JOHN KAMPFNER: The new Alpha Mail changing British politics
PUBLISHED: 01:00 14 December 2018 | UPDATED: 08:46 14 December 2018
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The Mail’s pivot away from its uncompromising hard Brexit stance is part of a wider project, to reflect conservative values in a changing world. But, without the anger, will it work?
When Tony Blair was seeking to become prime minister, he would despatch his gatekeeper, Anji Hunter, on a special assignment. Hunter had a weekend home close by that of Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail. Her job was to visit him when invited and to have a cup of tea, mop him down, keep him sweet and tell him all would be well in Blair-land. Taming Dacre, and also winning over Rupert Murdoch, were key goals. Both targets were neutralised, enabling New Labour to romp to victory in 1997. Both men eventually turned on Blair, but without that fragile early success, the New Labour project would not have prevailed.
That was the thinking of those times. Only those with relatively long memories can recall the power that the two big newspaper groups wielded, and the fear they induced. The circulations of the Sun and the now defunct News of the World, of the Daily Mail and its sister Sunday paper outperformed all the other titles combined, by a country mile. Their front pages set the agenda for the day that the BBC meekly followed.
Then came online and social media. By the time Blair had gone in the late noughties, the national conversation had begun to fracture. Political opinion became ghettoised. People interacted only with those whose views they agreed with. Opinion became more extreme as the centre hollowed out.
Much has been written (at least within bien pensant media circles), about the importance of the new editorship of the Daily Mail of Geordie Greig. Before examining the extent to which he has changed its editorial line, the question must first be asked: does it matter any more what a single newspaper says or does? The answer, in this instance only, must be ‘yes’. It is as much about the removal of the old as the imposition of the new.
Dacre was more than an editor. He was, or saw himself as, the high priest of an England that abhorred the metropolitan and global elite. He was a social and cultural conservative. For two and a half decades he argued relentlessly that Britain was losing its bearings. He believed Blair and the similarly effete David Cameron were more interested in gay marriage than the interests of down-to-earth, solid men and women of the shires, honest strivers who wanted to get on in life.
He sought unlikely allies. I was one, briefly. In the mid-noughties and before the financial crash, when I was editing the New Statesman, I commissioned a number of pieces about the profligacy of bankers. Dacre’s Mail joined forces with me.
His starting point may have been different – a disdain for these jet-setting, not-really-British financial services whizz kids. Mine was more a classically centre-left critique about inequality, greed and lack of accountability. But we alighted on the same position. Something needed to be done about these irresponsible spivs before it was too late.
These warnings fell on the deaf ears of the Blair administration, which abased itself to the global super rich, in return for a few crumbs from the top table to help fund their pet health, education and welfare projects.
Dacre’s support for Blair in and around 1997, or perhaps better to say his truce, did not last long. And when he turned, boy did he turn. Day after day the Mail ran only knocking copy on the prime minister and most of those around him. He made the odd exception, including Gordon Brown, whom he saw (most of the time) as a well meaning, earthy, son of the manse. It wasn’t that he agreed with him. It’s just that he saw him as less socially objectionable.
It would be over-generous to Dacre to say he was consistent. When he saw it in his interest to change his mind, he would do so, without so much as an explanation, let alone an apology.
He was as much a jingoist ahead of the Iraq War as other editors. It is often forgotten that Blair faced a chorus of ‘go after Saddam’ noises from Fleet Street and from the Conservative opposition. When it all started to go wrong about three months after the invasion, when weapons of mass destruction were not found, Dacre effortlessly launched furious volleys on the prime minister for “lying” and for fighting a pointless war.
What was so striking about Dacre’s Mail was its anger. Page after page it painted a picture of a miserable Britain, in hoc to asylum seekers, assorted foreigners, irresponsible women who went out to work, drunken youths on a Friday night, benefits scroungers. It was curiously addictive. The liberal elite would never dream of buying the paper, but devoured it when it was handed out on airplanes. At lunchtime, the Mail Online (with its emphasis on National Enquirer-style, celeb stories in its right hand column – another inconsistency for Dacre’s puritanism) was the guilty secret of many a ‘nice’ not-for-profit office staff.
Then came Europe and Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on the EU in 2016. Dacre was in his element. He had found a mission.
Even before his greatest victory, Dacre suspected his power was ebbing away. In 2012, the group’s owner, Viscount Rothermere had, to Dacre’s horror, plucked Greig away from the Evening Standard to run the Mail on Sunday. Greig set about turning its line around, taking the extraordinarily brave decision to endorse Remain in the referendum. When that was lost, Greig’s position looked vulnerable. He had taken a reckless punt.
An inveterate networker, Greig sought to persuade Rothermere that, in spite of the result, Britain was changing. The younger generations did not share Dacre’s fury about the state of the nation. Yet clearly the core readership, over-50s like most newspaper readers, shared many of Dacre’s views. Otherwise why would they have voted for Leave?
That is why his appointment was so eye-catching, and why his first three months in charge of the Daily Mail have been so extraordinary. Greig has changed both substance and style. Much of the tone has been drained of venom. Indeed some of the coverage – about awards for top restaurants – seems to be at the opposite extreme, an almost dilettantish optimism, reminiscent of the Tatler of the millennium era or the Evening Standard.
It is on Europe that everyone is currently judged. Greig knows it. Quickly he adjusted the paper’s position to unstinting support for Theresa May and her deal. That was a devastating blow to the Brexiteers, who now turn to the Telegraph as their Bible.
Greig could have aligned himself with the People’s Vote campaign. Spiritually he belongs somewhere between a second referendum and the softest of Brexits. His project change is a gradual one and he is careful not to take too many risks.
While the front pages and main opinion column have captured the most attention, the clue to the revolution at the Mail lies in more obscure sections. Take one of many examples, the letters column on Friday November 30, on page 67 of the paper. “We regret moving back to a nastier UK”, wrote the headline. Written by the Beresfords, a retired couple from West Yorkshire, they talk about how much they enjoyed living for 12 years in Poitou-Charente in south-west France. It reminded them of a Britain of 50 years ago (low crime, young people respectful of their elders, politeness and a good quality of life”. They moved back to the UK three years and were mortified by what they saw as a country in turmoil, including “politicians behaving shamefully at a critical time for the country”. They would, they said, await the outcome of Brexit before deciding whether to return to France.
This letter provides clues to Greig’s project. How to apply the Mail’s traditional conservative values to a more open world? Is everyone who arranges the flowers in the village church as angry as Dacre thinks they are? And even if they are frustrated by the state of the nation, how best to reflect that? As with any business, Greig needs to manage change carefully, bringing in new readers without alienating the old. Commercially the figures, online and offline, are holding up. But these are early days.
More immediately, the Mail will play an important role in the next few weeks, during the denouement of the Brexit battle. Greig has made it abundantly clear that he’ll do everything possible to stop Boris Johnson from getting the Tory crown.
He would do everything possible to stop a Jeremy Corbyn victory if it came to a general election. So far, so predictable: but what about the second referendum? Would that be supported and if it came to pass would he do the unthinkable and back Remain again? Even in the new media environment, that would be a game-changer. In this crazy world, expect the unexpected.