None deadlier than the Mail

Labour leaders have always feared Britain's most successful newspaper. But, argues Nick Davies in an extract from his new book, they also completely misunderstand its mission.

The Daily Mail is the most successful and powerful newspaper in Britain. Every year for the past 15 years, it has turned in a substantial profit - no other mid-market or quality newspaper in Britain has anything like that track record. This financial strength has allowed it to protect its journalists from the kinds of cuts that have done such damage elsewhere, leaving the Mail as argu ably the most potent news-gathering ma chine in Britain.

That commercial success is linked to its outstanding political influence. It is because it has these resources that the Mail, more than any other paper, is in a position to break big stories that will be picked up and run by the rest of Fleet Street, often recycling the Mail's angle as well as its choice of subject. The government pays attention to the Mail.

I've had the chastening experience of publishing long stories on public policy, only to be told by senior civil servants: "Very interesting, but it won't make the slightest difference. Now, if you were on the Mail . . ." As prime minister, Tony Blair was exposed to some jeering in July 2000, by the leaking of an internal memo in which he had listed "touchstone issues" on which he felt an urgent need to connect with the "gut British instincts" of voters. The volume of the jeering rose sharply when it became clear that his perception of British instincts was an uncanny echo of a leader column that had been published by the Daily Mail shortly before he wrote his memo. Politicians work hard socially as well as politically to make the Mail their friend. Gordon Brown caught the tone in a videoed message for Paul Dacre's tenth anniversary as editor: "Paul Dacre has devised and delivered one of the great newspaper success stories. He also shows great personal warmth and kindness as well as great journalistic skill."

A lot of people misunderstand the Mail. They see it as a right-wing rag driven by an addiction to the Conservative Party and to the defence of the rich and powerful. That is not where the drive comes from at all. When he was interviewed about his job by the House of Commons public administration committee in March 2004, Paul Dacre said: "My job is to edit my newspaper, to have a relationship with my readers, to reflect my readers' views and to defend their interest." This is a particular view of an editor's role, not necessarily the one which would be identified by all other editors, but it perfectly describes the moral engine that drives the Daily Mail.

Look, for example, at the paper's coverage of immigration. I used a media database to pull up a small, random sample of stories from the Daily Mail that mentioned the word "asylum-seeker" or "migrant"; and, where they were based on accessible source material, I went back to that material and checked their accuracy.

In July 2003, the Mail ran a story which informed its readers that "asylum-seekers infected with the Aids virus are putting public health at risk, MPs will warn today. A growing number of asylum-seekers and migrants to the UK are infected with Aids or the HIV virus, says a parliamentary report." I went back to the parliamentary report on which this story was based, to check what it said. The report, by the all-party parliamentary group on Aids, turned out to be a detailed argument that precisely contradicted the Mail line. The MPs noted that, among the heterosexual population, 90 per cent of new cases of Aids had been contracted in sub-Saharan Africa. But it went out of its way to explain that this was not a problem caused by asylum-seekers. Those who were infected came from countries that tended not to produce asylum applications (South Africa, Uganda, Zambia); those who had applied for asylum tended to come from countries with very low HIV rates (Iraq, Afghanistan). Zimbabwe was the one exception, with high asylum and high HIV. Africans in the UK with Aids were just as likely to be students, tourists and workers on work permits, the MPs said.

 

"Immigration capital"

 

The report did highlight a threat to public health - but not from asylum-seekers, as the Mail claimed. The threat, according to the MPs, came from the policies that had been introduced by the government to placate right-wing newspapers. The system for dispersing asylum-seekers meant that if any of them were suffering from Aids, they were likely to be sent to places with inadequate health care; and the cuts in their benefits and access to the NHS were likely to make their health even worse. They identified the source of the problem as media reports that created "a self-perpetuating cycle whereby, as the public's perception of the extent of the problem increases, so policymakers respond with increasingly punitive policies". Which did not stop the Mail from using the MPs' report to perpetuate the cycle still further.

A month later, the Mail was behaving in a similar way with a story about a report from the Economist on the impact on London of an influx of foreign workers. The Economist report was almost entirely good news: the influx had given London the highest growth rate in the country; 67 per cent of these foreign workers were from high-income countries; many of them were better educated than most Londoners; they were particularly diligent workers; and, by pushing up the price of houses, they had allowed a mass of Londoners to fufil their dream of selling up and moving to the countryside which, in turn, had boosted the economy of rural towns. But in the hands of the Mail, this became bad news about the usual enemy.

The Mail opened its story with two assertions: "London has become the immigration capital of the world, according to a report. More foreigners are now settling in London than even New York or Los Angeles." Nothing like that appeared in the Economist report. The story went on to insert a killer paragraph, which was also pure Daily Mail, based on nothing at all from the Economist: "Hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants, as well as failed asylum-seekers, have set up home in the capital in the past ten years." The Mail then cemented the distortion by including the Economist's reference to small "villages" of Poles, Algerians, Moroccans, Kosovars and Albanians - but chucking out the Economist's specific reference to the real origin of many of these workers, that "the Europeans and Americans are all over central London".

