Why I've started my own Mail Online

Media moguls aren’t philosophers. So it’s time for philosophers to become media moguls

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

There are good reasons for serious people to despair of the news. A minor country singer dies, and the BBC gives him the front page. An actor dies and every channel mourns him as if a president had expired. There’s one final fact that particularly sticks in the throat of serious news people: the most followed news website in the English language, by an enormous factor, is the Mail Online, purveyor of a stream of appalling ‘human interest’ stories of the lowest kind. The clear temptation is to withdraw into the bunker and lament the decadence of a ruined age.

This would be a big mistake. We can face the facts head on: the most attractive, charming, sexy and compelling news outlets enjoy unparalleled influence over the minds of tens of millions of people. But unfortunately, they rarely put out content that might make the world a better place. At the same time, there are lots of serious, earnest, good people attempting to change things, but they put out publications full of very interesting and dense articles that only reach tiny and already-convinced audiences. So the good ideas go nowhere and the not-so-great ideas mesmerise us from every screen. Therefore, the world doesn’t change.

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 13.45.11
Alain de Botton’s Philosopher’s Mail

Take education: western education is in crisis; it simply doesn’t match up with the performance of peers in China and Korea. This is going to have major, lasting implications for middle-class wealth in Europe and the US. A few people care a lot but, strangely and shamefully, Taylor Swift’s legs are far more captivating. They are lovely in ways that seem to defy description: somehow they look ordinary, yet perfect. They are long, yet not freakish. They seem unbowed by their implausible length; both utterly firm and yet yielding and soft.

People who take education seriously tend to get apoplectic at this point. They’re not wrong. While delightful, Taylor Swift’s legs are of little significance in comparison with the fate of the western middle class. But getting angry at our fascination with the thighs of a singer is counter-productive in a democracy. We cannot be collectively dragged into being more responsible through guilt. And for a very simple reason. We don’t have to pay attention. If those who care about education are going to get angry, bitter and stern, they’ll just be ignored.

The problem is, we really do need to do something about that education. But the starting point has to be indulgence towards the way our minds work. We are interested in Taylor Swift’s legs not because we are evil,  but because we are wired in unhelpful ways. If we are going to be interested en masse in the poor international test scores, we need to take our fragilities on board and therefore get serious, very serious, about trying to make important news not just ‘important’, but also beguiling — almost as tempting to hear about as Taylor’s legs. Then things stand a chance of changing.

This is why I and some colleagues have this week started a new news outlet called, playfully, the Philosophers’ Mail: www.philosophersmail.com. The website looks identical to the ordinary Mail one, many of the stories are similar, but the content is radically different. The goal of the Philosophers’ Mail is to prove a genuinely popular and populist news outlet which at the same time is alive to traditional philosophical virtues. For too long, philosophers (like serious news-people) have been happy merely to be wise and right. This has offered them huge professional satisfaction but it has not influenced the course of society. The average work of philosophy currently reaches 300 people. Hence the challenge that explains the birth of the Philosophers’ Mail, which is rooted in the popular interests, sensibilities and inclinations of the day — but tries to read and caption the news with an eye to traditional central philosophical concerns; for compassion, truth, justice, complexity, calm, empathy and wisdom. The site views the rolling succession of the day’s news as an occasion for the development of insight, generosity and emotional intelligence.

News is not simply information about what is happening in the world. It is one of the key places where we daily shape our underlying assumptions about life — about what is important, admirable, scandalous, normal; where we rehearse attitudes to fear, hope, good and evil. This is why the news should be a major target of concern for real philosophers. The Philosophers’ Mail makes use of popular starting points — the stories a lot of people like to read and talk about already. It is generous to our natural inclinations: to read celebrity gossip, look at erotic images and read shock stories. It is sympathetic (as a starting point) to popular biases: anxiety about whatever feels foreign, a taste for vengeance, lack of empathy for the very poor, envy of the very rich, resentment of the powerful, suspicion of those who seem clever, dislike of awkward truths…

We start by acknowledging that it isn’t strange to be unnerved by a Romanian family begging on a French train; it would be thrilling to have sex with Jennifer Lawrence; one can empathise with the feeling that George Osborne doesn’t quite know what real life is like; it is natural to want to switch off when hearing about trouble in Africa.

We don’t start by asking what the wise or good or serious outlook might be. There are plenty of people pushing such lines already — for that one could turn to the Economist, or the New York Times. The epochal challenge is to reach the people who don’t engage with complex news.

The division between high and low news is at heart a fiction — which breaks down the closer one comes to it. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Flaubert all took so-called ‘low’ stories and turned them into great art. They were alive to the enduring, serious themes in regular murders and divorces. The problem is not that modern news talks too much about low subjects. It’s that it doesn’t know how to do anything serious with them, it can’t raise them into high ones, the way Sophocles could.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Alain de Botton’s books include Essays in Love and The News: a User’s Manual. www.philosophersmail.com is live now.

