Paul Dacre: the most dangerous man in Britain?
It is a paper of the middle class, in particular the suburban and southern varieties. As these people have grown more numerous and politically potent, it has flattered their aspirations and crystallised their fears, helped form their values and fanned their discontents.
The intricacy of this to-and-fro can be gauged by the closeness of Mail readers to the newspaper's ideal: they are more likely to be married than the general population; more likely to own property; to have two or more cars; to vote Conservative. Yet only half of them do so habitually. The rest form the largest concentration of "swing voters", assumed to decide modern general elections, who can be reached through a single newspaper.
However, to a slightly different sort of person - British liberals, leftwingers, anyone it has ever persecuted - the paper is not affirming but an affront. "I stopped taking the Mail at the start of this year because it was bad for me," says one Labour MP who is attacked almost weekly. Mail reporters have repeatedly telephoned this politician's children. The MP has written to the paper with complaints and factual corrections, which "they never publish". One received this written response from a senior executive: "You are a hypocrite." When a complaint is posted now, "My stomach turns to water at what they are going to do to me for retaliating."
Last September's protests against petrol taxes, which had been revved up by Mail editorials for months, became a people's crusade and not special pleading by the polluting classes. As for Europe, the family, equal rights for gay people, the rise of crime or otherwise - each of these complex issues has been successfully simplified by the paper into a question of identity or morality, where the Mail is famously comfortable, rather than economics or history or sociology, where its rightwing certainties would come up against awkward facts.
Earlier this month, one of its columnists, Simon Heffer, predicted that continued Labour rule would lead to 14m illegal immigrants in Britain, almost half the country's military personnel being disabled people, and "girls of nine" receiving "the morning-after pill from school dinner ladies". One of Blair's closest advisors concludes: "The Mail have gone into kill mode."
Under the heading "Touchstone Issues", Blair said his government should please "gut British instinct" by being "tough" on teenage criminals and asylum seekers, respecting the family more, and better understanding people such as the imprisoned Norfolk farmer Tony Martin who defended their property by force. All these points had been specifically raised, in a similar order, in a Mail editorial.
Dacre's opinions, according to everyone I spoke to, dominate the Mail's worldview - and are becoming more definite. "He deals with everything at the level of emotion," says someone who knows him well. "He thinks politics is basically common sense. He can't understand why people would disagree with him."
Dacre's instincts are steered by a simple morality. There are good people and bad people in the world. The good people are self-reliant, traditional in their beliefs, suspicious of officialdom, and want to better themselves. They generally work in the private sector. They are middle class, or would like to be. They are conservatives with a small 'c'.
Once Dacre's wishes have been disseminated - or, often, in advance of that - the journalists will know what is required. "You kind of know what the obsessions are," says one who recently left the paper. "And you very much know you've got to do a story in a specific way." This polemic-driven approach can have unintended consequences: "Dacre will express some random opinion, and forget about it," says another ex-reporter. "It will dominate the paper for days."