The editor of the Daily Mash has said “there’s always an angle” for a joke – even when the regimes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson seem beyond satire.
Tom Whiteley said it can feel like it’s “very difficult to get a word in edgeways” when the US President “satirises himself so accurately”.
He gave the example of Trump bragging in 2016 that he is “much more humble than you would understand”.
Whiteley told Press Gazette: “I thought ‘this is one of our stories’, so it’s hard to do. But there’s always room, there’s always an angle, there’s always something.
“When Boris Johnson came in [as Prime Minister] there was a little bit of exhaustion, going ‘we’ve been taking the piss out of this man for years, is there really any more we can do with him?’
“But there’s always something, so I don’t know if it necessarily makes any difference that the times are quite so self-satirising.”
The Daily Mash, which launched in 2007, saw record audience levels around the initial UK lockdown period in March, briefly doubling its usual readership of about 2m adults a month.
Whiteley said this was because “people wanted to read something that reflected their experience and gave them a sense of where they were in a very confusing and frightening time”.
The traffic spike began to flatten out after a couple of months as people got “sick of just being locked in and the Zoom calls and everyone making the same jokes and having the same frustrations”, Whiteley said.
The site’s biggest ever story with around 15m views came after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 with the idea that the Queen had claimed she could legally kill him with a sword when he came to the UK.
“My wife works in a school and she said she knew how big it had become when about three days after the story was published one of the kids said to her ‘Miss, did you know the Queen’s allowed to kill Donald Trump?’ Whiteley said.
“And these are 13-year-olds who are not big fans of political satire so that’s easily the biggest story we’ve ever had.
“But again, we do well off big stuff happening,” Whiteley said, pointing to some “decent hits” on the morning last week it broke that Trump had tested positive for Covid-19.
“We did very well when the Brexit vote happened, we do well out of elections, we did well out of Trump being elected,” he said.
“It’s a strange business because the world’s misfortune is your gain. Nobody likes to read a satire story about everything going well and everyone being happy.”
James Carter, chief executive of Digitalbox which bought the ad-funded Daily Mash for £1.2m last year and student website The Tab last week, believes there is “definitely potential” to double the site’s audience due to its “hugely broad resonance”.
“There’s a lot of people that appreciate the humour, that’s why it’s got real potential for growth in lots of demographics – my mum enjoys it and my son enjoys it, that’s what’s so interesting about it,” Carter told Press Gazette.
Capturing ‘hidden truths’
Despite the site’s spoofing, Whiteley said it is “quite journalistic” in nature with a perhaps surprising amount of fact-checking.
“You’re looking to capture people’s first thought before they have it… and make them laugh with the absurdity of it all, the hidden truth of it,” he said.
Whiteley is himself a former local journalist with the South Wales Argus and Stoke Sentinel who had moved into corporate communications before going full-time at the Daily Mash.
He works with another co-editor and a deputy editor with content from a team of about 15 part-time writers who write for the site alongside day jobs in local journalism and TV/radio comedy writing.
Local journalists have the right skills – “being able to write fast, accurately, concisely and to a deadline” – and the right sense of “absurdity”, according to Whiteley.
“I suppose you can’t work in journalism for very long without having a sense of the absurdity of it.
“You start to see behind the scenes and realise how much of this is pretty ridiculous from the outset… it is about having a specific angle on the Mash sense of humour which is just trying to highlight the ridiculous of what’s going on by changing one detail.”
He added that he does an “incredible amount of fact-checking given we’re technically making everything up”.
“We might claim that Jacob Rees Mogg is a clockwork automaton but then everything else in the story will be entirely accurate so we’ll have him as North East Somerset MP, we’ll have the number of kids right, we’ll have every detail right just so it seems funnier because everything else is accurate, everything else seems true to life – it’s just that one little thing is slightly off.”
‘Left-wing’ comedy bias
The site’s political content has been accused of having an anti-Brexit bias, including by friends of Whiteley, but he insisted that isn’t the aim.
Last month the Daily Telegraph reported the BBC’s new director-general had set his sights on tackling perceived left-wing bias in the corporation’s comedy shows, including Daily Mash spin-off the Mash Report hosted by Nish Kumar.
Whiteley said: “You’re just trying to point out the ridiculousness or the hypocrisy in everything.”
“So Brexit was the target because Brexit was happening and because four and a half years after beginning Brexit we still just seem to be hoping the Northern Ireland problem will go away. But we laughed just as much at Jeremy Corbyn.
“We probably haven’t laughed that much at Keir Starmer yet but he’s really yet to make a huge impact on what’s going on.
“So you’re trying not to necessarily be apolitical but always to be that critical voice.
“It’s difficult to say because I’ve been here eight years and we’re yet to have a Labour administration so we’ve always been criticising the Tories but we were just as merciless about Nick Clegg when he was part of the Government as well.”