Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Very little Britain

Imagine a distant future in which all that is left of British culture is a copy of The Daily Mail from 19 April 2014. Or, if you prefer, imagine yourself a traveller to Britain who comes to the country armed only with the aforementioned newspaper as a guide. By a fortuitous coincidence, I happen to own a copy of the very issue in question.

What kind of object is this? At over a hundred pages thickly covered in small type, it packs a great deal of reading material. If one were to approach it with the mindset of a future archaeologist, enough to make several inferences about the customs, habits and culture of these by-now ancient people.

Ruled by a benevolent Princess with a keen interest in footwear, the Britons were a tightly knit people who loved in a series of villages with names like Cheltenham, Richmond and Teddington, and who appeared to care very deeply for each other's business. Intensely tribal and distrustful of foreigners, the Britons kept mostly to themselves, save for sharing in the occasional amusing, quirky story from faraway lands. But their prevailing sentiment was a generic, all-purpose fearfulness, mixed with concern that they might be getting a bad deal from health authorities or the local supermarket.

18 April 2014 was a slow-news day, at least as measured by the contents of the Daily Mail that came out the next day. The issue is decidedly ho-hum, at least by the publication’s renowned standards. ‘Swarming migrants’ barely rate a mention, and its most lurid tales concern dead celebrities as opposed to active politicians. But it’s a more instructive read that way, without the distraction of overtly fascistic performances. It’s easier to focus on what the bulk of the newspaper is really about, and how it goes about constructing its reader/subject.

Firstly, my Daily Mail has no clear logic or structure. Outside of the business section and the sports section, it consists of a stream of news items in no particular order of salience or gravitas, jumping cheerfully from a mailman being chased by an exotic bird to a child of 7 being set fire to in the street.

The tragicomic style often extends to within the news items themselves. The front-page story about the Duchess of Cambridge walking on a beach in Sydney on wedge heels, for instance, goes from informing us that
the camel-coloured shoes have a braided leather strap at the ankle and a cork platform wedge which does, admittedly, give the wearer slightly more stability than a stiletto of the same height
to an account of William and Kate’s fighting back tears after chatting with the parents of a nine month old boy about to die of meningitis.

In a similar vein, several of the articles contradict their own claims. Take this startling piece on a possible sighting of the Loch Ness Monster via an image from Google Maps.

‘For six months,’ begins the piece, full of the vigour and optimism of youth, ‘the image has been studied by experts at the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club.’ Then, inevitably, a few paragraphs in: ‘Despite the club’s claim, however, another explanation for the shape seen in the image could simply be underwater currents in the loch.’

There is no hierarchy or news, nor a precise sense of what the rules for establishing facts are. What prevails above all is the emotional texture of the stories, at least one of which appears to be sourced from existential dread itself:
Hundreds of young Britons are being lured to join fighting in Syria by the ‘glamorous’ image painted in videos online, it is feared. (The emphasis is mine.)
The general effect is that of a newspaper written for squirrels, or other similarly nervous woodland creatures: always leaping from page to page, always on guard, never sure if the next turn will bring comfort or danger. One moment you read about the crisis in Crimea (‘It’s time to grab Putin by the roubles’, declares an editorial), the next you are warned alliteratively about a salmonella scare in bags of sultanas sold at Sainsbury. No sooner you have digested the tale of the teenage nephew of a British Guantanamo inmate shot dead fighting jihad in Syria, that you learn that a bottle of wine a day ‘is not bad for you’ according to ‘leading scientists’.

A topical advertisement.
It seems that on 19 April 2014 the Daily Mail gave immigrants a break so it could concentrate on bashing the NHS, with no fewer than three stories sounding the alarm on its culture and practices, and an editorial calling for an urgent debate ‘on whether a monolithic and increasingly uncompassionate system, run entirely by the State, is the most efficient means of delivering this country’s ever more complex healthcare needs.’ But leaving the conservative politics to one side, the NHS stories also fit within the newspaper’s borderline obsessive focus on consumer affairs. From the public health service to the bags of sultanas that could give you the shits; through dubious practices at British Gas, bank and insurance terms and conditions ‘longer than Macbeth’, the world’s airport attendants rifling through 22 millions items of luggage every day, and a council in Wales that plans to introduce a three-weekly bin collection, the Daily Mail reader is kept in a perpetual state of anxious vigilance over the workings of all service providers, public or private.

Then there are, of course, the always instructive stories about the petty legal troubles of the have-nots, which feed directly into that running sense of grievance. There is the ‘benefit cheat’ mother of six who was spared jail and is now escaping community service because she ‘claims to be too sick to do it’ (never mind that a court accepted evidence as to her state of health), and the woman who faked her own death to get out of a £39 fraud charge, to which the paper is willing to extend the courtesy of blurring the face of her child.

From there we move to the issue of CCTV cameras being installed on private properties but used to spy on others, leading to what is quite possibly the least self-aware headline in Daily Mail history.

I could go on. And I will. Did you know that  when1 in 5 Britons find a snail in the garden, they throw it over the fence? Or that scientists claim to have found aphrodisiac properties in a Himalayan plant (the ‘super tea that boosts your love life’)? Or that soup spoons sales have plummeted, signalling the end of proper table manners? And if you wonder where Amanda Platell is, well,

The Daily Mail paints a picture of life not in a modern, confident, outward-looking nation, but in a vast, bloated village. Its readers aren’t citizens. They’re not consumers, either. They resemble rather a roving neighbourhood watch, armed with a very long list of things and people which fit the definition of suspicious. I should say something about the advertising, too, which suggests that the readers of the Daily Mail are quite old, as evidenced by full pages devoted to chairlifts, riser recliners, walk-in baths, or a circulation booster called Happy Legs. But I take no comfort in this: the thing about old people is that they always get replaced, and besides the problem aren’t old people but old ideas.

What the Daily Mail presents us with, even or perhaps most especially on a slow-news day, is the concrete expression of an ideology. Occasionally, some of the tenets of this ideology are blurted out explicitly (for instance: ‘It’s families that create self-reliant, aspirational, decent citizens – not politicians.’) But mostly it is articulated in the form of stories that reflect a world view, and contribute to viewing the world in a very particular light. As an intellectual project, it is remarkably coherent and consistent. It is also very powerful, in that it emerges from a collection of facts, or things that look like facts. Sometimes you feel like you can almost make out an overall shape. But then you realise it’s only a shadow, or the underwater currents the loch.