The curious case of the 'Daily Mail' hat, and other small whims to be obeyed: Last week the tycoon Conrad Black emerged as a fashion pundit in the pages of his own newspaper . . . but have we been here before?

Michael Leapman
Sunday 03 January 1993 00:02

YOU DON'T have to be eccentric to be a press baron, but you do need a broad range of obsessions. With Lord Beaverbrook it was used envelopes; Lord Northcliffe had fixations about Napoleon and ladies' underwear (though not in tandem); William Randolph Hearst persistently sought an elixir of eternal youth; and Conrad Black's current fad is skirts.

By coming out in favour of provocative fashions rather than against them, Mr Black is showing himself a thoroughly modern mogul; traditionally, the prejudices have been in the opposite, prudish direction. Cecil King, tsar of the post-war Daily Mirror, threatened to fire Felicity Green, its fashion editor in the Sixties, for running a feature on mini-skirts. 'Can you imagine the wife of a Sheffield bus-driver wearing that?' he fumed.

Stories abound of press proprietors berating journalists for being improperly or immodestly dressed, and some are probably true. Rupert Murdoch is rumoured to abhor suede shoes. And the man who gave us the Page Three girl is not always keen on naked flesh: he fired an executive of 20th Century Fox, which he owns, for organising a presentation involving a male stripper.

Northcliffe's problem with ladies' underwear was that people wanted to advertise it in his Daily Mail. He thought it would offend his female readers, so he forbade it. He also had a dislike of advertisements which, he believed, disfigured the news pages. In the face of intransigence in the advertisement department, he appointed Mr Glover, the commissionaire, as Censor of Advertisements.

He liked men's hats, though, and tried unsuccessfully to launch a Daily Mail hat, midway between a bowler and a homburg. His interest in Napoleon - an interest, incidentally, shared by Conrad Black - expressed itself in his collection of busts of the emperor.

There are numerous stories about Northcliffe's odd behaviour, because he went comprehensively mad during a seven-month world tour in his last years. He became convinced that the Germans had tried to murder him by poisoning his ice-cream, and he threw his secretary down the steps because the poor man could not find a newspaper.

He cabled the editor of the Mail complaining that there were not enough giraffes in the Teddy Tail comic strip.

He cabled King George V: 'I am turning Roman Catholic', and the King wired back: 'I cannot help it.'

Mad or not, he was still the chief, and editors continued to obey his increasingly bizarre commands. While it is not recorded whether his representations on Teddy Tail resulted in any increase in the giraffe-count, the Mail editor sprang into action when Northcliffe cabled him the entire menus in all the restaurants on the Aquitania, with instructions that they should be published in the paper in full. Baffling the readers is a small price to pay for keeping your job.

Most press barons are interested in food. One of Beaverbrook's many failed campaigns was for an Empire loaf, baked by British bakers from Empire wheat. Gerald Long, briefly managing director of the Times under Murdoch, conducted an obsessive correspondence about cheese with the restaurateur Albert Roux, which provided a highly flavoured if arcane read in the paper.

After women's clothing and food, a third favourite topic of press proprietors is extravagance. To a man, they are against it. Many - especially the Canadian ones - have been positively penny-pinching. Lord Thomson once scolded Harold Evans, then editor of the Sunday Times, for buying two papers, not one, to read over breakfast when they were travelling together in America.

The first Lord Rothermere, Northcliffe's brother, was also keenly interested in money - so much so that he used his papers' financial columns to boost the price of shares that he wanted to sell. He is said, too, to have arranged for favourable reviews of West End plays if their leading ladies would sleep with him.

He once told Cecil King that he preferred Old Masters to old mistresses because they were cheaper, and King was not sure that it was a joke. Certainly the government of Hungary was not joking when it invited Rothermere to be the country's king. He was delighted with the offer but turned it down.

Had the same invitation been extended to Robert Maxwell he might well have accepted, such was his self-obsession. He drank from mugs bearing the message 'I am a very important person'. While no other press owner was quite as much a megalomaniac, the satisfaction in being the boss is that your every whim is catered for.

Beaverbrook bombarded his editors with 'suggestions' like this one: 'I am not very much in favour of stories of dog shows which describe the scene without telling us who won the championship. A champion dog is a fascinating animal. It must have some peculiarities. It must be fed on some kind of diet. It must have an owner who wears clothes.'

We all have our obsessions, but very few of us are lucky enough to exert a level of control over newspapers that will get them into print.

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