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Capturing readers' hearts and fears

It is a rare accolade for any editor to be called "influential", even more so when this description comes from another newspaper. When the Guardian named its 100 biggest influences on social policy there was Paul Dacre, Daily Mail editor.

He was in the top 10, alongside the general secretary of Unison, the boss of Capita, Ken Livingstone and assorted quangocrats and Whitehall advisers.

This was because Dacre's paper had helped "shape the Government's populist and punitive approach to many social problems".

The Guardian quoted xenophobic attacks on asylum-seekers and the "lock 'em up" approach to criminals but it could easily have added Dacre's agenda on education: sack the trendies, expel the troublemakers, close failing schools and keep exams as they were in 1950.

Indeed, the Mail's influence on education has been greater and more consistent than on any other area of social policy. Governments have been following its "back to basics" views since the early 1970s when Margaret Thatcher, then education secretary, acknowledged the Mail's part in persuading her to declare war on "reading failure".

The Mail's success is curious. Many people think it goes back to the era of the late Sir David English, Dacre's predecessor. But though English held the Mail's circulation steady while its rival, the Daily Express, declined steeply, its big surge followed Dacre's accession in the early Nineties.

The electorate was then beginning to swing towards Labour - though the party did not take power until 1997, the polls suggested it could have won an election at any time after 1993. So as voters became more Labour, a Tory paper became more successful. This is not the only paradox.

The Mail thinks women should stay at home and look after their husbands and children. It stoutly opposes divorce and easy abortion. Yet it is more successful than any other paper at attracting youngish, middle-class career women. It portrays teachers as sinister left-wing ideologues, bent on subverting the morals and politics of the young, and denounces state schools for tolerating violence, laziness and underachievement. Yet tens of thousands of teachers read it: I have been inside dozens of state school staffrooms and I think I have only ever seen three papers - the Guardian, The TES and the Mail.

What is the explanation? Is everybody a masochist? Perhaps the answers are purely technical. Any journalist will tell you that the Mail is an exceptionally well-produced paper.

But I think there is more to it than that. The Mail plays on readers'

fears: of aliens invading their towns, of drug-pushers taking over their streets, of paedophiles stalking their children, of disease crippling their bodies, of criminals breaking into their homes, of economic forces reducing house prices, of playground bullies and staffroom trendies ruining their local school and so on. To enter Dacre's world is to enter a world of anxiety.

The Mail doesn't speak to people's values or beliefs, still less to their brains. It speaks to their mood. Its success among the upwardly mobile - those who have just about made it into the middle-classes and those about to do so - is easily explained: such people are desperately anxious and insecure about their new-found status. Teachers themselves are classically defined as an upwardly-mobile group (a high proportion had working-class parents) and have largely been reduced to gibbering wrecks by how education has been run for the past decade.

Whether governments should take so much heed of what is really just mood music is another matter.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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