ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Paul Dacre is the worst of British values posing as the best
One of my favourite polling factoids of the New Labour era is that our share of the vote among Daily Mail readers rose between our first election win in 1997, and the second four years later.
This was despite the fact that the Mail pumped out the equivalent of millions of pounds worth of negative messaging about us. It suggests that some readers, at least, are capable of seeing through the newspaper’s spin, lies and propaganda and making up their own minds based on their own lives.
My concern with the Mail under Paul Dacre was less the direct impact upon its readers; nor even the twisting of journalistic values so that any separation of news and comment was gone, and if the story needed a dose of invention to fulfil the latest Dacre prejudice, so be it; nor was it the hold that his bullying intimidation via print sometimes managed to exert over the weak who ought to be strong, politicians chief among them. No, it was the influence that his paper exercised over the rest of the media, and so his role in setting the terms of the debate.
This was on sickening display, on the BBC’s sinking flagship, the Today programme, the morning after Dacre’s stepping down was announced. One wondered whether John Humphrys was wearing a black armband at the passing of an editor whose paper the programme’s chief presenter sees as an essential research tool as he reads it on his way to the studio.
Even putting my own admitted bias against Dacre to one side, how can any journalist, let alone one supposed to be studiously neutral, say in his introduction that the outgoing Mail editor had ‘outraged many and delighted many more’? Then he went into a chuckle-off with Mail writer Ann Leslie, whose meandering avoidance of Humphrys’ determined efforts to get her to echo his assessment that Dacre was a ‘great editor’ (eventually he got her there) had this listener feeling both were, like the man they were discussing, well past their sell-by date.
When he turned to the anti-Dacre voice, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, Humphrys reeled off a list of campaigns that made Dacre sound like Ben Bradlee, Harold Evans, and CP Scott rolled into one – ‘Stephen Lawrence, the Omagh victims, plastic, the dignity of the elderly’ – gosh, who knew that Dacre had led the world on plastic? As for any impact he had on Omagh, it passed me by.
I was aware that he once did a very powerful front page naming the uncharged killers of Stephen Lawrence as murderers, and my God has he been dining out on it ever since? It was the exception proving the rule in a quarter century of racism and misogyny, hate and envy, oozing through the many thousands of stories he had edited in his time. There was little evidence the lives of young black people were a major concern before the murder of Lawrence, whose father, Neville, once did some decorating for Dacre at one of his four multi-million pound properties.
I had been booked to do the Today programme myself, after the news broke, and I hope it was logistics, not editorial interference or Humphrys’ preference, that led to the early morning message saying they had decided to go for Polly instead.
As for the ‘outraged’ v ‘delighted’ argument, the night before, having been informed by the BBC of the news, I passed it on to the audience at the Belfast Book Festival where I was speaking. Around 40% – and bear in mind this was a book crowd – did not know who he was, this as a result of his life spent cowering from public scrutiny. Most of the rest, when I said he was stepping down, burst into applause, and encouraged me to take up the Ten O’Clock News’ offer to comment, which I duly did, saying Dacre was a malign force on our national life, the worst of British values posing as the best. On the way down to Dublin, I scribbled a few thoughts for the interview I was at that time expecting to do with the Today programme the next morning:
Hypocrisy – raging against tax dodgers but never challenging the non-dom status of his boss, Lord Rothermere, nor explaining his own attraction – this man said to be the epitome of middle England – to a home in the British Virgin Islands, USP tax haven; raging against the EU, while benefitting from almost half a million quid in their subsidies on his English farm and his Scottish shooting estate; speaking up for the family while presiding over the most sexualising, frankly sometimes perverted, coverage of young women anywhere outside the porn industry.
Cowardice – a quality associated with most bullies, but Dacre’s refusal ever to subject himself to the kind of questioning and scrutiny he expects of others far less powerful and influential than he is a cowardice of an especially weak and hypocritical kind.
Debasing of journalistic standards/unanswered questions on illegal activity – Dacre explodes in synthetic self-righteous rage if you suggest he ever ran stories secured through phone-hacking. Yet the Mail topped a list, published by the Information Commissioner, of newspapers which hired a private detective engaged in illegal activity, with 958 transactions involving 58 journalists.
Racism – analysis has showed that two-thirds of black people in the news and feature pages of the Mail were criminals; persistent linking of immigrants to crime and violence, a cartoon in the wake of the Paris terror attacks equating refugees to rats, the dehumanizing, inflammatory language of ‘the swarm on our streets’. See what I mean about Stephen Lawrence being the exception to the rule?
But the three letters I kept finding myself scribbling as we headed south were MMR. No mention of that campaign in Humphrys’ eulogy to the great crusader, even though Today had so regularly followed the Dacre agenda on the triple vaccine issue at the time. This was when the iron entered my soul about Dacre.
I suspect that had he ever come across Andrew Wakefield, the lone voice linking the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine to autism, he would have had no time for him. But the Mail is all about generating, then exploiting, fear and anger, and turning it to resentment and hate. What better fear than the fear of parents that something the government is asking them to do may be bad for their child? What better anger than when directed against the Labour prime minister by dragging his young son into the debate, and implying Tony Blair might be against the jab for his own child?
To my mind, Dacre had no interest in the truth. He was interested only in spreading fear, creating anger, seeking to do political damage to a government he had decided to hate with all the ink he could buy. The furore led to a big drop in the take-up of the vaccine and then – surprise, surprise – a huge rise in measles. In 1998?9, 88% of children had been immunized against MMR. By 2003?4, coverage had fallen to 80% and to 61% in some London areas.
Dacre was not the only editor to bang the drum for Wakefield, but he certainly banged it loudest, with the most committed venality, and to the greatest effect.
Wakefield was later struck off by the General Medical Council for his fraudulent work. Dacre was appointed to senior industry positions, including as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission’s editors’ code committee. The equivalent would be Wakefield, or perhaps even Harold Shipman, in charge of the GMC or the British Medical Association.
At its peak, the number of measles cases was topping 5,000 a year, more than double the rate before the Wakefield-Dacre axis got to work. Then, in 2006, we had the first measles death in the UK for 14 years…
There was lots of hand-wringing, lots of guides to ‘how to avoid measles’, but no acceptance by the media of its responsibility in contributing to what had happened. Had I still been a journalist, I would have argued for a great big picture of Dacre on the front page, beneath the headline ‘MURDERER’, and a strapline that said ‘We accuse this man of helping create a measles epidemic which has now killed a young boy. If we are wrong, let him sue us.’
Instead, we’ll just have to make do with the fact come November, his poisoning days will be done and he can disappear to one of his estates and watch the Brexit debacle he helped bring about crumble from afar. Till then, he will continue to work his evil, forgotten but not gone.
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