Here’s a cast-iron law of the media in 21st-century Britain: the hysteria about a Daily Mail article will always be worse than the Daily Mail article itself. It will be more silly, shrill, over-the-top, reactionary and potentially harmful to public life than the polemic or editorial or sidebar shot of a half-dressed celeb it is raging and spluttering against. You can hold me to this. Go through the archives of Twitterstorms about the Daily Mail — they number in the gazillions — and you will see it’s the same every time: every bad thing the Mail has said or done has paled into insignificance in comparison with the hot, mad 24-hour fury of the Twits it has generated.
Consider ‘Legs-it’. Or ‘The Legs-it Controversy’, as history might well record it: the way people are talking about it right now you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking it’s a media scandal of epic, epoch-quaking proportions. On the front page of today’s Mail there’s a shot of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon at their chat yesterday about the future of the UK. Both are wearing skirts that come above their knees and nice sheen tights. Both have attractive legs, but I know you’re not allowed to say that, so I won’t. The Mail’s choice of headline to accompany this shot? ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!’
Now, to you and me and most people who have better things to do with their time than have paroxysms of fury on Twitter — like work or raise children or go to the pub — this might look like standard tabloid fare. Like the kind of thing Britain’s red-tops and rabble-rousing papers are good at and world famous for: doing puns; being cheeky; drawing readers into a political story with a laugh or a nod-and-wink for fear that a leaden, FT-style headline would turn them off, or anaesthetise them. But we’re wrong, apparently. And probably misogynistic creeps into the bargain. Because actually that Legs-it front page is a crime against decency and a threat to women’s equality and proof that Brexit Britain is a foul, bigoted place.
Like clockwork, the always primed army of online offence-takers, whose fuel is outrageous Daily Mail articles — they consume them like Moloch consumes babies — kicked into action. The Mail is dragging us back to the Fifties, they cried. It’s Neanderthal, nasty, possibly fascistic: the Daily Heil, as people so wittily say. ‘Sniffing glue is healthier for the brain than reading the Daily Mail’, said one tweeter. This view of the Mail as bad for your health, and for the nation’s health, is widespread. Apparently this one front page, this sinful headline, could put women off public life. Nicky Morgan said this ‘deliberately demeaning’ headline could ‘put people off adopting high-profile careers’. Other politicians lined up to heap ‘shame’ on the raucous rag. This ‘sexism’ must be ‘consigned to history’, said Jeremy Corbyn, and then: ‘Shame on the Daily Mail.’ ‘Shame’ — they’re all saying that, like self-satisfied priests pointing a bony finger of judgement at some poor blighter who did a bad thing.
Things have gone so daft that ‘Legs-it’ is the lead story on the Guardian’s rolling politics blog. People have even complained about it to the press watchdog. You sad, prissy tell-tales. Give me a blokeish headline-writer at a tabloid over a self-important squealer to officialdom any day of the week. At least the headline-writer only wants to entertain me (whether he succeeds or not is another matter) rather than protect me from sexism and saucy front pages.
Madly, Theresa May is now being condemned for refusing to condemn the Daily Mail! May’s spokesperson said: ‘You would not expect me to comment on what newspapers should or should not put on their front pages.’ This strikes me as an eminently sensible and even liberal approach. May doesn’t want to be the kind of politician that tells off the press for having published certain things. Good on her. PMs should never do that. It’s overreach, and a species of tyranny. Yet today, such is the anti-Mail bloodlust, so intense is the campaign for the Mail to be shamed and censured, that people are angry at the PM for not bossing the tabloids about. It’s surreal. Their demand is basically: ‘What do we want? More political condemnation of the press! When do we want it? Always!’
Everything in the fury about Legs-it is more obnoxious than Legs-it itself. The patronising and genuinely sexist notion that women might be turned off from public life by one iffy headline; the pleading with press regulators to rap the Mail’s knuckles; the ugly, censorious fury; the speed and intensity with which orgies of outrage can now come to dominate public discussion — all of this is worse, measurably, tangibly worse, than anything the Mail said in its paper this morning. Everyone needs to calm down. It’s a headline. It will be forgotten. Stop this raging against everything you don’t like. It’s nuttier and nastier than anything I’ve seen in a tabloid.