2024 General Election

Why is Nigel Farage taking on the Daily Mail?

Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail were previously close ideological bedfellows. Now, the leader of Reform UK is feuding with the newspaper over a controversial headline linking him to Putin’s ideology. Farage accuses the Mail of dishonesty and even threatens legal action.

Why is Nigel Farage taking on the Daily Mail?

W hile we might expect a Labour leader to feud with the rightwing Daily Mail during an election campaign, it is a somewhat surprising turn of events for Nigel Farage, leader of Reform UK.

Farage’s return to frontline politics has been far from quiet, reaching new decibels with his comments to the BBC suggesting that the West provoked Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The comments themselves provoked rebuke from Keir Starmer, Rishi Sunak and a number of other top Conservatives, as well as former prime minister Boris Johnson.

Now, Farage is embroiled in an unprecedented feud with the Daily Mail. The Mail on Sunday’s front page printed the headline: “Zelensky: Farage is infected with ‘virus of Putin’”. Farage has threatened legal action, accusing the Mail of “dishonesty” and a breach of the editors code because the quote did not specifically include Farage’s name, and did not come directly from Zelensky. The Mail’s reporting attributes the full quote – “The virus of Putinism, unfortunately, infects people” – to a source from Zelensky’s office.

In a five minute 28-second rebuttal video, Farage accused the Mail of colluding with the Kremlin to “protect the dying Conservative party”:

“[The Mail] are doing this to protect their friends, the dying Conservative party … somehow the owner of the Mail, Lord Rothermere, thinks that’s my fault. It’s not. They have destroyed themselves with five years of betrayal and broken promises.”

— Nigel Farage, posted on X (formerly Twitter)

He even likened his situation to a hugely controversial forged document published in the Daily Mail four days before the 1924 general election. The Zinoviev letter, now believed to have been fabricated by anti–Communist Russian activists, claimed that Labour’s relationship with Russia would lead to a communist revolution in Britain. It was a significant part of the red scare and was used to discredit the first Labour government.

Farage said: “It is the most disgraceful and dishonest political and journalistic act of the entire 20th century, and now the Daily Mail 100 years on are trying to do the same again. They’re trying to stop Reform UK breaking through in big numbers into the British parliament.”

However, despite its polling gains, Reform has somewhat less of a chance of being the ruling party than Labour in 1924. It should also be noted that whether or not the Zelensky quote was misused or exaggerated, the broader assertion that Farage’s original comments buy into a well-established Kremlin line on the war in Ukraine is a lot harder to refute.

Farage and the Mail were previously close ideological bedfellows (a petition of 50,000 signatures once referred to former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as the “Nigel Farage of Newspapers”). But the two are now at loggerheads, sabres rattling.

The Mail on Sunday ominously said in an editorial: “A man who wants to be prime minister can no longer just say anything he feels like saying. From the moment he lets that ambition be known, he is judged by far more severe and intrusive standards than before.”

Recent history shows that anyone with ambitions to be prime minister is certainly judged severely by the Mail group (unless they are a Conservative). In 2015, Ed Miliband, who was then Labour leader, was routinely referred to in its pages as “Red Ed”, son of the “man who hated Britain”.

Miliband was pilloried relentlessly by the daily edition of the newspaper as being completely ineffectual and dangerous. Jeremy Corbyn, the scourge of the right, was also ridiculed and delegitimised by the Mail, including a remarkable June 2017 edition that dedicated 13 pages (including the front) to describing Corbyn and allies as “apologists for terror”.

Farage is clearly showing he is unwilling to sit back and take the criticism. At a rally on June 24, he called former prime minister (and now Mail columnist) Boris Johnson, “morally repugnant” and accused him of “pretending to be a Conservative”.

All news is good news

This is a remarkable transformation in the relationship between Farage and the Mail newspapers. But it is part of the narrative of Farage’s parliamentary campaign.

The whole furore is the latest version of Farage’s very Trump-like conflict with the establishment. Farage – himself a presenter on the “outsider” GB News channel – has shaped his political persona around being a beleaguered, ordinary citizen victimised by banks and other privileged institutions.

Who better to represent the ignored, exploited masses? As a giant of the UK’s legacy, establishment media, the Mail is, therefore, the enemy of the people Farage purports to represent.

Farage may also be taking a gamble that the power of the press is waning in the digital age. It is certainly true, as has been widely written, that the influence of the right-wing press is not what it was in this TikTok age.

Maybe it never was as powerful as the Sun liked to claim it was, as far back as the election of 1992. But it is still the case that press sets the broadcasting news agenda.

It’s not that the media tells us what to think, it’s that it tells us what to think about. And for Farage, whose political career thrives on attention (if not popularity), as long as we are thinking about him, he’s winning.



▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 30 June 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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