Is Paul Dacre really the enemy of the people? Campbell uncovers the damaging effect of the Mail on British politics and culture
There’s so much about Paul Dacre that I ought to admire. I like people who set themselves big ambitions as they start out in life, then make them happen; people who stick at the same task, with real energy and conviction; who know their own mind, don’t get overly buffeted by fads and fashions, locate themselves in strong beliefs, and stick to them.
I’m a big fan of resilience, and within it the need to be able to treat criticism the same way you treat praise: with studied indifference, as a potential distraction from the task in hand, in Dacre’s case maintaining his and, the title he edits, the Daily Mail’s pre-eminence as newspaper brands. For, much as it pains me to say so – and probably pains him, too, given that ‘brand’ is not really a Dacreland kind of word – that is what they are; the Daily Mail is the most penetrating mass-market newspaper product and Dacre is probably second only to Rupert Murdoch as British print journalism’s most influential figure.
I like British success stories, too, and judged by Dacre’s tenure at the helm – 24 years and counting, sales doing reasonably well in a fast-changing and hugely challenging market, the online version he once lumped in with his dismissal of the internet as ‘bullshit.com’ now the most-visited news site on the planet – it is hard to dismiss him as a failure. He’s the Alex Ferguson of newspapers when it comes to longevity, and the Pep Guardiola when it comes to salary, his basic pay well into seven figures, bonuses, allowances and share options in the tens of millions, sufficient certainly to own at least the three lavish properties that we know of (alas, I don’t know the exact multi-million value of each property, an obligatory part of Mail reporting when a home is mentioned).
There is the place known by his staff as Dacre Towers (not that many get invited by their overlord to drive down the mile-long driveway to this sprawling West Sussex cattle and arable farm for dinner, let alone stay the night). He has his main London residence in wealthy Belgravia. And he has the stunning 17,000-acre Langwell Estate near Ullapool in northern Scotland, whose seven bedrooms and shooting rights, as if he doesn’t have enough in the bank, he rents out for £4,250 a week (extra if you kill lots of stags), when not there himself avoiding the locals who occasionally protest at his presence. This is a very pro-EU part of Britain, where almost two-thirds voted Remain, and where the Commission has helped fund roads and bridges (some of them required to access Dacre’s property), a new school, harbour developments, an industrial estate, and arts and crofting support programmes.
So they have not taken kindly to his pocketing EU subsidies for landowners, while playing a leading role in the lie machine that helped get the UK to vote to leave the EU; the claiming of such grants purely based on vast acreage is the kind of ‘waste’ against which his paper would normally froth at the mouth. There is anger, too, at his setting himself up to make millions and more from a new hydro scheme, against the wishes of many locals supporting a project which will plough profits back into the community, and in defiance of his own paper’s hostile editorial line against levies for renewable energy.
But here we stray into the rich theme of his hypocrisy, and I digress from my hunt for the things I ought to like in Dacre. I like hard workers. For decades, he has been something of a 12-to-16-hours-a-day man, and, even when home or on holiday, never fully off duty. A paper is a living, breathing thing, the next one always in development. As its living, breathing, dominant heartbeat, Dacre is always there, even when he’s not. That is leadership at work.
I like strategists, too, and the fact that when you see the Mail, or hear it mentioned, you are likely to have an immediate view of it – good or bad, it is a strategic success. More than perhaps any other newspaper, you know what it is. Love it or hate it, you know it’s there. Can the same now be said of my old paper, the Daily Mirror? Or the Sun, which even if it still outsells the Mail in print, is light years behind online, and far from the force it once was? Or the Daily Express, once the best-selling of all at over four million, now a pale imitation of the Mail, thinking if it puts Princess Diana, bad weather stories and good Brexit stories on the front page with the same regularity as the Mail focuses on cancer, consumers being ripped off and the failings of the NHS, it will replicate its success?
Strategy is about big moments of disruption as well as doing the same thing again and again. Dacre’s best strategic moment of disruption was his coverage of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, and the naming and shaming of his alleged killers under a MURDERERS headline and the challenge to sue. A bold move, and one which makes it so much harder to challenge the Mail over its overt and its more subtle racism. Overt as when reporters used to be brought home from jobs on discovering that the murder they had been sent to cover involved black victims.
