Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

The Bully and the ‘Beast’

Jon Smith

Mail Men: The Unauthorized Story of the Daily Mail, the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain, by Adrian Addison, Atlantic Book, 407 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1782399704

The British general election of 2017 delivered a stinging dose of reality to two supposedly irresistible forces. One was the Conservative Party, the other the Daily Mail. As polling day approached, the newspaper scrambled to discredit Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The efforts reached their height on the day before the election, when the Mail ran 13 pages branding him and his closest colleagues “apologists for terror”. It fawned over prime minister Theresa May, meanwhile, as the steely embodiment of “British spirit”. Yet the left-wing veteran led his party to within 2 percentage points of the Tories in the popular vote. The result undermined two caricatures of Britain’s second-biggest-selling newspaper. Critics have painted it as a poisonous reactionary propaganda sheet whose editor, Paul Dacre, had the power to dictate government policy. Its admirers saw it as a voice for the silent middle class majority, a bastion of common sense. What both sides shared was the idea that the Mail had enormous influence, on the public and those in power. But after its beloved Tories lost their overall majority, obituaries for the newspaper’s dominance came thick and fast.

The paper’s sway over voters is hard to calculate, but its influence on May and Corbyn seems obvious. May appears to have started to believe her own gushing press when she decided to go to the polls early. Corbyn, on the other hand, broke with his predecessors and ignored the Mail. As Mail Men, Adrian Addison’s history of the newspaper shows, it is only as influential as people in power allow it to be. Unfortunately, they allow it far too often.

The Mail’s dictatorial attitudes go back to its founder, Alfred “Sunny” Harmsworth, who would display such hubris that he expected a seat at the 1919 Versailles peace conference. He begins Addison’s story, though, as a populist in the best sense of the word. The founder of the supposed voice of middle England was born in Dublin in 1865 in a house by the Liffey in Chapelizod, and could trace his lineage to a colonel in Cromwell’s invading army. He moved to London at a young age and went from playing with a toy printing set to almost single-handedly founding the popular press.

His genius was to pitch his publications at the newly literate masses deterred by the dull screeds in newspapers such as The Times. His first Daily Mail was published on May 4th, 1896 and “the reader from day one, issue one, was always kept in mind”. Harmsworth would stride through the newsroom doling out cigarettes, issuing his three commandments: “explain, simplify, clarify!” In addition to covering stories that heavier publications thought beneath them, its journalists would “drum up talking points which would be the most important thing in the world for a day or two, stories such as ‘Will Men Fly?’”. Its success would allow its proprietor to found the Daily Mirror and, in a sign he had truly arrived in the Establishment, to buy The Times. He became a peer, choosing the name Lord Northcliffe.

He had tried standing for parliament for the Conservatives the year before founding the Mail but found the experience “like wading through a sea of filth”. Much easier to run a newspaper and have “power without responsibility”, the expression used by Tory leader Stanley Baldwin in response to a Mail article. The newspaper was full of anti-German sentiment in the years before the First World War and demands for heavy reparations afterwards. In the Commons, prime minister David Lloyd George rebuked Northcliffe for his “diseased vanity”, tapping his forehead to suggest insanity. His final days were indeed marked by increasingly erratic behaviour, possibly caused by syphilis.

Northcliffe had four children out of wedlock but none would inherit his empire on his death, aged fifty-seven, in 1922. Instead, it went to his taciturn brother Harold (later Viscount Rothermere), who wrote the infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” article lauding the British Union of Fascists in 1934. He also wrote a number of pieces praising Hitler, although these had less quotable headlines.

The paper went into a postwar decline as the Daily Express simply copied its formula and did it better, but a reversal of fortune came in 1971 when David English was appointed editor. He is the father of the Mail as we know it today: tabloid-size, targeted at women, brashly opinionated and thoroughly suburban. “He had this feral instinct for the prejudices of the British middle class,” says former colleague Sue Douglas.

Paul Dacre, who succeeded him in 1992, “modelled himself on what David was – even down to the jokes, the voice inflection, the way he sat in his chair,” says Douglas. It is with his arrival that Addison adds most of his original research. This comes largely in the form of pseudonymous contributions from current and former employees. The reluctance to commit real names to print is understandable: Fleet Street is a small place and nobody wants the reputation of a squealer. Certainly, few of the sources, if identified, would work at the Mail again, given the portrait they paint of its editor.

