What's wrong at the Daily Mail?

The Daily Mail is one of the most successful newspaper in the United Kingdom - that much is beyond doubt.

The ABC figures released this month show that, in terms of circulation alone, it is second only to the The Sun with 2,030,968 copies sold daily in December compared to the Sun's 2,717,013.

The future looks bright too as the Mail's rate of year-on-year sales decline seems less than most other nationals at -3.89% compared to The Sun's -5.10%, The Guardian's 11.89% and The Times's -14.01%.

Online the Mail is leading the way (despite its shockingly late entry into the fray in 2004) and now gathers about 35% of the online UK newspaper traffic - an incredible stat when you think of the plurality within the field.

Of course, the Daily Mail has long had its detractors. It is frequently reactionary, displays homophobic and xenophobic tendencies both in the written word and news values and frequently scare-mongers to an extent that would make Freddie Krueger proud.

Websites are set up to oppose the views taken by the Mail, it is constantly mocked on Twitter and one of the best songs of 2010 was written 'in its honour' by Dan and Dan and has had almost 1,000,000 views in 9 months (below).

But let's put that to one side. It's in a box marked 'Reasons why I don't buy the Daily Mail'.

In the interests of transparency at this juncture, I must point out that I worked at the Daily Mail in the 90s. I was going to add 'for my sins' or 'to my shame' to that sentence but that would be the easy option and an unfair reflection on the professional relationship I had with the paper.

So lets open a new box called 'Why did I choose the Mail?'

First out of the box: It was the first national to have me. Other work followed but at that time the Mail was taking all the hard-working and enthusiastic reporters from the regions it could get its hands on.

My first choice would have been the Guardian but I didn't have a public school or Oxbridge education so didn't even get a courtesy letter in response (there's still time to atone for this error Mr Rusbridger).

That sounds bitter but it isn't really - or at least it's not meant to. It was just a fact at the time that the left-leaning papers seemed to recruit in this way (and pay peanuts). At the Daily Mail, I worked with mainly left-leaning journos eager to both make a splash in the industry and pay the electricity bill.

Anyway, I was pleased to be going to the Mail and the main reason was that it was respected within the industry. Its reporters were hard working and versatile - that middle-ground target audience meant you could be doorstepping celebs one day and uncovering the NHS postcode lottery the next.

Stories were stood up, copper-bottomed, topped and tailed and all the other euphemisms for thoroughly researched you can think of. I remember once being given a photograph of a restaurant in the Caribbean which had a poster outside proclaiming that critic Michael Winner was banned for lewd behaviour.

I did everything I could to stand up the story but couldn't get confirmation from the man himself. So the news editor (Tony Gallagher - now editor of the Daily Telegraph) told me to spike it.

A fortnight later one of the Mail's restaurant critics discovered that it had been a hoax and the restaurant was just seeking a bit of publicity. Great call from Tony and I have no doubt that it will be a surprise to many to hear that we didn't just 'publish and be damned'.

So, while I have shame that I worked for a paper with such a record of right wing views (I later volunteered for Asylum Welcome in Oxford in a futile attempt to shed my guilt), professionally it was the right decision.

That is why I am so surprised by what I see as falling standards at the Mail.

Take three recent examples:

1. Merry Christmas? Along with millions of other middle class mothers, I can't afford one.

Charlotte Metcalf penned this piece and it covered what she called the 'Nouveau Pauvre'. Initially I thought it was something to do with pepper, but discovered that it was a first-person feature explaining that the author was poverty stricken.

She explained that she was lucky if she earned £500 per week and was no longer able to shop for Christmas presents at Harrods. One of her friends, sob, was struggling to find the £400 to buy an iPad for her 15-year-old daughter.

She seemed completely unaware that a minimum of £500 per week (that's £26,000 per year) actually represents a salary that many people would be pleased with. Yes it is a climb down from the £1,200 per week (62,400 per year) she previously earned but still not a salary one can use to claim destitution.

The feature alienated a lot of people. Working class people were angry that such a self-centred article could be published, while middle class guilt meant that she won few sympathisers from her own section of society.

One of, if not the, main strength of the Mail in increasing its market share in the past 25 years, has been successfully targetting its core demographic: middle class, middle-aged, aspirational and intelligent women.

Yet in one foul swoop this article undermined that - it is a rare mistake for the Mail to make. Even worse when we realise it is a follow-up to a previous Nouveau Pauvre article by Ms Metcalf which elicited a hugely negative response.

The second article then has a feel of a wind up - the kind of feature written purely to get a response using the principle that no publicity is bad publicity. That is true if you publish an article your core readership can attack without guilt but hold up a mirror to them and you alienate them.

2. Is lovely Jo becoming just another thumbnail on the police website?

This was published yesterday and was written by Liz Jones - a controversial journalist who has annoyed people a lot in the past for what they see as a patronising and superficial style in article such as 'how to live on benefits'.

If you look at the comments at the bottom of the story you can see that the word patronising prominently. But that is not my issue with this work - it is just that it is such poor journalism.

Poorly researched, badly written and full of cliches from intro to contrived and all-too-probably made up pay-off.

I am not the best writer - my journalistic strengths lay more in news gathering and news sense - so criticising other writers does not come naturally to me. But if one of my level one students wrote that feature they would scrape a pass with a very low third and a kick up the backside.

In fact, I would put money on any one of my level one students coming with something considerably better than that rambling load of vomit-inducing, eyeball-piercing piffle.

That's not intended to prove just how bad this is. Quite the contrary, my level one students are proving themselves to be a very strong bunch of journalists.

But the Mail has long been known for employing good writers. We might hate what Jan Moir writes (remember her homophobic rant following the death of Stephen Gately?) but her columns are well structured and she is capable of creating images in your mind and encouraging you to read on.

A large proportion of Daily Mail readers buy the paper simply because of its columnists - but how long will that continue if they are forced to read third-rate material?

3. Pregnant schoolgirl, 15, and unborn baby die after 'she suffered heart attack'

A tragic but strong news story. Quite lazily put together using few facts but plenty of Facebook tributes but ultimately I am not criticising them for this as when working under deadlines we have to make the best of poor material at times.

Not it was a last par that grabbed my attention last night. It has now been removed and I didn't get a screenshot but from memory it said:

"A friend of Leah's sister said that Leah had recently had a flu jab."

And that was it. Nothing else just that - draw your own conclusions: 'Did the flu jab cause the heart attack? It must have done otherwise why would the reporter bring it up? Oh my God - my nan had a flu jab' etc etc and so it goes.

As I mentioned before, the Mail is well known for its scare-mongering - a point well picked up but Dan and Dan towards the end of their song.

But usually there will be something. Some grain of 'truth' among the fear: a piece of peer-reviewed scientific research or out-of-date Government figures - not 'just a friend of a sister said'.
This third blatant example of poor journalism made a little blog come out and that little blog grew like the Blob that chased Steve McQueen to almost unmanageable size and now I have rambled enough.

I will end now but only after after saying that it is hard to see the Mail's success continuing if they don't return to stronger journalistic standards.

* UPDATE 31.01.11: I would suggest you read this superb account from the other side of a Daily Mail story written by Juliet Shaw on the nosleeptilbrooklands blog

* UPDATE: 17.01.12: The most shocking yet. Today the Daily Mail has posted a story about an alleged rape on Big Brother in Brazil. For your pleasure you can also view a seven minute video of the alleged rape taking place. Words cannot describe how immoral and unethical this is - truly a new low for the Daily Mail.