Who’s the real cunt?

Andrew O’Hagan

  • BuyMail Men: The Unauthorised Story of the ‘Daily Mail’, the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison
    Atlantic, 407 pp, £20.00, March, ISBN 978 1 78239 970 4

Andrew O’Hagan reads the Daily Mail.

The word cunt was invented by the Norwegians. At first the OED wouldn’t have it in its pages and even today the dictionary describes it as the most taboo word in English. Norsemen said kunta and the Danes said kunte, as did ninth-century Germans, though not, seemingly, in anger or spite. Apparently, the first known use of the word in English was in 1230, when an Oxford street was named Gropecunt Lane. Paul Dacre, that nice man who edits the Daily Mail, has become famous in recent times for ‘double-cunting’: a colleague, usually male, will be ticked off via a thunderous, compound deployment of the Old Frisian. ‘You call that a good cunting headline, you cunt?’ might be a typical start to the afternoon. ‘Dacre would call us a “load of cunts”,’ the former Mail crime reporter Tim Miles told Adrian Addison, ‘or a “shower of cunts”. It was always “cunt this” and “cunt that”. He did like the word cunt.’ And yet, in the natural way of things, over time the editor was to grope for other words. According to one source, ‘he would drop words such as Schadenfreude and hubris into conversations without, apparently, fully understanding their meaning.’ He came to show a weakness for phrases such as bien pensant, sine qua non and au contraire. Every day it seems was a growth day for baby Dacre as he crawled towards full suburban manhood. ‘Imagine the joy of putting together 96 pages from nothing!’ he said on Desert Island Discs, before choosing a Bing Crosby number called ‘That’s What Life Is All About’, written by his father.

And what is life all about, from the perspective of the Daily Mail? Let’s begin by admitting that it’s not, on immediate acquaintance, about basic decency. Fake news wasn’t invented by the Daily Mail – journalism has always been a source of confected nonsense – but today’s version of the old title founded by Sunny Harmsworth is a bubbling quagmire of prejudice posing as news, of opinion dressed as fact, and contempt posing as contempt for that portion of the world’s population that doesn’t live in Cheam. This paper wasn’t invented by Dacre but by David English, variously described as the best editor on Fleet Street and the biggest liar since Herodotus. (English once invented a whole interview with Betty Ford and on another occasion pretended to have been in Dallas the day Kennedy was shot.) By the end of his valiant career, Sir David, who edited the paper for two decades, had won all the awards and accepted all the gongs. ‘David English had a romantic feeling for newspapers amounting to a passion,’ the Independent reported the day after his death. ‘He loved the old smells of lead and ink.’ But what spare love he had, after loving Margaret Thatcher, was kept for a version of Britain in which the natural condition was to be white and born here, in which the unemployed were scroungers and the rich (or some of them) were heroes, where single mothers were letting the side down and ‘political correctness’ was a threat to the life expectancy of your children. Britain became nastier under these ‘legendary’ editors, men who thought it okay to call a South Asian secretary ‘Sooty’.

Americans treat the National Enquirer as if it was a made-up scandal-rag intended for dummies, but the Daily Mail, weirdly, manages to hold its position as a respected newspaper in touch with the main currents of British life. In fact, the paper’s sales are down by one million since 2003 and the MailOnline audience is drawn mainly to the sleazy accounts of celebrity break-ups, wardrobe malfunctions and hidden cellulite that make up its notorious ‘sidebar of shame’. Politicians have to cosy up to survive its will to defame, and all Tories feel they have to take it seriously as a guide to the instincts of ‘Middle England’, even though its own staff feel it to be a virus more than a news outfit, a whole universe of rotten, in which a group of bullies get to miscall the world for money. In my weeks of reading the Mail in the wake of Addison’s book, I found no real humour but many hundreds of sneers, which is what passes for humour in that whispery world of frightened men who don’t know how to talk to women and wish they knew bigger words.

Dacre’s spiritual mentor was John Junor of the Sunday Express, a man who thought that men who drink white wine are ‘poofters’ and believed, according to the paper’s literary editor Graham Lord, ‘that Aids was a fair punishment for buggery’. According to a memoir written by Junor’s daughter, Penny, the great editor and columnist bullied his wife and children while proclaiming the family values that made him such a darling of the right. Fleet Street was once a place of genuine human interest. Today, hatred rules. A culture war is taking place in the minds of these editors, not a battle against the bumptious and the piss-taking or even against a few poofs drinking wine, but against an imagined horde of terrorists aiming to plunge your church into darkness or blow up your Tube carriage tomorrow. It seems that every successful writer on the Mail has a group they hate, or several groups if they’re really successful. It’s a paper where the gardening correspondent could conceivably plant herself on the leader page, so long as she detested enough people, and detested them in a way that made the hatred seem deeply earned. The MailOnline columnist Katie Hopkins is a sloppy writer but a wild hater who has run up at least £474,000 in legal costs and damages over the last two years.

