The coming of the Maily Express

It makes sense - the two newspapers have printed the same stuff with different fonts for a while now

Talk of a merger between the Daily Mail and Daily Express seems a mixed blessing for those of us who wouldn't ordinarily read either. While it might seem like good news to be rid of at least one of them, how powerful would the resulting über-tabloid become?

It's probably best not to fall into the trap of imagining the worst-case scenario – a monstrous great politically incorrect Death Star of a newspaper blasting out lasers of bile across the galaxy, journalists dressed in scary black uniforms . . . because that's exactly the kind of catastrophistic panic-porn those papers like wallowing in.

No, the reality would be more mundane, less scary. Instead of a gigantic, slavering right-wing chimera, a Brundlefly with a cruel streak for minorities lurking on the shelves in WHSmith, the Maily Express could just end up being a rather dull, mid-market tabloid grasping for the same waning readership.

Instead of two sets of headlines panicking about "them" coming over here and taking our jobs, there would be just one. At least we'd only have to avoid one publication, rather than two.

After the sudden death of the Daily Sport and Sunday Sportwhich leaves a gaping void on the news-stands for upskirt photos of minor celebrities and very little else – it would be another blow to the newspaper industry. Would it be a sign that the tide really is turning, and the inkies running out of time? Those of us who harbour dreams of having gainful employment through the purchase of printed words on paper might like to hope not, but what if this is the second domino falling over?

If the Express and Mail really did merge, I don't think the Express would end up tremendously well represented, given the relative size of its circulation and readership. Just as Spitting Image's David Owen puppet told David Steel their amalgamated party would have "one name from your party and one name from mine . . . from mine, Social Democratic, from yours, Party . . ." you can't help seeing the resultant publication as being anything other than the Daily Mail. That would be disappointing from the point of view of losing the Express name from the news-stands, given its history as Britain's most popular newspaper for decades; but then again, the Express of those days died a long time ago.

Of course, this is all just idle speculation. Why would the Mail want to do anything other than see the Express wither on the vine and die away as its readership gets older? Why would the Express want to admit defeat and couple itself to the Mail as very much the junior partner? None of that seems to make any sense, but perhaps there is some logic in it: with 2.7 million potential readers, any joint force would be in a healthy position.

The two newspapers have been pretty much the same story in slightly different fonts for a while now. It's a sadness, perhaps, that there isn't room for a Daily Express that is markedly different from its main mid-market competitor, but maybe that's just the way these things are going. Maybe we really are going to face a future with fewer national newspapers, and maybe we're just going to have to get used to it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.