The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin regarded the experience of reading modern newspapers as a series of shocks comparable to those experienced around the noise of machinery in factories or the speeding cars in a busy high street. While appearing to present material relevant to their readers in a digestible form, newspapers are actually structured in a way that denies the possibility of assimilating the story to one’s own experience and so of making any judgement outside the ‘tabloid’ (tablet-like) cliché already implied in the text. ‘The principles of journalistic information,’ Benjamin remarks, including ‘freshness of the news, brevity, comprehensibility, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items,’ ‘contribute as much to this as does the make-up of the pages and the paper’s style.’ When I read a newspaper, my attention is always being disrupted: structurally I am in a state of shock.
How can this help us approach the Daily Mail, Britain’s best-selling non-red top newspaper, and its website version, Mail Online? The Mail brand is most popularly associated with enraged accounts of immigrants, benefit cheats and the EU, along with scaremongering about cancer, while its readers are habitually caricatured as scornful and paranoid ‘middle Englanders.’ But this reputation is only justified by a certain amount of the paper’s content. On closer examination the majority of the stories, taken in isolation, are comparatively benign, and written in a basically anonymous journalese befitting their anonymous attribution to ‘Daily Mail Reporter.’ Benjamin can help us here, because in the print version it is precisely the presentation of the information, the specific alternating rhythm of outrage, cosiness and health fears that go to produce its political agenda: an agenda only occasionally made explicit in the individual stories.
It is this benignity in the individual stories – and their appearance of a ‘lack of connection’ between them – that allows material from the printed paper to sit alongside luridly illustrated accounts of the foibles of minor celebrities on Mail Online: a website whose 100 million visitors per month are often far removed from the angry reactionary of the stereotype. The Mail has propagated extraordinary success in its online brand by presenting its political content only in such a mode as can be safely ignored by its more diverse online readers should they so choose. It is the pose of benignity in the stories when taken in isolation that makes this possible.
But this is where the function that allows readers to leave comments underneath Mail Online stories comes in. Despite the website’s different emphasis, the comments invariably appear as a grim parody of precisely the attitudes associated with the printed version. But it is not enough to say that this is simply the existing attitudes of the readers being given a platform. Rather, something more radical is going on. We can say that these comments represent an audacious and violent act of translation. They liberate the story from its appearance of benignity, returning it to its true political articulation in tablet form, which had threatened to be lost in the online presentation. So a reasonably neutral story about Halal meals in a prison being cooked with pork receives comments that are Islamophobic and deny the rights of prisoners; a quaint and sentimental story about a large working class family putting on an elaborate birthday party is met with comments about ‘chavs’ and suspicion over where the money for it has come from; and a story on ‘Britain’s Most Diverse Street’ attracts comments on how all of Britain is, regrettably, going that way. In this way, Mail Online represents a development of what Benjamin was observing in the 1930s. It no longer simply imposes its shock effect on us when we are reading it. It shocks itself into betraying its true content at the bottom of the page: it is, finally, a text that reads itself.