Three days before the US Presidential election, the day after Osama Bin Laden released a new tape aimed at the American people with potentially huge polling consequences, the front page of the Daily Mail screams ‘VILLAGES HELD TO RANSOM’. Indeed. According to the Daily Mail, “villagers are being blackmailed into paying exorbitant sums for land to keep Gipsies out”. It is hard to see quite what new evidence has come to light to force the reappearance of Ossie B off our front pages, but equally, this tells you pretty much everything you need to know about one of Britain’s most popular newspapers.

Hot on the heels of the terrifying gipsy hordes, Osama comes in at a slightly disappointing Page 2, taking up marginally less space than the coverage of Colin Montgomery’s new girlfriend and a montage of her various wealthy exes on Page 3. ‘See our photo gallery of other old charmers who attract beautiful women at’, a caption, hilariously, reads. Go on ladies, calm yourselves. The message is clear – this, ladies and gentlemen, is what you should aspire to. Unlike the ‘bored sisters, 14 and 15, in race to get pregnant’ on Page 11 (“and now they’ve succeeded, they both want council houses to go with their haul of benefits”).

Onto Page 4, where ‘Blair signs away our birthright (with no mandate from the British voter)‘ – the European Constitution naturally. Despite the fact that a) he is our elected representative, like it or not, and b) we get a referendum on it anyway.

But its the double spread on Pages 6-7 that’s the real killer. ‘70% say No to super-casinos’, apparently. Fair enough, the gambling bill is an important piece of legislation which needs to be debated and may have a major impact on the future character and appearance of many of our cities. The Mail, though, goes straight for the pictures of two women, horrifically battered, with the caption ‘How gambling addiction drove a thug to do this’. The gambling habits, or lack of, of Colin Montgomery and friends are not mentioned.

There’s the rub. Of all the discussion of various fears, both silly and genuine, on this blog over the past month, no one has really mentioned the exploitation of such fears. This is Daily Mail heartland – its tack is to scare middle-aged housewives round to its way of thinking. Understandable and genuine fears (violent crime and terrorist attacks, principally, but also unemployment and falling house prices) are used to engender distrust of immigrants, travelers, Europe, drugs, alcohol, big cities in general, anything the Labour government can even remotely be held responsible for. For god’s sake, just say ‘VOTE TORY’ and get it over with, will you?

Its easy to dismiss all this as mere tabloid hysteria, but the Mail’s air of outright respectability is what makes it threatening. The idea is that by appealing to the vicar’s wife (all those healthy eating and smart dressing tips), extreme opinions become acceptable (capital punishment, ffs). Whether you think it works is up to you, but I leave you with a story from about a year ago. The local community was in uproar! Someone had stolen the Blackheath donkeys which were used to give rides for children outside Greenwich Park. Pub opinion was divided over the motivation for such a crime, ranging from “I think someone just did it for a laugh”, from myself, all the way to “well, I think it was the illegal immigrants, stealing them for food”, from an otherwise intelligent and generally liberal acquaintance of mine. The fact that no one laughed in her face confuses and disturbs me to this day.

(For the record, I did actually buy a copy of the Mail today for research purposes. I solemly promise that I will give double the 70p cover price to a gay asylum-seeking single mother this very afternoon).