietor of that decade. Roy saw that Vere, though a modest man, had real business gifts, and they became friends.
He also had courage; it takes courage for a proprietor to launch a high-risk project when most of the experts are forecasting failure. The history of newspapers is littered with chartered accountants who have failed as Fleet Street competitors because they were too risk-averse. Risks have to be taken in the newspaper business. In the case of The Mail on Sunday, it was, I think, David English who saw that the paper needed to be refocused on the formula of the Daily Mail to attract women readers and that it needed to have a strong magazine. But it was Vere Harmsworth who had to make the decision to launch, and he stuck by it in the difficult early months.
The 25 years since the launch have indeed been an exceptionally difficult period for Sunday newspapers —far more difficult than is generally realised. In July to December 1982, there were eight national Sunday newspapers with a combined circulation of 17.7 million; The Mail on Sunday was in sixth place. By the period October 2006 to March 2007, the combined circulation of these newspapers had fallen to 11 million. In that period, The Mail on Sunday was the only Sunday paper to increase its circulation, which is now second only to the News of the World. In 1982, the Sunday Express, which also competes in the mid-market, had a circulation of 2.78 million, against The Mail on Sunday’s one million; by 2007 the circulation of the Sunday Express had fallen to 782,000 while the circulation of The Mail on Sunday has risen to 2.31 million. The Mail on Sunday has a 24.6 per cent share in terms of revenue of all national Sunday newspaper advertising. These are striking figures.
In 1982, hardly anyone was forecasting the slump in the circulation of Sunday newspapers; no one would have dreamt that every other Sunday newspaper would lose circulation —three of them have lost millions in sales —while The Mail on Sunday would increase its sale by 1.3 million. The late Lord Rothermere has had the last laugh. Every journalist must be curious to work out how this was done. I’m sure the influence of David English was very important. There is a real Mail tradition to which he contributed. Successful newspapers know their audience. Successful editors understand their audience. The Mail under David English established its relationship with Middle England and in particular with its women readers. That relationship has been recreated in The Mail on Sunday.
This is not the fashionable metropolitan audience, and it does not share all the opinions of London. Neither the Daily Mail nor The Mail on Sunday is written for the Hampstead set, though both are widely read in Hampstead. Nor are they written, or edited, to impress fellow journalists or the BBC, rather than to serve the readers. The success of The Mail on Sunday, and its ability to increase its circulation when all around them were losing theirs, is because the newspaper shares the attitudes of Middle England. It is not ashamed to agree with provincial opinion when the provinces have got things right and the fashionable London pundits have got them wrong. After all, if the fashionable Fleet Street pundits had been listened to 25 years ago, The Mail on Sunday might never have come into existence.
Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in The Mail on Sunday
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