Lord Rothermere: Who is the man behind the Daily Mail?

News this week that the Rothermere family is considering making a bid to take the owner of the Daily Mail news group private represents a rare foray into the spotlight for Jonathan Harmsworth, the quiet billionaire who runs one of the most enduring media empires in the world. Sean O'Grady takes a look at his life

Sunday 18 July 2021 15:16
<p>Harmsworth at Westminster Abbey in 1998, following the memorial service for his father</p>

Harmsworth at Westminster Abbey in 1998, following the memorial service for his father

There’s a very old joke that Tony Benn used to tell about the hereditary principle. A man settles into the chair in his new dentist’s surgery and makes a little small talk before the drills come out to play. “Where did you study dentistry?” he asks. The young dentist turns around and replies, “Oh, I didn’t study dentistry, but, you see, my father and grandfather were both very good at the job, so I’m a hereditary dentist, and you’re my first patient. Open wide!”

There are, though, times when the hereditary principle works out more successfully, and though it pains any egalitarian to admit it, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, Jonathan Harmsworth (that being the family name), is one of them. The news this week that he is hoping to take his family business “private” and delist its shares from the public stock market seems another shrewd move to ensure the continued commercial success of the Daily Mail & General Trust (DMGT), the holding company for the main operating business assets. These extend far beyond the Mail and Metro print titles and the phenomenally successful MailOnline website, with stakes in various data businesses, the Cazoo digital car trading site, an insurance risk assessor, conference arrangers and even a mini venture capital fund.

The idea is that they would distribute the 20 per cent stake in Cazoo to DMGT shareholders, plus sell the insurance risk business – with Rothermere getting the lion’s share. He’d then use that big pile of cash to buy out the remaining parts of the DMGT from the rest of the shareholders. The continuing DMGT company would then be much smaller and focused on the media side, and, of course, the Mail brand, now global thanks to the web. What that means for the future of the Mail titles, print and digital, is far from clear. It’s hard to imagine Rothermere breaking up or selling off the Mail, founded by his forbears; but it would be unlike him to do nothing with it, and DMGT is not famed for its sentimentality. Digital-only, eventually, seems one obvious option.

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