A recent Daily Mail headline celebrated the “end of human rights”. The social media response was appropriately derisive. Front-page dismissal of the concept of human rights is something of a watershed moment for any publication – but how does this attitude dovetail with the paper’s general interests?
To find out, I took an overall view of today’s online front page and broke down how the Daily Mail represents different people. My two main findings: about fifty per cent of the articles were about ISIS, and about twenty per cent involved gendered portrayals of women.
These are the screenshots from which I’ll be working:
The front page had a lot more content further down. If my patience were as exhaustive as the columns of articles, we could go through them all – but I suspect the above sample will already test my tolerance to the limit. Let’s get cracking and find out.
I’ll break my analysis down into the two categories that most of the content fell into: 1. ISIS, and 2. Gendered depictions of women.
Around fifty per cent of the content examined was about ISIS.
As illustrated by the highlighted screenshot above, approximately fifty per cent of this selection – that is, half of the most prominent front-page content – was about ISIS. More specifically, the front page emphasised Western victimhood at their hands.
In the text of the top story, “British” is ISIS victim Alan Henning’s first descriptor; the fact that Jihadi John shares his nationality got a mention later, but this is qualified by the latter’s opposition to the British government and by his next victim, U.S. citizen Peter Edward Kassig, also being Western. In short, the top story is one in which jihad threatens the West.
This is followed up with some rhetoric reminiscent of a Victorian tabloid covering Jack the Ripper: “Cold-eyed killer with a sickening lust for murder, humiliation and torture: Hunt for Jihadi John steps up as masked monster beheads his FOURTH victim in chillingly familiar style”. One can only assume the writer was working off a Dickensian villain adverb list.
In smaller type, we have stories about a “supermarket jihadi” who left Britain to fight for ISIS; another story about Alan Henning, the “ordinary taxi driver” killed by ISIS; and David Cameron leading “condemnation” of ISIS.
The niche phenomenon of hating ISIS is finally extended to non-Western actors with a headline reading: “Hospitals shut down and boys sent to terror camps in Syrian stronghold… while ISIS fighters dine out in 5-star restaurants”. Beneath this article, we learn that “UN report confirms ISIS’s atrocities across Iraq”, and “How former U.S. Ranger threatened with beheading fought in Iraq and then returned to Middle East to run Syrian aid group”. These stories gesture at dealing with Muslims victimised by ISIS, but never approach showing them with positive agency – let alone being victimised by a Western actor.
It is gapingly true that these stories are important and warrant some coverage. As a British newspaper, the Daily Mail can understandably claim that its main remit lies in following British interests. But the Muslims suffering from hate crimes in Britain do not rate a single mention in this entire swathe taken from the front page. They greatly outnumber the tiny minority of British Muslims who leave to join ISIS, one of whom gets prominent billing here. In a country awash with ever-rising Islamophobia, the decision to represent Muslims only as violent or passively dependent on Western intervention, and to give no voice to Muslims who actively disagree with ISIS and/or suffer from Islamophobically motivated attacks, cannot be viewed as apolitical.
2. Gendered depictions of women
About twenty per cent of the content involved gendered depictions of women.
By “gendered depictions”, I mean representations of women that emphasise conservative notions of femininity. For my purposes, I’ve bracketed together a few forms of this: sexualised portrayals, heteronormative portrayals, maternal portrayals, and so on. Similar to how not all of the ISIS articles seemed necessarily Islamophobic in themselves, I’ll point out that I don’t contend all of these articles are individually sexist – just that they form a pattern worth examining.
The sexualised depictions predominate. A “posh X Factor star” goes to “sex parties” and is “allegedly fan of orgies”; Usain Bolt “cosies up to buxom blonde”; Jasmin Walia “shows off her incredible bikini body”; Sam Faiers is “looking “grrrrreat!” (she’s presumably earned every “r” for this feat); Ferne McCann goes demure in white form-fitting dress”; Jessica Wright “rocks sexy black leather pants”; Lady Gaga “makes heads turns as she puts her derrière on display”; Naomi Campbell “dazzles in a sleeveless blazer and skin-tight leggings”.
On this front page, successful women are scrutinised over their sex lives, are defined by their physical characteristics, are assumed to have dressed provocatively for other people’s sake, and – worst of all – are understood as having offered up their bodies for public delectation merely by showing up at events in outfits. If all that exhausts you, then just imagine how much more exhausting it must be for the women themselves. Sexualised depictions don’t always objectify women – but if most depictions are sexualised without the involved consent of the women themselves, it’s hard not to form judgements about what the paper thinks of us.
Other women are dissipated, incompetent: “Zoe Ball admits breaking her sobriety after six years of abstinence”; “Kim Kardashian hits back at claims she forgot daughter North while leaving her Paris hotel”. On reading the articles, the former incident turns out to be minor, the latter a fiction.
Elsewhere, women are untrustworthy, manipulative, materialistic: “Lydia Bright admits she’s only with James ‘Arg’ Argent because of the show”; “Picking out the perfect ring? Geordie Shore’s Holly Hagan and boyfriend Kyle Christie spotted at the jewellers”; “‘It’s a shameless money grab’: LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian claim ex-maid is trying to fleece them with sham lawsuit”. The engagement story could be quite innocent in itself, but surrounded as it is by women using men for personal gain, it begins to resonate of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. You can only get through so many blatantly misogynistic headlines before hating women becomes a genre expectation.
On the “Madonna” side of the dichotomy, women dutifully pursue relationships and procreation with men: “No blues here: Lucy Mecklenburgh beams as she steps out in wooly jumper and ruffled skirt… following her cinema date with new beau Gethin Jones”; “Liv Tyler covers up her growing baby bump in flowy maternity dress after pregnancy news is confirmed”; “It’s official! George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin’s wedding certificate revealed as they share more wedding snaps in Italy’s Vanity Fair”.
No queer relationships, and certainly no Mail-sanctioned praise for being in one.
Isolated portrayals are just that: isolated. They can always be muddied or chipped away at, accounted for, made not-sexist, made not-racist. The broader picture is harder to deny. In its overall attitudes towards marginalised people, the Daily Mail lays the groundwork for that outrageous human rights headline. Of course they think the EU are intruding on British sovereignty: rights-based interference is geared toward protecting the sort of people the Daily Mail lets down.
Today’s front page did, however, reveal one light at the end of an otherwise imponderably dark tunnel. The Daily Mail has discovered at least one way of avoiding misogyny in portraying women: posting articles that say literally nothing.
Illustration: Naoise Dolan