Among the glowing tributes to Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre – who has announced he will step down in November after 26 years at the helm – I have yet to spot one that mentions this description of his methods from a recent unauthorised history of the newspaper:
On the editorial floor, Dacre was very much proving to be “insensitive” to some of his staff as he prowled his domain. The word “cunt” remained his favourite expletive, to be fired at anyone who displeased him.
I have never met the man but, for me, this captures the very essence of the newspaper he nurtured and edited over the past 26 years. The words suggest an aggressive, overconfident, macho thug who instils fear both inside and outside the newsroom.
In his tribute to Dacre, the Mail’s (non-domiciled) proprietor, Lord Rothermere, describes him as “the greatest Fleet Street editor of his generation”. Well, to quote Evelyn Waugh’s fawning editor from Scoop: “Up to a point Lord Copper”.
Of course, it all depends on what is meant by “greatest”?
As a propagandist Dacre has had few peers. One of his greatest “achievements” was to set Brexit in motion. He did this despite his boss Lord Rothermere being widely thought of as a “Remainer”, although there was never any suggestion that Dacre’s position was imperilled by his suicidal mission to help take Britain out of the EU.
But Brexit was only the culmination of, what for me, was Dacre’s greatest skill – his ability to convince editors, journalists and – most importantly of all – politicians, that by some weird chemistry the Daily Mail (and by implication its editor) had exclusive access to the pulse of “Middle England”.
Broadcast editors, consciously or otherwise, would slavishly follow the Mail’s news agenda. And politicians were even more spineless, fearing the wrath of Dacre and his cohorts if they were seen to breach the Mail’s interpretation of what Middle England (note, not “Middle Britain”) was apparently thinking.
For Dacre’s wrath could be biblical. We should not forget his disgraceful full-frontal attacks on the independence of the judiciary, or the right of backbench MPs to carry out their constitutional duties. But his attack on the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, via an appalling character assassination of the politican’s father was a low point.
Fellow journalists might accuse me of failing to recognise Dacre’s abilities as a tabloid editor. But praising his undoubted achievements in the arenas of newspaper circulation and profitability, is like praising Donald Trump for his ability to to work a crowd or create a Twitter storm, ignoring the message and the motivation.
But what about Dacre’s widely praised response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence? One has to wonder if the Mail would have pursued the Stephen Lawrence killers with such tenacity had the murdered teenager’s father not worked as a decorator on Dacre’s house.
There’s no doubt the Mail did some great work on the Lawrence case. But that cannot excuse the bile and propaganda that Dacre has been discharging into the national conversation for over two and a half decades.
The Daily Mail question
A few years ago, I was in Malawi working on an election project. On a visit to the local office of the UK’s Department for International Development to seek funding for media monitoring of the election, an official asked me: “What’s the answer to the Daily Mail question?”
I didn’t need an explanation. She was asking how the department should respond if the Daily Mail was made aware of this item of expenditure (£25,000 – the cheapest national media monitoring operation I know of) and responded with predictable outrage over what the paper would no doubt describe as a “waste” of taxpayers’ money.
And on the subject of tax, one is bound to ask questions about a newspaper editor who finds himself happily in bed with the tax-cutting Taxpayers Alliance, while himself receiving substantial tax rebates from the hated EU Common Agricultural Fund for the 20,000 acres of forest he owns in Scotland?
So now, before he turns 70, Dacre is resigning. But before the EU bunting starts fluttering from the portals of the Daily Mail’s Kensington headquarters, there may well be a Brexit-style fly in the ointment.
For as soon as Dacre steps down from being editor of the Daily Mail, he will be stepping up to become chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers.
This may well mean it is not only the Daily Mail that bears the poisonous Dacre imprimatur, but also the Mail on Sunday and the Mail Online – two parts of the business which have until now managed to establish themselves as more or less Dacre-free zones. But that might change – and not for the better.