Rothermere: in a class of his own

The owner of the 'Daily Mail', the last of the dynastic press barons, has hit the front pages himself with his defection to New Labour. His 'brilliant' editor, Paul Dacre, is of course still free to back the Tories in his lordship's flagship - or is he?

The latest and unlikeliest recruit to Labour's strength in the House of Lords was once within an ace of giving up his right to sit there at all. I interviewed Vere Harmsworth, proprietor of the Mail group of newspapers, not long before the death of his father, the second Viscount Rothermere. In his office in the old headquarters of the Continental Daily Mail in Paris, he told me he was considering seriously whether to renounce the peerage when the time came to inherit it. "You could call it vanity, I suppose," he mused. "But it means changing my name to somebody else's, and I think I've made a name for myself."

Not that he wanted me to go away with the wrong impression. "I don't object to inherited titles," he insisted quickly. "I'm not a socialist."

He resolved his doubts, became the third viscount, and, nearly 20 years on, is still not a socialist. Indeed if he were, he might find Tony Blair's Labour an inhospitable refuge.

Judged purely by the politics of his flagship newspaper, Rothermere's decision to back Blair was a shock. It was less surprising to his intimates, for the 71-year-old press magnate, a dabbler in Buddhism and astrology who lives mainly in France, has a reputation for springing surprises.

In recent years he has not concealed his impatience with some of the Daily Mail's right-wing views, especially its hostility to Europe. At a dinner in 1992 to mark the 21st anniversary of the relaunch of the Mail as a tabloid, he told guests, who included John Major: "The politics of my newspapers are what my editors believe the politics of their readers to be. For myself, I left Thatcher's Britain for Mitterrand's France because it is in Europe that our future lies."

His quarrel with the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, is that by supporting the Euro-sceptics so stridently he has misread the national mood. That is why Rothermere chose to announce his move to the Labour benches in a diary paragraph in his other daily paper, the London Evening Standard, which supported Blair in the election. And while it made front-page news in several of Friday's papers, the Mail reported its proprietor's miraculous conversion in three chilly paragraphs on page 12.

That afternoon, Rothermere again used the Standard, this time to accommodate an article explaining his decision. Much of it was a scarcely veiled attack on the Mail's eve-of-poll issue, which had carried a giant Union flag with the message that a Labour victory "could undo 1,000 years of our nation's history". Rothermere quoted Nurse Cavell: "Patriotism is not enough." Likening the Conservative party to "a magnificent salmon ... spent and ruined", he revealed that he had met Blair several times and believed him to be "a strong and dedicated Prime Minister who has a vision of wider horizons".

In a radio interview on the same day, Rothermere seemed to be handing out a warning to Dacre. While praising him as "the most brilliant editor in Fleet Street", he said he feared that the paper may be getting out- of-date in its views; and if that began to affect circulation, changes might be made. It may have been just a coincidence that Saturday's Mail carried a leader praising the "robust" Tony Blair, followed by another lauding Robin Cook.

The proprietor's public criticism of the editor is not necessarily a signal of his imminent departure, or of a sudden switch in the paper's allegiance. Dacre owes his editor's chair to an attempt by Rupert Murdoch in 1992 to recruit him to The Times. He was then the Mail's deputy editor. To keep him, Rothermere promoted his long-time confidant Sir David English to be chairman of the company, leaving the editorship vacant for the younger man.

Dacre, who has achieved a healthy circulation increase since taking over, remains a valuable property. If he were to fall out with Rothermere terminally, he would not be out of work for long. One or two of Murdoch's editors might be watching developments with alarm.

In any case, the proprietor is not always right, and Dacre may be more in tune with his readers' views than Rothermere believes. An opinion poll published last week showed that 49 per cent of Mail readers voted Conservative on 1 May. (The poll, by MORI, also confirmed that a paper's advice on which party to support has a negligible impact: the swing from Conservative to Labour among Mail readers, at 15.5 per cent, was identical to the swing among Sun readers, who had been instructed in strong terms to vote Labour.)

It is not a rule of the Mail organisation that Rothermere has to like his editors, or that they have to stay in tune with his views. He was never particularly close to Stewart Steven, former editor of The Mail on Sunday and Evening Standard. Before Rothermere saw the New Labour light, he found Steven's politics too radical for his taste.

At one of his regular lunches with his editors, the proprietor was extolling the virtues of Buddhism and explaining his belief in reincarnation. Steven, tongue in cheek, boldly enquired how he would react to being reincarnated as a road sweeper in Calcutta. Rothermere retorted that, even without the aid of reincarnation, an editor might soon find himself sweeping roads in London. In the event, Steven retired at the time of his own choosing and still writes a column in the Sunday paper.

In his youth, Vere was known as a playboy. Nobody would have guessed that by the end of the century he would turn out to be the only scion of the once-great newspaper dynasties to have kept control of the family business. As the Beaverbrooks, Astors and Hartwells have forfeited their inheritances, the Daily Mail, Britain's first popular newspaper, remains in the hands of the great-nephew of its founder, Lord Northcliffe.

When he joined the company in the Fifties, he was given little to do - hence the nickname "mere Vere" bestowed on him by Private Eye. By the late Sixties he was in control; by the Eighties, he and English had taken the Mail into a dominant position in the middle market, chiefly by virtue of being the first national newspaper to recognise the need to cater specifically and consistently to aspirational young women.

For the three decades following the Second World War, the Mail had been overshadowed by the Daily Express. Today the positions are reversed and the Mail, with its circulation of 2,150,000, is nearly a million ahead of its troubled rival. Throughout their history, both papers have been doughty supporters of the Conservatives, and, earlier in the century, of imperial expansion. With The Express in the hands of Lord Hollick, both are now controlled by Labour peers. That rumbling under Fleet Street is the sound of Beaverbrook and Northcliffe turning in their graves.

Rothermere has not achieved success for his papers by becoming a tycoon in the conventional sense. He remains what he has always been, a mildly eccentric English aristocrat. Eccentricity runs in the family: Northcliffe, his great-uncle, was palpably mad at the time of his death.

His grandfather, the first Viscount Rothermere, was obsessed with Hungarian nationalism and was once offered the country's throne. Vere's father admired Hitler. His cousin, Cecil Harmsworth King, was ousted from the chairmanship of the Daily Mirror for plotting to overthrow Harold Wilson's government and replace it with a ministry of all the talents, led by himself.

In 1957, Vere did the traditional aristocratic thing by marrying an actress: Patricia Brooks, better known as Bubbles. He decided to live in Paris, partly for tax reasons and partly because he still nurtured the romantic image of the French capital current between the wars - dancers, singers, smoky nightclubs. It was at a club that he met Maiko Lee, the Korean woman who became his constant companion and whom he married not long after Bubbles died in 1992.

Many have learnt to their cost that the portly maverick is not the self- indulgent buffoon he might appear, even though he runs his papers by instinct rather than on business-school principles. Uniquely among modern proprietors, he allows journalists a greater role in decision-making than marketing people and management consultants.

A few years ago, asked which social class he thought he belonged to, he replied crisply: "nobleman". His conversion to New Labour does not mean that he is switching sides in the class struggle; more, perhaps, that he thinks it's all overn

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