As my identity as an academic has evolved I feel that I have also become something of a cliché. I read the Guardian, listen to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme and read certain types of novels (such as Barbara Pym who is surprisingly in vogue at the moment among a certain group of female academics). There is, however, one area of my media consumption that doesn’t quite fit the pattern and about which I feel some discomposure. It is my regular engagement with the Daily Mail. It is the only news service which I think twice about sharing on social media for fear of vilification among my peers. Like many people, I find some of the Daily Mail’s editorial policy questionable at best. Nevertheless, I still find myself reading its stories on a fairly regular basis.
One reason for this is that the Daily Mail regularly publishes stories relating to the Victorians. As someone who researches in the field of Victorian Studies, it’s hard for me not to gravitate to their articles. I want to know how the nineteenth century is represented and presented to modern audiences and the Daily Mail is in fact a particularly good place to start. At the same time, anybody who knows me will be fully aware that I am something of a ‘gossip’. Whether this was something that emerged from my early reading of the Daily Mail I will never know, but for as long as I can remember the Daily Mail has been the only national newspaper that my parents have bought.
My parents were not unaware of the paper’s social politics. My left-leaning step-dad hated buying it (but did so nevertheless, he claimed, for my mother) and my childhood memories of the newspaper are of him plonking it onto our dining-room table with an air of protest. My mother, on the other hand, reinforced the idea that this paper was primarily aimed at women by heading straight to the ‘Femail’ sections of the Saturday and Sunday supplement. For me this has meant that I have tended to continue to read their light pieces and dismiss the news; something that is increasingly easy to do now that we have the internet. (I wonder now how historians will be able to understand or contextualise newspaper readership in the future?).
More important to me at the moment is how our current demonization of the Daily Mail stands with our students. As I’ve moved around the country I have increasingly seen students’ bewilderment at my concealed jokes about the Daily Mail. Not all students are middle class or have been brought up with left or liberal politics.
Yet, the recent digitisation of the Daily Mail has enabled a new engagement with this paper for both students and myself. For instance, I had some great primary source reflections from my Victorian Cities students who enjoyed the way that slumming was discussed in the Daily Mail. This leads me to my own research. If it wasn’t for the Daily Mail I would not have discovered that ‘Toynbee Hall’ was usually shorthand for slightly priggish behaviour in their ‘Green room’ gossip segments or that they adored the work of Arthur Winnington-Ingram, warden of Oxford House and Bishop of London. Most surprising to me was when I discovered that one Toynbee Hall settler Henry Ward had a chauffeur driven car while working at the settlement house. How did I found this out? Through the Daily Mail’s court coverage of Ward’s chauffeur who was caught ‘driving a motor car while drunk’. We might not like the Daily Mail but it does provide us with alternative glimpses into the past and the present. Just don’t judge me if I tweet its articles!