2 Oct 2013

The mythical power of the Daily Mail

As the Daily Mail refuses to apologise to Ed Miliband for claiming his father “hated Britain”, Channel 4 News looks at how powerful the paper really is.

The Labour leader said he was “appalled” by the Mail’s claim that his late father, a Marxist academic, left an “evil legacy”.

Labour said it had received more than 10,000 complaints about the article and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) put its tally at 384 on Wednesday.

Former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell called the paper’s editor Paul Dacre – chairman of the PCC editor’s code of practice committee – a “bully and a coward” for going to ground during the row, and leaving his deputy to answer critics.

Probably the most influential paper at Westminster Professor Ivor Gaber

In his article published on the 27 September, journalist Geoffrey Levy queried if the beliefs of the late Mr Miliband had influenced his son.

Some politicians, including David Cameron and Nick Clegg, have been quick to back the Labour leader.

But as others gave the debate a wide berth, BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis described the paper as a “formidable opponent”.

Myths and realities

Professor Ivor Gaber, director of political journalism at City University, told Channel 4 News: “The importance of the Daily Mail – apart from its numbers – is the fact that opinion formers believe the Mail has a fantastic finger on the pulse of middle Britain.”

Professor Gaber believes that because people think it’s important, it is. It stirs up national debates and sets the agenda because journalists and politicians believe in the myth of its power.

The Sun has a similar “mist” surrounding its claim to reach the working class man, Prof Gaber said.

Journalists will make a “bee-line” for the Mail because they believe it has the nation’s pulse on important issues.

This much we do know: the Daily Mail reaches more than 20m people a month through its newspaper and website. That’s almost a third of the population.

According to the National Readership Survey, it overtook The Sun as the UK’s most-read newspaper brand for the first time in 2012. The Sun meanwhile raked in 17.4m monthly readers online and in print.

During the last general election in 2010, the Daily Mail had a readership of 4.7m a day.

According to Ipsos Mori, 73 per cent of their readers voted – that’s 3.4m people. Of these, 59 per cent voted Tory – or 2m people.

‘Amplifier effect’

But in 2010 half a million Daily Mail readers voted Labour and further half million voted Liberal Democrat. Did the Mail influence these voters? Research group Ipsos Mori argues that there is a key difference between trust and influence.

Ipsos Mori’s report You are what you read? states: “It is important to note the distinction between trust and influence… For example, the recent report from the Graham Committee on Standards in Public Life shows journalists are among the least-trusted professions, with newspaper journalists much less trusted than television news journalists, and a clear distinction between red-top and quality daily journalists.”

Plus, while the Ipsos analysis suggested that newspapers do have some influence on what people think – it depended on the issue at stake.

The report found: “People are more likely to rely on the media where their direct experience is limited”.

Either way, Prof Gaber argues that the Mail has “far greater influence” beyond these numbers. He said that other journalists will make a “bee-line” for the Mail because they believe it has the nation’s pulse on important issues.

He called it the “amplifier effect” – and went as far to say the Mail is “probably the most influential paper at Westminster”.

The Mail itself does not give its political pages much prominence in the paper, or online. The paper’s coverage of “Red Ed” and his father coincides with the quickening of the electoral pulse in the run up to the election year. The story was not given a prominent placing online.

‘Pretty disgraceful’

What really sells the Mail is the paper’s “Femail” section. As Prof Gaber said: “Health and consumer issues are the Mail’s bread and butter – that’s their selling power.”

He pointed out that you can tell this by looking at the website which he called a “very different animal”. Centred around celebrity and women’s issues, advertisers will pay for the Mail’s power in this arena.

Mr Campbell questioned the Mail’s ability to hold a “genuine political debate”. He told politicians not to fear the Mail or its editor Mr Dacre. He told BBC Newsnight: “These people do not believe in genuine debate – if you do not conform to Paul Dacre’s narrow, twisted view of the world, as all of his employees like (Jon) Steafel (Daily Mail deputy editor) have to do, you get done in. And all I’d say to all the politicians in Britain – once you accept you’re dealing with a bully and a coward, you have absolutely nothing to fear from them.”

Press regulation

The ongoing row may yet have an influence of a different sort according to the editor of the Independent. Chris Blackhurst said on Wednesday that it had “driven a wedge between politicians and the press” at a time when rival proposals for future regulation of the press are under consideration by the Privy Council.

Mr Blackhurst said it would be hard to “ignore what’s been going on”.

He told the BBC’s World At One: “I hope they don’t really consider it, we are only really talking about one article this week… the whole of press regulation should not hang on one article.”