It may be hard for younger readers to believe, but the Daily Mail used to have class. Sure, it has always been on the wrong side of history, labouring tirelessly through time to make the case for fascism. This august British institution has never been too shy to jettison reason and kindness in favour of the hard-boiled necessity of creating a political dystopia. But in matters of the personal savaging, if those behind it brought you down, it was because they’d camped outside your house for two weeks, or perhaps compromised your friends.
They at least paid you the respect of some elbow grease. The charge sheet would be original, not the same old muck any diligent reader could find in the subject’s autobiography. The accusations would be substantive, not half-understood, partially rendered tax set-ups that paled into insignificance beside the newspaper’s own non-domiciled proprietor. (Dig into that conundrum, and the unspoken principle is that it doesn’t matter when rightwingers avoid tax, because they don’t believe in it: even though they do believe in road infrastructure and up-to-the-minute safety equipment for our brave boys on the front. “Hypocrisy” is too strong a word; you need coherent beliefs in order to breach them.)
These days, they revel in their own indolence: “You don’t even have to look very hard,” begins their latest Gary Lineker sting, for which they popped down to Companies House to discover that the former footballer was a signatory to the Ingenious Media scheme, a tax avoidance vehicle. The extent of Lineker’s involvement potentially taking upwards of 20 more minutes to discover, they satisfied themselves instead by imagining how much tax he would have avoided had he invested £1m.
Is it ideal, even if legal, for any celebrity to do anything but declare all their income in an uncomplicated manner? Not really. Does it destroy Lineker’s credibility, in the matter of making a humanitarian case for a better refugee policy, or signing a petition to stop Donald Trump’s state visit? It does not. You actually don’t have to be leftwing to believe that desperate people shouldn’t be left to drown in the Aegean while the world’s richest continent looks on.
To think of Trump as a base and dangerous bigot who brings his office into disrepute is a reasonable, centrist position. Yet in the coarsened world-view of the Daily Mail, there is a place called the moral high ground, where resides all empathy, all humanitarianism, all solidarity, all optimism, all standards of decency and respect, all hopes of pooling resources for the creation of a better future.
To cleave to any of these notions is to seek entry to the high ground, yet its visa requirements are pretty stringent: it’s not enough to pay tax, you are also responsible for your spouse’s will. Tony Benn, on his death, was declared a fake because his wife had left her property wealth to their children rather than to him; in fact, tax be damned, you are a fake anyway if you live in an expensive house.
Particular ire is reserved for those whose fame is from an apolitical source – pop stars, footballers, actors – since they are the greatest threat to the fiction that all normal people think like the Daily Mail. Golden Globe and Bafta speeches that stray into politics, and off the usual bland thanks to the production team, leave the organ apoplectic. Nor can it sit idly by while a judge who is “openly gay” and has fenced in the Olympics performs his professional duty; or when a high court judge reaches a decision on Europe if he has in the past served on an EU select committee. A melange of insinuation and random insults leaves everyone tainted.
The straightforward aim is to undermine any case for human decency by creating a toxic anti-halo over those who make it. But the secondary effect is the more important: it frightens people off the territory. The reputational damage is immediate. In response Lineker can tweet, as he did, that he has always paid his taxes on time and in full. It doesn’t matter; the Mail trades on the fact that a vague eau de wrong’un will cling to him. The reality it seeks is one in which only senior members of the Church of England, who are genuinely holier-than-thou, are allowed to give a view. When a leftwing agenda can only be taken forward by a leftwing saint, it will be quiet enough for the Mail’s liking.
Those in the eye of one of these confected storms are never very good candidates for solidarity: by dint of riches or position, they seem as though they can take care of themselves. And yet solidarity is the only way to meet it.
First they came for the pop singer-songwriters, and I did not speak up because I was not a pop singer-songwriter, then they came for the judges, then they came for the footballers … and enough, already. Stand with Gary Lineker. He’s a decent guy.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010