Language in the Media: If the Daily Mail was a person…

by Craig Evans

With multiple authors, newspapers might be expected to represent a variety of voices, but many, particularly tabloids, seem to have an overriding authorial voice expressing a single personality. This is the case with a publication like the Daily Mail whose writers tend to make similar language choices. For example, when describing an emotional state, they are more likely to use a word such as ‘fury’ instead of ‘anger’ to represent the extreme sense of their intended meaning.

This tendency to exaggerate for dramatic effect is also evident in the way news events are described. People are referred to as types (e.g. ‘unemployed youth’); generalising epithets are used to fix the idea of people’s dramatic roles (‘foul-mouthed protestors’ – ‘terrified jurors’); and figurative language is often used to describe actions (‘near anarchy erupted’ – ‘pocketed generous bonuses’).

Simplifying and dramatising the depiction of news events in this way makes them more imageable and engaging for the reader. It also helps create the impression of the Daily Mail as its own consistent identity, distinct from the sum of its parts.

But what if the Daily Mail did exist as an identity of consciousness independent of the writers and editors who create it? What kind of person would it be?

To find out, I decided to read a copy of the Daily Mail. Here’s my interpretation of its personality based on its use of language in the edition published on 9th January 2014 (the quotes used above are taken from the same edition):

 

First of all, it is a man, or a woman with a very male point of view; that much is made clear by the way it – or I should say ‘he’ – views women. There are countless examples of the representation of women in terms of their allure or appeal to men, which is then often used to accuse them of being manipulative or frivolous. This particularly applies to women who have achieved positions of power.

In one article, a female ‘aide’ to a male senior civil servant is repeatedly described using the epithet ‘blonde’. The story is about the civil servant’s suspension for the alleged misuse of public funds, and what the paper describes as an investigation into ‘his relationship with his pretty blonde chief of staff’. Here, ‘blonde’ denotes a physical attribute used to refer to a sexist stereotype of a young woman as an object of male desire. It also forms part of a schema of older powerful men being seduced by ambitious attractive younger women.

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The aide, repeatedly labelled a ‘high-flier’, is described as someone who has received rapid promotion; she is also depicted in two prominent photos at a party and socialising with friends. This contrasts with the small, official-looking headshot of her male boss, who is largely represented in terms of his status and career achievements: ‘A graduate of the University of Wales and London Business School’ he ‘took a job at the Ministry of Defence after spending 30 years with Shell, where he was a vice president in Latin America’. In contrast, the aide is represented in terms of her hobbies in a style resonant of the profile of a beauty pageant contestant: ‘Miss Clare enjoys horse riding, playing tennis and walking’.

Were the Daily Mail a single male individual as the language suggests, it would perhaps be fair to describe him as someone who is suspicious of the success of women. When talking about a female politician, he refers to her as a ‘Cameron cutie’ who has been voted the ‘sexiest parliamentarian’, and then questions how she expects to be taken seriously with such labels. Yet these are labels that he perpetuates without even explaining their source. On this evidence, misogyny might be assumed on the part of the speaker. However, a closer look at his discourse of traditional values reveals that his distrust of women in power may in fact form part of a distrust of social change in general.

He is a traditionalist who has a high regard for institutions that signify social stability and continuity. This is reflected by his preoccupation with the establishment, which represents a significant proportion of his talk. Be it reporting on ‘pushy parents’ at a ‘£10,449-a-year’ private school, aristocrat Viscount Astor’s memories of the 1960s ‘Profumo scandal’, or a young female actor’s preference for ‘Oxford students’, he rarely strays for long from his favourite subject. And his sympathy for the social elite is evident in the light-hearted nature of these stories, which is in stark contrast to his usual bleak obsession with political corruption, health scares, violent crime and the like.

A striking example of his class bias in favour of the upper echelons of society is illustrated in the way that criminal activity among the privileged is represented differently to criminal activity among the poor. In a report on the court case involving a man who ‘smashed one of (the) windows’ of his sister’s part of a shared property, causing her to ‘fear for her life’, both prosecution and defence lawyers are quoted in a balanced account of the event. The incident involving ‘feud(ing)’ siblings who live in ‘separate wings’ of a ’12th century abbey’ is said to have been ‘out of character’ for the defendant and one he ‘deeply regrets’.

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No such representation or right of reply is accorded a benefits claimant whose historic conviction for theft is used to characterise her as immoral and untrustworthy. Details of the crime are reported as part of an exposé on a woman who has appeared in a TV programme about living on benefits. In an article headlined the ‘truth’ about the woman in question, she is described as someone with ‘no scruples’ who stole from ‘the vulnerable’. This use of emotive language makes assumptions about her state of mind when the incident occurred, while implying that it is representative of her identity today.

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Implicit in this use of language in the Daily Mail is a moral judgement about crimes and the people who commit them. Had the benefits claimant’s lawyer been quoted in the same way as the ‘mansion’ dweller’s, they may have offered some mitigating arguments to explain her crime. Likewise, similar negative inferences could have been made about the identity of a man who smashes his sister’s window, namely that he has ‘no scruples’ about terrorising his sister in her own home.

