The second half of the 19th century was a great age for the press, as taxes on publications and newsprint were removed, new printing techniques made big print runs possible, and pioneering editors such as the pacificist WT Stead reinvented their trade. And as the 20th century approached, a new breed of entrepreneurial owners would push the industry to new heights.
In 1896, Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail, costing a halfpenny against the penny cover price of its rivals. The Mail was fiercely imperialist, backing the Government in the Boer War (to the horror of Stead) and earning a reputation for putting patriotism above objectivity. The power of the press was such that many people blamed Harmsworth for Britain’s entry into the First World War (he had been predicting war with ‘The Hun’ since the turn of the century). ‘The most unscrupulous man in Britain,’ railed Lloyd George – before inviting him into his cabinet. But, adding popular features and crisp, concise writing into the mix, the Mail was a huge success.
In 1900 Sir Arthur Pearson founded the Daily Express, which moved its sights from court, war and hard news reporting, bringing in gossip, sports and features for women. And in 1903, Harmsworth launched the Daily Mirror, which replaced illustrations with photographs. Popular mass journalism had been born.
Over the following years, many more papers followed: The Daily Sketch in 1909, the Daily Herald in 1911 (the first national paper of the Labour movement), the Sunday Pictorial (Sunday Mirror) in 1915, Sunday Express in 1918, the Daily Worker and News Chronicle in 1930.
Alongside them, London had three paid-for evening papers, each of them hitting the streets in several editions each day. Its unimaginable today, but in an age before radio and TV, let alone the instant information of the internet, the paper was your only source of information. People would wait on East End corners for the latest edition of The Star (born 1888), The Evening News (1881) or The Evening Standard (1827) to get the racing results from the courses around the country. And scandal was never far away. Journalists from The Star were accused of sensationalising the Whitechapel Murders in 1888 and even inventing the name of Jack the Ripper.
The 1950s and 60s were a peak for Fleet Street, with a dominant Daily Mirror (by now transformed into a Labour, working class title) battling the Mail and the Express for readers, and readerships for ‘the qualities’ steadily climbing. In the 60s, the Daily Express sold an astonishing 6m copies a day (against a tenth of that today) and had foreign correspondents dotted around the globe. The Daily Mirror, meanwhile, was selling 5m copies against 1.2m today.
But things were about to change dramatically. Along with huge readerships the papers had accrued huge staffs. Proprietors began to look at new print technologies as a way of cutting costs, particularly a move from the old, labour intensive hot metal style of typesetting and printing. In 1968, Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World and added the Sun in 1969.
It was a baleful end for a paper that had started as the Daily Herald before being unsuccessfully reinvented by Mirror Group in the early Sixties. The remnant of a paper once edited by Hamilton Fyfe, Charles Lapworth and George Lansbury would now feature Page 3 girls and greet the sinking of the Belgrano with the headline ‘Gotcha!’. Murdoch added the Times and Sunday Times to his News International portfolio in 1981. Long battles with the unions ensued, with lockouts, papers shut down for months at a time, and a state of simmering war between journalists and printers (who could stop the presses at any time).
Fleet Street needed to change but change was brutal when it came. Under the guise of launching a new Sunday paper, Murdoch moved his titles to Wapping over a dramatic weekend in 1986. The aim, with the complicit assistance of the Tory government was to break the unions and, in a violent replay of the Miners Strike of the two years before, that was exactly what they did.
‘The Dirty Digger’, as Private Eye gleefully dubbed him, declared that Fleet Street had ‘three times the number of jobs at five times the level of wages’ as other countries. He also knew the new Atex typesetting technology could remove typesetters at a stroke, and neuter their powerful unions. Murdoch, who as a student at Oxford was so left wing he was dubbed ‘Red Rupe’, devised a military style plan to smash the print unions and make printing profitable.
Police officers would hold back the pickets each night, and Wapping residents (who often couldn’t get to their own front doors) would find themselves in a warzone. Just over a year later the pickets admitted defeat – News International hadn’t lost a single night of printing, and the industury was changed forever.
Many of the other papers may not have liked Murdoch’s approach, but they quickly followed his lead. The papers left their old Fleet Street homes, with editorial office upstairs and presses below, for the East End.
1 Canada Square, previously derided as the most obvious landmark of a white elephant Docklands, became home to the Telegraph, the Mirror, the People and the Independent. The Mail, along with its Evening Standard, would head in the opposite direction, to Kensington, and the Express to the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. The Telegraph and Express papers, meanwhile, would be printed at Westferry on the Isle of Dogs.
Fleet Street had moved to the East End. Meanwhile the printers and compositors, many of them East Enders themselves, found themselves out of jobs – most would never work in newspapers again. 301 years after the Daily Courant first hit the London streets, we stand at the other end of the newspaper revolution, with dwindling sales and the reputation of newspapers and their proprietors (and their friends in police and Parliament) lower than ever. As the owners of News International lurch through their daily crises, East Enders may be wondering how much longer they’ll have the Murdochs as neighbours.