If you were sitting in a waiting room, and all the day’s newspapers were spread before you, which one would you pick up and read first? And if you were to ask, say, ten thousand people the same question, what do you think would be the most popular answer?
If you think it would be the Sun, you would be quite wrong. Having recently tried this experiment myself (for reasons I will not detain you with at the moment) I can reveal that the answer is the Daily Mail. And not by a small margin: nearly twice as many people chose the Mail (21%) as its nearest rivals, the Sun (12%), the Times (12%), the Daily Telegraph (11%) and the Guardian (10%). The Mail’s dominance was particularly strong among women, 24% of whom said they would pick it up first, and those aged 65 or older (27%). It was the most popular title among ABs, C1s and C2s.
Strikingly, these findings do not match the figures produced by the National Readership Survey, which puts the Sun well out in front of its daily rivals. But which paper someone read yesterday, as the NRS usefully asks for the media and advertising industry, is often determined by what their family or workmates paid to read. It is not the same as asking which one they would read if the choice was theirs, they had nothing else to do, and they didn’t have to pay for it. That tells you something about brand.
What is the political significance of this nugget? When it comes to guidance on placing political stories, it has limited application: most people do not read a newspaper most days, and I am doubtful about my additional finding that 60% of people “generally read the news about politics” – this sounds like a clever and public-spirited thing to do, so some probably awarded themselves the benefit of the doubt when answering that question. Also, there is already a strong correlation between a preference for the Mail and voting Conservative – more than half of those who said they would select the Mail voted Tory in 2010 (though this compares to nearly two thirds of Daily Telegraph choosers), and just under a third of those who voted Conservative said they would pick the Mail. While we need to keep the voters we have, to win a majority in 2015 the party needs to broaden its appeal, not concentrate it.
It is the brand point that offers the wider political lesson from our peculiar poll finding. There is something about the Daily Mail that connects with people, wherever they live and whatever their social class. I think this is less to do with the paper’s political outlook than about its consistency as a product, and the clarity and coherence of its narrative. Every article in the Mail serves as a window onto the paper’s worldview. It knows who it is speaking to, and what it is trying to tell them. When you buy the Daily Mail you know what to expect, and it delivers every time. There is something very reassuring about this. The same is true if you buy an Apple Mac, or indeed a Big Mac.
Of course, predictability isn’t everything – we can all think of people who are predictably obtuse, infuriating and wrong. A political party needs to be predictable in the sense that it is authentic, consistent, reliable, and tells a story about the world that people recognise and identify with.
The lesson we should learn from the Daily Mail is not in the way it thinks about politics. It is in the way it thinks about itself.