The newspaper seems to consistently run anti-migrant headlines, with other favourite targets including the unemployed, single mums and trade unions.
We might do better to think of the Mail as a huge dumpster set alight and hurtling towards us at high speed.
The tabloid’s headlines are notorious for their aggressive sensationalism.
Yet this is one of the best-selling national newspapers. Like it or not, the Daily Mail is an unavoidable fact of life in British media.
The Daily Mail overtook The Sun in 2020 as the most-read paid-for newspaper. The brand is arguably more important than ever before.
Politicians have long feared what the Mail will say about their policies, and this is not going to change anytime soon.
However, the Mail’s victory over the Murdoch empire shouldn’t distract observers.
The truth is that the UK print press has been in steady decline for many years, and even the Mail cannot command the kind of readership it once did.
As much as the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) has been able to innovate and adapt to digital times, the Mail is still looking like a more stale product compared to the i newspaper and even the Metro.
Both titles are comparably more liberal papers. The latter has the largest circulation in the country, while the former is much smaller but has a much younger base.
According to Hurst Media, the average Mail reader is a middle-class woman, age 60, with around £48,000 in savings and investments (£22,000 more than the UK average).
Furthermore, an estimated 83% of Mail readers are homeowners, and the same percentage own a car.
These readers are reportedly more likely to spend £2,500 or more on holidays, but 10% of their weekly spending goes on groceries.
Much like the rest of the British media, the Daily Mail does not cater to everyone – it caters to a specific segment of society, primarily the middle class, but not exclusively.
Working-class people make up 38% of the Mail’s readership, according to Hurst. Daily Mail readers are exactly the people who turn up to vote in general elections.
So, even as the paper’s readership has contracted, the brand and its message still have significant influence in the country.
Powerhouse of Populism
Founded in 1896, Alfred Harmsworth, later known as Lord Northcliffe, built the Daily Mail into a powerhouse of the popular press. He set out to outmatch the stodgy competition of dull papers with big headlines, photographs and illustrations.
Long definable as a hard-right populist newspaper, the Mail has almost always supported the Conservative Party – except during its Liberal origins. But it has flirted with alternatives since its early decades.
Infamously, the Mail gave Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) much positive coverage in the 1930s.
Naturally, its proprietor at the time, Harold Harmsworth, the first Viscount Rothermere, was a man who saw Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini as great statesmen.
There is plenty of evidence that the warm feelings were reciprocal. Both Hitler and Mussolini found common cause with Harmsworth over his campaign to ‘revise’ post-WWI borders in Europe along ethnic lines.
Harmsworth supported Germany’s claim to annexe the Sudetenland, while he also favoured a ‘greater’ Hungary thanks to the influence of his Austrian mistress Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe.
As a result, Hungarian nationalists were calling for Harmsworth to be made king of Hungary. Mussolini even backed this call, but most Hungarian aristocrats rejected it.
Harmsworth’s scepticism of universal suffrage and fascination with European nobility partly helped him along this path. However, the history of this goes back further.
Of course, the Mail already had an established history of Antisemitism going back to the Lord Northcliffe era. As early as February 1900, the Daily Mail was questioning the refugee status of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms.
One such article reported on Jewish refugees arriving in Southampton.
“There were all kinds of Jews, all manner of Jews. They had breakfasted on board, but they rushed as though starving at the food. They helped themselves at will, they spilled coffee on the ground in wanton waste,” reported the Mail.
“These were the penniless refugees, and when the relief committee passed by they hid their gold, and fawned and whined, and in broken English asked for money for their train fare.”
Such coverage partly led the British government to impose the 1905 Aliens Act to close the borders. The hostile environment didn’t begin with the Windrush scandal.
Not long after this, the Mail was running articles against the suffragette movement.
In fact, the newspaper coined the term ‘suffragette’ to deride the women campaigning (and sometimes dying) for the right to vote.
Those activists decided to claim the label for themselves. Sometimes they preferred to pronounce the ‘g’ with a more brutal emphasis. It wasn’t just they wanted the right to vote; they wanted to ‘get it’.
During WWI, Lord Northcliffe used the paper to back the war effort and campaigned to dress the shell shortage of 1915. He managed to sway government policy over munitions, and later Prime Minister Asquith was forced to step down.
One of the more infamous stories came nearly a decade later. The Daily Mail published the Zinoviev letter just four days before the 1924 general election. It claimed the letter was evidence of a Bolshevik plot to take over Britain.
The letter was a forgery, but its impact helped tip the election in favour of the Conservatives. Labour may have still lost without the Mail’s intervention, but the impression was still powerful.
By the 1930s, the Daily Mail had found natural allies at home and abroad. ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ was the most notorious pro-BUF frontpage headline of this period, but it was far from an isolated case.