The incarnation of the Daily Mail, as represented by its language, is not only someone who is quick to pass judgement on others; he also seems to take pride in doing so as a moral duty. Whenever the opportunity arises, he will refer to himself in the third person to proclaim his success at having reached the truth of the matter: ‘The Mail has long highlighted’ this, ‘(t)he Mail can also reveal’ that. On their own, such proclamations convey his inflated sense of his own importance. In the context of revelations about the alleged wrongdoings of others, they reveal how he views himself as the self-appointed defender of what he perceives to be the public’s interests.

While he may adopt a morally authoritative stance in his view of what’s happening in the world, the person represented is not as confident as his assertiveness might suggest. He will occasionally use vocabulary that jars with his usual idiolect (as much as one might be imagined for the purposes of this construct). For example, the boorish slang concoction of the adjective used to describe Damien Hirst in the description ‘megabucks artist’ sounds somewhat like a parent trying to express themselves using teen-speak. He also has a tendency to use language inappropriately, such as for the purposes of humour when the occasion doesn’t merit it. An example is the pun on the place name ‘Hell’ when discussing severe weather conditions which have resulted in 21 deaths: ‘How cold? Even Hell froze over’.

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These awkward attempts to use language in ways that seem intended to endear himself to others suggest that beneath his authoritative façade, the speaker is insecure. He wants to be accepted and liked, while struggling himself to accept and like the world he lives in. Be it women in power, food companies, or government departments, his attitude is invariably one of distrust. He thinks the worst of people, such as when asserting opinion or allegations as though they were already established facts. Take for example: ‘How ministers “caved in to the alcohol lobby”‘ or ‘Acid victim “arranged her own attack to be as famous as Katie Piper”‘. The spoken equivalent of the quotation marks used would be something like the word ‘apparently’ uttered under his breath, too quiet for anyone to notice that the assertion is only a claim.

For all his apparent insecurities and suspicions, the person depicted is not inhibited by his experiences. On the contrary, as would be expected of someone whose genesis is the language of a tabloid newspaper, he is an outspoken attention-seeker. He regularly uses exaggerating language, and will always opt to describe an event such as people shouting abuse in court as ‘mayhem’ rather than a disorderly incident. He also uses a lot of figurative language to dramatise his stories and to make them more exciting for whoever’s listening.

For example, when talking about the reduction of unhealthy ingredients in food, he asserts: ‘food giants to slash (sugar) levels by a third’; before arguing that this will help to ‘halt a wave of disease and death’ and put an end to unhealthy food items being ‘pressed on unsuspecting parents’. The metaphors used here conjure up the image of an actual giant who has been smothering parents with cakes and chocolate using its giant hand, and all without them realising what was happening. Now, though, it has been interrupted by the impending doom of a tidal wave of sugar which it will battle with its giant sword. Of course, the descriptions are not intended to be taken literally, but they do nevertheless convey a sense of danger and excitement to capture the audience’s attention.

Some may argue that the person represented by the language of the Daily Mail is an alarmist who uses dramatic descriptions to appeal to people’s fears. In this way, they will take note of what he says which will satisfy his sense of self-importance and need to always have an audience. But is this a fair assessment of his character? After all, every newspaper is attention-seeking, and the melodramatic features that characterise his language could be attributed to his personal storytelling style. Through his use of exaggerated language, it is possible to argue that he engages people who might not otherwise be interested in what’s going on in the world. Might this give him fair claim to be the voice of a particular group in society? Perhaps. But I wonder what readers would make of him were they to know him in person. In person, the disdain he feels towards women in power or poor people might be less implicit in the language of his everyday talk. Also, it is likely that his negativity might start to grate after a while.

Well, these are my thoughts. How about yours: Do you agree with my interpretation of the Daily Mail as a person? How would you describe the newspaper differently? Do you think it’s valid to view newspapers like the Daily Mail in terms of having a single authorial identity? It would be good to hear anyone’s view on this subject.

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2 comments

  1. An interesting article Craig. I agree with most of your points although personally I feel that the Daily Mail has less of an obvious affinity with / sympathy of the upper echelons of society. Perhaps it just feels this way due to it’s very obvious feeling of disdain towards ‘the lower classes’. I suppose you could argue that any allegiance with the perceived upper class could be almost as unsettling for it’s target demographic as sympathy towards those claiming any kind of state benefit?
    If the Daily Mail were a person, it would be … Alan Partridge (although this is perhaps no accident on the part of Steve Coogan and Armando Lannucci!)

    1. Thanks for the comment Dan!

      I agree that there’s maybe no overt allegiance with the social elite, but culturally their sympathies lean that way. Their affinity is probably more with the institutions that make up the establishment (courts, monarchy, church, historic schools and universities, etc), than actual human individuals.

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