May 4, 2021

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You can tell a lot about someone from the paper they read. Each title represents different social tribes and cultural folkways in British life.

The Times was once the old establishment paper that effortlessly evolved into the voice of economic and social liberalism. The Telegraph, started by an army colonel as part of a grudge against a member of the royal family, has long been the paper of the squirearchy, Tory but bohemian and eccentric at the edges; the Guardian, founded by Unitarian Manchester businessmen, represented the non-conformist tradition that evolved into Left-liberalism, always activated by a keen sense of social justice.

And the Daily Mail? The Mail is purest distilled Middle England. It’s Harry Potter’s uncle Vernon and aunt Petunia; it’s social climber Hyacinth Bucket; it’s Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge.

The paper is 125 years old today, and for most of that time has represented the soul of a particular kind of England, read in the golf courses of Surrey, the semis of suburban Essex, the pub gardens of Dorset. It is the most popular paper in Britain — it overtook the Sun last year — and easily the most hated. It’s guaranteed to get a laugh, or a sneer, when a comedian mentions its name.

The Daily Mail is not exactly the conscience of Middle England, but it is certainly a guiding spirit, a collection of all its fears and hopes, although more of the former than the latter. It represents people overwhelmingly conservative in their cultural tastes while also having a prurient interest in other people’s sex lives and bodies, and in particular their failures.

The way it covers sex scandals is quintessentially English, with just enough information to both titillate and disgust, a dose of moralising and concluding the story with a description of the property in which the disgusting actions took place and an estimated market value. (“MP’s sordid sex sessions with rent boy in £600,000 maisonette”.)

This contrast with a central comment piece nicknamed the “whyohwhy” – as in, “why oh why have we allowed the PC brigade to do this/has Channel 4 allowed this FILTH to be shown/have we allowed the country to go to the dogs?”

It’s a winning formula, although it owes its success more to its breadth of interest. The paper was founded by Alfred Harmsworth, the son of a somewhat down-at-heel Irish barrister. He had first gone into the business with a magazine called Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject Under the Sun, and he brought that same reader engagement when he launched a national newspaper aimed at Britain’s recently enfranchised middle class.

The late Victorian era saw a period of rapid expansion in the newspaper industry due to a combination of rising education levels, helped by the 1870 Education Act, and wider involvement in politics after the 1867 Reform Act. Just as Benjamin Disraeli  “discerned the Conservative working man, as the sculptor perceives the angel prisoned in a block of marble” so Harmsworth found the small-c conservative newspaper reader. The Mail was a huge success, but early on its popularity rose especially when it appealed to its readers’ belligerence, and circulation shot up during the Boer War to one million.

There was a darker side to this, and it’s argued that the growth of a newspaper-buying public also helped push the European powers into the disaster that was to follow. In Sleepwalkers Christopher Clark wrote that “In Britain…. a burgeoning mass press fed its readers on a rich diet of jingoism, xenophobia, security scares and war fever.”

The Daily Mail in particular was accused of warmongering afterwards, including the series of rather hysterical pre-war articles by journalist Robert Blatchford about the Hun and his dastardly plans to invade England. Sales went up to 1.6m a day.

The Mail’s owners, famously, were less keen on war with Germany the second time round. After the Munich agreement Alfred’s brother Harold, the 1st Lord Rothermere, sent a telegram to one of the protagonists, congratulating him on avoiding war with the words “My dear fuhrer… I salute your excellency’s star which rises higher and higher.” That didn’t age well, as they say these days.

Its most notorious headline, of course, was “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, a fact wheeled out every time the paper provokes progressive England, which is often.

The Mail languished until 1971, when Vere Harmsworth, the third Viscount Rothermere, brought in David English as its editor, relaunching the paper as a tabloid. Under English and his successor Paul Dacre — in football terms the Alex Ferguson of newspaper editors — it cemented itself as the voice of Middle England.

It achieved this position by understanding its readership. While its opponents take comfort in the paper’s supposed ability to sway the public, in reality the Mail reflects its readers’ desires and fears. No other paper understands them better – their health, weight, love life, dieting desires and dating concerns, and moral worldview. It is censorious about sex but has more female flesh than any other paper. Whether it’s celebrity cellulite, or the slappers of Cardiff and Manchester drinking themselves to excess, it is almost always disapproving. Esquire magazine called it Britain’s “purse-lipped mother-in-law” and there is something in that.

It also understands what a story is and what angle interests people; the “public schoolboy gone bad into crime and drugs”, for example, is one of its favourite morality tales.

Then there are other staples; rubbish winter wonderlands, sad-looking local councillors pointing at potholes, little ducks that think they’re puppies, cats that look like Hitler, houses that look like Hitler, and cancer. Everything causes cancers or prevents cancer but cancer is all around.

Likewise with crime. The Mail’s overarching theme is one of social breakdown, helping to popularise the catchphrases “broken Britain” or “the broken society”. It reflects the anxiety that social norms are falling apart, an underlying fear of barbarism at the door, an idea that forms a central part of conservative psychology.

