Right Wing Watch Newsletter: Which way, Daily Mail?

“The British people relish a good hero, and a good hate”, said Alfred C. Harmsworth, the founder of the Daily Mail.

I’ve been reflecting on the power and influence of right wing media corporations in the UK this week, as well as the new power of tech billionaires like Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Paypal and Palantir and an early investor in Facebook. I wrote about how Thiel has been investing in numerous tech startups in the UK, and may also be building an academic and political network here. 

I also looked at Dominic Cummings’ allegation that Boris Johnson negotiated a ‘bung’ with big news corporations during the pandemic and the reciprocal relationship between government and the right wing press.

Assigned Mail at Birth

Adrian Addison’s Mail Men is about the history of the Daily Mail, and it’s remarkable – considering how much Britain has changed since the 1890s when the Mail was launched – how little the Mail’s style, tone and obsessions have changed. If you enjoy gossip about the Harmsworth brothers who founded the Mail and became Lord Northbrook and Viscount Rothermere (whose descendant still owns the paper), then I highly recommend reading it.

“The British people relish a good hero, and a good hate”, said Alfred C. Harmsworth, the founder of the Daily Mail.

From its inception in 1896, the Daily Mail’s success relied on a number of key elements. The Education Act brought in by Gladstone’s Liberal government had created a vast new young reading public. The Mail was considerably easier to read in layout and style than papers like the Times, and it was in love with the monarchy and celebrity. It was for busy, aspirational middle class people who liked their news to be entertaining, if not sensationalised.

One of the paper’s early reporters, William Kennedy Jones, speculated that its early readers were “the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people accustomed to public hangings, public whippings, pillories, ducking stools and stocks”. The Mail looked down upon the cheap popular literature known as ‘penny dreadfuls’, but many people thought the Mail had in fact put the penny dreadful out of business by publishing similar content.

Has the Mail of today changed much since then? Reader, I humbly submit that in tone and content, it has not.

Now, I’m perfectly willing to admit my own bias here. I’m just the kind of metropolitan liberal elite bastard that the Mail thinks looks down upon their readers. But I would like to make it clear that I have no quarrel with people who buy the Mail. I’m sure that many of them buy it out of a sense of habit, just as someone from a Millwall supporting family might continue to support their club, and simply tune out the frequent bigotry they encounter at the home end.

No, it’s the scumbags who own and run the Mail I personally despise. They are bullies, reactionaries, and people without compassion for the marginalised and downtrodden. They will feed human suffering through the organ grinder of their printing presses in any way that makes money.

And they don’t like to be made to look bad. In 2017, I was working as the comms person for the small charity that promotes Wikipedia in the UK, which had about 11 staff at the time. The group of charities that promote Wikipedia have no say over the content or policies of the website, and around that time, editors decided to put the Daily Mail (or more precisely the Mail Online) on the list of unreliable sources which shouldn’t be used as citations to prove facts.

The problem was that the Mail Online publishes a lot of shit, and so while the Mail on Sunday arguably still follows a decent journalistic standard, all the articles appear on the same website. All tabloid news sources were already discouraged as sources on Wikipedia, so they just added the Mail to that list. Then the Guardian picked up the story as a means to discredit the Mail’s journalism.

So then our small charity’s office got a call from one of the Mail’s editors who proceeded to shout down the phone at our chief executive about how terrible Wikipedia was and how the Mail would never use Wikipedia as a source anyway because it was unreliable (not true, as it turns out, since Mail hacks would often copy and paste text from Wikipedia, sometimes leaving the citation marks in by accident).

My boss proceeded to explain to this Mailman how we had no control over any of the content on Wikipedia, but he was obviously not satisfied with this, and the Mail went on a rather pointless campaign to try to discredit Wikipedia for about a year after that. 

They tracked down one of the editors who voted to proscribe the Mail as a reliable source to write a very long article about how he was a nerd, which… wasn’t really a big surprise. And they tried to claim Wikipedia encouraged suicide because it featured factual information about methods people use to kill themselves.

The Mail seemed out of touch, and old fashioned to me. Their brand of celebrity gossip and simplistic news certainly has found a large online audience, but arguably that’s because they are no longer just a UK publisher but a global one. The problem I foresee in future is that as inequality accelerates, there are fewer and fewer people in the Mail’s target demographic of upwardly mobile, aspirational lower middle class suburban homeowners.

‘How are people supposed to believe in capitalism when they never have any hope of owning capital?’ is a phrase I’ve heard often but I’ve no idea where it comes from. Precarity and landlordism are hitting the children of the middle classes hard, meaning that for many the chance of ever owning property is dependent on inheriting wealth from their parents. 

Like a lot of the right wing press, you get the impression that the Mail will paper over the cracks with sensationalised culture war stories – they even have a page on their website devoted to ‘woke culture’ stories. But the prevalence of culture war narratives is largely a consequence of how social media shapes the way we interact with news. Culture war stories are designed to drive engagement through outrage. They don’t have to be real, you just have to tell a few old blokes that trans people want to force pronouns on them and they’ll click the like and share button.

Again, this is nothing new for the Mail, where one journalist coined the word ‘suffragette’ in 1906 as an insulting term for militant feminists. The term was then proudly claimed by the movement.

Now, I want to be careful of predicting the Mail’s demise just because that’s what I want to happen and would laugh heartily if it came to pass. That would be confirmation bias talking. But when you look at their revenue figures, it’s all looking pretty negative. 

The Daily Mail and General Trust’s revenue is still a little over £1 billion a year, but the sheer volume of competition for ad revenue and eyeballs they have to deal with now means they will have to identify new markets and new revenue streams if they don’t want their income to dwindle further.

The Mail is obviously not going away any time soon, but it’s also largely failing to come up with new ideas which might expand its audience. It will remain a champion of the status quo, particularly the monarchy, patriarchy, and Tory party, while reassuring the precarious middle classes that no matter how bad they’ve got it, at least they can sneer on the marginalised and dispossessed who lack the wealth they toiled so hard to accrue.

John Lubbock leads on the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward

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