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Show comments
  • Chris_M_Ward

    The Daily Mail does one thing that many other papers fail to do — you can comment on articles, and you can vote on other comments. It might have no real impact, but it makes you feel involved. Some newspapers do this to some extent but it’s often badly implemented (like bing to vote ‘for’ something but not against it).
    Other newspapers that have chosen the subscription model are in self destruct mode, they may raise a small amount of cash, but their influence is minimal.

    • rtj1211

      You can comment, but if your line is not the party line, you will be censored.

      It doesn’t believe in free speech unless you agree with what they say or differ in minor ways they consider unimportant. Politeness has no correlation with censorship at the Mail Online…….

      • Mr.Bus


  • Ronovitch

    All you need to know about Alain de Bottom: 1/He makes money out of the dim, half-educated, impressionable middle classes by churning out pompous schoolgirl drivel 2/He’s very rich.

    • John Lea


      • Count Boso

        But fair

    • RichardOakes

      His work should sit nicely in the Spectator then.

    • post_x_it

      Your point being? That he shouldn’t be given a say? That he should be ostracised from polite society?

    • Liz

      Because girls are stupider than boys, geddit?

  • Troopstorm

    direct link to Mr de Botton’s site:

    • MC73


      Lord ,it’s dull…

      • Daniel Maris

        Yep, take away the pics and what have you got? De Botton sat smugly on a sofa droning on, oozing self-satisfaction from every pore.

  • Troopstorm

    one important point about the Mail Online that most people in the UK don’t realise – the Mail Online, from America , looks totally different. They use geo-location to serve up an Americanised version over there. As a result, the Mail Online is the most highly trafficked newspaper website in America… beating the NY Times..

    • Curnonsky

      To be fair, it is also more interesting than the NYT.

  • Troopstorm

    One more point – the Mail Online’s internet success is a huge lesson to newspaper proprietors who follow the pay-wall model. A prime example being The Times. Since the Times dissapeared behind a paywall, i have noticed that nobody quotes their articles, nor do they link to them. As a result, The Times has for all intents and purposes practically “dissapeared” in Internet terms. Meanwhile – the Mail has ruthlessly captured the social media space and prospered. Folks link to it, quote it , and share Mail articles via facebook etc.. It’s a valuable lesson – paywalls don’t work. If you implement a paywall for your content, you risk being Trotskyed into non-person status.

    • The News Hub

      Great point! Do you have a blog or somewhere you post similar thoughts?

    • HookesLaw

      Is the dissemination on social media of the Mail’s exposure on the latest cellulite infested actress so important? This I suppose may be a moot philosophical point.
      Meantime the Times actually makes money out of subscriptions. I have a Nexus tablet courtesy of a Times subscription. The Mail makes not a penny by having its articles about Essex nonentities shared around.

      • Clarke Pitts

        The Mail makes not a penny…
        I suspect you are wrong, they get revenue from the advertisements that appears alongside their stories. The more traffic the better (for them and their advertizers).

    • The Speccie has a lot behind a paywall, doesn’t it?

    • post_x_it

      The Guardian has also “ruthlessly captured the social media space”. Not sure if it’s prospering though.

    • mikewaller

      Yeah, but who’s going to pay for it? With the Mail, the dubious honour of being “Chief Scandalmonger and Fear Inducer to the Middle Classes” provides ample funds for its electronic freebies. However is this not yet another example of a bunch of freeloaders being funded at the expense – in this case severe cerebral damage – of the wider society?

  • Bo Adonis

    I think I really liked the idea behind what de Botton is saying. I think. The problem is that I found his description of Taylor’s Swift’s legs much more interesting. I re-read that bit several times and have now forgotten what else he said.

    • Tom Allalone

      I’m afraid I went straight onto Google images to look at them. Alain de Botton’s point was?

  • amicus

    Until now I had never heard of Taylor Swift.

    • Ohmygawdbutler

      I believe she is a member of a so-called beat combo m’lud.

  • Andrea

    The only reason it’s popular is 1) IT’S FREE!!!! And 2) Everyone can comment. It’s not rocket science!

    • Donafugata

      And The Mail is unique in that it censors comments without acknowledging that they have been deleted.

      Who knows the criteria used by the Mail for deletion, perhaps it’s simply numbers.

      The Telegraph and Speccie, Disqus notwithstanding, are the most free for expression, CIF where “comment is free”, the most censorious of all.

      • Victorianight12

        YES! Ive been waiting for someone to address that. I just made a comment on The Mail in regards to their censorship. And what I have found is that they censor the post that dont reflect their opinion, or to stir up chaos on the comments section.

    • evad666

      I agree with the move to silence dissent from the left for example Comment is not Free. The telegraph, Mail and the Express along with your journal provide an essential platform for the General Public who, as the UKIP rise shows, feel disenfranchised by the Metropolitan luvvies in the Wasteminster bubble.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Awww yeah, pal. This is a good good news story from beginning to end. We welcome it.

  • Donafugata

    Botton seems to be an agreeable and pleasant specimen of humanity, nice for cocktail parties but an olive or two short of being a philosopher.

