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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

0800 7318496