The Daily Mail infamously supported Oswald Mosley and his Black Shirts during
the last war and its broad strategy and target readership have been in mind since
it launched in 1896. However, it was Sir David English's twenty one year
editorship (1971-92), spanning the first two decades of the modern gay rights movement,
which really set hot metal aflame.
Presses Sanderson: "English was a populist of the first order. He established the
Daily Mail truly within the mass market for the first time. He was a brilliant
editor when it came to knowing his audience and pressing the right buttons. And
the Daily Mail is still one of the most successful operations in a waning British
He rolls on: "Before English, there was a generation of silence. Apart from major
incidents like the Oscar Wilde trial, homosexuality was taboo and people used
euphemisms. Then 'gay' entered the language and was great for snappy headlines -
as well as words like 'woofter' in the eighties! The whole 'Looney Left' concept
was in fact an English invention, used to batter a then left-wing Labour Party
for making commitments on gay issues."
"The paper's hostility to homosexuality is quite irrational," rejoins Sanderson,
"even though - unlike other tabloids that tend to shoot more from the hip - it
tries to rationalise it. Threat to the family and such! But the sinister thing
about the Daily Mail is that - unlike the Daily Telegraph - it doesn't report
news straight. It distorts it, especially headlines. It also plays on stereotypes -
all gay people are like this or that - and states unsubstantiated opinions as if
they were plain fact, pandering to ignorance, pre-conceptions and prejudice.
And then there's innuendo."
But Sanderson thinks there have been significant shifts since Paul Dacre took
over as editor in 1992: "He's softened it a lot - he's out to woo women readers
and has done so very successfully. The news coverage is still pretty fierce but
features can often be more sympathetic. They might carry the odd 'Furnish with Elton'
type piece, focusing more on the clothes and fittings doubtless, but better than
some old vile news item about a couple of famous perverts."
"I like to think," he muses, "that things may have also changed in part since
the traditional male readership has softened its views too, but I don't know. At
least once a week there's still a major gay story, so it's certainly not off the
agenda. I still open it now and am shocked by the brutality."
Dacre also has a "strategic role" across other DMg newspapers titles, including
the Metro and the Mail on Sunday. The Sunday paper launched in 1982, is bigger than the Daily Mail and has
its own editor but a similar agenda, perhaps with more celebrity and sex stories.
Interestingly - although there is an unsurprising dearth of gay journalists on
staff - both titles employ token left-wing columnists, perhaps in order to stir
up the odd outraged letter whilst also immunising the papers from charges they are
utterly one-sided, should push come to shove.
Sanderson even partly agrees with Dacre's claim that much left-wing press is overly
PC, failing to examine both sides of an issue or discuss things fully and honestly:
"There is sometimes a grain of truth in the arguments the Daily Mail puts forward
on various issues, but then they take it a stage too far and become extreme -
which doesn't help the debate."
Meantime, our watchman keeps his eyes peeled on other papers jostling the Mail's
realm: "It will be fascinating to see what happens should the Daily Telegraph run
a tabloid version like other broadsheets now do - it might then be aiming for a
very similar reader. And since Rosie Boycott left the Daily Express, that paper
has been lurching right again - in direct competition with the Daily Mail - especially
on asylum-seekers. So there's clearly a huge market there."
But is the Daily Mail - alleged arch inciter of gay hate, which arguably even has
queer blood on its hands - in fact little more than a highly-attuned barometer,
merely reflecting certain deep-seated insular responses within the Great British
Psyche and that very middle market?
"I've been asking myself that question for the last twenty years," admits Sanderson,
"and I still don't know the answer. I wouldn't be surprised if they research their
readers' existing views and then - together with a bit of instinct - pitch themselves
straight at it. They well know that many social phobias lie just beneath the surface,
not least anti-European sentiment at the moment in the light of Brexit. So it's probably a two-way process -
they both reflect things and stir them up."
And the Daily Mail's hacks have certainly had much to get het up about recently:
new employment law, partnership rights, the Sex Offenders Register, C28 repealed,
the Sexual Offences Bill and of course same-sex marriage - to
name a few!
"But there's been a significant shift in their coverage of such news," discerns Sanderson,
somewhat brightly. "They still routinely trash gay progress - claiming new employment
rights were a PC Europe-driven stitch-up which should be done away with and that equal marriage marks
the end of traditional marriage as we know it. But instead of doing it in a sustained way like they used to,
there's now almost an air of resignation - like putting up a token fight and then
moving on, albeit begrudgingly."
"Indeed," he concludes with a faint glimmer, "over the last twenty years they've
always had to move with the times. Readers are now better informed and get their
information from a wider range of independent sources. So they can't skew facts
in quite the way they used to. And more people now know someone who is openly
gay - and it's harder to hate what you know."
Writer and columnist Terry Sanderson is author of
Mediawatch: The Treatment of
Male & Female Homosexuality in the British Media (1995, Cassell).