Having changed the subject of the story, the Mail then changed the angle, omitting almost all the good news running through the Economist report and selecting those few sentences which recorded the disadvantages of this influx: the pressure on public services, and the problems of first-time buyers who were being priced out of the housing market. The good news in the Economist that Londoners could now afford to move out and live the rural dream was stood on its head by the Mail claiming that these foreigners were "forcing many Londoners to flee the capital as property prices soar". The Economist report ended on an upbeat note: "The government understands how migration has driven London's economy, and London has driven Britain's."

The Mail story ended by quoting the head of MigrationWatch UK, Sir Andrew Green, that these were very serious developments: "We are aggravating congestion and weakening the cohesion of our society." Nothing excuses this kind of journalism. And, in the absence of effective regulation from the Press Complaints Commission, nothing stops the Mail from indulging in it.

When the paper wrote about old people's homes that were closing to become hostels for asylum-seekers, the reality was that the law required a higher standard of housing for old people, and the local councils were refusing to fund refurbishment; asylum-seekers, however, could legally still be housed in substandard accom modation. In the hands of the Mail, this became two stories, headlined: "What Kind of Country Do We Live in When Frail Old Ladies are Turned Out of their Homes to Make Way for Fit Young Asylum-Seekers?" and "Widows Ordered Out, Then Asylum-Seekers Move In".

At one point, the Association of Chief Police Officers became so concerned about this kind of journalism, that it published a report, warning that "ill-informed adverse media coverage" was heightening tensions and increasing resentment of asylum-seekers. It warned: "Racist expressions towards asylum-seekers appear to have become common currency and 'acceptable' in a way that would never be tolerated towards any other minority group." Ultimately, this was producing the risk of "significant public disorder", the chief police officers warned. The Mail ran a story about this, which picked up on the risk of "sig nificant public disorder", but simply chucked out any mention of the media role in provoking it. Instead, it highlighted a minor theme in the report about conflict within refu gee communities; cited a case in Kent where two Kosovars had been accused of murdering "a man thought to be an asylum-seeker"; and inserted the idea that a curfew could be imposed on asylum-seekers to stop them provoking local disorder.

A specialist writer with many years at the paper told me: "You become so inculcated with all of the doctrine that you know instantly what you are supposed to write. You forget the extent to which you are blinkered. It is hard to put your finger on it. You probably do get chemically changed by the experience." One former news reporter said: "On 60-70 per cent of stories, you are not aware of it; but, on touchstone issues, you knew that the headline had been written before the story came in and your job was to make the facts fit."

The Mail's quest to reflect the moral and political values of its lower-middle-class readers frequently goes beyond mere reporting, taking on the shape of a punitive campaign against anybody who says or does anything that challenges those values.

Lady Brittan, wife of the former Conservative home secretary Leon Brittan, found herself a target when, in August 2002, as chair of the National Lottery's Community Fund, she approved a grant for the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns. The Mail, high on its anti-immigration horse, denounced her as "queen of the loony lotto grants" and "a quango queen"; her husband as a "fat cat"; her colleagues on the Lottery board as "sanctimonious politically correct twits", "unelected quangocrats" and "politically correct do-gooders"; their decision as "offensive beyond belief ", "a disgrace", "bizarre", "outrageous" and "scandalous".

Four times in ten days, the paper encouraged its readers to "vent their justified anger" by writing to Lady Brittan; and each time, it published her address at the Community Fund's office. She then received a torrent of what she described as "hate mail".

 

"Commander Crackpot"

 

As commander of police in Brixton, south London, Brian Paddick found two bullseyes on his forehead: he is gay and he took a liberal line on the policing of cannabis. In March 2002, the Mail's sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, paid £100,000 to his former lover for a story which claimed Paddick had allowed him to smoke can nabis in their flat and that Paddick had smoked joints with him more than a hundred times.

The Daily Mail picked this up and used it as a stick to beat Paddick, calling him "the camp commander", "Commander Crackpot" and "an icon for our moral decadence", running a series of stories that attacked his policy on drugs, repeatedly referring to his homosexuality and suggesting this would allow him to escape unpunished. "I suppose we must be thankful he's not a black homosexual, in which case he'd have been meta phorically bulletproof," a Mail columnist wrote.

A legal action for breach of confidence ended in December 2003 with the Mail on Sunday confessing that the allegation that Commander Paddick had smoked cannabis was simply false; the paper paid more than £350,000 in costs and damages.

This is an abridged extract from "Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media", published by Chatto & Windus (£17.99) on 7 February