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
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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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