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

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood