The newspaper that rules Britain
On Thursday, January 19th, the front page of the Daily Mail carried a story about Sir Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. During Goodwin’s tenure, from 2000 to 2008, R.B.S. quadrupled its assets, became the fifth-largest bank in the world, and then failed spectacularly, at a cost to British taxpayers of seventy billion dollars. The Mail illustrated the piece with a large photograph of Goodwin. He was dressed in hunting gear, with a shotgun hanging over the crook of his left elbow. “Reviled: Sir Fred Goodwin,” the caption read. Any further doubt about the Mail’s stance was relieved by the headline: “STRIP FRED ‘THE SHRED’ OF TAINTED KNIGHTHOOD DEMAND MPS.” The exclusive story, the latest in a series of unflattering pieces about Goodwin, revealed that Prime Minister David Cameron was “sympathetic” to the idea that the honor should be revoked. Two weeks later, Goodwin became the only Knight Bachelor in memory to lose his commission without having been censured by a professional body or convicted of a criminal offense. “Fred Goodwin joined the ranks of Robert Mugabe and Nicolae Ceausescu last night when his knighthood was removed by order of the Queen,” the Mail announced.
The Mail is the most powerful newspaper in Great Britain. A middle-market tabloid, with a daily readership of four and a half million, it reaches four times as many people as the Guardian, while being taken more seriously than the one paper that outsells it, the Sun. In January, its Web arm, Mail Online, surpassed that of the New York Times as the most visited newspaper site in the world, drawing fifty-two million unique visitors a month. The Mail’s closest analogue in the American media is perhaps Fox News. In Britain, unlike in the United States, television tends to be a dignified affair, while print is berserk and shouty. The Mail is like Fox in the sense that it speaks to, and for, the married, car-driving, homeowning, conservative-voting suburbanite, but it is unlike Fox in that it is not slavishly approving of any political party. One editor told me, “The paper’s defining ideology is that Britain has gone to the dogs.” Nor is the Mail easy to resist. Last year, its lawyers shut down a proxy site that allowed liberals to browse Mail Online without bumping up its traffic.
The Mail presents itself as the defender of traditional British values, the voice of an overlooked majority whose opinions inconvenience the agendas of metropolitan élites. To its detractors, it is the Hate Mail, goading the worst curtain-twitching instincts of an island nation, or the Daily Fail, fuelling paranoia about everything from immigration to skin conditions. (“WITHIN A DAY OF HIS ECZEMA BEING INFECTED, MARC WAS DEAD,” a recent headline warned.) A Briton’s view of the Mail is a totemic indicator of his sociopolitical orientation, the dinner-party signal for where he stands on a host of other matters. In 2010, a bearded, guitar-strumming band called Dan & Dan had a YouTube hit with “The Daily Mail Song,” which, so far, has been viewed more than 1.3 million times. “Bring back capital punishment for pedophiles / Photo feature on schoolgirl skirt styles / Binge Britain! Single Mums! / Pensioners! Hoodie Scum!” Dan sings. “It’s absolutely true because I read it in the Daily Mail.” The Mail is less a parody of itself than a parody of the parody, its rectitudinousness cancelling out others’ ridicule to render a middlebrow juggernaut that can slay knights and sway Prime Ministers.
In 2000, Tony Blair wrote a memo to his advisers (it later leaked) in which he pinpointed some “touchstone issues” that he wanted to address immediately. They were: the family (“we need two or three eye-catching initiatives that are entirely conventional in terms of their attitude”); asylum (“where we are perceived as soft”); crime; defense; and the case of Tony Martin, a fruit farmer from the Norfolk village of Emneth Hungate, who had been sentenced to life in prison after killing a burglar on his property. Blair feared, he wrote, that he was perceived as being out of touch with “gut British instincts.” That morning, the Mail had run an editorial lambasting him as “the worst offender in the new politics of intolerance,” in which a citizen who expressed unfashionable views was branded as a “xenophobic little Englander.” The paper had enumerated five areas of concern. As it happened, they mirrored almost precisely the quintet, including the fruit farmer, that Blair had suddenly become so eager to deal with.
Fred Goodwin, a married father of two, was an especially tasty mark for the Mail. He had demonstrated personal frailty as well as professional incompetence, by conducting an affair with a colleague as R.B.S. collapsed. In the Mail’s cosmology, men are giants or pygmies, strong or weak. (Women are assessed by other metrics.) Such is the Mail’s censoriousness that British Esquire recently deemed it the nation’s “purse-lipped mother-in-law.” After the affair, Goodwin obtained from the High Court a gag order that forbade the British media from reporting it. This rankled the Mail, which flouted the injunction without technically violating the law. If its competitors lob spitballs at their bugbears, the Mail strafes them with righteousness.
The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, considers it a compliment when critics accuse the paper of moralizing. “The family is the greatest institution on God’s green earth,” he told me recently, sitting on a dotted-swiss sofa in his London office, which is swagged in the camels and burgundys, the brasses and woods, that one would expect of a man who, as a student at the University of Leeds, chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” but now says, “For the life of me, I’m not quite sure why.” According to one editor, Dacre is enamored with New Zealand: “He thinks it’s like Britain from the nineteen-fifties.” This retrograde mind-set has recently been notable in the Mail’s insistence that marriage should be solely between a woman and a man.
The paper, which runs to about a hundred pages a day, is not all gloom. It has an equable rhythm. The serious stuff is supplemented by a beguiling lineup of novelty stories (the girl who eats nothing but chicken nuggets), animal stories (the surfing hippopotamus), personal essays (“I married a skinflint!”), barely disguised press releases (cranberry-cheese-flavored crisps on sale at Tesco), recipes, gossip, crosswords, obituaries, amusing pictures, and heartwarming fluff. The Mail is the place to go if you want to see a house that looks like Hitler, or a tabby with its head encased in a slice of bread. These are, as the former Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen, one of Dacre’s heroes, once wrote, the “human twiddly bits that make for conversations in the pubs.”
The Mail has an oral quality, prompting the exclamations of wonder or disgust that attend what the media critic Roy Greenslade has called “Hey, Doris!” stories. Its quirks include a love of aviation, and the annoying habit of inserting real-estate prices into stories that have nothing to do with them, such as the death in a ski-resort accident of a boy whose parents “live in a £1 million house.” Its columnists range from sensible to unhinged. (One, Liz Jones, recently wrote about stealing her husband’s sperm in an attempt to have a child without his permission, earning her the nickname Jizz Loans.) Some of the paper’s greatest interest arises when Doris hollers back. Harry Simpson, of Northwich, Cheshire, wrote recently:
I’m sick of Melvyn Bragg, Hugh Grant, Joan Bakewell, and Anne Robinson. I’m sick of Vince Cable, the entire Labour Shadow Cabinet, and all the politicians.
I’m sick of squatters and travellers, pop music, the BBC, surveillance cameras, my rotten pension, terrorists, Anglican bishops, and having no money, and I just want to die.
My country, which I loved is ruined. It will never be happy again. It is all self, self, self, moan, moan, moan. I cannot wait to get out and rest in peace.
He had forgotten wind turbines and E.U. bureaucrats.
Last week, the Mail swept the British Press Awards, winning nine, including Newspaper of the Year and Website of the Year. The Mail’s competitive advantage lies in its connection to its readers. “There’s a lot of rubbish talked about what people are interested in,” Dacre told me. “When my executives tell me everyone’s fascinated by a particular subject—say, a pop star or a film—I ask myself, ‘Would my family be interested?’ Eight times out of ten, I instinctively know when the answer is no.”
Dacre is a divining rod for stories, detecting journalistic gold on ground that others have bypassed or hurried over. Simon Kelner, a former editor of the Independent and the chief executive of the Journalism Foundation, said, “What the Mail does so well is to shamelessly borrow from other media. Even if a story has been somewhere else, you’ll find it the next day in the Mail, done bigger, very often done better, with a real sense they have that the people who read the Mail only read the Mail.” A reporter on a rival paper told me, “Dacre has this sense for what’s really going to get the average punter wound up.”
As the British press faces the heat of the phone-hacking scandal, which has most heavily involved Rupert Murdoch’s News International group, the Mail has not withered. The arrests of dozens of journalists, for illegally accessing the voice-mail messages of more than eight hundred victims, led Murdoch, in July, to close the News of the World, and resulted in the resignation of Cameron’s press secretary Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor. Rebekah Brooks, who ran News International for Murdoch, has been arrested twice.
Because the Mail has not been implicated in phone hacking, Dacre, the longest-serving editor on Fleet Street, has emerged as the person best able, and most willing, to articulate an uncowed defense of popular newspapers. (He also holds the executive role of editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, a group that includes the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, Mail Online, and Metro, a free newspaper.) Called to testify at the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press, he was unflinching, bordering on truculent. Recently, his colleagues were amused to see a framed cartoon go up on his office wall. It features a lone figure flying through the window of Lord Justice Leveson’s courtroom. He wears a red-and-blue unitard and carries a banner that reads “Press Freedom.”
Two lawyers below ask, “Is it a bird?” “Is it a plane?”
A third answers, “No, it’s Dacreman!”
In January, Gary Dobson and David Norris, two white men, were convicted in the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black teen-ager who was attacked by a racist gang in 1993. The case had been re-opened largely on the strength of a long-running campaign by the Mail, which, in 1997, took the gamble of putting the men’s photographs on its front page, under the headline “MURDERERS,” and declared, “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.” When the verdict was announced, Dacre, who rarely speaks in public, issued a twelve-minute video speech, saying that it was a “glorious day for British newspapers.” Many of Dacre’s peers found the video to be over the top, but its point was clear: the Mail would not be joining the British press in its collective self-flagellation.
Mail Online, with its parade of celebrities in their bathing suits, gained six million viewers between December and January alone. American traffic was up sixty-two per cent last year. Its home page has become furtively prevalent in Manhattan cubicles. In January, when Mail Online surpassed the Times, a spokeswoman for the latter said, “A quick review of our site versus the Daily Mail should indicate quite clearly that they are not in our competitive set.” The Mail’s contention is that American newspapers have become too effete to prosper. Its ambitions transcend Pulitzers. “They’re not in our competitive set, to be honest,” Martin Clarke, the editor of Mail Online, said when I asked him about the Times. “I did think they were spectacularly sore losers, but I could not care less if we overtake the Times. What matters to me is: Are we bigger than MSN? Are we bigger than Yahoo?”
The first issue of the Daily Mail appeared on May 4, 1896. At a halfpenny per copy, it was designed to attract the newly literate masses, whose education had been insured by the Education Act of 1870—“the £1000 a year men.” Lord Salisbury, the former Prime Minister, sneered that it was written “by office-boys for office-boys,” but the first edition sold 397,215 copies, far exceeding the expectations of its proprietor, Alfred Harmsworth. He wrote, “It is essentially the busy man’s paper.”
Harmsworth, the son of a creative but ineffectual Irish barrister, had decided to become a journalist after leaving school at sixteen. His first success was a light magazine called Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject Under the Sun, which engaged such questions as how long a severed head could remain conscious after a decapitation. As Answers took off, Harmsworth brought in his brother Harold to run the financial side. Answers thrived in part owing to Alfred Harmsworth’s genius for promotion. In 1889, he hit upon a scheme he called A Pound a Week for Life!, which assured a perpetual income to the person who came closest to guessing the amount of gold in the Bank of England. The magazine received 718,218 postcard entries. The winner, a surveyor from Southampton, was able to marry on his prize.
With the launch of the Mail, Harmsworth became a political force. During the Boer War, he used the paper to cheer on the imperialist project of Cecil Rhodes. Soon, the Mail’s circulation had risen above a million, making it the largest in the world. By 1903, Alfred and his brothers Harold and Leicester owned the Mail, the Evening News, the Daily Mirror, and the Daily Record. Harmsworth, who received a baronetcy in 1904 (he joked that he’d gone from “Mr. ’Armsworth to Sir Halfred”) and became Lord Northcliffe in 1905, browbeat public opinion without compunction. “See if I don’t force everybody in the country to eat Standard Bread,” he is said to have boasted, after reading a pamphlet on the dangers of white bread. (It was written by a landowner from Staffordshire named Sir Oswald Mosley.)
By 1914, Northcliffe owned one out of every two papers read in London. Two years later, he helped to bring down Herbert Asquith’s government. The Mail, a bellicose presence during the First World War, became known as “the soldier’s friend.” When Northcliffe died, of a heart condition, in 1922, his brother Harold—by then Lord Rothermere—inherited the paper. As the decade wore on, Rothermere became increasingly reactionary. In 1934, the Mail promoted the ideas of another Mosley—Oswald’s namesake grandson. This time, it was the British Union of Fascists, not bread, as the Mail published a now infamous editorial entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts.” Throughout the thirties, Rothermere, who supported appeasement, maintained a close relationship with Hitler. His papers reflected the admiration that he expressed in an October, 1938, telegram:
PERSONAL MY DEAR FUHRER EVERYONE IN ENGLAND IS PROFOUNDLY MOVED BY THE BLOODLESS SOLUTION OF THE CZECHOSLOVAKIAN PROBLEM STOP PEOPLE NOT SO MUCH CONCERNED WITH TERRITORIAL READJUSTMENT AS WITH DREAD OF ANOTHER WAR WITH ITS ACCOMPANYING BLOODBATH STOP FREDERICK THE GREAT WAS A GREAT POPULAR FIGURE IN ENGLAND MAY NOT ADOLF THE GREAT BECOME AN EQUALLY POPULAR FIGURE STOP I SALUTE YOUR EXCELLENCYS STAR WHICH RISES HIGHER AND HIGHER.
When the Second World War began, the Mail changed its course, writing on September 4, 1939, “We now fight against the blackest tyranny that has ever held men in bondage,” but its credibility was damaged.
The Mail languished until the nineteen-seventies, when Vere Harmsworth, the third Viscount Rothermere, brought in David English as its editor. In 1971, they relaunched the paper as a tabloid. It was younger, brighter, and explicitly targeted toward a female readership. (“Every woman needs her Daily Mail.”) Today, the Daily Mail and General Trust, which owns the Mail, is controlled by the fourth Viscount Rothermere, Jonathan, a graduate of Gordonstoun and Duke. Associated Newspapers made a hundred and eighteen million dollars last year, but the Mail is still very much a family business. (According to “Lords of Fleet Street,” by Richard Bourne, the Mail for many years did not review James Bond novels, because Ian Fleming had an affair with the wife of the second Viscount Rothermere.) In 1992, Rupert Murdoch offered Dacre the editorship of the London Times. He agonized over the offer but turned it down, because of his loyalty to the Rothermeres. He has said, “I am deeply aware of the privilege of working for a company run by a family that believes in letting editors edit.”
Each weekday, Dacre presides over a series of meetings in which his editors pitch stories for the next day’s paper. The meetings take place in his office, in the Mail’s headquarters, at Northcliffe House, in Kensington. Northcliffe House is built around a central atrium, with glass-walled elevators and corporate vegetation—it could be a hotel in Hong Kong—but Dacre’s realm is clad in white wood panelling. He sits at a boat of a desk, in front of a gilt-framed seascape. Editors take their positions on chairs and couches, or stand against the walls, according to their seniority. Men wear suits, ties, and black lace-ups, in imitation of their boss. Women preferably wear skirts. The news editor sits closest to Dacre, a man of both prim and volcanic temperament, at the risk of attracting his fury. “It’s like a ducking stool,” a former Mail editor said. Because Dacre tends to refer to underlings as “cunts,” the daily meetings are known as the Vagina Monologues.
On February 22nd, just after noon, a secretary announced over an intercom that a “pre-pre-conference” was about to begin. Editors scurried into Dacre’s office. He was annoyed that his night staff had not got much coverage of the previous evening’s Brit Awards—the U.K.’s Grammys—into the morning’s paper. “Unacceptable,” he said. Adele had given the middle finger to the audience after the show’s organizers cut off her acceptance speech. Dacre, channelling the average punter, thought it a good subject. “It’s the arrogance of celebrity, isn’t it?” he said.
The debate was smart and fast. The surety with which Dacre and his editors moved gave the meeting the feeling of a tribunal, in which the heroes and the villains of each day’s news cycle would be made to answer for their actions. There can be a certain J. Edgar Hooverishness to the Mail’s surveillance of the scene. Dacre could never stand Tony Blair, in part, the Guardian reported, because he had been horrified to see Cherie Blair breast-feeding in public. In 2007, the socialite Sabrina Guinness sought the aid of the Press Complaints Commission with regard to an article in the Mail that had implied that she was in a relationship with Paul McCartney. The commission’s records state, “The complaint was resolved when the newspaper placed a note on its internal files making clear the complainant’s position that she was not romantically involved with Sir Paul.”
At one point, the editor of Femail, the paper’s section for women, mentioned that she was seeking a piece from Ulrika Jonsson, a British television presenter, on why she’d got so horribly thin. “And what is her explanation?” Dacre intoned, with the lethal diction of a prefect.
One of Dacre’s contributing editors proposed a review of the red-carpet fashion from the Brit Awards, which he approved. “Why don’t we just keep it to the ‘misses,’ ” he said. “They looked awfully tarty to me, but what do I know?” He was especially interested in One Direction, a previously clean-cut post-pubescent group that had celebrated its win for Best British Single by downing numerous bottles of champagne in full view of the cameras.
“We’ve got to do this boy band, don’t we?” he said. “After all, all boy bands come and go. Are we going to have an idiot’s guide to this one?”
No one had any ideas.
“But I repeat,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Is it worth doing this boy group?” (It was.)
Dacre O.K.’d a piece on outlet shopping (“Do it. Don’t rush it,” he said), and another on London Fashion Week (“I think we need a lot of slightly raised-eyebrow analysis”). He wasn’t interested in a new statistic that said that the number of children in the U.K. who smoked had hit a million—too obvious—but he wanted to go big on coverage of the Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin, who had been killed in Syria that morning. He had in mind a great, passionately done piece, he said, that was a mixture of profile, remembrance, and—perhaps remembering Leveson—polemic on how the press gets a bad press.
Jon Steafel, the paper’s executive editor, brought up the story of a gang of men who had allegedly plied five young women with alcohol and raped them. The case, one of a spate of “sex grooming” incidents, was being tried in Liverpool.
“Why is this case more shocking than the others?” Dacre asked.
“Scale. Sheer scale,” Steafel answered.
“Shocking phenomenon,” Dacre said.
Another editor chimed in. “What’s shocking is that a thirteen-year-old got pregnant,” she said. “Grotesque.”
“Let’s get on it, then,” Dacre said.
In 2004, Dacre appeared on “Desert Island Discs,” the BBC Radio program in which “castaways” tell the story of their life through songs. His first selection was “Night Train,” by the Oscar Peterson trio. “This seems to sum up newspapers—repetitive, metallic, coming out every day, remorseless energy,” he said. The song sounded like a Mondrian in Dacre’s rendering. When the show’s host asked how he thought his colleagues would characterize him, he said, “I think they’d say, ‘He’s a hard bastard, but he leads from the front.’ ” The host pressed him about his management style, but he was unapologetic. “Shouting creates energy, energy creates great headlines,” he said.
Dacre was born in London in 1948. His father, Peter, an orphan who had made his way from Yorkshire to Fleet Street, worked as a show-biz editor for the Sunday Express. His mother, Joan, a teacher, bore five sons, of whom Paul was the eldest. The family lived in Arnos Grove, a middle-class area just north of the city. Dacre still thinks of his childhood neighborhood as the spiritual habitat of his archetypal reader: “Its inhabitants were frugal, reticent, utterly self-reliant, and immensely aspirational. They were also suspicious of progressive values, vulgarity of any kind, self-indulgence, pretentiousness, and people who know best.” Friday nights, Dacre would rush to grab the carbon-copy black out of his father’s briefcase. The ticking of a telex machine lulled him to sleep.
“From virtually the moment I was born, I wanted to be an editor,” Dacre told the Society of Editors in 2008. “Not just wanted, if I’m being honest. Hungered. Lusted with a passion that while unfulfilled, would gnaw at my entrails.” He won a scholarship to a private school, where he edited the campus magazine. One of the first issues, an “achingly dull” examination of the preacher Billy Graham, who was touring Britain at the time, “went down like a sodden hot cross bun.” The next month, he sneaked some expletives into the magazine. He realized, he said, that “sensation sells.”
Dacre studied English at Leeds, where he met his wife, Kathleen, a professor of theatre studies. (The couple sent their two sons to Eton. One of them is a businessman and the other is James Dacre, a theatre director who, in 2009, premièred Katori Hall’s Olivier Award-winning play, “The Mountaintop,” in London.) At Leeds, Dacre edited the Union News. He took a paper, he has said, that looked like “the Times on Prozac” and infused it with tabloid excitement in the form of pinups whom he dubbed the “Leeds Lovelies.” Under Dacre’s editorship, the paper supported campus sit-ins. When, on the ground of obscenity, the Yorkshire Post refused to engrave the picture blocks for an investigation of pubs that were putting on strip shows, Dacre accused its editor of censorship. The Union News was named Britain’s collegiate Newspaper of the Year.
Dacre’s first job after graduating was as a reporter in the Manchester office of the Daily Express. When we spoke, he recalled “the thrill of seeing my first story in hot metal.” I asked him what the story had been. “It’s too absurd for words,” he replied, smiling. “It was six pages about a donkey derby in Blackpool.” In 1976, the Express sent Dacre to New York to cover the American elections. “I left an ossified, sclerotic Britain of great state-nationalized, money-losing industries and vast council estates of despair in thrall to corrupt Labour councils, and I went to America, and it was an utter revelation to me,” he once said. Dacre stayed in America for six years, shedding his student politics and becoming a disciple of self-reliance. A photograph from the era shows him sitting in the Baton Rouge airport a seat away from Sid Vicious, looking perplexed. When the picture surfaced, last year, no one could believe that Paul Dacre had ever been in the same room with Sid Vicious.
When I interviewed Dacre, he was courteous, if slightly brittle. When I asked a question, he would close his eyes and rub them, as though they were magic lamps that might conjure answers. “My guiding principle is to produce the best journalism possible every day and to connect with and give voice to as many readers as possible,” he said. “There is a passion in the Mail that isn’t in other papers.”
The Mail pours money into its product, triple-commissioning features and flooding doorsteps with reporters when its competitors are content, or compelled, to rely on wire reports. Its staff journalists are decently paid, but many of them speak of a savage work environment. “I subsisted largely in a state of paranoia and panic for most of my time there,” a former Mail journalist told me. (Others said that recently, with the defection of several Mail editors to the Telegraph, the atmosphere in the newsroom has mellowed somewhat.) “I just got fed up with writing picture captions about celebrities’ saggy knees, and thought they were hypocritical and unfair,” she continued. “I thought, I’m going to hell if I keep writing this.”
Occasionally, Dacre, with Harmsworthian vim, will fixate on a subject. In 2008, it was plastic bags, which he came to loathe after seeing one stuck in a tree while he was driving in the countryside. Mail employees were surprised to see the paper, which had for years dismissed global warming as a scam, taking up an environmental cause, but soon it had launched a campaign to “Banish the Bags.” When Dacre, who has worked fifteen hours a day for forty years, comes storming into the office with an obsession, his colleagues say, jokingly, that he must have had “a near-life experience.”
On January 25th, the model Kate Moss went to some parties in Paris. The next morning’s Mail read, “The Croydon beauty had very obvious crow’s feet and lines beneath her eyes as well as blemished skin from years of smoking and drinking.” Another journalist, interviewing her that day, asked why she thought the Mail was so focussed on her aging.
“I don’t know. ’Cause it’s the Daily Mail ?” Moss replied. “They just get on everyone’s tits, don’t they?”
The Mail takes a skeptical view of celebrities. It covers them, maximally, but often its stories are about their fading looks, their failing marriages, their hypocrisy, their illegitimate children. In 1997, after Princess Diana’s death, the third Viscount Rothermere promised that the paper would no longer use photographs taken by paparazzi—a vow that didn’t last. Recently, the phone-hacking scandal has provided an opportunity for celebrities to exact revenge on the British press. This winter, parts of the Leveson Inquiry were overtaken by a grudge match between the Mail and Hugh Grant.
Grant took the stand on November 21st. In the course of bemoaning the intrusiveness of the press, he brought up a story that had appeared in the Mail on Sunday in February, 2007, about an affair that he was supposedly having with a “plummy-voiced studio executive.” (Grant sued the Mail on Sunday, which admitted that the story was false and paid him damages.) The proceedings continued:
LAWYER: Are you suggesting there that the story must have come from phone hacking?
GRANT: Well, what I say in this paragraph is that the Mail on Sunday ran an article in February, 2007, saying that my relationship with my then girlfriend, Jemima Khan, was on the rocks because of my persistent late-night flirtatious phone calls with a “plummy-voiced studio executive” from Warner Brothers, and it was a bizarre story, completely untrue . . . . But thinking about how they could possibly come up with such a bizarre left-field story, I realized . . . there was a great friend of mine in Los Angeles who runs a production company which is associated with Warner Brothers, and whose assistant is a charming, married, middle-aged lady, English, who, as happens in Hollywood, is the person who rings you. . . . She used to call and she used to leave messages and, because she was a nice English girl in L.A., sometimes when we spoke, we’d have a chat about English stuff, Marmite . . . and she has a voice that could only be described as “plummy.” So I cannot for the life of me think of any conceivable source for this story in the Mail on Sunday except those voice messages on my mobile telephone.
LAWYER: You haven’t alleged that before, have you, in the public domain?
GRANT: No, but when I was preparing this statement and going through all my old trials and tribulations with the press, I looked at that one again and thought, That is weird, and then the penny dropped.
Dacre heard of Grant’s allegations as he was listening to the 4 P.M. news in the back of a town car. Within seconds, he was on the telephone, drafting a rebuttal with his lawyers and deputies. The Mail released a statement that afternoon. It said, in part, “Mr. Grant’s allegations are mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media.”
Grant told the BBC that the Mail had attacked him because, for once, someone had had the temerity to stand up to its bullying. “If you do,” he said, “you will be trashed.”
On February 6th, it was Dacre’s turn to face the inquiry. He carried an ochre briefcase and wore a double-breasted gray suit. He is an imposing man of six feet three, with a ruddy complexion and the thin-lipped glare of a coach. As he hulked into the courtroom, everyone seemed to straighten up. Twitter was less reverent, but no less riveted. “Will Dacre defy his tender years in a vampish red dress?” @ozzfan123 wrote, in the style of the Mail’s celebrity pages.
