The Daily Mail is more than a newspaper, it is a “middlebrow juggernaut that can slay knights and sway prime ministers”. That’s how The New Yorker described it in 2012.
The Mail’s reach is certainly unparalleled. Between the print newspaper and its mammoth online offshoot Mail Online, the title reaches 29 million UK readers a month, according to Press Gazette.
Critics of the Mail have accused it of deliberately stirring up hatred with its rhetoric, which journalist Mehdi Hasan once summed up as “immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting”.
Yet 121 years after the first ever copy rolled off the presses, the Mail has carved out a place at the heart of Britain’s political life – and not always a comfortable one.
A new dawn
In the 1890s, most British newspapers were written for readers who had “sufficient leisure” to wade through lengthy unedited reports, and “sufficient education” to understand them with minimal editorial input, writes Bob Clarke in his book From Grub Street to Fleet Street.
London reporter Alfred Harmsworth and his brother Harold believed millions of busy working people would welcome a publication that followed a new style of journalism emerging in the US – short articles, punchy prose and an editorial lens that put the news in context.
The result was the Daily Mail, which first appeared on shelves on 4 May 1896. Harmsworth’s assessment proved correct – within a few years, the Mail’s circulation had mushroomed to almost one million readers.
Part of that success was down to the paper’s embrace of modernity. “From the beginning, the Mail has helped to set the social and technological agenda of the nation,” former features editor Paul Harris wrote in his history of the paper.
In its first years in print, the Mail broke new journalistic ground, with an emphasis on speed – using then-new technology such as the telegraph to break stories and get them on readers’ tables ahead of their competitors – and accessibility, both in terms of price and writing style.
Hurrah for the blackshirts
The 1930s saw the Mail engage in its most notorious political intervention. Harold Harmsworth, by then Viscount Rothermere, had met and admired both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and encouraged positive depictions of their regimes in the Mail and the Daily Mirror, of which he was a major shareholder.
During the first half of the decade, the newspapers duly ran multiple articles in support of the fascist movement taking over much of Western Europe.
“Both titles also planned a beauty contest aimed at finding Britain’s prettiest woman fascist,” says The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade.
The most notorious of these pro-fascist articles was a 1934 editorial entitled “Hurrah for the blackshirts”, praising Oswald Mosley’s attempts to create a fascist movement in the UK and urging readers to give him “a helping hand”.
Fascism had transformed Italy and Germany into “the best-governed nations in Europe”, the front-page clarion call enthused, and offered the youth of Britain “a vigorous constructive policy in place of the drift and indecision of the old political parties”.
The article closed by giving the postal address of the British Union of Fascists for any readers keen to join the ranks of the blackshirts.
The legacy of that fateful editorial, and others like it, continue to cast a shadow over the Mail and fuel its detractors well into the 21st century.
However, Greenslade argues that the dangers of fascism were not fully appreciated in the UK until the latter half of the 1930s, and that the now-shocking headlines must be viewed “through the prism of widespread support for appeasement”.
The juggernaut rises
After a lull in the 1950s and 1960s, when it struggled to compete with the Daily Express, the Mail’s star began to rise again under the transformative tenure of editor Sir David English, who relaunched the paper as a tabloid and staffed it with Fleet Street’s best talent.
He was also unabashedly partisan. English and Margaret Thatcher were “made for each other”, The Independent wrote upon his death, in 1998, and he threw the weight of the newspaper behind her in her election campaigns.
Downing Street quickly realised the importance of keeping the newly resurgent Mail on side. A recently released tranche of files from Thatcher’s premiership show that the PM’s press secretary cautioned her to “look after the Daily Mail” in the run-up to the 1987 general election.
After 21 years at the helm, English passed the mantle, in 1992, to Paul Dacre – the man who has done more than any previous Mail editor to cement the paper’s status as a political force that even prime ministers ignore at their peril.
“There is no doubting that Dacre believes in, and flaunts, the Mail’s power just as much as the political class fears and cringes before it,” says The Guardian.
Dacre’s greatest political legacy will surely be the Brexit referendum. The Mail had been laying the groundwork for years, filling its pages with stories about “barmy Brussels” regulations and the EU’s sinister scheme to strip Britain of its sovereignty.
In 2003, the Mail called a draft EU constitution a “blueprint for tyranny”, says the Ethical Journalism Network website, while in 2011 it warned that Germany was turning Europe into a “Fourth Reich”.
Many commentators have argued that such reporting was a major influence in the anti-EU sentiment that drove the Leave vote. “Without the systematic press distortion about Europe over the years, I don’t think we would even have had the vote,” former Labour strategist Alastair Campbell wrote last year in an article for GQ.
In fact, “the day after the referendum, the Mail reported that now we would see an end to the ban on bent bananas (a myth)”.
Such was the Mail’s perceived influence in stoking Leave sentiment in the run-up to the vote that it was widely reported that David Cameron had privately lobbied for Dacre’s dismissal.
The Mail’s influence over its readership is rooted in the fact that Dacre – a contradictory figure, preoccupied with morality and family values yet notorious for foul-mouthed newsroom tantrums – is preternaturally in tune with his readership.
“No other editor so deftly balances the mix of subjects and moods that holds readers’ attention: serious and frivolous, celebrities and ordinary people, urban, suburban and rural, some stories provoking anger, others tears,” the New Statesman wrote in 2014.
Or, as one reporter told The New Yorker: “Dacre has this sense for what’s really going to get the average punter wound up.”