A gripping and very funny account of the newspaper reveals its brutal brillianceby Michael White / April 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Mail Men: The Unauthorised Story of the Daily Mail, the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain, by Adrian Addison (Atlantic, £20)
In the unlikely event that liberal readers will approach this book with vengeful relish, they will be disappointed. Their hopes for an aggressive dissection of the harm the Daily Mail has repeatedly done to British public life since the stridently right-wing newspaper was born in 1896 will evaporate as the author, Adrian Addison, tells his surprisingly jaunty tale.
Addison is that rare Fleet Street beast who has worked for both Radio 4’s Today show and the Sun. Fortunately, he refrains from the sanctimonious moralising so instinctive to both the Mail and its bête noire, the Guardian. His cheerful, anecdotal approach makes for a narrative that is gripping, terrifying and, in a bleak way, very funny. The portrait of the Mail he paints shows that the newspaper is not as bad as some people say: it is even worse. But he also rightly acknowledges its long periods of brutal editorial brilliance, from the Boer War to Brexit.
One of the Mail’s specialities has been annoying foreigners, and during the First World War it succeeded spectacularly. So enraged were the German high command by the paper’s decade-long bellicose attitudes that in February 1917 it dispatched a destroyer to shell the Kent coast by night.
The warship’s target was Elmwood, the seaside Xanadu of Lord Northcliffe, the Mail’s founding genius who ran his mighty media empire from near Broadstairs and kept crocodiles in his ponds. (Indoors he would remove the panel in his fish tank and watch the pike eat the goldfish. Bonkers or what? Not even Paul Dacre, the current editor, murders pets—at least not so far as we know.) The only casualties of the 10-minute bombardment were the gardener’s wife, “a poor woman and her baby killed,” as the press lord reported the next day, plus two wounded. It was a very Daily Mail outcome.
Northcliffe had just been engaged in a public and ultimately successful struggle to replace Herbert Asquith as prime minister with the more dynamic David Lloyd George. The demented tycoon would later fall out with Lloyd George too—unlike David Cameron, he was a leader not to be trifled with. Harried at the 1919 Versailles peace talks by the Mail’s “Prussia Must Pay” campaign, Lloyd George returned to the Commons to denounce Northcliffe’s “diseased vanity,” and pointedly tapped his forehead. The Mail’s journalists were already muttering, “Something is wrong with the Chief.” The press baron would die in his London home, probably insane, a few weeks before the prime minister was ousted in 1922.
Fast forward a century and it all sounds very Dacre, but with important distinctions. The Mail’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over time. Circulation today is one million below the record 2.5m Dacre achieved in 2003. Like all print outlets, it is facing the challenge of Google and Facebook. Dacre, who turns 69 this year and has been editor for 25 years, once called the internet “bullshit.com.” Nevertheless, MailOnline has overtaken the New York Times as the world’s number one English language newspaper website.
MailOnline does reproduce the newspaper’s articles but publishes much else too, and in other respects is an autonomous editorial entity over which Dacre has no control. The website’s editor Martin Clarke—whose savage swearing makes Dacre sound as inoffensive as Jeremy Corbyn—peddles the kind of celebrity-obsessed trash that the print edition purports to deplore. Fortunately for Dacre’s dicky heart, the editor-in-chief does not use a computer, so he is not only shielded from the website which has so devalued his paper’s brand that Wikipedia no longer treats it as a reliable source, but also from the real world of Britain in 2017, which so plainly diverges from his carefully nurtured fantasy of 1950s Middle England.
Another change from Northcliffe’s time is that the political class of 2017, demoralised by the media’s relentless assaults on their frailties, has not seriously resisted over-mighty press barons for decades. The Mail in particular is more powerful than ever, recently dictating, to take one example, a retreat over business rate reform. We have not seen a repeat of what Lloyd George (“square ‘em or squash ‘em”) occasionally did or even mild Stanley Baldwin. In 1931, Baldwin denounced their “power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages,” at a time when the arrogant demands of the press barons were even more outrageous than Rupert Murdoch’s. Thatcher combined seductive courtship with commercial favours while Tony Blair’s flattery neutralised the press’s spite for a while.
As for Germany, despite Dacre’s leading role in the Brexit campaign, its taxpayers are currently obliged to shower him, not with explosives, but with money. According to Private Eye, his share of European Union farm subsidies is worth £88,000 a year. He owns one estate in Sussex and another in Scotland, which may soon become another of those foreign countries he so dislikes. If so, he can reflect—but probably won’t—that the Mail’s wrecking ball also contributed to the United Kingdom’s collapse.
The paper’s founder Alfred “Sunny” Harmsworth (1865-1922) was the eldest child of a drunken, useless barrister. A near contemporary of William Randolph Hearst, aka Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, he was his equal as a creative-destructive genius of the late 19th-century’s popular “yellow press.”
He launched his folksy Answers in 1888 (the first edition was craftily billed as No 3) and made his first fortune thanks to advice from a tramp. He offered “£1 a week for life” to the reader who correctly guessed the exact coinage in the Bank of England on a given day. Circulation soared. “Turning hypocrisy into a commercial advantage—even a crusade,” as Addison puts it, Sunny attacked the depravity of the “penny dreadfuls” even as he copied them. He also appealed to the untapped market of women readers with the “Women’s Realm” page, the precursor of the successful “Femail” section in the current Mail. Harmsworth would later dismiss women suffragists as “suffragettes,” a label that stuck. Sound familiar? Today’s Mail stresses it is a “compact,” not a vulgar tabloid, and loves setting working women against the stay-at-home mums Dacre prefers. In real life, his wife Kathy Dacre is a professor of drama studies.
Secretive and hypochondriac, charming, arrogant, opinionated, ruthless and randy—but generous with his cigars and willing to toss a coin for the last bed on the sleeper—Sunny launched the Daily Mail on 4th May, 1896. At 1/2p it was half the price of the Times and other “elite” broadsheets, covering the issues ordinary people talked about. Lord Salisbury, who dismissed the new paper as “written by office boys for office boys,” was perhaps the last prime minister to underrate what proved an instant success: a daily dose of Boer War chauvinism enabled it to pass one million sales.
Bursting with ideas, Sunny, who by 1906 had become Lord Northcliffe and the world’s biggest publisher, would have got the point of MailOnline. He was also paranoid and increasingly unstable. Luckily he had in his brother Harold (“Bunny” to the family), a brilliant bean counter. He also acquired a granite-hewn rewrite man in William Kennedy Jones and later a doughty editor in Thomas Marlowe. He eventually bought the Times for the same reason Murdoch would: influence.
Under Marlowe’s editorship, the Mail printed MI6’s forged “Zinoviev Letter” a Reds-under-beds smear which sank the first Labour government in 1924. Typical of a good Mail man, Marlowe always insisted it was genuine and that he was neither complicit nor duped by the spooks. To his dying day, Michael Foot called the Mail “The Forger’s Gazette.”
But whatever the editor was doing, the paper was entering an era of propriertorial drift. Bunny (by now Lord Rothermere) inherited the lot, including the London Evening News and the Daily Mirror. The bean counter and his surviving son, Esmond, 2nd Viscount (1898-1978), a quiet type, let their papers run to seed for 40 years. It left the mid-market open for Lord Beaverbrook. He combined Sunny and Bunny’s talents with a better political brain, and made the Daily Express a 4.5m sales heavyweight. As the Express rose, the elder Rothermere compounded his failures by cringe-making infatuations, first with Mussolini (“20th-century Napoleon”) then with “Adolf the Great,” whom he portrayed as an Oliver Cromwell or Joan of Arc, saving the world from Bolshevism. By the end his own sub-editors had given up writing “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” headlines on their proprietor’s dispatches and settled instead for “Further Postscripts—by Lord Rothermere.” He died in 1940.
“Recently, the Mail bemoaned fat kids on the same page it reproached ‘nanny state’ advice against letting them raid the fridge”
Decline continued until 1971, when “Mere Vere,” the underrated 3rd Rothermere, wisely allowed David English, editor of his downmarket tabloid the Daily Sketch, to take over the flabby broadsheet Mail, giving him millions to invest in talent and full editorial control. Thus today’s Mail was born or, rather, reborn because Northcliffe’s spirit—“good heroes and good hates”—still presides to a striking degree at the ex-Kensington department store where the Mail now resides. Even his wood-panelled lair, “Room One,” has been reconstructed there.
English was a consummate all-round journalist who had come up the hard way from his local Dorset paper; he was lower middle class, upwardly mobile, like the readers but more so. (He ran a chain of launderettes on the side.) Fun-loving, full of enthusiasm for skiing, parties as well as for Thatcher and the future EU, English talked to all his staff, including the messenger boys. He was also a liar, who faked his own age and made up a vivid account of being in Dallas when President Kennedy was shot. Addison’s sources, who become progressively more anonymous as the book proceeds, suggest English was a monster, but fun. There was carrot as well as stick.
Dacre, who took over in 1992, was an even bigger brute. But he dispensed no carrots, no praise, no extravagant largesse, only the doubtful honour of a “double cunting,” (abusing staff with the c-word twice in one sentence) and 18-hour days. A graduate trainee by virtue of nepotism (his dad was a big name at the Express), Dacre was clumsy and socially awkward, teased in the pub, a shy loner who acquired his armour plating to hide inner insecurities. No wonder he became an unlikely friend of Gordon Brown, another outsider who also saw himself as “rescuing” every situation from incompetence. Rothermere and English liked Tony Blair. Dacre hated him.
Reading the testimony of current Mail staff and its broken casualties, it is just possible to feel sorry for this lonely hate figure who exudes driven unhappiness. He wins press awards (another in March) and shows courage. Calling the suspects in Stephen Lawrence’s 1993 killings “Murderers” on the front page might have earned him a gangland hit as well as jail for contempt of court. (It was as disrespectful of due process as his “Enemies of the People” attack on the Article 50 judges in 2016.) Dacre did it because Neville Lawrence, who once replastered his Islington home, rang to protest at the Mail’s treatment of his son. “Neville, I didn’t know it was you,” he said. Staff joked that he had finally had “a near-life experience.”
The Mail does good campaigns: on crooked banks and retail boss Philip Green, on plastic bags and bottles, on ambulance chasing lawyers. It fought the corner of Sergeant Alexander Blackman, who shot dead an injured Afghan fighter.
But it relentlessly hammers the BBC, the NHS, the EU, the Beckhams and the actor Martin Clunes (who charged a “cosmetic” operation against tax), cannabis and climate change—while being distinctly ambiguous about Donald Trump. Recently it bemoaned fat kids on the same page that it reproached “nanny state” advice against letting them raid the fridge. In the second half of last year, the Mail seemed to have installed its dream prime minister in Theresa May. But the happy mood couldn’t last forever. Having forced the Chancellor Philip Hammond to back down over National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, it is slowly turning against May.
It can’t last and nor can Dacre. Vere Harmsworth used to say the editor could voice his prejudices as long as profits stayed high and he didn’t go downmarket. His son, also a pro-European, is reportedly embarrassed by the Mail’s Brexit rampage, and must be taking stock. Chances are MailOnline’s Martin Clarke will replace Dacre or perhaps another tough survivor from the Mail’s “Drone Army.” In that case it will be down to May to call time on government by tabloid. Don’t hold your breath.