Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Hate Mail

Labour dislikes the Daily Mail, but ministers still court it. Why, asks Johann Hari

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What is the one topic guaranteed to cause bile to foam from the mouths of New Labour folk? Not memories of Militant Tendency or the Fire Brigades’ Union. The ultimate, definitive enemy of the present government – and of progressives everywhere – is the Daily Mail.

Partly, this is personal. It was the Mail on Sunday that launched the vicious, misogynistic campaign against Cherie Blair, which scarred our political landscape for weeks last December. After trawling into every aspect of Cherie’s life for nearly a decade, the worst sin they could find was that Cherie’s mate went out with a con man, and Cherie let this bloke (who she met once, for all of five minutes) negotiate a deal over some flats which were also offered to several other random members of the public. On this pitiful pretext, they managed to throw the entire national agenda out of kilter, blotting out hugely important government initiatives on domestic violence and transport. Why?

There is a clear parallel with the members of the far right in Washington DC who relentlessly hounded the Clintons throughout their time in the White House. The rightwing establishment never accepted a leader from the centre-left. They always saw the Clintons as illegitimate, crooked and evil because of their support for gay rights, feminist causes like the right to abortion, and humanitarian interventions.

Yet the Clintons remained ahead in the polls. They couldn’t be beaten on the issues, so a faction of the press decided to trumpet minor personal indiscretions – like the (entirely legal and proper) Whitewater land deal and some consensual oral sex – and conflate them into political scandals. The Daily Mail takes exactly the same attitude, and the pathetic Cheriegate exposé was the best they could come up with to dent an otherwise popular government.

The Mail loathes Blair because it clings to an isolated, rightwing agenda that New Labour has crushed in elections. The ideology at the core of the paper is best encapsulated in the writings of its columnist Simon Heffer. He dedicates his weekly dose of hate to rants against ‘degenerates’ – who consist mostly of women, asylum seekers, gay people, non-whites and anyone associated with Europe. He believes Britain would be better off if we ‘adopted the USA’s level of gun ownership and its gun culture’, withdrew from the EU, and ‘imprisoned far more reprobates.’

He has described Ann Widdecombe as ‘well to my left’, and believes that beating disobedient children with objects is a good idea. He even blamed the Dunblane tragedy and the Soham murders on leftwingers, arguing that, ‘these two children were murdered in part by a liberal society that breeds so many people who can do such a thing, who lack the inhibition of human decency.’ He drew a clear line of causation from gay rights to child murder. Of asylum seekers, he said recently that the British public is ‘seeing its way of life destroyed by malevolent outsiders, and is close to having had enough’.

Paul Dacre is at least honest enough to admit that his paper is stained with racism. In an interview last year, he said: ‘The old Daily Mail, I’d be the first to admit, was slightly racist, but we are not now and Stephen Lawrence was the turning point
on that.’ The incident he is referring to, when the Mail named the five men accused of killing the black teenager as murderers and defied them to sue, was in 1997. So Dacre admits that, for five years under his own editorship, the paper was racist. He is right; his only error is to believe that the paper has changed.

The Mail’s daily haranguing of asylum seekers actively promote attacks on some of the most wretched and desperate people on earth. The Mail uses words like ‘invasion’ and ‘swamping’ about asylum – words which are only used in mainland Europe by the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen and
Jörg Haider. This culture has even led to a situation where, across Britain’s playgrounds, the term ‘asylum seeker’ is used as an insult.

And yet, for all the Mail’s smugness about being the voice of ‘common sense’ and Middle England, its Powellite agenda
has been trounced by the electorate. There
is no market any longer for populist racism in Britain, nor for hysterical, isolationist xenophobia. William Hague ran on a preposterous platform virtually scripted by the Mail – a platform that Powell would have smiled on from beyond the grave, and which prompted his widow to rejoin the party – and he was horsewhipped by the British public like no Tory since the Edwardian era. IDS’ closeness to the Mail agenda is one reason why he is still lingering in the polls. Late last year, Alastair Campbell spotted the beleaguered leader of the Tory party chatting to Dacre. He wandered over and said to IDS, ‘It’s lovely to see you talking to your leader.’

It must be admitted that, although its electoral soul mates have been crucified, the Mail does sell well. Paul Dacre sees himself
as fighting ‘a daily general election’, and believes that his sales figures are endorsements of his political stance. Yet this is absurd. The lifestyle features and celebrity serialisations are far more important to his readers than the barking mad editorials,
as his market research surely indicates. The young working mums who make up a substantial slice of the paper’s readers have, for example, no taste for the spiteful hounding of Cherie.,/p>

The ugly Hefferism – and its sour counterparts in Lynda Lee-Potter and Mother Melanie Phillips of the Convent
for the Perpetually Enraged – of the early sections of the paper stops at the shores of Femail, the centre pages. The Mail then turns into the very thing it scorns: a pro-female (albeit anorexic females), new age, fad-obsessed women’s paper sympathetic to working women.

Centre-left journalists have long counselled the government to take far less notice of the Daily Mail and its daily bile. Labour doesn’t need the Mail; it has won two landslides in the face of violent opposition from the rag. The Mail’s sanctimoniousness increasingly rings hollow – it has one of the highest levels of Press Complaints Commission complaints upheld against it of any paper. Its nastiness and hatred of what Britain has become – a largely liberal country, which feels it is legitimate to pay slightly higher taxes for better public services – becomes more obvious by the day.

Any attempt by the government to court the Mail is flawed. One senior minister recently described it as ‘a great campaigning newspaper’. Is campaigning against asylum seekers – who are the most desperate and needy people on these islands – great? For too long, the government has displayed sycophancy of this kind. They get nothing back but hate. Enough. The Mail is the enemy of all progressive thought – and no minister should forget that for a second.

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Johann Hari

writes weekly for the New Statesman

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