Why is the Daily Mail promoting a site that appears to be little more than an escort agency?

As the Daily Mail celebrates success in their online porn campaign, Michael Marshall explores the PR influence behind their headlines.

Sun, sea and sex: More than 40% of women under 30 admit to having one-night stands on holiday.

This was the important sociological research covered in the Daily Mail on 18 June last year, outlining the effect a summer getaway can have on the female population of our nation.

"The poll, which explored the nation's sexual habits, found that holidaymakers are more likely to have casual sex abroad than when they are at home."

The findings were clear: a woman on holiday is far more likely to sleep with someone she doesn't know than she would be if she were at home. What may not have been apparent to the casual observer, however, is that this research came not from a respected sociological study, but instead formed part of a marketing campaign for a "travel dating website".

"The findings were revealed in a poll for dating website MissTravel.com, which asked its 30,000 female British members ten questions about their sexual habits during their summer holidays."

For the unacquainted, MissTravel.com's "travel dating" model is rather simple: members join as either a "Generous" member, or an "Attractive" member. If you're a wealthy, generous man looking for a "miss" to take on holiday, MissTravel.com will pair you with your ideal travel date – an attractive young woman looking for a free holiday. And while the site does allow for the generous woman and attractive man, it’s little more than tokenistic – as a glance at the site’s homepage will confirm. Even the logo displays a sassy silhouette in tottering heels. The implications are quite apparent.

Given the source of the data, the nature of the findings becomes highly questionable – although a sample of 30,000 is very large (if, indeed, all purported 30,000 female members took part in the survey, which is far from clear), that the sample included only women who had signed up to a site pairing them with strangers for free a holiday makes extrapolation of the results to the wider British population a totally meaningless exercise. It’s fair to say members of MissTravel.com don’t necessarily represent society as a whole.

To anyone well-versed in the nature of PR, the signs in the Daily Mail article were clear - not least in the handy quote from the dating website's founder:

"Commenting on the findings CEO Brandon Wade, said: 'It is clear that women become much more sexually liberated when they are out of their comfort zone

'Once they get into their bikini or travel to an exciting new city our members' thoughts turn to sex."

The message, then, borders on explicit: "if you take a girl away on holiday, you're far more likely to get laid - and we have the perfect site for you". In terms of business model, it's bears a reasonable resemblance to an escort agency. In that respect, it's a perfect fit for CEO Brandon Wade - founder of two other "themed dating" websites: SeekingArrangements.com (describing itself as "The elite sugar daddy dating site for those seeking mutually beneficial relationships", replete with secretive, shushing women and smug, satisfied businessmen), and Whatsyourprice.com (where generous members bid to secure dates with attractive members, in a business model most frequently witnessed at your local livestock auction).

Say what you like about Brandon Wade, but when he finds a formula, he sticks with it. What may be slightly surprising, however, is how willing the Daily Mail were to print promotional material for a site which appears to be little more than an escort agency. The Mail, lest we forget, are the newspaper spearheading the campaign to introduce a nationwide block on pornographic images – a campaign they’ve deemed a success after gaining the attention of David Cameron.

What’s more, the article in June was by no means the only article published in the Mail to promote Wade’s escort services. Take, for example, from 15 November:

“Ten ways to leave your lover: 'I'm not ready for commitment' is the line used most by women when dumping their partner, while men go for 'it's just not working'

... Dating site SeekingArrangement.com asked 1,000 of its male and female members why and how they would dump a partner.

Going against the stereotype of the commitment-phobe male, the most popular line used by women in ending a relationship is: 'I’m not ready for commitment yet.'...

... Interestingly, money – and the earning power of their partner – is far more important to a woman than a man.”

With the implication that there are an abundance of women for whom relationships and commitment matter less than money and fun, it isn’t hard to see why this article was released by Wade’s "Sugar Daddy Dating" site.

In fact, Wade’s PR machine has found an astonishingly fertile home in the Mail Online – including the revelation that Carlisle is the most promiscuous city in Europe (9 October), women officially get old at 28 (17 October), single women in their twenties are pining for the exes (8 October) and that single women routinely sleep with their ex while looking for a new partner (30 October).

In all, between January and November, there were no fewer than 29 stories in the Daily Mail highlighting dating services run by Brandon Wade – an average in excess of one per fortnight. Articles ranged from faux condemnation (“I love to be treated like a princess: Meet the young women seeking sugar daddies online as disturbing trend hits UK” – 22 May), to the bandwagon-jumping (“Fifty Shades Of Grey effect turns British bedrooms red hot as women copy scenes from smash-hit 'mummy porn' book” – 3 July), to the obscure (“It started with a kiss... How use of Xs in texts and emails spark more than HALF of office affairs” – 23 August), to the outright blatant (“'They give me sex, I give them money': Meet the real-life Christian Grey entering into 'mutually beneficial contracts' with students” – 23 November).

Fortunately, at least, even the Daily Mail has limits. In July 2012, seeking to capitalise on an event from the headlines in order to publicise his "dating auction" site WhatsYourPrice.com, Wade released the following press release:

In the event of a tragedy like the Dark Knight Massacre, who would you want by your side on a first date?

According to the results of the survey... men who make between $80,000 to $150,000 per year are more likely to take a bullet for you on a first date.

Thankfully, not even the Daily Mail were willing to run with this article. However, for a newspaper so publicly committed to preserving morality, the Daily Mail would be wise to be more discerning in its choice of bedfellows.

Michael Marshall, Vice President of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, regularly writes and lectures on the role of PR in the tabloid news. He tweets as @MrMMarsh

The website for MissTravel.com.
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder