Unhappy Birthday: At 125, The Daily Mail is still British media's most malevolent force

... whatever apologists like UnHerd's Ed West might have you believe.

The Guardian turns 200 today. It’s celebrating that auspicious occasion just a day after The Daily Mail had its 125th birthday. The right-wing paper is a mere whippersnapper compared to its rival which began life as The Manchester Guardian, the product of a group of non-conformist businessmen who’d been disdainful of the earlier Manchester Observer, a radical paper shut down by the police following its advocacy on behalf of the Peterloo Massacre protestors.

But while The Guardian has 75 years on The Daily Mail — making it old enough to have covered the American Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — it now has far less clout than its younger counterpart. The Daily Mail can still drive the national conversation in a way The Guardian rarely does. It remains at the dark heart of British discourse, the horrifying id of Middle England.

In a piece for the controversialist cowsite UnHerd yesterday, Ed West offered his analysis of The Daily Mail and its role in the world. As you’d expect from a man with Telegraph roots and Daily Mail tendencies, it’s a barely concealed panegyric to the paper of paranoia and political opportunism.

West begins the article with a whip-snap review of the mainstream British press. He writes:

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.

That’s analysis from someone deep within the British media class and inclined to read those papers as he thinks they are rather than as they operate now.

The Times is still a paper of the establishment, it’s just that the establishment’s tone of voice and obsessions have shifted over time. It’s as culture war-obsessed as many of its rivals, less the paper of record and more The Sun with a more expensive thesaurus to hand.

The Telegraph, having started as West correctly notes a vehicle for grudges, has remained that. It’s just that its rage is now less focused; The Telegraph is always angry about the passing of a Britain that never existed caused by enemies that it often has to invent. It is the inflamed spleen of the body politic.

The Guardian is seen as a paper of the left only by those who have remodelled the Overton Window far off to the right. In reality, it’s the paper of the technocrat centre; the paper of “just a little bit of change but nothing that would interfere with our favourite coffee shops” liberalism. Its social justice passions never stretch to questioning the actual structure of the system.

And The Daily Mail? It’s the black-pupiled elder god at the centre of the British media, forever demanding sacrifices of politicians and the public alike; a force of endless harm which delights in trumpeting the minor positive contributions of its self-serving charity campaigns. In large part, it invented the Middle England that it now claims to speak for as the official spokesperson for curtain-twitching.

After a run through the paper’s structure and its early history, West inevitably collides with its 1930s and 40s period. He says dismissively:

[After the paper’s warmongering articles before and during the First World War] 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.” … 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.

It’s not just that Rothermere was “less keen” on war but that he was also very keen on fascism. He was a personal friend of Mussolini and Hitler and used the paper to praise them throughout the early-30s. A 1933 leader column in praise of what Rothermere saw as the new Nazi regime’s great accomplishments appeared under the headline Youth Triumphant. Rothermere wrote:

The minor misdeeds of individual Nazis will be submerged by the immense benefits the new regime is already bestowing upon Germany.

Three years earlier, after advising Hitler to ditch the antisemitic elements of his rhetoric because Jew-baiting is a stupid survival of medieval prejudice”, Rothermere nonetheless published a long attack on Jewish people in The Daily Mail. In the bylined article he said:

I freely admit that the Jewish race has shown conspicuous political unwisdom since the War. Prominent British Jews have brought great unpopularity upon their community… Those on the inside of public affairs feel furthermore a good deal of resentment against the activities of wealthy Jewish individuals and organizations who try by every means ”financial, social, political and personal” to influence British Government Departments and members of parliament for ends serviceable to Jewish interests.

Tactlessness always has been one of the outstanding defects of the children of Israel… they would do well to remember that the fact of leadership of the Bolshevist campaign against civilization and religion being almost entirely in the hands of men of their blood has done inevitable and incalculable harm to the reputation of the Hebrew race in every country of its adoption.

The Jewish Daily Bulletin wrote that Rothermere’s interventions…

… created a storm in Anglo-Jewish circles because his advice to the Hitlerites to eliminate anti-Semitism from their program is believed to be more than overbalanced by his vigorous attack on British Jewry. While The Daily Mail was known as not very friendly to the Jews such an outspoken attack was entirely unexpected.

The ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ article, published in 1934 again with Rothermere’s byline, was not an aberration then. It was the next step in the Daily Mail owner’s pro-fascist publishing campaign. The Spectator condemned Rothermere’s words, writing with lemon sharpness that…

… the Blackshirts, like The Daily Mail, appeal to people unaccustomed to thinking. The average Daily Mail reader is a potential Blackshirt ready made. When Lord Rothermere tells his clientele to go and join the Fascists some of them pretty certainly will.

But perhaps a 1930s version of Ed West — who has written often for The Spectator — would have condemned the magazine as “snobbish” for its observations. Certainly, that’s his position on modern critics of The Daily Mail. His UnHerd piece continues:

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.

This is an inaccurate and — since this is UnHerd — unsurprisingly bad faith distinction. Radio 4 possesses a strong streak of conservatism and the readers of The Daily Mail are well-off by most measures you could apply to them.

They are largely home-owning, pension-having members of the “pull up the ladder” tendency of British life, convinced that young people would be fine if they just spent a little more time pulling on their bootstraps and a little less chomping down avocados.

West’s bad faith bonanza continues in the next section, which induced me to place my head on my desk for at least 5 minutes. He writes:

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).

This is a cowardly piece of writing. What West seems to want to say here is: “The Daily is good actually because of these things that I agree with” but he lacks the bravery to do so with his whole chest. On the immigration ‘question’, he’s particularly chicken shit here as he has previously published his own right-wing scary story on the issue The Diversity Illusion.

In a review for The Daily Telegraph of all places, Peter Oborne called West "one of the most interesting of the rising generation of political writers, who delights in destroying liberal pieties” — that’s the quote that his publishers’ might have put on the book jacket. But there was a coda they most certainly would have binned: “At its worst, though, West’s book can come over as an anti-Islamic rant.”
The Observer coldly noted that the book’s “arguments are repeatedly undermined by reality.”

West’s analysis of The Daily Mail is all that you would expect from someone who a) buys into many if not all of the paper’s foundational prejudices and b) would almost certainly jump at the chance of a well-remunerated column in its pages. While he can make light criticism and frothy jokes about The Daily Mail, West’s career prospects do not allow him to say what the paper actually is — the nastiest voice of the nasty party that forever run British media and politics.

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And if West is irritated by the Left’s frequent references to the ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ headline, he commits the Right’s mirror equivalent — holding up The Daily Mail’s campaign to bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice as proof that the paper is not, in fact, racist. He writes:

[The Daily Mail] 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.

This is a selective reading of the facts that The Daily Mail itself has indulged in for years. The truth is rather more ugly and transactional. In his book Flat Earth News (2008), Nick Davies offers another perspective on how that campaign came to be. He writes:

The Daily Mail famously — and courageously — named his five alleged killers on its front page in February 1997. One of those directly involved says that the Mail’s approach to the story began by being hostile.

They sent their only black news reporter, Hal Austin, to interview the dead boy’s father, Neville Lawrence, with instructions to run a story attacking groups who were campaigning for a new inquiry into the murder. ‘We don’t want rent-a-mob left-wingers — that was the line.’

During that interview, Neville Lawrence realised that Austin’s editor was the Mr Dacre for whom he had done some plastering in Islington some years earlier. By the time Austin sat down to write his story, the highly respectable Neville Lawrence had contacted Dacre, and the news desk told him to change the line: ‘Do something sympathetic.’

The pile of stories in which The Daily Mail and its septic sibling The Mail on Sunday have written openly or coded racist things towers over the pages dedicated to stories like the Stephen Lawrence murder. It is minor mitigation at best and Davies’ book contains plenty of testimony from former Mail staffers about the racist behaviour of executives in the company.

The central point of West’s encomium for The Mail’s economically viable evil comes late in the piece when he argues:

…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.

Asking West to explain The Daily Mail is like expecting a worker bee to draw out a blueprint of the hive; he operates within the Mail’s world and his thinking is the Mail’s thinking. That’s why he so casually uses terms like “the loony Left” and so strongly believes that The Guardian is more influential. Like a Mail columnist, he needs his side to be on the back foot so he claims that the Left is really running things even as the Tories retain an iron grip on power and push to spread that control in the arts and media.

It is not The Guardian’s news agenda that drives Radio 4’s Today programme. Listen for even an hour and it’s clear that the Mail’s obsessions are replicated in the BBC show’s running order. Similarly, look at where big BBC names most frequently turn up freelancing. It’s not parsimonious pages of The Guardian, but the highly-lucrative spreads of The Daily Mail. Where did Woman’s Hour’s Jenni Murray and Today’s John Humphrys head for when their BBC days were done? Columns in The Mail.

The idea that The Daily Mail’s influence is confined to “300-odd Tory MPs” is palpable bollocks. But it’s the kind of gaslighting, fearmongering, fact-free bollocks that will get Ed West to his ultimate goal: His own bylined stake in the fear factory. His cosy, chummy analysis of The Mail’s place in British life will count in his favour, especially when his immigration book is taken into account.

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