    • Damian Rhea

      …Oops, some of my friends are recovered alcoholics.

  • NilsBoray

    This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 February 2014

    er … No it didn’t

  • Rockin Ron

    This is like the so called philosopher A.C. Grayling and his pet vanity project. Another worthless cause in the age of inanity. Can’t fail.

  • Iodine

    de Botton, is a philosopher, is a philosopher, is a philosopher etc. or so says his agent every second of every day. Anyone would think he’s $%£$ing Plato.

    He lives next to Richard Bacon and he is on that smug fool’s show most days.

    Incidentally, what on Earth is Richard Bacon doing with his own show? This is something that is causing me some degree of existential angst – answers on a postcard Mr de Botton.

  • HookesLaw

    There was me thinking The Mail Online was a spoof.

  • france john

    If you think Phil Everly is minor, I don’t know what kind of philosopher you think you are.

  • Hugh Jass

    Since people tend to wish that challenges be dealt with in a visible structured manner, centralized planning and control can be appealing.

  • Damian Rhea

    Thank you for posting a picture of the bare-legged Miss Taylor to incite my interest in this article, otherwise I would not have read it because I usually don’t read anything without at least a picture… I live in Los Angeles.

  • cjcellosociety

    I wish you goodluck but take note from P.G. Wodehouse: “Dismay, which is the perspiration of the soul, refuses to be absorbed by the pocket handkerchief of philosophy. “!

    • Daniel Maris

      Also sprach Bertie Wooster.

  • Daniel Maris

    Got to be one of the most boring, whingeing, whining, supercilious, patronising online publications available. The voice of de Botton boring on is to be heard throughout.

    He’s happy to be part of the media world himself, happy to comment on the world of celebrity, but doesn’t think the hoi polloi should be allowed the same privileges.

  • Britjourno

    Alain De Botton, this sentence sums up how smug you sound:
    “For too long, philosophers (like serious news-people) have been happy merely to be wise and right.”
    Whoever you mean by ‘serious news-people’ should not be happy being ‘right’ and nor should philosophers. The most annoying people on earth are know it alls (like you). Good journalists try and find out the truth and many stories on mail online do that. It’s an important website that gets news to millions of people. Your stories on philosophers mail are an interesting read but they’re not fact or news – they’re inventive comment.
    Do you really want a world without real news? (and by getting rid of tabloids, as you seem to want to do, you would get rid of most of the news stories that uncover scandal and injustice in the world) Your message seems to be like an anthesis of what philosophy should strive for which is TRUTH.
    Although you disparage mail online for it’s tackiness and smugly say it’s not worthy of telling the news, your website is a total unashamed rip-off of it!
    Also I wonder if you pay for the photos you use on the site, as otherwise you are also ripping off a load of photographers!

  • almondaxles

    Presumably the natural evolution of the Mail Online should be that it will be renamed The Daily Tits and Bums.

  • Michael

    The Mail Online’s choice and interpretation of photographs is what disappoints me most. There’s a line in a Neil Young song: ‘There’s more to the picture than meets the eye’. This is a piece if wisdom the MO should take on board. Photos are ‘astonishing’, ‘heart-warming’, ‘amazing’ etc – yes, maybe if you’re six year old. Speaking from Australia, the prospect of the MO coming to this country appalls me. To adapt Maurice Bowra, a country gets the media it deserves. Australia surely hasn’t hit such a terminal point as to deserve the MO.

  • Clarke Pitts

    “People who take education seriously tend to get apoplectic at this point. They’re not wrong.”

    Cobblers – I care about education and I am still more interested in pretty legs. We suffer a deluge of Henny-Penny, the sky is falling down type stories. It’s the deficit, it’s education, it’s the environment etc. There’s always plenty of issues that supposed experts and journalists use to draw attention to themselves by trying to panic, frighten or outrage the public. We are inured to it now and many prefer the innocent pleasures of popular music and winsome young ladies (or boys).

  • Archie_TP

    Shapely curves and tumescent bulges go together. It has always been so.
    Good luck with the philosophical mail.

  • 23616563

    The Mail online is possibly the English version.It bears very little similarity to the newspaper available in Scotland, Which is why I buy the Scottish edition, and read it online for articles not in the printed edition.

  • Brettblade

    Be careful about extolling the virtues of Chinese and Korean education. These systems of education have the highest suicide rate of any in the world. Neither of these systems develop creativity to any large degree which makes both countries extremely good at copying the ideas and invention of others. Western education is not glibly in crisis it is undergoing changes to meet the rapidly changing world. You know, frankly, you could probably write for the Mail given the sweeping assumption you have made.

  • Victorianight12

    The Daily mail is exclusively a site for trolls, and puff piece tabloid stories. It is a place for trolls to vent their negative feelings about celebrities, Politics, evening news stories.
    I found the site to be rather disgusting. Between the trolling and censorship of

    positive comments to reflect the personal feelings of its staff writers. There bottom line was transparent and appalling.