(Top photo: the Mail's offices in West London. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images)
The Daily Mail reader used to be a figure of fun. A flag-worshipping, foreigner-hating, Queen-loving bogeyman who was easy to mock because his time had long since passed. The Daily Mail reader was your racist uncle, ranting about migrants over his marmalade – deeply offensive but thankfully soon to perish from a rage-induced cardiac event. They were living fossils lumbering stupidly towards their own inevitable extinction, barely able to breathe the sweet air of freedom without going comically red in the face.
Nobody's laughing now. Daily Mail readers haven't died out. They've taken over. The British government's policies – from Brexit and the deportations of migrant rough sleepers, to the decision to turn away child refugees and "Empire 2.0" – could have been lifted straight from the comments section of Mail Online. Middle England – that semi-mythical place where everyone hates progress and loves the Daily Mail – is spreading out over the land like a plague.
Newspapers only reflect what's in front of them, of course. But there's something squiffy about Mail-eye-view. Britain can pull the most grotesque, blood-curdling faces it can think of, but, like a magic mirror, the Mail tends to offer compliments in return. It's been doing it for a century at least.
When the British rolled out concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War and burned farms and crops to the ground – something that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of unarmed Africans, Boer women and half the entire population of Boer children – the Mail was on hand to put things in context. "Women," it gravely intoned, are "The Enemy". When fascism came to Britain, the Mail famously cried "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!" And its coverage of European affairs has also left much to be desired. Mussolini? "The greatest figure of our age". Hitler? "A great gentleman" and "a man of rare culture".
The paper's more recent flirtations with fascism (a cartoon depicting refugees as rats was a controversial low point) have generated some backlash. The Stop Funding Hate Campaign, for instance, has secured commitments from several major corporations to cut advertising revenue to the Mail and other migrant-bashing newspapers. But generally the Mail is on the rise. It's Britain's second most popular newspaper, with a circulation of around 1.5 million per day, and Mail Online is the most popular news website in the entire world. Clearly, hate sells.
What's life actually like inside one of Britain's most influential – and controversial – newspapers? I spoke to Adrian Addison, a former tabloid journalist and author of a new book, Mail Men: The Unauthorized Story of the Daily Mail – The Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain, to find out.
VICE: Hi Adrian. Why did you decide to write a book about the Mail?
Adrian Addison: I used to be a journalist. I worked on a load of papers, including The Sun. I nearly worked for the Mail a couple of times but went elsewhere – for financial reasons rather than moral ones. For years and years I'd heard these stories about [Daily Mail editor] Paul Dacre: about how he was this mad editor who would fire people and shout at people; how he was stuck in a time warp from the 1930s. He fascinated me as a character. Then, when I went backwards through the Mail's history, there were so many more and it became a much broader story. There always seems to be one key man in the story. Never a woman. It's a very male culture at the Mail.
Did you manage to dig up any dirty secrets from the paper's past?
The Hitler worship stuff is fairly common currency. I didn't know that much about [Daily Mail founder] Lord Northcliffe. He was a strange, strange, strange man. Probably nuts from the beginning. He was a completely unstable character. That's probably what made him a genius, that grain of madness. But what was shocking was that, in the Mail today, you read all these stories about single mums, but the founder was shagging his mum's nursemaid and got her pregnant. That was a bit of a revelation to me. He liked his women, did Northcliffe. But the tone of his paper said women belonged in the kitchen, not the bedroom. But in his private life he was shagging anyone he could get his hands on. That's the root of the Mail: they seem oblivious to their own hypocrisy.
How influential is it really?
I think Alastair Campbell nailed it when he said the press only have power if you believe in its power. The Mail's power is something of a myth. My mother buys the Mail and has read it since the 1970s. The Mail came out in favour of Brexit. But she didn't vote to leave the EU; she voted to stay. And she's never voted Tory in her life.
The Mail is something of a contradiction. It's a patriotic paper that's supported the Nazis; it's been consistently misogynistic, and yet it was the first British newspaper with a section for female readers. Why do people keep coming back to it?
It panders to the prejudices of a certain lower middle class person. It reflects people back at themselves very effectively. It's arguably nasty and misogynistic and homophobic and racist, but a lot of its readers are too. They agree with all this. This liberal idea that everybody's nice and not homophobic or racist is one I share – but unfortunately a lot of people aren't like that. The Mail nails all of that perfectly.
You managed to convince a lot of people at the Mail to talk to you, although almost none of them would let you use their real names. What's it like working there?
It's a brutal, brutal place to work. A few people have said it's like being in a cult. Once you're fully in, it's quite hard to get out of. And you have to believe it, or you have to be able to fake it very well. A lot of the people I've spoken to who would be in a conference would hear these story ideas and they'd just sit there going, 'Fuck me, this is mad.' But they were getting well paid. They managed to detach themselves. One guy said it was like a feudal court. Dacre had constructed this court around himself. There were other, darker stories about people getting ill treated. Never physical violence, but destruction in terms of their wellbeing and confidence. There were a couple of stories the lawyer cut from the book because they were libellous.
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Editor Paul Dacre is noted for his foul-mouthed rants, alleged bullying and obsessional commitment to work. Is there more to him than that?
I personally found it curious, because people who knew him in the 1970s, when he was a reporter, say he was a very mild, kind of posh, tall, clumsy guy. They told me he was a very good interviewer but not a great newshound. Some people I spoke to for the book – I couldn't possibly fit them all in, actually – had a hunch that maybe he initially kind of pushed himself into this mode of über angry editor – and he needed to, really, because this was exactly what a Fleet Street editor was back in the day. Maybe, some surmise, he really is just the very model of the rather reticent, mild-mannered Englishman who adores pottering around his garden more than anything else. And perhaps that is why he has been so successful at reflecting Mail readers back at themselves – because they are similar to him. Who knows. Most people I spoke to – and some of them had known him for many years – don't know either; he didn't open up to them in any kind of personal way, unlike his predecessor, Sir David English, who frequently actually took some of his staff on holiday with him. But, for sure, he's not over-impressed by prime ministers and politicians and the powerful – I was told at one point he even refused to take David Cameron's calls.
The Mail is famously thin-skinned. Aren't you worried they'll be coming for you after this?
It has been a bit of a pain in the arse to promote this book because there was a concern within the publisher that the Mail may over-react. So we didn't send out press copies at the normal time. We wanted it in the shops and only publicised slightly before so they couldn't do anything. There are plenty of books in history that have been scrapped because of an injunction or some sort of legal action. We've carefully gone over the book. There was an awful lot of titillating stuff that I had to remove because it was too dangerous in terms of a libel action. Everything in the book is provable. If the shit hits the fan I can prove every word of it. It's not meant to be an attack. If people had told me what a wonderful man Dacre was then that would be in the book. But that's not what people said.
Mail Online is the most popular news website in the world. How have they managed it?
One former staffer described it as like "hoovering up the internet and vomiting it back out again". To make a free model work they have to go for the numbers. They have to have a huge readership. Hence the sidebar of shame and the complete focus on celebrity. They're very good with their numbers. If they put a story up and it's not getting enough clicks they'll rewrite the headline and mess around with it to get people reading it – turn it into click bait.
So… is this the future of journalism?
That's a fact. What worries me, and should worry them, is the complete lack of subbing. A subeditor should go through every word and care about the grammar and the spelling. Now, it goes virtually straight onto the internet. There was story a few weeks ago about a Russian ship in the North Sea. They called it a Russian shit. That would never have happened on a newspaper.