Britain’s right-wing papers used to be funny. They had some amusing writers and they knew the value of a stunt. A quiet news day at the Mail nowadays is taken up with the search for people to punish, or ‘name and shame’, as if that alone could lift the spirits, but it wasn’t always like that. A couple of hacks I know who worked for the Express years ago were determined to get the words ‘moist gusset’ into the paper. They’d put it into their copy and, every time, the sub-editors would catch it at the last minute and take it out. Eventually, on an especially busy day, they invented a Swedish playboy called Moi St Gusset and wrote a piece for the social diary about his late-night frolics in Mayfair. Bingo. The piece went straight in and everyone got ten years of laughter out of it. It’s impossible now to think of that happening on the Mail, with its relentless outrage, its stifling sense of mission, its much diminished interest in human daftness and its poker-faced determination to see everything as a non-laughing matter.

Dacre never leaves the office. A chauffeur picks him up every morning in Knightsbridge and delivers him to the elevator that takes him up to his office off High Street Kensington – he lives on carpets. The Mail’s biggest human story, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, turned out to be one of the very rare instances in which the editor showed fellow-feeling. It wasn’t difficult: the father of the murdered boy was a plasterer who had worked at Dacre’s house. But there was more to it than that: Dacre hates judges (they are unelected, a bit like newspaper editors) and on this occasion, by naming the alleged killers on the paper’s front page, he could show contempt of court in a higher cause. It’s not surprising that in the run-up to Brexit he was keen to show the workings of the law, of legal hearings, process and appeal, as a species of covert operation carried out against the will of the people. Allowed free rein, ignorance of that sort would destroy the country. It turns out, for reasons not easy to explain, that Britain has become a place where a newspaper does best, in commercial terms, when it is stoking the fires of hatred. Show me a hatred and I’ll top it; show me a foreigner and I’ll ban him; show me a need and I’ll cast doubt on it; bring me a sensitive problem and I’ll crush it. The Daily Mail ethos – strident, certain, mono-minded – smacks of the bully’s self-disgust. It is not a joyous newspaper, or a happy one, and Dacre’s worst effect has been to let it seem mired in the things it hates, as if society’s worst excesses were mostly an outgrowth of its own paranoid imagination. As with most warriors for decency, there’s something indecent in its obsessions. Not only indecent, but fictional: the ‘liberalocracy’ that makes Dacre’s skin prickle probably consists of about 250 people, one or two politicians, a few judges, the odd activist, a certain breed of journalist, but he talks about the Guardian as if it was a deformity of conscience advancing like a tidal wave. Dacre enjoys fulminating against the machinations of the liberal elite, when all he means is that Polly Toynbee and Andrew Marr may have had dinner in the same North London restaurant as Jon Snow. He wishes to stir up populist disgust at the idea of a liberal, self-satisfied elite – nice, coming from the back of a chauffeur-driven car or from the gold-plated elevator at Trump Tower – but slamming the needy is both a middle-class and a working-class pastime now, and not only in Britain, so the Mail’s brutality can look to a few million people like a brand of common sense.

You might meet such an editor as Dacre in Trollope, men who go very low in their defence of principles that only pretend to be high. Like Mr Booker, the bald editor who holds his own in The Way We Live Now, ‘he had fallen into a routine of work in which it was very difficult to be scrupulous, and almost impossible to maintain the delicacies of a literary conscience.’ Mr Ferdinand Alf in the same novel knows England as only an Englishman can know it, and edits the Evening Pulpit. ‘This was effected,’ Trollope writes, ‘with an air of wonderful omniscience, and not unfrequently with an ignorance hardly surpassed by its arrogance … The facts, if not true, were well invented; the arguments, if not logical, were seductive.’ Dacre is a Victorian editor in several ways, not least in his exhibiting a conscience that is alive to nothing so much as his readers’ most vital prejudices. Addison’s book is lively and somewhat complicit, perhaps secretly impressed in the manner of many popular concordances of Fleet Street vice, but he ably captures the dark mania that appears to keep Dacre going. His paper is having a good, horrible year, but people overestimate the Mail’s influence: it sells less than a third of what the Express did at its height, and more than a decade of railing against Tony Blair had no effect on his electoral record. Yet there isn’t another newspaper editor in Britain who reads every word of his own paper. He is described in this book, mainly by present and former colleagues, as ‘a loner’, ‘awkward and clumsy’, ‘a comical character’, ‘sycophantic and revolting’, ‘uptight’, ‘insensitive’, ‘a strange bastard’, ‘rather absurd’, ‘prudish’, ‘insecure’ and ‘slightly scared’. The book can’t quite approach (perhaps nothing can) the question of where such a capacity for vileness comes from. In rare interviews, Dacre simply doesn’t see the creepiness in his pursuit of the weak. He appears to think he’s doing something for women by employing vitriolic columnists like Jan Moir and Amanda Platell to speak on their behalf, and ‘raising the question’ of whether mothers should work, i.e. characterising those who do as scheming, ambitious bitches and bad parents. He might read every word of it but he doesn’t look at his paper, because if he did he would see it is a deep opponent of the values it pretends to espouse. Pretending to love family, it offers daily titillation and sleaze. Pretending to stick up for Britain, it caricatures 80 per cent of the country’s citizens, those lazy, disloyal, terroristic paedophiles who want everything for nothing and probably read the Guardian.

