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

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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