Dacre spoke quietly, his voice at times shading into, as Simon Carr, of the Independent, later wrote, “the electrifying growl every regular reader would recognise as the authentic voice of the Mail.” During the early two-thousands, Mail reporters, like those on many papers, regularly used private investigators, some of whom resorted to illegal means to obtain personal information such as phone numbers and addresses. In 2006, the Information Commissioner’s Office released a tally of assignments that had been found in the notebooks of the private investigator Steve Whittamore, who was convicted in 2005 of violating Britain’s Data Protection Act. (In one of the instances for which he went to jail, Whittamore did an illegal trace for the Mail on Sunday on the license plate of a scooter that a union leader had been seen riding.) The Mail topped the list, with nine hundred and fifty-two requests by fifty-eight journalists, for jobs such as those, for various papers, which Whittamore noted in his invoices: “Bonking headmaster, Lonely heart, Dirty vicar, Street stars split, Miss World bonks sailor, Dodgy landlord, Judge affair, Royal maid, Witchdoctor, Footballer, TV love child.” But the Mail has insisted that it did not hack phones, and no one has produced proof that it did. “Let me say as clearly and as slowly as I can: I have never placed a story in the Daily Mail as a result of phone hacking that I knew came from phone hacking,” Dacre told Leveson. “Having conducted a major internal enquiry, I’m as confident as I can be that there’s no phone hacking on the Daily Mail.”
During three hours of questioning, Dacre refused to rescind the slur against Grant. “I will withdraw that statement if Mr. Grant withdraws his statements that the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday were involved in phone hacking,” he said. Justice Leveson, angered by the stalemate, called Dacre back for another day of questioning. Again he didn’t budge. Asked at one point about the merits of a (true) report in the Mail that Grant had fathered a “love child,” Dacre parried that Grant had invited such attention by placing himself in the public eye. The paper subsequently carried a box entitled “How Hugh Grant Invaded His Own Privacy (with a little help from his friends).” It was illustrated with a demonic picture of Grant, and featured basically every embarrassing thing that he, or anyone he knows, has ever said.
Robert Jay, the counsel to the Leveson Inquiry, questioned Dacre about a column, by Jan Moir, that had caused outrage by insinuating that the death of the singer Stephen Gateley, of the boy band Boyzone, had had something to do with his being gay. (A coroner found that he had died of natural causes.) “I think the piece—the column could have benefitted from a little judicious subediting,” Dacre said. “But I’d die in a ditch to defend a columnist’s right to have her views, and I can tell this Inquiry there isn’t a homophobic bone in Jan Moir’s body.” But gay people, and others not in traditional relationships, seem lacking in the Mail’s estimation. Dacre once told an interviewer that he didn’t think a newspaper could have an editor who wasn’t married with children, because he “wouldn’t understand the human condition.”
In March, the longtime editor of the Mail on Sunday, Peter Wright, stepped down. His replacement, Geordie Greig, is a Rothermere appointee, rather than a Dacre loyalist, which has led speculators within the British media to suggest that the Rothermeres have had him installed as a potential successor to Dacre, who is sixty-three. Dacre’s bold behavior at the Leveson Inquiry heartened some journalists, but it struck others as impolitic and ill-advised. Kevin Marsh, a former executive editor of the BBC’s college of journalism, faulted Dacre, in a just published book called “The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial,” for a “performance before Leveson that was defiant, disingenuous and in denial.” He continued, “It was a chilling insight into a warped mindset.”
Faced with criticism of the Mail, Dacre presents a sort of market justification, in which he argues that the only way to insure a free press is to have a commercially viable press. If the paper’s contents didn’t appeal to the majority of people, he argues, it wouldn’t be so successful, and if it weren’t so successful it wouldn’t be able to hold powerful institutions to account. I asked him what he makes of the perception that the Mail is intolerant. “The Mail is a much more subtle, much more richly diverse paper than its critics would like to think,” he said. “I have six million readers who love the Mail and go out every day, often in the rain, and pay fifty-five pence for their copy.”
Dacre has said that while the Mail may once have been a racist paper, it is not anymore. To some extent, he is correct—the Mail of today will stand up for people like Stephen Lawrence, as long as they are the Mail’s kind of people. The paper occasionally takes surprising positions—it opposed extraordinary rendition, and wrote, this summer, that for the police to shoot rioters would violate the British forces’ tradition of restraint. But several Mail employees told me that they felt pressure, as one editor put it, to “hit certain buttons and keywords.” Brendan Montague, a former Mail reporter and the director of the Request Initiative, a community-interest company that makes Freedom of Information requests for charities, said, “The censorship is almost entirely self-imposed, and done through a severe form of natural selection. If you write something that’s blatantly prejudicial but not legally racist, you will be rewarded. None of the front-line reporters I worked with were racist, but there’s institutional racism. ”
The Guardian reporter Nick Davies conducted a study for his book “Flat Earth News” (2008), in which he found that sixty-four per cent of black people pictured in the features and news pages of the Mail in a nine-month period were criminals. (Dacre has said that “the book, which began with a presumption of guilt, was itself a pretty sloppy piece of journalism.”) At one of the editorial meetings I attended, Sue Reid, the paper’s investigations editor, said that the Mail should mention that the men involved in the sex-grooming gang were South Asian; otherwise, the paper wouldn’t be able to criticize the BBC, as it has, for failing to note the ethnicity of perpetrators of crimes. At another meeting, Simon Heffer, a columnist, expressed sympathy for the French far-right politician Marine Le Pen. (Private Eye, the British magazine, got wind of my visit and later reported that “the room fell silent” at Heffer’s outburst during the meeting, because “Mail hacks and executives had been ordered not to swear: there were to be no ‘fucks’ and most definitely no ‘cunts.’ As importantly, no one was to say a word that might be interpreted as sexist, racist or homophobic in the lady’s presence.”)
The Mail plays a double game with women, who account for fifty-three per cent of its readership, engaging their interests while denigrating their outfit choices and making much of studies that say their children will suffer if they return to work. “We target anew every morning how we are going to connect with women,” Dacre told me. “Upmarket women, women juggling families with careers, women going through the menopause or divorce or looking after aged parents. Empathizing with women is much of the secret of the Mail’s success.”
Louise Mensch, a Tory M.P., has accused the paper of sexism, for the way it trivializes prominent women. “Shock horror, some actress didn’t put mascara on to go to the gym!” she told me. Recently, the Mail returned the compliment, in a parliamentary sketch, by describing her raised voice as “dental-drill shrill, shrieky enough to curdle a mobile blood bank.” Mensch told me that she “doesn’t sit comfortably” with the Mail’s social illiberalism, but that she and her friends are nevertheless addicted, especially to the Web site. “One of the reasons it’s so egregious is because it’s so readable,” she said. “We’re clicking on ‘Oh my God, one of the WAGs couldn’t put her hair up because she’d freshly painted her nails’ ”—this was a real item on Mail Online—“and then you’re thinking, Why am I reading this? I’m an adult.”
The most egregious story I ever saw in the Mail involved, as the Mail asserted in the headline and in the first sentence, “a hardworking cafe owner” who was “ordered to tear down an extractor fan—because the smell of her frying bacon ‘offends’ Muslims.” (The story’s byline was Daily Mail Reporter.) The café owner was white and blond. If she had to remove the extractor fan because of the sensitivities of Muslims, it was going to cost her money and a lot of work. Except, it turned out, if one read to the bottom, that the café owner’s husband was a Muslim. The person who had complained about the smell was a neighbor named Graham Webb-Lee, who had tried to bolster his petition to the local council by saying that he had “a lot of Muslim friends” who, when they visited, didn’t like bacon smells.
The Mail’s approach to the Internet was initially as wary as its politics. (Dacre still doesn’t have a computer in his office.) “A lot of people say that the Internet is the future for newspapers,” he declared in 1999. “Well, I say to that: bullshit.com.”
Until 2006, the Mail’s Web site was an embarrassment—five articles a day slapped onto a spare background, cut off by a paywall. “When the paper first took over, it wasn’t the world’s best Web site,” Martin Clarke, Mail Online’s editor, said recently. In April, 2006, the paper reconsidered the site. It would be free, with a stand-alone staff. “We took the decision to not integrate Mail Online, because the Daily Mail was a fantastically successful newspaper, and we didn’t want to do anything that was going to compromise that,” Clarke said.
The site evolved on the fly. “We just decided to go hell-for-leather for ratings,” someone who was involved in the launch told me. “Anything relating to climate change, American politics, Muslims—we just chased the numbers very ruthlessly.” Traffic, at home and abroad, began to climb. By the summer of 2007, Mail Online’s traffic had risen a hundred and sixty-two per cent, to make it the U.K.’s second-largest newspaper Web site. The Drudge Report started linking to some of its stories. In 2010, it became the U.K.’s biggest newspaper Web site.
Clarke and his staff built the site by instinct. “I didn’t look at that many Web sites for design ideas,” he told me. Formally, they stuck with what they knew, developing a publishing system that allows them to put together the home page with the glue-pot flexibility of a newspaper, rather than having to slot stories into a template. The home page is hectic, with hundreds of stories competing for the reader’s attention. It is unusually long—literally, like a scroll—as are its headlines. (Both tactics help to bolster its search-engine rankings.) It uses far more pictures, and in larger sizes, than its competitors. “The site breaks all so-called ‘usability rules,’ ” Clarke said. “It’s user-friendly for normal people, not for Internet fanatics.”
Mail Online rarely embeds links to stories. Writers from both the Washington Post and Gawker have recently criticized Mail Online for this practice. Danny Gold, of Gawker, wrote that Mail Online goes “out of their way to fuck over journalists and they reap the benefits by becoming the most highly trafficked newspaper on the Internet.” When I asked Clarke about the charge, he said that the site adhered to fair-use rules, adding, “We never like to follow a story without improving it, with either new facts, graphics, pictures, or video.” He went on, “We are also still catching up on some aspects of our Web-publishing platform, which was originally built just to put a newspaper online rather than run a rolling Internet news service. We will soon be introducing features that will allow us to link easily and prominently to other sites when further recognition of source material is needed.”
Mail Online’s personality is distinct from that of its parent publication, from which it derives only about twenty-five per cent of its content. It emanates tabloid energy, focussing on human-interest stories, fashion, entertainment, popular science, and crime, but it gives somewhat shorter shrift to the right-wing politics that turn people off the Daily Mail. Mail Online’s readers are, as Clarke put it in a 2010 presentation to investors, “a younger, richer version of the people who read our papers.” Most obviously, Mail Online is both more enthusiastic and more irreverent about celebrity than the Mail. When a prominent actress such as Keira Knightley has a movie première, the Mail might cover the red carpet, while Mail Online will home in on her “fake-tan fail.” The demimonde of reality shows is Mail Online’s. “Half of the women on Mail Online, I don’t even know who they are,” Stephen Glover, one of the Mail’s political columnists, told me.
Mail Online brings British cheek to the sort of celebrity journalism that took off in the Hiltonian heyday of the mid-two-thousands. Perhaps its signature innovation is a column of stories on the right-hand side of the page, chronicling the most trivial events, or non-events, of celebrities’ lives. Readers have taken to referring to it as “the sidebar of shame”; Clarke calls it “the right rail of genius.” It is amazing how often one can be lured into viewing a page by the promise of good-looking people on vacation. “Mail Online found the perfect Venn-diagram intersection of being a mainstream news site but also doing the sort of snarky commentary that you find on Perez Hilton or TMZ,” Jo Piazza, the author of “Celebrity, Inc.,” and a former gossip reporter at the Daily News, said. “They’re not drawing with a marker on Jennifer Aniston’s face, but they happily give you enough innuendo to show you exactly where her cellulite is.”
I went to see Clarke, whom the Guardian once described as having “the man-management skills of a galley-master on a Greek trireme,” at Northcliffe House. He has worked in various capacities at the Mail for much of his career. (After a stint at the Daily Mirror, he earned the nickname Mickey Rourke, because his term as news editor lasted only nine and a half weeks.) Like Paul Dacre, he is a feared boss, but Mail Online is Clarke’s show. He is famous for admonishing reporters, “I want every cough and spit!”
His office was mostly bare. He was sitting behind a desk, on top of which were three computer monitors, an Evian bottle, and some loose change. The perimeter of the office was lined with electric-blue sectional couches, upon one of which he instructed me to sit. The setup was awkward: the couch was much lower than the desk, and too far from it for me to be able to hear and speak without straining. I asked if we could move to a round table near the window. Clarke, who has a hawkish look, declined. “O.K., can I bring this chair over and pull it up in front of your desk?” I asked. Clarke watched as I dragged the chair across the office. I started to get a sense of why he has a reputation for being aggressive.
“What’s made Mail Online a success is its heritage,” Clarke said. “Fleet Street newspapers have always had eclectic taste, which makes us perfect for the Internet. The beauty of this is that Britain’s always exported its creative talent—going back to Charles Dickens—but we’ve never really been able to export our actual journalism itself.”
Dacre told me, “At its best, American journalism is unbeatable. But the problem with many of your newspapers is that they became too high-minded, too complacent, and self-regarding. As they became increasingly monopolist, some of them also became—if you’ll forgive the phrase—too up themselves. They forgot that there’s a huge market out there of people who are serious-minded but also want some fun in their reading.”
In 2010, Mail Online opened offices in Los Angeles. Last year, it expanded to New York. The site has a separate home page for the U.S., but the content is surprisingly similar. “Some people get hung up on ‘Are we going to call it a “sidewalk,” or a “pavement”?’ Who cares?” Clarke said. The range of Mail Online’s dramatis personae makes it a portal for a kind of gossip tourism. “When we set up in L.A., in 2010, we started geo-targeting a right rail just for the U.S.,” Clarke recalled. “What we discovered very quickly was that Brits were just as interested in ‘Jersey Shore,’ even though they’d never seen it at that point. We didn’t think anyone in America would be interested in Wayne Rooney, but he was being clicked very heavily.” The one thing that doesn’t translate, Clarke said, is British soaps like “Coronation Street” and “EastEnders.” Occasionally, a moment of postcolonial conflict will flare. One of Mail Online’s most commented stories was a piece deriding Sean Penn’s meddling in the Falkland Islands. “Hey Sean, remember when you held a big party, got the Indians drunk and then kicked them off their lands onto reservations . . . think you call it thanks giving or something,” wrote Eddie, whose comment garnered 10,878 green arrows, Mail Online’s version of “like”s.
The whims of Internet audiences are unpredictable. “Things that you think are absolute dead certs sink without a trace, and things you’ve never heard of are runaway hits,” Clarke said. “You never know. One of our best-read stories yesterday was about a guy who made a portrait of his father with dots.” But Clarke is increasingly a technician, editing according to what he calls “a synthesis of instincts and numbers.” He pays close enough attention to the data so that he has developed a taxonomy of animal stories. “The animals that do best are monkeys, dogs, and cats, in roughly that order,” he told Esquire. I watched him surf Mail Online’s home page, assessing the mix.
“That broke on the wires,” he said, of a story about the former British politician Edwina Currie. There was a piece about a cooking-show contestant who had been accused of reinflating a collapsed chili-and-pineapple soufflé. “I think, to be honest, I saw that in the Daily Express,” Clarke said.
“This one, somebody saw on the telly last night,” he said, of a grotesque but irresistible story about a man who had been left, after a car accident, with half a head.
Mail Online brought in twenty-five million dollars last year, a sixty-five-per-cent increase from the year before, but it is not yet profitable, as the company continues to invest in its expansion. A few competitors suggested to me that Mail Online could be a short-term success story, racking up large numbers of visitors but failing to foster the sort of deep engagement that attracts advertisers. Clarke dismisses the suggestion that the discrepancies in content between Mail Online and the Mail dilute the brand. He said, “You might as well say, Why is the Scottish Daily Mail full of Scottish stories? Mail Online is full of Internet stories because it’s on the Internet!” Recently, Mail Online launched a smartphone app, which two hundred and thirty thousand iPhone and Android users have bought, visiting the site for an average of twenty-five minutes twice a day. “What I’m proudest of about Mail Online is that it insures us as a newspaper against the future,” Clarke said.
As he spoke, his cursor hovered over an image of AnnaLynne McCord, a young actress, pictured in extreme close-up with some pimples on her cheek, around which Mail Online had drawn a big red circle.
I asked how he had decided to run the story.
“Well, we all just looked at the picture and went ‘Yuck,’ ” Clarke said. “Look, she’s an actress in ‘90210,’ and she’s spotty.” ♦