A couple of people have commented to me about how I moderately frequently make blog postings based on a Daily Mail story and linking through to their site for the full story (such as this one about Vince Cable calling for an investigation into Keith Vaz) – and querying why attention should be given to what the Daily Mail writes.
Why indeed? Well, my reasons are:
1. The Daily Mail is read (on the 2005 figures I have to hand) by 5.7 million people, making it by some margin the most read daily national newspaper. You can’t be interested in what the media is saying and ignore it.
2. Very large numbers of Liberal Democrat voters read it: around 980,000 Daily Mail readers voted Liberal Democrat in 2005, a number only topped by the 1.1 million Sun readers who voted Liberal Democrat.* In comparison, there were only 250,000 Independent reading Liberal Democrat voters and 400,000 Guardian reading Liberal Democrat voters. So if you’re interested in politics, and in particular from a Liberal Democrat angle, all the more reason not to ignore the Mail.
3. The Daily Mail invests heavily in its journalistic resources. Whatever you may think of how they write-up their stories, the Mail’s journalists frequently break stories due to having the time to do the old-fashioned legwork. Its record in breaking stories about dodgy Labour donations is a classic example: the Mail unearthed the story because it sent journalists door-to-door calling on Labour donors until they found something.
4. And then there’s the question of how the stories are written up… In my view, all manner of stories end up being written up in a distorted manner, but you can usually do a reasonable job of extracting the truth from a Mail political story by:
- Ignore the headline: it often exaggerates so much for effect that it doesn’t really match the story.
- Read the first line to get what the story is about, and then read the story from the end upwards: there is often a defence included in the story towards the end which undermines what goes before. Although I’ve read plenty of Mail stories on political topics which I know about and thought the headline and first-half of the story was distorted, I’ve not (yet) come across one of these where the second-half didn’t provide the explanation as to why the story was wrong.
- Watch out carefully for who is quoted to support the story. The usual structure of the political scandal story is to have a quote from an opposition politician, often calling for an inquiry. There are some, from all parties – such as Vince Cable in the example linked to above – who have a track record of only calling for an inquiry or condemning someone when they have very good grounds to. Then there are others seemingly will happily condemn something based on the merest prod of encouragement from a journalist.
Apply these three tests and you can do pretty well at getting to the truth of a Daily Mail political story. I’ve seen plenty of devastating demolitions of Mail political stories, but those have all been ones where these three tests had warned me already. Of course, one day there’ll be a story that breaks all these rules, and all this leaves aside the question of what stories to chose to run in the first place or stories about immigration…
* These figures are compiled from Kavanagh & Butler’s The British General Election of 2005 using the tables on p.120-1 and p.139. As they are based in part on polling data and also on matching up data from slightly different time periods, don’t place too much weight on them beyond the second significant figure but you can have confidence in the overall picture they paint.