Does the 'Daily Mail' really hate women?

It has more female readers than any other newspaper. Yet many critics say that, day after day, the 'Mail' belittles women and offers a misogynist view of the world
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The Independent Online

Women, Germaine Greer once said, have no idea how much men hate them. But given the avid female following of the Daily Mail, despite its lamentable portrayal of women, you can't help wondering whether they hate themselves even more than men do.

That's what Mail columnist Allison Pearson implied this week when, in the wake of the expulsion of ultra-vicious Grace from the Big Brother house, she asked: "Are girls really doomed to be bitches?"

While shooting at a few familiar targets - footballers' wives; professional mothers who terrorise others at the school gate - what she failed to note was the unsisterliness that is constantly exhibited in her very own newspaper. The same edition, for example, worried that Victoria Beckham was getting too thin, expressed fears that Kirsty Young may be wrong for Desert Island Discs, and featured a close-up of Madonna's wrinkled, veiny hands to show how they betray her age.

So how come the newspaper that, from its inception, has set out to champion, befriend and appeal to women, seems so savagely to have turned against them? When the Mail was first launched nearly a hundred years ago by the press baron Lord Northcliffe, his stated aim was to create a newspaper for what was then an untapped readership. The Mail was the first paper to have a women's page and the first to set out to reflect and define what has now come to be dubbed "Middle England". It stood for family values, for fairness and justice, and above all for Britishness.

When the paper went tabloid in 1970, it was selling 1.9m copies. It continued to be "the paper read by the wives of the people who run the country". It was a time when Women's Liberation was on the rise. The Mail began to express alarm at the UK's enthusiasm for permissiveness. Some would say its mistrust of the modern took a marked turn towards extremism when the long-term editor David English, widely regarded as an editorial genius, was succeeded by Paul Dacre with his blunt, less subtle package.

For the Mail, the legacy of the Sixties is an unwelcome one. "Sex is non-existent at the Mail," mused a former reporter. "I think they used to put bromide in the water - it's such a libido-free zone." That attitude pervades its attitude to abortion. While purporting to speak up for unborn foetuses, the paper's subtext is really about the women who must be punished for their wantonness.

"Headlines frequently reinforce the messages of the anti-choice lobby," according to Anne Quesney, director of the pro-choice campaigning organisation Abortion Rights. "One would believe that abortion is overwhelmingly traumatic, shameful and dangerous and is recklessly undertaken by women. In reality, reproductive rights are crucial to women's equality."

Nonetheless, the paper continues to hold sway with its legion female fans. Of its readership, an unmatched 53 per cent are women. Only the Express (49 per cent) and the Mirror (48 per cent) come close. From the start it has mirrored the formula of what were originally its only rivals: women's magazines. The Mail's most enduringly successful component is what the women's magazines have always referred to as "triumph over tragedy". It excels in eking out heartbreaking revelations and confessions, dazzling readers with scoop after tear-wrenching scoop. What other paper would have persuaded Margaret Oaten to confide her reactions to her husband's public shame?

And yet to some, the Mail has departed from its reliable role as big sister and developed into something nasty. The recipe is simple: an anxiety to alarm us mixed with a prurient but "sympathetic" glimpse of the fallibility of the famous. How sad that Jerry Hall may have resorted to Botox. How tragic that skinny Kate Moss has cellulite.

The Mail's well developed interest in cellulite puts it in the role of watchful neighbour, sniffing disapprovingly as it leans over the garden wall to share malevolence disguised as concerned gossip. The Guardian's Polly Toynbee is in no doubt: "The Daily Mail is an enemy of all women everywhere. They set women up to knock them down. To destroy them for any reason they can find."

Executive women, single parents, and most especially working mothers are the favoured targets. Favourite heroines are those who give up work to stay at home. "The traditional family unit is in meltdown due to plunging moral values and the rise of single parents," the paper said this week, reporting on a survey claiming that one in nine mothers believe that single parents are responsible for a "breakdown in family life in Britain today".

Toynbee adds: "The Daily Mail constantly harks back to a kind of mythical golden age in which women knew their place. It's a Janet and John picture of the world. The newspaper, and the Femail pages in particular, seem locked into a conspiracy with the reader to lament the present and deplore the modern."