Dacre, the son of a Daily Express showbiz correspondent, comes across as socially awkward, ruthlessly ambitious and, most of all, angry. Addison, who has worked at the Sun and News of the World, will know that shouting and short tempers are not exclusive to the Mail; the ultra-competitive, deadline-driven world of Fleet Street is not always conducive to calm heads. But it is only at the Mail that swearing and abuse have been elevated to a culture. Source after source describes Dacre’s rage and foul language. “Roy” recalls: “I used to watch him just before the first edition went to bed and he was like a fucking ape – screaming and swearing …” The man himself makes no secret of this behaviour, once opining that “shouting creates energy and energy creates great headlines”. It’s an approach that would be tolerated in few workplaces. The same goes for his language. Dacre is in some ways a puritan but that does not stop him making liberal use of the most offensive swearword. As “long-term reporter Cyn” observes: “There is an enormous disconnect, isn’t there? I mean, calling people cunts to their faces and instilling terror and yet, in your paper, you are constantly rolling out spreads of ‘here’s a street in the 1950s when Britain was a better place where everyone respected each other’.”

The editor’s list of hate figures is well-known: the “metropolitan elite”, immigrants, outspoken women, judges, celebrities with the temerity to criticise the Daily Mail. With no apparent sense of irony, he cherishes a particular dislike for “People Who Know Best”. Successive political leaders have only encouraged his sense of self-righteousness. In a memo leaked in July 2000, prime minister Tony Blair listed “touchstone issues” that would help Labour connect with the “gut British instinct” of voters; it bore a startling resemblance to a Daily Mail editorial published some days before. Ed Miliband took another tack and tried to stand up to the Mail in 2015 after it had branded his late father, a Marxist professor, “the man who hated Britain”. The then Labour leader was given a right to reply but might have done better to ignore a newspaper that was never going to endorse him: it reprinted an abridged version of the offending article next to his rebuttal. On the other side of the political divide, it is remarkable how, on becoming prime minister, former Remain campaigner Theresa May’s stance on Brexit became exactly the same as the Mail’s.

Politicians would do well to question their faith in the Mail’s instinct for what middle England wants. Like English, Dacre used to measure a story’s worth by whether it would interest his suburban nuclear family. But with a salary that touched £2.4 million in 2014, and a 1,700-acre Scottish estate to show for it, he has moved a long way from the middle class he claims to speak for. “You know it’s a paper that’s sometimes very critical of people inside ‘media bubbles’,” “Sean” tells the author. “But Paul was completely inside a bubble of his own.” Another source tells how, because Dacre seldom left his office, the Mail’s more “rabid loons” found it easy to persuade him that crowds of Romanian refugees were marching up the street outside Northcliffe House, the Mail’s west London home.

This disconnection may be responsible for some of the Mail’s recent flights of hysteria. Does its imaginary target reader, the suburban housewife, really see a snap election as an opportunity to “crush the saboteurs”? Has anyone thought in these terms since the Stalinist purges? Objections to this type of coverage tend to be aired by another object of Dacre’s hate: the Guardian, no doubt rendering them entirely invalid in his mind. In a 2013 article for that newspaper, he asked why the left-wing media is “obsessed” with the Mail. He may have a point – a recent headline in the Guardian’s sister publication The Observer asked if he was “the most dangerous man in Britain” – but the feeling is mutual. The Mail’s senior staff are “utterly obsessed with the Guardian,” says “George”, “it defines exactly what they do not want their Daily Mail to be.”

On Desert Island Discs in 2004, Dacre described his job as: “represent[ing] millions of people who don’t have a voice … especially in countering that liberal, politically correct consensus that dominates so much of British public life”. In a country with a predominantly right-wing press, this is a spurious claim. But in Dacre’s mind, any dissent from his idealised norm is not to be tolerated: saboteurs must be crushed. This even extends to appearances. If the subject of a feature “doesn’t look like they might be a Daily Mail reader – it’s never gonna work,” says a former Femail contributor. Women are given makeovers and a choice of evening dresses; a man’s tattoos are so artfully hidden that when Dacre sees him on television the next day in all his inked glory, he “went crazy because he hadn’t quite realised he simply wasn’t really ‘one of us’”. Addison does not explore the more sinister side to this, as Guardian journalist Nick Davies does in his Flat Earth News (2008), highlighting the lack of ethnic minority faces in the newspaper ‑ except in crime reports. Dacre’s campaigning response to the racist killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence is often cited as evidence that he is not biased. “The story has, to many, come to define his editorship,” Addison claims, but the episode is most notable as an exception.