Dacre’s paper is like the drunken lout at a party who can’t get anyone to like him. Suddenly all the girls are sluts and all the men are poofs and he’s swinging at the chandelier before being huckled outside to vomit on the lawn. The Mail desecrates the holy places where it likes to stake its claim, and would be a laughable rag, really, were it not for our degraded political culture taking it seriously. Look at the paper itself and you see it is not the real voice of England, but a dark distortion of it, a post-truth version that shouts about decency but doesn’t exhibit any, that praises aspiration but only certain sorts. Every day in Dacre’s paper, the people who make up the population of Britain, the people who teach your children and bandage your wounds, drive your trains or clean your floors, are described as aliens and forgers and scum. The Mail fought for justice for one black man, and long may the editor plume on it: the paper he presides over is in no hurry to gain justice for any others. Quite the opposite: the Mail in its present form pictures Britain as a place populated by delinquents and bomb-makers, sexual deviants, spongers, social workers and gay bishops, a dark and fruity manifestation of the editor’s daily fears.

*

The Daily Mail is a splenetic parish scandal-sheet next to CNN, MSNBC and the BBC, and it has recently started a defensive campaign to steal more ground from them. As usual, it makes its own evidence. I have a pile of Daily Mails beside me as I write and I just opened Wednesday, 26 April at a random spread. There are six stories across pages four and five. The main story is about a man who murdered his 11-month-old daughter live on Facebook, which turns into an attack on the social media website for failing to remove such content quickly enough. The Tory MP Nigel Huddleston is quoted as saying that most people have the ‘self-discipline and respect never to watch such content’; Facebook, he adds, ‘should act much more quickly’. Adjacent to this story is one about the wrongness of Twitter in not allowing the police and MI5 access to the data it holds – ‘Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat last night branded Twitter “a disgrace”’. On the facing page, there is a story about Nestlé reminiscent of the story about Cadbury the LRB carried a few weeks ago: Nestlé has ‘cut almost 300 UK jobs’ and moved the production of the Blue Riband chocolate bar to Poland. The paper’s Brussels correspondent reports an ‘EU plot to squeeze UK for bigger Brexit bill’. Beside this, under a photograph of the hacker Lauri Love standing with his worried mother and his vicar father, is the news that Love can appeal against a ruling that he be extradited to the US on hacking charges. Love has Asperger syndrome and the paper has been fighting against his being ‘singled out’. The final story on those two pages criticises Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales for wanting to set up a media service that will oppose ‘fake news’. The Mail questions Wikipedia’s own factual blunders, and points out that Wales ‘sits on the board of the left-wing Guardian newspaper’. The story concludes with a quote from the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen. ‘How can Jimmy Wales preach on about fake news?’ he asks. ‘There is a real risk that it will just attract the same niche-interest cranks who edit the website.’

Three Tory experts on two pages? Not bad for a publication that swears against niche-interest cranks. Elsewhere in the Mail in the last few weeks, we’ve seen reckless chancer Theresa May reincarnated as Margaret Thatcher on strict auto-matron. Yet May is little more than the nodding dog in the rear window of the getaway car. She will later claim not to have known Brexit was happening, but she has become its mindless symbol of ‘acceptance’, taking the ‘people’s’ part – disallowing 48 per cent – and breaking Britain from itself and its partners in order to meet a right-wing fantasy of home. The previous Lord Rothermere used to worry that Dacre would like the UK to be towed into the middle of the Atlantic, the better to get him away from those fancy Europeans with their weird rules and their hard-to-pronounce words, and now we see how right he was. The Mail has made a job of scaring Britain into isolation and scoring a hollow victory for ugly thinking. It was always there, that kind of thinking, but it has been revived out of all reason by a man in need of much simplicity.

Asylum seeker let himself be tortured with heated iron bars to stay in UK.

One out of every five killers is an immigrant.

May: My faith helped me through pain of not having children.

Crush the Saboteurs.

That’s right, the saboteurs. French for cunts who do damage to your property. We’re just not having it. No way. Au contraire.