The Daily Mail has its better angels too

Whatever its faults, the paper was responsible for the best, most courageous and most impactful newspaper front page of my lifetime - on Stephen Lawrence.

It was quite a night in Middle England. There was Mehdi Hasan, the charismatic, young populist commentator, formerly of this Staggers parish, and rather fond of a Pilger-esque rant, though usually with a few more jokes thrown in. "Let's have the debate about who hates Britain more. It isn't a dead refugee from Belgium who served in the Royal Navy," he said, before reeling off his charge-sheet against the Daily Mail, to clapping, shouting, nay indeed, whooping from his fans in the Birmingham audience for Question Time.

Mail sketchwriter turned theatre critic Quentin Letts knew he was on a sticky wicket. He had agreed to do the programme before the Mail versus the Milibands row began, so deserves credit for not finding a more attractive alternative engagement in his own sitting room.  "Was it completely out of order?", Letts mused aloud. "Yes", shouted the audience, over his own rather tentative "I'm not completely sure".
 
Clearly, this row has been bad for the Daily Mail and good for Ed Miliband, even before the sister paper invaded a family memorial service. If you can't keep Charles Moore onside when taking on a dead Marxist intellectual, its a good sign you are losing the argument. Boris Johnson also captured the discomfort about the 'hating Britain' charge being levelled at a refugee Briton: "What I actually feel, I've got ancestry that doesn't come from this country and I think people do feel very sensitive, particularly if the patriotism of those relatives is impugned”, he said. So there has been much evidence of non-partisan decency from many voices on the right. The Mail may have got a lot wrong this week, and not for the first time.

But I can’t subscribe in full to the Mehdi Hasan charge sheet, because the Daily Mail has its better angels too. I grew with the Daily Mail. It was the paper of choice of my Irish Catholic mother, whose green Irish political instincts were combined with voting Tory over here.   I can’t pretend to have been its biggest fan. As a teenager, I probably formed many of my views in opposition to the Mail’s worldview.

Whatever its faults, the fact also remains that the Daily Mail was also responsible for the best, most courageous and most impactful newspaper front page of my lifetime.

Stephen Lawrence was six months younger than me. I probably thought about him most days in the late 1990s, not least because I was living on Eltham’s Well Hall Road, just a few yards from the plaque marking where he fell and died, when the inquest reported in 1999.

What is often forgotten now that it took four years for the murder of Stephen Lawrence on that south London street to finally attract the sustained attention of the national media and political classes. It was Paul Dacre who made that happen. If there are probably many unexplained mysteries about Dacre, one of them is how the bête noire of liberal Britain undoubtedly triggered probably the most important public conversation that Britain has yet managed to have about racism and discrimination, about opportunity and fairness.

It was his brilliant campaigning "Murderers" front page which did it, published the morning after the five suspects refused to answer any questions at the inquest, so that the jury unanimously declared that Stephen had been killed by a "completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths".

Few now remember either how risky and contentious that front page was, including with liberals in the legal system and MPs. It was brave, brilliant and unimpeachable; the best example of aggressive tabloid journalism to pursue the public interest that I can remember. It changed what happened, not just for the Lawrence family in securing at least a measure of justice, but for British society as a whole in the way we talked about who we are and who we should want to be. Other authors and newspapers covered the case. Many anti-racist campaigners kept the issue alive. But only the Mail could have done that. And it could do it because it was the Daily Mail.

The Mail’s campaign itself came to symbolise how the Stephen Lawrence case had become a wake-up call for Middle England, and how it began a broader discussion about opportunity, racism and fairness in Britain, which broke out of at least some of the traditional trenchlines, and built an incredibly broad coalition, albeit temporarily, stretching from the anti-racist black left through New Labour to the Daily Mail.

Some enjoy nothing better than an attempt to remain in the usual trenchlines, and import US style culture wars to Britain. The Mail and Mail on Sunday have clearly been up for a fight this week, albeit that it seemed to fire several shots into its own foot. Roy Greenslade objects to those mentioning the paper's dalliance with fascism in the 1930s. Up to a point, because fair play surely demands that the Mail might need to desist from the chutzpah of attacking the Times for its 1930s editorial line too if it wants to let bygones be bygones.

And Alastair Campbell is clearly sincere in his loathing of the Mail, no doubt reciprocated. Yet the ferocity of Campbell's unleashed fury must surely reflect, a little at least, how little interested his own government was in pursuing it. Even when leaving office, Tony Blair could not direct his challenge on media culture at his real target, choosing to take on the Independent instead.

But I am sceptical of the appetite for culture wars in Britain. Much of the evidence suggests that an all-out fight between liberal Guardianista Britain and Daily Mail England would be a rather more phoney war than either tribe might like to admit. Look at British Social Attitudes and the secret story of the last thirty years is one of convergence in attitudes. Britain has become considerably less racist, and more liberal, generation after generation, on gender and homosexuality. 

Yet Britain remains a conservative country too: the monarchy remains precisely as popular as it did then, its role as offering a source of glue valued more, rather than less, in a more diverse society. Even as anxious older voters drive the rise of UKIP, over time, Britain’s long-term shift is towards liberalism, gradually, through the combined effects of age and increased education. But this expanding liberal tribe is not nearly as strident as the 1968ers might have anticipated half a century ago. Their long-term achievement proved not to be the abolition of family values, but rather their extension to gay marriage. There are few things more arid than Britain's liberal tribe having a conversation amongst itself about how ghastly the Daily Mail is.

Much the more important thing for those who celebrate and welcome diversity in Britain would be engage those who feel unsettled by the pace of change about how we are going to make the reality of our shared society work. That might mean engaging with Daily Mail England, rather than appearing to seem contemptuous of its values, though also challenging it when it gets it wrong.  Its coverage of asylum has rarely been balanced (despite its acceptance of our responsibility to protect refugees). The Mail accepted my critique that it was wrong to complain about the children of immigrants being counted as British in immigration statistics, apologising and printing my letter about why that was vital for integration.

The audience's reaction to this week’s row might have been an example of where the country was not where the Mail instinctively might have guessed that it would be. That was true last summer too. The Mail misread the public mood badly with its confused ‘plastic Brits’ campaign, which began trying to question sporting bodies who stretched the rules, and ended up counting up every non-British born athlete – even Mo Farah and Bradley Wiggins – and declaring 61 of Team GB to be un-British. 

The public felt very differently – the vast majority insistent they cheer for every Team GB athlete, without querying their birthplace, with just 13% preferring those GB athletes who were born here. So the Mail dropped the term – and gave away free Mo Farah posters after his gold medal victories.
Any successful conservative knows that, as di Lampedusa put it in The Leopard, they must be ready to change, if they want things to remain the same. When Britain changes, the Daily Mail must, gradually, change too. But don’t forget that it has listened to those better angels before.

 

A flag advertising the Daily Mail outside Northcliffe House in London, where its offices are located. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Commons Confidential: Could Corbyn's El Gato kick Larry out of Downing Street?

The No 10 cat fight.

A rolling revolt is gathering speed, as the suspicion grows that Theresa May called her snap poll to escape potential by-elections, should the Crown Prosecution Service find that her MPs were involved in electoral fraud during the 2015 campaign.

A growing number of Tory MPs are informing HQ that they don’t want a battle bus visit. Driving the rebellion is the hard-boiled Andrew Bridgen, who made his cash by selling prewashed spuds to supermarkets. “I’m going to post party workers on every route into my constituency,” growled the veg baron, who is defending an 11,373 majority in Leicestershire, “with orders not to let any bloody bus on to our patch.” Here’s an opportunity for Tory command to raise a few bob: flog tyre-bursting spike strips to candidates.

Fur would fly in the unlikely event that Jeremy Corbyn moves into No 10. The more optimistic among his entourage fret over whether the moggy El Gato could cohabit with Larry the Downing Street cat. Corbyn muses that El Gato is a socialist, sharing food with a stray that turned up in his north London garden. If Labour wins, I understand that El Gato is the top cat or Larry is out with May. Jezza’s first call wouldn’t be to Donald Trump or Angela Merkel but to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

George Osborne’s £650,000 BlackRock sinecure is jeopardised, I hear, by his London Evening Standard editorship. An impeccable source whispers that the world’s largest investment fund, controlling £4trn of loot, anguishes over possible conflicts of interest. BlackRock hired Osborne to nurture high-net-worth clients, who are suddenly wary of divulging secrets to an ambitious hack. Perhaps the super-rich should relax. He is incapable of recognising a story, even missing Standard deadlines with his resignation as a Tory MP.

The word is that Ukip’s seven-time loser Nigel Farage declined the chance to risk an eighth loss to retain his £800-per-hour LBC radio gig. The Brexit elites’ Don Farageone needs the money – a chauffeur-driven Range Rover with tinted windows won’t be cheap.

Corbyn’s war on dandelions is on hold during the campaign, with green-fingered comrades tending his allotment. Cherie Blair was accused 20 years ago of mentally measuring up curtains for No 10. Corbyn quipped that he is tempted to measure flower borders to plant runner beans. Labour’s No 10 would certainly be no bed of roses.

What will retiring MPs do? Middlesbrough South’s Tom Blenkinsop informed colleagues that he might join the army. My hunch is that at 36, with a Peaky Blinders haircut, the general secretaryship of the Community trade union is more likely.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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