One area where the editor is happy to relinquish his stranglehold is the Mail’s Dublin operation, which Addison leaves largely unexplored. Columnists there are free from interference even if they traduce the sainted Margaret Thatcher, as did the late Irish Daily Mail editor and columnist Paul Drury. This may have been what Dacre had in mind when he told the Leveson inquiry into press practices: “Some of the views espoused by its editors there [in Dublin] make my hair go white, but nevertheless he’s appealing to his local market, representing his readers’ interests.” The Irish editions are not as nakedly partisan as their British cousins either, possibly because it’s harder to work out which party is closest to the Tories. Fianna Fáil is economically liberal but also loves public spending. Fine Gael has a socially conservative wing but also a socially liberal one. The Irish operation’s political ambiguity is reflected in the fact that the walls of its Herbert Park office feature both a plaque to commemorate its opening by Bertie Ahern and a framed front page with his beaming face and the headline: “He lied and lied and lied again”.

Dacre is also hands-off with the digital side of the operation. “A lot of people say that the internet is the future for newspapers,” he told staff in 1999. “Well, I say to that: bullshit.com.” That name was ultimately rejected in favour of Mail Online, the operation headed by former Ireland on Sunday editor Martin Clarke with the aggressive style he learned from his master. But where articles in the newspaper are thoroughly polished, the website’s often feel rushed and clumsy. “When I first joined I was told that so long as I got the photograph right, I’d do fine. And not to worry so much about the words – that Clarke didn’t care about the words,” says “Marlon”.

This is not because Clarke lacks the ability to improve text and headlines. In the spirit of Mail Men, I spoke to a former employee at Ireland on Sunday (now the Irish Mail on Sunday), who remembers him as a “great newspaper man”, if a combative one. “He certainly wasn’t averse to shouting across the newsroom,” he recalls. “As an example, here’s his three-step lesson in headline writing: if you went too downmarket: ‘Baby talk! Fucking baby talk!’; too broadsheet: ‘Boring people! Boring fucking people!’; missed the news point: ‘Tell me something I don’t fucking know!’ These explosions could be heard in Stillorgan and were addressed either to his right-hand man or to the newsroom in general. But if it was your headline he was critiquing, you never made the same mistake again.”

Such fine-tuning matters little at Mail Online, where the name of the game is hits. Its showbiz content and “shocking moment” videos, along with breathlessly long headlines spewed out with search engines in mind, draw them in their millions: it is the world’s second-most-visited news website. Addison sees the website as keeping the Mail brand alive but a glance at the figures shows where the money is made: in the six months up to March 2016, revenues at the daily and Sunday editions of the newspaper were £242 million; Mail Online’s were £44 million. Lots of hits do not necessarily equal lots of money. Putting up a paywall is one solution, but while that works with quality publications such as the Financial Times and The Economist, it would be the kiss of death for Mail Online. Addison also claims the website’s “inner voice is very much that of the Daily Mail” but the crossover is limited. The website is pitched at a global audience (drawing inspiration from the unlikeliest of sources: the Guardian): its readership is younger and much of its traffic comes from the US. How many of those visitors will be clicking into Richard Littlejohn’s latest fulminations about “elf ’n’ safety”?

It’s unfortunate that the audience is so divided, because a website containing only the articles in the print product, pitched at British readers, might answer one of the great enigmas of the Mail: do readers buy it for its showbiz gossip and the Femail section and merely tolerate its flights of political frenzy, or do they heartily enjoy both aspects? Is Dacre a genius at smuggling his political agenda into suburban homes? Is he pushing at an open door? The number of hits might give an indication, but it’s an issue Addison understandably cannot resolve. “Ray”, formerly of the newsdesk, tells him: “The fact is that Femail is often responsible for people actually buying the paper …” But Sue Douglas believes its news coverage is a mirror of its readership. “If you look at it coldly, you have to say that if it’s nasty – then so is that element of society. If it didn’t reflect its readers back at them, it would not be profitable.”