For its opponents on the Left the Daily Mail is simply there to stoke fear, a feeling which has only intensified with the internet and hate-sharing of columns by Sarah Vine or Jan Moir (who wrote the most notorious column of recent years). Someone even invented a device that allowed people to read the Mail, presumably working themselves into a parallel frenzy of indignation, without giving the paper the clicks. Others have tried to pressure companies to withdraw advertising.

Mehdi Hasan summed up the common feeling by describing it as “immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting”. In response the Mail released a grovelling letter Hasan had written to them begging for a column.

A paper so conscious of its own moral vision inevitably attracts humour as well as bile. Viz once featured a strip called “Robin Hood and Richard Littlejohn”, in which the outlaw’s sidekick is the prominent Mail columnist, up in arms that Sherwood Forest now has a problem with gay men cruising, encouraged by the politically correct Sheriff of Nottingham. “The Sheriff of Bottingham, more like.”

Charlie Brooker’s satirical TV Go Home had a spoof TV show called Daily Mail Island where a group of ordinary people are stuck in isolation with only Britain’s most influential middle-market tabloid. Within a few days the only gay man has been murdered and “Pervert” scrawled on his door.

But most anti-Mail comedy is predictable clapter, Mash Report levels of unfunny: Single mothers! Immigrants! House prices! HA HA the Daily Hell, the Daily Heil amirite. The Harry & Paul sketch “Panel Show” featuring “Oh my God the Daily Mail” as a punchline is basically correct.

It’s tempting to overplay the snobbery element but there is certainly a class angle, the Mail the voice of Middle Englanders against the Radio 4-listening Liberal Upper Middle Class on one side and the feral Underclass on the other.

Sure, the Mail is obsessed with house prices, but for many people their home is their nest egg; immigration has added millions to the population and isn’t without difficulties; we do have a huge problem with inadequate sentencing in the criminal justice system; a lot of modern art is terrible and/or needlessly coarse, while many members of the cultural elite do despise the rest of the country. Because the Daily Mail believes something doesn’t make it untrue, although it might not always be entirely scrupulous about the details (and it’s not the worst).

There is of course a certain Spiderman-pointing-at-Spiderman aspect to the Mail-hate; the voice of Middle England is disapproving and sanctimonious, and often hypocritical, but then so are its enemies in the Liberal Middle Class. Both fear the country is slipping away from them: we want our country back v I want my country back. Both are snobbish, in different ways.

But its worldview is more nuanced than its opponents believe. Unlike other Right-wing papers, it opposed the Iraq War. It regularly campaigns on civil liberties issues or the environment; Dacre, a true conservative, took a huge dislike to ubiquity of plastic bag litter. It dislikes open-door immigration and people taking advantage of the system but it has often spoken up for individual immigrants who are mistreated. It has a strong idea of fairness and decency, one reason it campaigned for Stephen Lawrence’s family.

While often accused of misogyny, it has by some distance the highest proportion of female readers; while critics lament that women would read a paper that likes to take down other women, that rather suggests their own ideology-induced alienation from human nature; competitive newspapers can’t afford such delusions. Likewise, its complex attitude towards the role of women in work, celebrating it but also recognising that the feminist goal of having it all is only really possible for the wealthy — which is largely true.

Yet it is hard to deny that its form of conservatism has a very uncharitable edge; you don’t have to be a drooling, wet liberal to find its focus on benefit scroungers often mean-spirited, targeting people who aren’t paragons of virtue but are nevertheless struggling. Likewise, as with all tabloids, its behaviour while chasing stories could be appalling during the worst excesses of the 1990s and 2000s.

The Leveson Inquiry, and attempts to regulate the press, weren’t a response to an overmighty fourth estate, but a symptom of its declining power. The internet had been slowly strangling the newspaper industry for two decades, while also empowering those it once terrorised. Hugh Grant, at one point the Daily Mail’s nemesis, now has 630,000 Twitter followers, only half of the paper’s circulation.

Similarly, the Mail’s brand of social conservatism is, whatever the government in power, on the losing side. The things it complained about once — the excesses of political correctness and the loony Left — are now basically mainstream. It may sell four times as many copies as its antithesis the Guardian but the Guardian is read by the people who put on the Today programme, and the people who control education, who dominate the charitable sectors and lobby groups, and who make the plays, films, novels and television programmes that form the cultural memory. The Mail can influence and scare 300-odd Tory MPs, but they don’t write the narrative.

Yet while the newspaper’s power is waning, it has now opened up a new chapter beyond, with the Mail Online having just overtaken the New York Times to become the most visited newspaper site on earth, drawing over 50 million unique visitors a month.

The Mail is particularly successful in the US, where it has found a niche among mainstream news sites that are both dreadfully boring and ideologically dishonest, so deliberately cryptic that you have to be a Bletchley Park veteran to actually understand what is being reported. The Mail is popular with many Americans because, in contrast, it tries to tell a story – which is, after all, what journalism should be about.