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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain