Richard Branson features in Billionaire's Paradise. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
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Fully loaded: Meet the Super-Rich shows a world beyond satire

"It's not the vulgarity that makes you want to puke so much as the asininity" in BBC season of wealth.

Meet the Super-Rich
BBC2

To cheer us all up as we plod pluckily on into the new year, the BBC has served up a “super-rich” season (and no, before you pile in with the jokes, it will not feature any of its own senior executives). Roughly speaking, the programmes fall into two camps: investigative/polemical and freak show. Either way the result is the same, the viewer’s appalled fascination shading first into queasiness and then into a kind of futile rage.

It’s not the vulgarity that makes you want to puke so much as the asininity. The super- rich, it seems, really are different from the rest of us, their stupidity extending to the purchase of such fatuous me-treats as £30,000 sessions at the spa and brassieres encrusted with diamonds. Here’s an image for you. On a private Caribbean island, a pink, bald, loaded Brummie slashes the sand again and again with a golf club, every ball flying straight out into the ocean where, being made of fish food, it soon dissolves to nothing. As several novelists have discovered to their detriment just lately, this is a world far beyond satire, the symbolism so powerful and obvious that it requires not the slightest literary gussying-up.

The £30,000 spa treatments came to us courtesy of Jacques Peretti, whose two-part series The Super-Rich and Us (8 and 15 Jan­uary, 9pm) explains why “trickle-down” economics as practised by every British government since Margaret Thatcher’s has not, as promised, made us all richer, and explores the consequences of Britain’s status as “the new Switzerland”. Grim territory. Peretti’s editing – in which he shoved a touching clip from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (Bob and Thelma were gazing amazedly at the house they’d just bought) up against a promotional video for the development One Hyde Park (in essence, a collection not of central London apartments, but of safety deposit boxes for foreign billionaires), reminded me why I now find it impossible to watch Clement and La Frenais’s 1970s sitcom without tearing up. Like a golf ball made of fish food, the old hopes and aspirations have all dissolved. By 2030, the majority of people in Britain will be renters once more.

“We used to call it divine right,” said Nick Hanauer, a Seattle-based entrepreneur who earns £12,000 an hour. “Now we call it trickle-down economics.” Wealth like his own, he pointed out, just doesn’t convert into jobs, or even into high-street sales (though he earns a thousand times more than other people he doesn’t buy a thousand times more stuff). A lone voice among the super-rich, Hanauer would love to pay more tax. You could say that he regards doing so as a matter of life or death, because he fears the pitchforks will be coming for his kind pretty soon. But his government, like our own, won’t allow it. For the time being, the thinking goes, the gates – electronic, 24-hour CCTV, panic buttons – are plenty sturdy enough to keep out the barbarians.

In any case, why not enjoy the party while it lasts? The dissolving golf balls were brought to us by Billionaire’s Paradise: Inside Necker Island (6 January, 9pm), a film about Richard Branson’s home in the British Virgin Islands where, for a few months a year, it’s possible to rent a room – yours from £19,000 a week. This wasn’t a documentary: this was Holiday, with Branson as Cliff Michelmore. Not only does he love to extol the many virtues of his island home; he also, weirdly, makes a point of hanging out with the 30 guests.

“It’s been a long time since my wife wanted to jump on top of me,” he said, thanking two women for sending Mrs Branson back to his bed somewhat tipsy after a night of revels. In this version of “paradise”, fancy-dress parties abound, as do 1970s discos and sushi nights, during one of which the maki rolls were placed on the body of a moonlighting Necker accountant (having soy sauce sucked from her belly button, she told us, made a nice change of pace from the arithmetical rigours of her day job). I’d always thought that Necker would be classy: quiet and discreet. But no. Back on the beach, Patch, the aforementioned loaded Brummie, hacked away with his nine-iron, a giant adult baby sweating factor 15 and 21st-century ennui. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

MONTY FRESCO/DAILY MAIL/REX
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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain