Linda Grant: The 'Mail' turns on the charm

It dominates its market and attracts fear and admiration in equal measure. Associated Newspapers' marketing director tells Ian Burrell what is being done to change perceptions of the 'Daily Mail' and the Middle England it speaks for
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The Independent Online

The readers of the Daily Mail are unfairly maligned, argues the title's owner, Associated Newspapers, which has made a remarkable documentary film in its honour as the principal weapon in a remarkable charm offensive.

Mail readers are apparently not the Hyacinth Buckets and Victor Meldrews, twitching a net curtain behind a privet hedge; instead they are iPod-listening early adopters, who take their holidays in Dubai and like to watch Desperate Housewives on their LCD screen, having recorded it earlier on their PVR.

"Middle Englanders today are more like you and me than you would ever think," opines GQ magazine columnist and Loaded founder Martin Deeson, the presenter of the film, which is currently being shown to advertising and PR companies in a tour that encompasses London, Manchester and Glasgow.

Associated Newspapers believes that when commentators speak disparagingly of Middle England, they are, by extension, often doing down the Daily Mail.

According to Linda Grant, group marketing director at Associated, the two have become almost synonymous. "Whenever you asked people to define the Mail brands they would reference Middle England, and when you asked them to define Middle England they referenced the Mail brands. It was a bit like Hoovers and vacuum cleaners," she says. "But there were quite a lot of negative connotations about Middle England. It was seen as old-fashioned, bigoted and narrow-minded and it was all based on a caricature."

To Mail critics, such as The Guardian's Polly Toynbee, the readers of the "Hate Mail" are exactly that - old-fashioned, bigoted and narrow-minded, feeding on their morning diet of what the paper's founder Lord Northcliffe is reported to have termed a "daily hate". The title is relentlessly mocked by liberal satirists, from Private Eye and Viz magazine to TV's Little Britain, which featured it as the paper of choice for the elderly racist snob Maggie Blackamoor.

Grant tried to find a written definition for Middle England but the only one she could find, on Wikipedia, said the term referred to people who were "opposed to minorities of all types". It observed: "Daily Mail readers, for example, are often characterised as being from Middle England as are members of the Countryside Alliance."

So the Mail has undertaken an extensive research exercise aimed at changing perceptions of Middle England, with the hope that this in turn will overhaul the reputation of Mail readers themselves. Associated has even come up with a new name for Middle England - Modern MidBritain. The phenomenon has its own website, modernmidbritain.com, which will soon be home to blogging, polling and questionnaires for a vast focus group of 8,000 Modern MidBritainers.

This site's home page gives no indication of its relationship with Associated Newspapers. A "welcome" sign cites the population of Modern MidBritain as 27,409,733, and points to photographs of four friendly faces, two of them Asian, saying things like "We are 62 per cent of next year's new car purchasers" and "We spend our money on brands we value and trust". The following page shows a middle-aged and ethnically diverse group eagerly devouring the Mail titles and their supplements. "Our study has shown that Modern MidBritain is a mind set (one in which we might even recognise ourselves, or at least our family and friends!)."

Associated's definition of Modern MidBritain encapsulates 47 per cent of the population, all of them falling within one of five demographic groups listed by the research company Acorn: "wealthy executives", "affluent greys", "flourishing families", "secure families", and "settled suburbia". Grant says that 61 per cent of Mail readers fall into one of these categories.

In the film, Deeson travels the country meeting Mail readers and asking them for their views on Middle England. "I was thinking of trees and hills and green," says one. "Marks & Spencer, jumble sales and village fetes," says another. "Lord of the Rings..." says a third, before being corrected - "No, that's Middle Earth I think" - by Deeson, who writes for The Mail on Sunday and was chosen as presenter because of his appeal to adland.

The Mail readership is represented as being engaged with modern media gadgetry ("this is my iPod docker," says an elderly chap) and web-savvy ("I've been on there this morning having a sneaky surf," says a female reader).

The film is accompanied by a presentation under the heading "Are you keeping up with Mail readers?" and, according to Grant, who was hired by Associated two years ago, having previously worked on the Xfm radio brand, was intended to counter adland prejudices about Mail readers. "We knew that there was a perception about these guys (Mail readers) being technophobes, not engaged with technology and modern life. Everything we found was that these people are absolutely engaged with technology."

The film goes even further, alluding to rebel instincts among editor-in-chief Paul Dacre's supposedly conservative readership. "I was an out-and-out hippie. My dad used to call my skirts 'pelmets'," says one woman. Another recalls her attendance at a Bob Marley gig, saying: "There was that much marijuana in the concert, everyone was floating around the room."

Pictures of the Stop the War march in London in 2003 even get a look-in, as a woman comments: "We knew in 1992 that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction; that's why I went on the march, to stop the war." The Mail supported the war in Iraq.

But Grant argues that many people don't appreciate the breadth of views in the paper. "A lot of people pass comment on the Daily Mail without reading it and often you will see the same subject with three different opinions from three different columnists. That's in large part what a lot of these people turn to it for, an opinion - they might not agree with it but they are willing to listen to it."

One of the Mail readers puts it a different way: "The ranting and raving of the Daily Mail is refreshing to me."

Another praises the Mail's bravery for its forthright coverage of sensitive subjects such as immigration and Islamic fundamentalism. "I do think the Daily Mail does a great job of putting things on the table so we can talk about it. Actually I think they should be called The Guardian." Poor Toynbee might start to worry about some of her neighbours.

So what has prompted this Mail charm offensive? The daily's circulation is down 3 per cent year on year but its sales of 2,300,420 so dwarf that of its rival, the Daily Express (760,086) that it utterly dominates the middle market, as indeed The Mail on Sunday does at the weekend.

Most media agencies believe the initiative is an indication of Associated's strength, rather than weakness. It already outperforms the national newspaper advertising market and is aiming to make itself indispensable to any mainstream advertising campaign. Ford has not advertised in the Daily Mail for two years and media buyers are unhappy that Associated does not cut its advertising rates to reflect its dip in circulation. But few can afford to exclude such a powerful media outlet.

According to Ivor Gaber, professor of media and politics at the University of Bedfordshire, the Mail has a very distinct personality, which, no matter how diverse its readership might actually be, is clearly a successful formula.

"Its readers like the parallel universe which the Mail has created and they meddle with it at their peril. If, under the drive to win more advertising, they try to redirect their own particular Tardis to saner shores, they run the risk of losing their readers - not just those who live in 'Middle England' but also for those who simply enjoy pressing their nose against the glass of 'Mail-land'."

But as one former Associated Newspapers executive noted, the Mail is not likely to change its style, even though its editorial department will be fully informed of the evolving Modern MidBritain research. "There is no chance of Paul Dacre's editorship of the Daily Mail being influenced by market research. His watchword has always been 'We edit by instinct'."

JUST HOW MUCH POLITICAL INFLUENCE DOES THE 'DAILY MAIL' HAVE?

ALAN MILBURN, LABOUR MP FOR DARLINGTON

"In a sense, the Daily Mail should be taken more seriously than it is, given its dominance in the middle market, but its political positioning has put it out of the mainstream. It has been written off from the Labour Party's point of view. There was a time very early in the Blair Government when there was a meticulous process of courting the Mail, but that did not really work. It was soon clear that they were going to take a position that was anti-Tony and anti-Labour, and being so anti they have damaged their own influence. Now the Mail is being warmer to Gordon, but time will tell.

LANCE PRICE, FORMER NO 10 SPIN DOCTOR

There are a lot of people who read the Mail who are not political, but like the paper because it's well laid out. As for its influence, we gave up on the Mail early on. In the first term of the Labour Government we monitored the Mail every day and produced a rebuttal. We distributed a "Mail Watch" to all the other political journalists. I can remember one of the Mail journalists getting very wound up about it. The only reason we stopped was because it took up too much time. Although it now seems to be very kind to Gordon, it's not going to last. I'm sure he knows that.

DENIS MACSHANE, FORMER MINISTER FOR EUROPE

Although I disagree with the Mail's politics, I am in awe of its journalism. It's an intel-ligently produced paper, although you feel that its columnists are shouting at you. The paper was against the MMR injections, against Europe, and against intervention in the Balkans. As long as Labour does the opposite of what the Mail's leaders say, we know they are on the right path. The Mail is much more dangerous for the Conservatives. Whenever the Conservatives have danced to the tune of the Mail, they have found themselves in opposition.

IAN MONK, PUBLICIST AND FORMER MAIL EXECUTIVE

The Daily Mail has considerably less influence than it should in Downing Street. The Blair administration has tried to create a picture of it as the mad aunt sitting and ranting in the corner. The signs are that the Conservatives would like to do the same. I think that actually to do so is an enormous error. It is read by a very large number of people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, and one of their views is that the Mail gives them a voice in a world in which the voice of the majority is not always heard.

ANDREW NEIL, TELEVISION PRESENTER

The Mail has never been more influential. The Conservative party is trying to reinvent itself in ways that the Mail doesn't necessarily approve of, and you have a Tory leadership is very wary of falling out with the Mail, given its reach. Then you have this peculiar relationship between Gordon Brown and Paul Dacre, which makes it influential with the Government as well, because Brown knows that his image in Middle England is not what it should be, and that he's a tougher sell to them than Blair was.

JOHN WHITTINGDALE, CONSERVATIVE MP

It carries considerable political weight. Look at the influence it had over gambling legislation - its campaign, consisting of several pages day after day, caused the Conservative party to harden its position and Labour to amend the legislation. It's still influential among Conservative MPs on the basis that a large number of their constituents read it. I frequently get my constituents sending me cuttings from the Daily Mail. But I shouldn't imagine David Cameron is necessarily terribly keen on it - every now and again they're quite critical of him.

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