Addison has little to say about the creeping Daily Mailisation of other newspapers. The Mail was roundly criticised when it branded judges “enemies of the people” for ruling that MPs must have a say on triggering the UK’s departure from the EU, but the previously sober broadsheet Telegraph was little better with: “The judges versus the people”. At a time when there is widespread alarm over “fake news”, the role of old-fashioned “distorted news” like this cannot be overlooked. This side of the newspaper is covered in forensic detail in Flat Earth News, while a shorter but no less revealing portrait of the Dacre and Clarke regimes can be found in an excellent New Yorker piece from April 2012 entitled “Mail Supremacy”. For a broader picture of the growth of the popular press, Andrew Marr’s My Trade (2004) is an excellent place to start.

Mail Men reads as if the newspaper had put aside all bias and somehow written a book about itself. The key ingredients of a Mail feature are all there: embarrassing revelations about the rich and powerful, gossipy asides, bitchy unnamed sources and a preference for sensationalism over considered analysis. Addison has certainly taken one of the newspaper’s tenets to heart: make sure stories are about, as he puts it, “people not things”. This is the history of the Mail told through the people who made it. Their worst behaviour is recounted in minute detail but the newspaper’s impact on wider society is largely unexplored. Addison’s prose is light and pacey, and he is not averse to a tabloid turn of phrase. On the arrival of future proprietor Vere Rothermere in the Mail’s offices, he writes: “Male staff sniped. Female staff adjusted their frocks and hair. Vere was hot, posh … and loaded.” Columnist Jean Rook did not merely leave the newspaper but “flew the nest”.

“Sunny Harmsworth’s Daily Mail – love it or loathe it – seems sure to live on for a long time to come,” is Addison’s optimistic closing note. Yet, as the recent general election suggests, the institution may have already passed its zenith. Under Dacre, its circulation of 1.5 million is the envy of all but one of its rivals but it is down from a high of 2.5 million and, with no efforts to broaden its readership, that decline is likely to continue. Its power without responsibility in the political sphere is feared but of limited strength: its estimated readership equals only 7 per cent of the British electorate. Meanwhile, Mail Online soars away, high on hits if not on profits, even as it abandons so many of its print partner’s most admirable traits: crafting a narrative, relating to ordinary people’s lives and, at the most basic level, editing. With its incredible churn rate of articles, there is no compulsion to be concise or to finesse stories. The truly disconcerting thing is that, as the Mail’s history shows, apparent Fleet Street success stories are all too readily aped by rivals. But while Northcliffe’s creation was long a dominant force, the model for newspaper success in the twenty-first century is unlikely to spring from the offices that bear his name.

The Mail’s 121-year journey has seen it develop from trying to influence world events to leering and sneering at minor celebrities via its website. That’s progress of a sort. Its latest heartthrob is one Tommy Corbyn, son of Jeremy. In the words of its headline: “You’ve seen Corbyn, but what about PHWOAR-byn?” If he has learned anything from his father, he won’t let it go to his head.

1/7/2017

Jon Smith is deputy chief subeditor at The Irish Times. He has previously worked at the Irish Daily Mail, The Sunday Times and the Daily Mirror. His Twitter handle is @TheJRSmith

Articles referred to in this review include:
“Is the editor of the Daily Mail the most dangerous man in Britain?”, by Tim Adams, available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/may/14/is-paul-dacre-most-dangerous-man-in-britain-daily-mail
“Mail Supremacy”, The New Yorker, by Lauren Collins, available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/02/mail-supremacy
“Why is the left obsessed with the Daily Mail?”, The Guardian, by Paul Dacre, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/12/left-daily-mail-paul-dacre
“You’ve seen Corbyn, but what about PHWOAR-byn? Internet swoons over Labour leader’s son’s ‘Hollywood looks’”, by Amie Gordon, available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4597490/Internet-swoons-Jeremy-Corbyn-s-son.html

Categories