Is it possible to read the whole Mail Online in a sitting?

You have to admire Mail Online, as one might admire a giant omelette.

I’m a big fan of Man vs Food, the TV show ode to gluttony in which Adam Richman overeats his way around the US. A giant 12-egg omelette here, a massive steak there, a huge burrito, a giant breakfast, a gargantuan dessert – the man will take on any challenge.
 
One day, of course, he will die in a provincial eaterie, choking on the heart of a blue whale, as a hundred whooping fans roar their approval, mistaking his pleas for resuscitation as signs of triumph – but until then, it’s all fun.
 
I mention all this because the task I foolishly set myself yesterday in a moment of whimsy and boredom – to read every single item on the front page of Mail Online – is not an original one. It’s Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, but with stories about Khloe Kardashian instead of eggs – and they leave a far worse taste in the mouth. 352 stories, in total, I counted, including a few duplicates. By the time you read this, dozens of them will have changed, overlapped, been edited and rearranged. The world’s No 1 news website (fight back the emotion while you think about that) is an ever-changing, organic beast.
 
I went for the right-hand side of Mail Online first. Forget the in-depth "coverage" of so-called "news" or "columnists" writing about "opinions"; here’s the moneyshot. You can sum up the first few stories like this: Some people have had a baby. Someone went jogging. Someone had a hen party. Someone went to a beach. Someone has changed the colour of her hair. Someone went out to lunch. There was television. There was television. Someone is having a baby. There was television. There was an awards ceremony. A couple have separated. There will be television.
 
It’s not about the stories; it’s about the people in them. (Some of them are wearing bikinis, by the way. Some of them have tits.) The "someone went jogging" tale is about Susanna Reid, of BBC Breakfast fame, who has been jogging and who "barely looked out of breath" according to "bystanders". She’s running the London Marathon, apparently, so it’s important that we see the photos of her in training: Susanna Reid running from the front, the side and from the rear (oh yes, the rear).
 
A clue to why this appeared might be in a recent article about Reid in Mail Online, when a piece interestingly headlined “Yes, women have breasts!” appeared, and almost certainly dragged all kinds of web searches about the presenter, and breasts in general, to the site. A few smudgy screengrabs of Reid’s cleavage probably didn’t hurt, either, the pixellated sfumato effect only adding to the grubbiness of it all.
 
As I went down the column of showbiz/celebrity/bikinis, it was like drowning in a ballpit of tits. You’re barely beyond one story about someone you’ve barely heard of in a bikini before you’re swamped by another. Then there are the hotpants, swimsuits, monokinis, miniskirts and dresses. Hotpants that are so scandalous that you need to look at them seven times to work out if they’re appropriate or not. Tits! Bums! Cleavage! Curves! You might as well play the Benny Hill Show music while you’re reading it.
 
I made it to the end of what I shall hereby refer to as the "tit and tat" column (some call it the "sidebar of shame", others simply "the right wing"). I don’t know how I did it, but I did. I learned things: I learned that “PDA” is ‘public display of affection; I learned that, in contrast to the dead-tree Mail, not a lot of copy appears to be checked as there were errors everywhere; I learned that a lot of celebrities are on Twitter, and if you can’t be bothered simply following them on there, you’ll find out what they’re tweeting anyway; and I learned that hours can pass very quickly when you’re not having a tremendous amount of fun.
 
But this was mere displacement activity, for I knew what lay ahead: the rest of the front page. Heroic Prince Harry, beer goggles, It’s the Olympics, We’re sick of the lot of you, stealth tax, grubby dream for the left, Russian friend of Vanessa Redgrave, TEN-STOREY tree house, FINALLY evicted, plane crash horror, gay sex attack at Prince Harry’s base, diversity targets, I served SamCam a curry, abandoned to the vandals, black suspect taped PC, mein summer camp, revealed, human rights wrangles, Gandhi’s glasses, Billy the orphan badger, helium gas prank, retro fashion, beauty queen, more Tasers... I could go on.
 
I tried to go on, even if I felt like quitting. Like my hero Richman, I knew I would hit the wall sometime. I asked myself: what would the Man in Man vs Food do? He’d wipe his napkin, pat his belly and shovel more forkfuls of meat into his mouth, that’s what he’d do. So that’s what I tried to do. I dived back in to the mass of news, but I found myself struggling against news heartburn. I’d just consumed too much.
 
I tried. I started looking for morsels that would keep me going: a baby aardvark, a big treehouse, the kind of thing the Mail does so very well. But then I got bogged down again with the meat-sweats: OJ is innocent, a woman who swapped her truncheon for a tiara, and so on.
 
But it was an article about the happiness of a baked potato that proved to be my "waffer-thin" mint. I just couldn’t stomach it any longer. My conclusion? That it’s impossible to wade through everything on there. You’re not supposed to, of course; the ever-changing news matrix (I wrote that with a straight face) is there to entice you by throwing as much content at you and seeing how much of it will stick.
 
You have to admire Mail Online, as one might admire a giant omelette, a coffin-sized burrito or a burger that would have trouble fitting in a family car. The sheer scale of the thing is mightily impressive. Is it possible to digest it all at one sitting? No, but that’s not the point. Like any menu, you’re just supposed to pick at the things that entice you the most; by giving you an overwhelming choice it happens to make it more likely you’ll find something you want.
 
Will I be dining there again? Not for a while.
 

Doyennes of the Mail Online, Kim and Khloe Kardashian. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle