The trouble with Mary Ann

Give the people what they want and you’ll attract them in droves. That’s what the Daily Mail does, producing a morning newspaper for which an average of some 2.4 million customers part with ready cash six days a week. It’s also what the debating forum Intelligence Squared did when it set up the discussion “The trouble with this country is the Daily Mail”. Such was the proposition’s appeal, the walls of the Royal Geographical Society were practically bulging.

Most of those beating a path to Kensington – a stroll away from the offices of Associated Newspapers – were not doing so to praise the Mail. The number of those casting a pre-debate vote for the victorious motion almost exactly mirrored the final result, indicating that a vast majority of the audience had made up their minds before a word was spoken.

The Mail is the paper they love to hate. And that goes for many journalists as well as the mostly non-industry participants at the RGS.

That well-known tabloid basher Mary Ann Sieghart, of The Times, spoke in favour of the motion. She was supported by writer and biographer Francis Wheen, although as Spectator political editor Peter Oborne – supporting Tom Bower on the other side – pointed out, the jocular Wheen appeared to be taking part for a lark rather than a deep conviction that the Mail was responsible for all Britain’s ills.

Not so Mary Ann. She laid into the Mail for having little understanding of the British people, which must have come as something of a surprise to the seven million or more of them that read it. She also complained about the paper’s denigration of women, which must have had them chuckling over at The Times’s sister paper, The Sun, as they sifted through potential page-three pictures.

Many of Ms Sieghart’s criticisms could apply to all the popular papers. Most of those inside journalism that constantly bemoan tumbling standards in the trade are really attacking only the tabloid press. They believe the broadsheets – particularly those for which they happen to work – are on a higher plane and occupy a position of trust in society.

What poppycock. There is no denying that the national press needs to clean up its act. I don’t even deny that sometimes there are aspects of the Daily Mail that deserve treatment from a scrubbing brush and a bar of carbolic. But the excesses that have led to national journalism being reviled, and journalists considered – along with politicians, the Home Secretary acknowledged at the London Press Club Awards lunch – to be unscrupulous liars, are not a tabloid preserve, despite what the chattering classes pretend.

At the debate on the Daily Mail, Oborne accused its detractors of being arrogant and elitist and displaying a “nasty intolerance”. They don’t just think Mail readers are below the salt he said, but that they and the paper should be abolished. He’s right, although for “Mail” you should read “tabloid”.

Mary Ann and all others of a similar frame of mind would do well to note the view of a speaker from the floor of the RGS, who said: “Having heard all the speakers this evening, I am convinced that the trouble with this country is its newspapers.”

He had a point. Despite some wildly funny stuff from Wheen and Bower, and a typically eccentric and amusing performance from Oborne, the arguments for the motion would, I’m sure, have failed to convince a jury that had not decided to convict even before the trial got under way.

If it is so terrible, why does the Daily Mail sell 2.4 million copies a day, asked one puzzled spectator? “Only because it has no opposition,” replied Ms Sieghart. You mean opposition like the investment-starved Daily Express, Mary Ann, that’s been chopped off at the knees over the years by the Mail’s policy of putting its money where its journalism is? Or like Today, the tabloid where – whisper who dares – you once worked and was subsequently prematurely closed down by your boss, Rupert Murdoch? On the morning of the debate, Oborne “launched into the most vitriolic personal invective” on Radio 4’s Today programme, a startled Ms Sieghart told her readers in The Times: “Mary Ann, you’re just a glamorous, upper-middle-class snob who goes to the Groucho Club and doesn’t understand normal people.” Come on, Mary Ann. What’s vitriolic about glamorous?

During the debate, the Mail was described as humourless. Not so, I suggest, while the services are retained of the sub-editor assigned to a story concerning Father Marco D’Aviano, the monk who added honey, milk and cream to the liquid obtained from coffee beans, thereby creating the cappuccino. The Mail’s story about the Pope at last initiating sainthood for Fr Marco, who died in 1699, carried the headline: “Better latte than never.”

Humourless? Don’t make me laugh.

In a column in the London Evening Standard, my friend Donald Trelford addressed the question of who has edited the most national newspapers? He pronounced a four-way tie between Robert Edwards, Richard Stott, Sir Nick Lloyd and Bernard Shrimsley, leaving out, rather unjustly, Derek Jameson, who edited the Daily Express and was briefly editor-in-chief of the Daily Star before going to the News of the World.

The more interesting statistics concern actual editorships. For years the record was held by Edwards, who was twice in the chair at the Daily Express and went on to The People and then the Sunday Mirror. Stott beat that with two terms at both The People and the Daily Mirror and then one as the last editor of Today.

As Trelford pointed out, a large number have edited two nationals, including current incumbents Piers Morgan and Rebekah Wade. Paul Dacre has held two London editorships, of the Evening Standard, not of course a national title, and then the Daily Mail, but even the imperial Paul cannot match the extraordinary feat of the Welshman Howell Arthur Gwynne.

It is recorded in Dennis Griffiths’ indispensable Encylopedia of the British Press how in 1911 Gwynne fell out with proprietor Davison Dalziel and quit after more than six years as editor of The Standard, the morning paper that had spawned an evening stablemate. Coincidentally, the editor of the Morning Post was suddenly sacked and Rudyard Kipling recommended Gwynne as successor.

So on 17 July Gwynne saw The Standard to press at 3am and at 11am was at his desk at the Post, thereby becoming the only person to edit two daily papers on the same day. He remained at the helm of the Post for 26 years, until it merged with The Daily Telegraph.

Follow that, Piers.

DON’T-GET-MAD-GET-EVEN-NOTE: Speaking at the launch of Newspapermen (Secker & Warburg), Ruth Dudley Edwards’ new book about Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp, BBC political editor Andrew Marr reflected that the newspaper business changed for the worse when it was taken over by bastards.

“All of whom must remain nameless,” said the one-time editor of the then Mirror Group-controlled Independent, “with the exception of David Montgomery.”

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Janice Turner

by Bill Hagerty

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