Media families; 22. The Rothermeres
Monday 14 July 1997
Nepotism runs in the family. Of course in 1896, when Alfred and Harold Harmsworth founded the Daily Mail and a newspaper dynasty, there was nothing derogatory about the word or the practice.
In those days it was common for tycoons to provide employment for relatives and to pass their empires on to their heirs. Today, orthodox business opinion discourages family favours; but the third Viscount Rothermere, the former Vere Harmsworth, has never cared too much what people think. He has determinedly groomed his son and heir Jonathan to take the reins at Associated Newspapers when he retires.
Jonathan (full name Harold Jonathan Esmond Vere Harmsworth) is assistant managing director of London's Evening Standard, and he is not the only relative on Associated's payroll. Vyvyan Harmsworth, a cousin, runs the group's "corporate affairs", or public relations.
It is the only great British newspaper group to have remained in the hands of its founding family - unless you count News International, where Rupert Murdoch is busy trying to build a dynasty of his own.
Family tradition attributes Jonathan's birth to Vere's determination that the viscountcy should remain with his branch of the family. Vere, the only son of Esmond, the second Lord Rothermere, had in 1957 married the tempestuous actress Patricia Brooks, known as "Bubbles". After 10 years they had produced two girls, Geraldine (1957) and Camilla (1964) - the latter in a difficult birth.
In 1967 Esmond, aged 69, fathered another son, also named Esmond. He was 42 years younger than Vere and would have inherited the title and possibly the newspapers unless Vere could sire a boy. Jonathan's birth in December 1967 secured the inheritance.
His subsequent preparation for taking over the newspaper group has broadly paralleled his father's. Where Vere went to Eton and then Kent School in Connecticut, Jonathan was at Gordonstoun in Scotland and Duke University in North Carolina. Like his father he served an apprenticeship in various companies in the group, including a stint managing some of the regional newspapers, before moving to London and the Standard a few months ago.
Acquaintances describe him as "pleasant", a word often meant as a put- down. Yet media-watchers with long memories recall that this was exactly the kind of remark made about Vere before he took over the company on his father's death in 1970. That was before he went on to annihilate the Daily Express in the battle for the middle market, to create the successful Mail on Sunday and to outflank Robert Maxwell when he tried to launch a London evening paper to challenge the Standard.
Because Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, died childless, the newspaper group passed to the descendants of his brother Harold, the first Viscount Rothermere - notorious for his friendship with Adolf Hitler. Two of Harold's sons were killed in the First World War, so the title passed to the third, Esmond, Vere's father.
Over the years, the Harmsworths have spread their tentacles into other newspapers. For a period Northcliffe owned The Times and the Daily Mirror, as well as the Mail. Cecil Harmsworth King, Northcliffe's nephew, ran the Mirror from 1951 to 1968 and hired his son Michael King as foreign editor.
Rothermere's daughters, Camilla and Geraldine, are not active in the newspaper business, although readers of the Daily Mail get regular updates on significant events in their lives. One of the joys of controlling a newspaper outright is that you can use it as a family bulletin board.
Only two weeks ago, readers shared Geraldine's happiness as, "stunning in lilac", she married the poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell. The Rothermeres were at the wedding, and so were the couple's three-month-old daughter, Alfreda, and Augusta Ogilvy, Geraldine's daughter from her previous marriage. Last October we read of the birth of Jonathan's daughter Eleanor, a sister for his two-year-old heir Vere.
The progress of Camilla's children - Alexander (3) and Sebastian (6) Yeates - has been similarly recorded and the Mail, of course, gave saturation coverage to Rothermere's own second marriage, to Maiko Lee in 1993.
Rothermere is 71 and is expected to step down when he feels that Jonathan has enough experience to take over. But will Jonathan still be in charge in 20 years' time? History suggests the odds are against it; but never underestimate the capacity of a Harmsworth to spring surprisesn
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