Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Daily Mail is a Drug

The reason for the Daily Mail's continued growth is simple. For every story it runs it asks itself, "How can I present this story in manner that will generate a feeling of disgust in the reader?" The paper is, by now, phenomenally good at presenting news stories so that they always do generate that emotion of disgust. From that, all else follows.

Should you think that this is an over-simplification, it would be worth pausing to look again at any edition of the paper with this idea in mind.

A photograph of the Mail's editor Paul Dacre, deliberately inverted.

Disgust is not just one of our many emotions. It is bedded deep in the foundations of our psychology. It is largely generated by part of the brain known as the anterior insula. Freud linked it to our initial oral stage, and Leary & Wilson to what they called the first circuit of their eight circuit model. It is not something that is learnt, like higher emotions. All mammals are born with the hard-wired ability to feel disgust, along with its opposite, attraction. Newborns feel attraction to food and comfort, and disgust or repulsion from rotting or poisoned food or stagnant water. This is the level it affects us at.

Disgust in itself is no bad thing, of course, but the Daily Mail's use of it is a problem because of the plasticity of our brains. The nature of reactive brain chemistry means that the more the experience of disgust is stimulated, the stronger the disgust reflex becomes and the more it gets linked to higher level concepts and models. Constant, repeated stimulation over time changes the brain and alters the personality of the Daily Mail reader. There is good reason why the common stereotype of Mail readers is as it is. There is also good reason for the rise of UKIP.

In the same way that heroin is so dangerous and addictive because it stimulates the deep psychological feeling of attraction and comfort, so the repeated stimulation of disgust is also addictive. It is important to recognise this, because it is being overlooked in all the current concern about the paper's actions and press regulation.

Most people have probably heard a Mail reader say, "I know that it is awful, but I can't read any of the other papers." Other newspapers do not provide that guaranteed hit of disgust that long-term Mail readers need. This is why they continue to buy the newspaper, even though they know how bad it is for them. It is not an act of free will. They are ill, they are addicts, and they need help. Mail readers simply cannot just switch to the Mirror, Times or Independent. They need to go cold turkey through a period of withdrawal.

Disgust-addiction is a terrible thing. It means that people spend their lives believing that the world is terrifying and cruel, when that is not the case. There is an argument that people have the right to their Daily Mail hit, of course, but we should remember that this is a public health issue, and it needs to be considered as such.

There are no easy answers. But one thing is clear: If you are a Daily Mail reader with a partner who would be expected to care for you when you become old and infirm, and if you do love that partner, then for their sake quit now.

If you still can, of course.