As late as August 1938, the Mail was heaping scorn on German Jews seeking refuge from the Nazi regime. The Mail favourably quoted Judge Herbert Metcalfe when he opposed Jewish immigration.
“The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage,” said Judge Metcalfe.
“In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalfe, the Old Street magistrate, yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering the country through the ‘back door’ – a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed,” the Mail reported.
All of this was very awkward by the time Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Britain had to u-turn on its appeasement strategy, and soon the war began. The Daily Mail shifted gears to back the war effort.
The first Viscount Rothermere died in 1940. His son Esmond Harmsworth, who had sat beside him at dinner tables with Hitler, became the new press lord. He had already taken over most of the day-to-day operations as his father declined.
Although the newspaper always had a populist tone, the Mail was always an establishment paper for the middle class.
What happened post-war is sometimes described as the Mail’s stagnant years, but the truth is more complex.
The Daily Mail’s circulation increased steadily from 900,000 in 1910 to just over two million in 1947.
Almost a decade later, the newspaper still had around two million readers.
However, the circulation jumped to over 2.6 million by 1961 and was around 2.3 million in 1966. These were high points in the Mail’s historic reach.
Editor David English has often been credited with ‘saving’ the Mail when he took over in 1971. He served for more than 20 years.
Even though the circulation fell below two million in his first five years, the readership expanded.
In the 1970s, the Daily Mail was a pro-European common market newspaper and even advocated a Conservative-Liberal coalition in 1974.
Most of Britain’s notorious tabloids favoured the common market at the time.
Far from fighting the lonely cause, the Mail followed the establishment line against the anti-marketeers – including Tony Benn and Enoch Powell – in favour of European integration.
In 1978, Esmond Harmsworth died. His son Vere succeeded him as the proprietor of the Mail titles. The transition to a new owner was just in time for a big shift in the country.
Of course, the Daily Mail was one of the biggest cheerleaders of Margaret Thatcher throughout the 1980s. Its offering of gossip columns and sports coverage complemented its political agenda.
Naturally, Thatcher rewarded David English with a knighthood in 1982. Britain has always run on patronage.
Today, the Mail on Sunday is still read by more than one million people, whereas less than 700,000 readers buy the Mail itself in the week. On Saturdays, the Mail’s readership rises to over 1.3 million.
The 1980s may not have seen the Mail reach new heights in its circulation, but its influence grew thanks to its editorship. By the time Sir David accepted a promotion in 1992, the newspaper was ready for a new era.
The man who defined the newspaper for more than 25 years was Paul Dacre. His editorship saw the paper run some of its best and worst coverage.
Many people would give credit due when it comes to the Mail’s uncompromising coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder case.
Famously, the newspaper ran the front page headline ‘MURDERERS!’
At the same time, Dacre was the editor cheering on the Tory rebellion over the Maastricht Treaty. Far from subservient, the newspaper took aim at John Major and became a vehemently Eurosceptic tabloid.
It was one of many anti-EU newspapers but one of the loudest foghorns for the cause. The newspaper had considerable sway over Conservative public opinion, with a circulation of 2.3 million in 1997.
New Labour may have shunted the Tories from power. However, the Mail easily capitalised on this with its narratives about uncontrolled mass immigration and multiculturalism.
Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had to consider how policy would be received by the Mail carefully, and the paper often hammered them no matter what.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party was never conservative enough for many Mail columnists. Later, the newspaper would even advise readers to vote for UKIP in some areas to stop Labour.
Arguably, the Mail played a key role in the 2016 Brexit referendum backing the Leave campaign to the hilt. The newspaper had spent over two decades building a Eurosceptic narrative in the country.
More outrages would follow with headlines like ‘Crush the Saboteurs!’ and ‘Enemies of the People’. But these words were exactly what hard Leavers wanted to read.
Like his predecessor, Dacre accepted a promotion to run Associated Newspapers in 2018.
Geordie Greig stepped up to take over, but Greig was a strange choice for Mail editor given his liberal politics.
Nevertheless, the Mail did not take a violent swerve from its editorial strategy. The paper’s line on Brexit remained firm, and its line on the left was even firmer.
Inevitably though, Greig moved on from the Mail in late 2021.
Some say he was pushed out over disagreements regarding the coverage of Meghan Markle and the ensuing court case.
The result was that Ted Verity (great name for a journalist) took over as editor. He represented the old guard as a Dacre protégé.
Two years later, the Daily Mail is still a reliably right-wing newspaper with a loyal following despite its declining readership.
The DMGT has done well to expand beyond newspapers to business-to-business publishing and events.
Still owned by the Harmsworth family. Jonathan Harmsworth, now the fourth Viscount Rothermere, has allowed editors to shape the content strategy while he has focused on innovation across the business.
The Mail is gradually becoming more of a media brand than a traditional newspaper, with a large extended family of publications to help sustain it.
Print may be dying, but the Mail is the last of the mass newspapers.
Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.