Active Liberal Democrats should read the Daily Mail. You need to know where issues that dominate the news have come from. Even more under this Conservative government than under Tony Blair, the Mail sets much of our political tone and agenda; it’s the newspaper from which Conservative constituency executives take their opinions, feeding back to MPs, ministers and No.10.
The BBC’s recent revelation that David Cameron tried to persuade Lord Rothermere that it was time for Paul Dacre to retire, after 25 years as editor, before the EU Referendum, illustrates how successive Prime Ministers attempt to cultivate the Mail while at the same time fearing it. Its populist narrative is skilfully presented. The vicious way in which it attacks those who challenge that narrative persuades its readers that they are on the right side, and that others are responsible for whatever goes wrong.
The Daily Mail narrative on the NHS has fed directly through to government policy. Its campaign against ‘health tourism’, in which the picture of a Nigerian woman who had quadruplets while visiting Britain has appeared multiple times over the past year, has pushed the government into action; there is, after all, a real problem, though the Mail has exaggerated its extent and overall cost. In parallel it has run a campaign against ‘lazy’ GPs who close their surgeries for half a day a week – also leading ministers to respond. The deliberate implication of both of these has been that the NHS’s problems are caused by foreigners and lazy staff, not by lack of resources. Indeed, one of the longest-running campaigns in the Mail has been about the ‘wicked’ denial of new cancer drugs by NICE, ln grounds of cost (David Cameron responded by setting up a special fund to underwrite a limited supply). Tthe Mail thinks more should be spent on these, without explaining to its readers where the extra money might come from.
Hard choices about taxation and public expenditure are swept away by stories about overpaid public servants and ‘waste’. One recurrent theme is to recite the number of health administrators, civil servants, and now head teachers, who are paid more than the Prime Minister. The Mail’s answer to recent stories about under-funding in the NHS was to highlight ‘overpaid’ administrators and agency staff in hospitals and surgeries: sort that out, the reader is given to understand, and there’d be enough money to go around. To reinforce the point across the board, last Thursday’s op-ed from Stephen Glover – one of the Mail’s leading angry old men – called for further tax cuts to move Britain closer to the Singapore and Korean economic models, without waiting for the UK to leave the EU. No such criticism appears of private sector pay. The Mail itself reportedly pays its own editor £3m a year, and several of its columnists earn much more than the prime minister, too.
Attacks on the ‘liberal elite’ are full-throated, and verge on the conspiratorial. Lengthy stories about the Media Standards Trust and the links between its trustees and other circles of influence, during the Mail’s fight against tighter press regulation, grew so convoluted that a senior Conservative minister asked me if I understood what the Mail was trying to say. Peter Mandelson and Ken Clarke are regular targets. Nick Clegg was awarded a full-page attack from Quentin Letts 10 days ago, as part of ‘the moneyed elite’ that has misled Britain. (Dominic Lawson, from a similar prosperous upbringing, is however evidently a voice of the people, regularly writing columns for the Mail.) Another no-holds-barred attack on Gina Miller, who led the judicial review on the government’s handling of Article 50, was followed last week by a two-page spread on the ‘holier than thou hypocrite’ Gary Lineker, who the Mail of course portrays as ‘a sanctimonious member of the liberal elite’; and by a double demolition of Barack Obama and his holiday host Richard Branson, under the headline ‘Picture that tells us why voters chose Brexit…and Trump’.
Populism often takes the form of rich people persuading the poor that the problems they face are caused not be economic injustice or exploitation but by foreigners and a corrupt ‘establishment’. The Daily Mail is the most polished conveyor of this message within the UK: feeding the anxieties of its readers, while reassuring them that the problems they face are not their own responsibility but come from foreigners, immigrants, and conspiratorial elites. It is owned by a hereditary peer, who for many years avoided tax by claiming non-dom status. Its editor owns a substantial estate in Scotland, and a smaller one in Sussex. Its heroes – Farage, Arron Banks, Donald Trump – are rich, far beyond ‘the people’ they claim to speak for. Its commitment to lower taxes and higher spending is illusory. Its reporting is misleading enough for Wikipedia to have ruled it out as a permitted source. But it is skilfully presented, and persuasive. Those of us would reject its narrative need therefore to be familiar with it.
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.