Daily Mail: Fear of everything
After its latest brush with notoriety, Paul Demarty examines the Daily Mail
The Ralph Miliband farrago is the latest in a long line of instances which serve to remind us just how weird the Daily Mail is.
There is a sequence in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine featuring a silly-season scare story about swarms of killer ‘Africanised’ bees arriving in the United States from foreign quarters, laying waste to native species and terrorising small towns. Predictably, it all came to nothing; but Moore expertly deploys this small national wig-out as a fleeting window into the middle American neurosis.
In the Mail, every day falls in the silly season. The clichés are well rehearsed - the obsessive-compulsive litany of innocuous potential carcinogens and cancer cures, the horror of young sexuality, the interpretation of all economic data in terms of house prices … Daily Mail readers exists in a world where they are constantly under attack, by foreigners, and by ‘enemies within’ - within the country, their home, even their food.
The hum of reactionary and irrational dross is just about ignorable on a day-to-day basis. (How many Mail stories about dole-cheat lesbian gypsies can even the most energetic liberal read before exhaustion trumps outrage?) Every so often, however, it lurches into view. The most recent instance before last concerned Christopher Jefferies, briefly a suspect in the Joanna Yeates murder case and trumpeted by the Mail as obviously guilty. It turned out that their evidence was more or less that, er, some people had described him as a bit eccentric. In the Mail universe, this was enough to paint him as a Norman Bates figure. He ultimately extracted a substantial libel award from the paper.
No such recourse is available to Ralph Miliband, of course. That said, we should perhaps be grateful to his son for making an issue out of Geoffrey Levy’s swivel-eyed attack piece, for it reminds us inevitably of the Mail’s grim history. Perhaps Paul Dacre, the paper’s editor, is merely being cynical in his tawdry red-baiting. Yet that distinctive ideology of the Mail - a libidinally charged fear of everything - has, as is well known, led its proprietors and staff into some very dubious company in the past.
Founded in 1896 by Alfred and Harold Harmsworth - later Lord Northcliffe and Viscount Rothermere - the Mail has, from the start, always been an outlet for vigorous conservatism. It was initially conceived as a paper targeted at women, with a certain middle class populism in its news values. Its fanaticism, even in those early years, led even some Tory grandees to worry at its influence.
The 1920s saw the paper and its proprietors fall out with the Conservative Party, considering Stanley Baldwin entirely too soft (although its publication of the infamous Zinoviev letter helped Baldwin out in 1924). An alliance with Lord Beaverbrook briefly resulted in the formation of the United Empire Party, which sought a tight fiscal union between Britain and the colonies, and to strengthen it as a tariff-protected trade bloc.
It was one of many offshoots of the major parties to be thrown up in the tumult following the 1929 crash. Rothermere, who by then had sole control of the paper, was to become better known for his support of one of the others. The Mail had already supported the rise of Benito Mussolini in Italy in the 1920s, and hailed the Nazi seizure of power as “youth triumphant”, before Rothermere provided the most infamous headline in the history of the British press: “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”
The paper’s support for Oswald Mosley’s sordid crew was, admittedly, short-lived - a fascist riot in Kensington the following year put paid to that. Its support for fascism as such was not. Rothermere, and his chief flunky, George Ward Price, remained friendly to Hitler down to the very outbreak of the war. It was not a matter of support for appeasement or any such thing; for them, as for many others, Hitler and Mussolini represented, precisely, “youth triumphant”: a chance to sweep away the corruption of a dried-out elite with a vigorous, determined authoritarianism.
They were also in accord with Hitler on other matters: the Mail routinely ran stories in this period affrighted by specifically Jewish immigration. Ward Price’s almost forgotten book, I know these dictators, blames Germany’s Jews for their plight, accusing them, in an exact echo of Nazi propaganda, of exploiting currency fluctuations to grow fat at the expense of Germans. (‘German Jews’ were equally, of course, responsible for communism.)
The war, inevitably, changed the Mail’s tune; its two-decade love affair with fascism is now one of the worst-kept dirty secrets in the world. How relevant this episode is to the paper’s current condition is hotly disputed. It can be argued, with complete justification, that the Mail was hardly the only paper to lean in that direction at the time. More broadly, anti-Semitism was simply common sense on the British (and European) right at the beginning of the last century, let alone anti-communism; it is hardly surprising that so many should feel solidarity with Hitler and Mussolini, at least from a safe distance.
And yet … While the Mail has gone from anti-Semitism to ardent pro-Zionism (not that big a leap, perhaps), while its love of Hitler has given way to wall-to-wall Spitfire chauvinism, it rather more frequently reminds us of its 1930s ‘errors’ than, say, the Mirror (which also supported Moseley). In the run-up to the last French presidential elections, the paper ran an op-ed by Richard Waghorne urging those across the Channel to vote for the post-fascist Front National. Now the attack on Ralph Miliband; and many have already pointed out the uncomfortable echoes in this portrait of a foreign Jew arriving on these shores and swearing to make a revolution. A Jewish by-line in the piece cannot mask the similarities to the ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ stereotype, which has served Jew-haters so well, from Wilhelm Marr to the degraded remnants of Stalinism in today’s Russia.
The Mail slips so easily into this territory because the psychology of its output remains unchanged from its fascist period. Its pages spew forth the very essence of petty bourgeois enragé ideology, in so pure a form that any equivalent Marxist diagnosis would immediately be denounced as vulgar and mechanical. The sharp contradictions of this mindset are almost camply obvious; the endless moral panics about ‘sexualisation’ appear on a website adorned with scantily-clad celebrities falling out of their bras, and the vitriolic denunciations of the ‘totalitarian’ mindset of lefts (expressed in hatred for Margaret Thatcher, say, or ‘political correctness’) sit uneasily with denunciations of a Ralph Miliband.
Keeping all these plates spinning is a task that has, for the past two decades, fallen to Paul Dacre. He has brought the Mail to its highest historical point of success - it boasts, terrifyingly, of the most read newspaper website in the world - because he has a conman’s instinct for human frailty, calibrated precisely to the English petty bourgeois. Despite his infamously tyrannical editorial style (morning editorial meetings have been dubbed by hacks the “vagina monologues”, in honour of Dacre’s habit of screaming curses at his underlings), and the apparently endless scandals, Dacre has survived.
How much longer can he last? He hits retirement age next year, and is now on a shorter-term contract than he has been previously; but he also appears to be out of favour with Lady Rothermere, who clearly fancies Geordie Greig, Mail on Sunday editor, as a replacement. A cryptic turf war has developed between the daily and Sunday papers, with each indirectly rubbishing the other’s stories. There is speculation that Greig’s disastrous attempted gatecrash of a Miliband family memorial service was not in aid of attacking the Milibands, but rather another power-play against Dacre. In the end, the MoS ran a piece by avowed ex-Trotskyist Peter Hitchens, which ridiculed the millenarian anti-Marxism of the Mail article.
Whoever comes out on top, it can be expected that the Mail will continue in its present vein. Not only is such gibberish profitable: it is in its very genes. More to the point, it is spreading. ‘Mad’ Melanie Phillips, until recently the best known columnist in its pages, has turned her attention to the United States. It is a fortuitous coincidence indeed for a leftwing writer that the Mail should propel itself into public controversy at the very moment its readers’ American equivalents, the Tea Party Republicans, should paralyse the government of the hegemonic world power.
The implied condemnation of Ed Miliband through the sins of his father is half a step closer to sanity, no more, than the Tea Party obsession with Barack Obama being a foreign Muslim communist. The bourgeoisie needs the support of the petty bourgeoisie, and finds it by appealing to that class’s lowest instincts. Yet these things can always get out of control. It is clear that 30 years of just such an ideological offensive, in Britain and the US (and elsewhere), have resulted in a politically paralysing outcome for the parties of big business. The Republicans are left carrying the can for the brinksmanship of their craziest congressmen. As for the Mail, so consistently a bastion of British Toryism in the last half century, its ideology drives its readers ever more towards the UK Independence Party. The grip of capitalist reality on its support is cracking - but in the worst imaginable way.