Paul Dacre is a daunting figure with a taste for strong language and women who stick to skirts. "It's not that Paul hates women," said a journalist who worked with him for years. "He once said that every article should be an editorial - and he sees himself as someone who in part is giving the readers what they want, and in part is a moral crusader who truly believes that his core readership must share his world view. It's not misogyny - it's common sense. Paul's view would be, 'We sell to two-and-a-half million copies and over half our readers are women. How can we be anti-women?'"

Despite its instincts for crowd-pleasing, the paper occasionally misfires. Its attack on Delia Smith a few years ago was ill-judged - given that her own constituency is likely to be close to the Mail's. The answer is, I suspect, that many buy it despite themselves. "Some of me probably is a bit mean, and the Daily Mail seems to tap into that. I admit I enjoy it," said a marketing executive. The Mail reminds us that celebrities have the same problems as the rest of us. It caters for our prurience.

Occasionally it will confound us with uncharacteristic opinions. A few weeks ago Joan Bakewell wrote a wonderful celebration of feminism. Jenni Murraypenned a paean to older women's raunchy sexuality. And even arch-Femail Allison Pearson is often surprisingly, dangerously liberal.

These pieces seem placed to reassure the woman reader that the paper is on her side. It's certainly what the editor appears to believe. But no matter how well targeted the Mail may be, how shrewd, how convinced that it is the true beacon for female values, it seems to me to fail in one crucial regard. What the Mail doesn't share with women's magazines is empathy with the sensible, funny, brilliant, warm, supportive, adventurous, brave and generous sides of women. It just puts on a very good act.

Sally Feldman is dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster


Stellar figures

The serious-minded Patience Wheatcroft, new editor of The Sunday Telegraph, has been complaining to the editorial people on Stella, the paper's glossy style mag, that the people on the covers of the mag are too slim and attractive. Can't we have some more normal people, she has been heard to ask. The advertising department, for whom the mag is something of a money-spinner, have had to take her to one side and explain that the fuller figure doesn't sell.

Midgley mystery

Veteran gossip Dominic Midgley is on the move again, but his destination is top secret.

Midgley, who wrote a biography of James Goldsmith and was a stalwart of Today newspaper for many years and more recently the Daily Mirror, is quitting his "The Capitalist" column on City AM. His new employer, whoever it is, has made him sign a non-disclosure agreement and, amazingly for a gossip columnist, Midgley has so far managed not to reveal what his new post is. "Why is everybody so interested?" he asks. "I'm just a labourer in the vineyard." All will be revealed tomorrow.

Playboy gagged shock

How to muzzle Taki? It's a dilemma that every Spectator editor has faced, and indeed Boris Johnson even found himself receiving the attentions of the Crown Prosecution Service for printing Taki's more pungent opinions. Not one to exhibit Bozza's bravery/foolhardiness, new boy Matthew d'Ancona has come up with a half-cocked compromise. The Greek playboy has been told not to write about politics. In one of the few instances of dissent in the magazine since D'Ancona arrived, Taki's column this week contains a little

grumble. "This is supposed to be a social column, and, if it appears shorter than usual, it is the sainted editor who censors it when I try to slip in a political thought or two." Suggestions that The Spectator has lost its bite are still being investigated.

Plucky Polly in pursuit

What a fine public service the BBC provides. Today Programme reporter Polly Billington proved herself a fine have-a-go hero recently when some of her friends had their handbags stolen at a party at the Estorick Gallery in London's Canonbury Square. Quick as a flash Billington went tearing down the Islington street in a pair of red high heels and glamorous spotted dress, pursuing a suspicious-looking bloke. Though her quarry managed to get away, during the chase he shed many of the purloined items. "It was unlike me because I usually flap when these things happen," said Polly. "But I've been the victim of theft twice recently. I had my digital camera stolen in Brazil and was pick-pocketed outside my local Tube station. My sense of politeness had previously stopped me from doing anything. This time I wasn't the victim but I was so outraged that I just had to react." Coppers' helmets off.

You read it where first?

Success has many fathers. David Cameron's line about Tony Blair being the "David Brent of Downing Street" was not original, but who can claim the credit? Anne McElvoy had used it that day in the London Evening Standard, but Cameron's shadow constitutional affairs spokesman, Oliver Heald, had also used it about John Prescott ("sacked from his job but he's still hanging around his old office"). McElvoy is claiming it: "I first ran the comparison a year ago and then again in the newspaper that morning." And would Ms McElvoy be interested in joining Cameron's backroom speech-writing boys? "When you look at what these guys are earning, it might not be a bad idea."