More subtle, though not much, the analysis which 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, the reporting of violent crimes as terror-related when the police have been clear they weren’t, a cartoon in the wake of the Paris terror attacks equating refugees to rats, the dehumanising, inflammatory language of the ‘swarm on our streets’. How dare you suggest we’re racist? What about Stephen Lawrence? The exception that proves a rule, perhaps, and mainly because it turned out Lawrence’s dad did some decorating work for Dacre.
You don’t need to spend too long googling around ‘bullshit.com’ or leafing through back copies to find examples of racism, sexism, homophobia – the last of these unsurprising given Dacre believes it is hard for anyone without children to be an editor because ‘they can’t understand the human condition’ – and hatred of immigrants, feminists, social workers, anyone and anything that doesn’t fit what Dacre believes human beings and institutions should be, with charities (do-gooders, bah!) a recent addition to his hate list. When Dacre allowed a New Yorker journalist to attend his editorial meetings for what turned out to be a fairly flattering profile, his white-panelled office fell into stunned silence when columnist Simon Heffer spoke favourably about France’s National Front leader, Marine Le Pen. Private Eye later reported that the shock was especially acute because ‘Mail hacks and executives had been ordered not to swear: there were to be no ‘f***s’ and most definitely no ‘c***s.’ As importantly, no one was to say a word that might be interpreted as sexist, racist or homophobic in the lady’s presence.’ In other words: ‘Don’t act normal. This is all for show.’
I have a sense of the Mail’s strategic success, and admit to hating the sensation, every time I board a British Airways or Virgin Atlantic flight, and see the big newspaper trays at the door of the plane. Assuming I have not been able to get there first and cover up the Mails with Financial Times or any other freebies on offer – or bin them, as is my admittedly childish wont – I watch as fellow passengers approach and glance at the front-page mix of screaming headlines and soft teasers for features or giveaways inside. I see the ‘I know I shouldn’t’ look come into their eye, and then they pick it up and take it to their seat. Richard Branson, no less, supports my campaign to rid Virgin Atlantic flights of the Mail, but those who run his airline day to day insist the passengers want it, just as the business guys up front want the FT.
I sometimes watch these passengers reading it, too. Mail readers really read it. Not for them the idle page-flicking you might see of the airline magazines. Headlines draw them in. Pictures draw them in. Captions draw them in. Then the long reads begin. I want to take them by the neck – indeed, sometimes I do take them by the eyeball, and I ask: ‘Why are you reading that shit? It’s a national poison. Take some heroin or something.’ And here is the greatest success of all for Dacre. Many say they know, they agree, but they don’t care, because it amuses, entertains or, more usually, angers them – ‘But I don’t take it seriously’; while others look at me like I am the one in need of rescue, not them, because they agree with so much of what they read.
We cannot give Dacre all the credit, but we can certainly give him some, for how woefully misinformed the British public often are about important public issues, as revealed by a fascinating, and depressing, Ipsos-MORI study for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London before the last election.
To take just a few of Dacre’s special interests: Teenage pregnancies: the public thought 15% of young girls get pregnant. In fact, it is 0.6%.
Violent crime: more than half thought it was rising, when the opposite was the case.
Welfare: around a third of people said the government spent more on Jobseeker’s Allowance than on pensions. In fact, pensions accounted for 15 times as much as JSA.
Welfare fraud: the public estimated that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently. In fact it was 70 pence.
Overseas aid: it accounts for just over one per cent of government spending. Yet a quarter of British people believe it is one of the top three items of public expenditure, ahead of schools and pensions.
Religion and race: we think a quarter of the UK population is Muslim (it’s 5%). We think 34% call themselves Christian. (59%). We think 31% are immigrants (13%). We think 30% are black or Asian (11%).
So when it came to the EU referendum, years of Mail-Murdoch-Express-Telegraph-UKIP lies and myths about Europe helped lay the ground for having the referendum in the first place – big mistake, Dave – and helped Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage carry the ball over the line on June 23. We should neither exaggerate nor minimise the media’s role here. Without the high-profile politicians leading the way, it is unlikely the campaign for Leave would have been won. But without the systematic press distortion about Europe over the years, I don’t think we would even have had the vote. Even when it was over, the lies were still being peddled as part of the jubilation. Indeed, the day after the referendum, the Mail reported that now we would see an end to the ban on bent bananas (a myth); it heralded the day we could have more powerful vacuum cleaners, free from the interference of barmy Brussels bureaucrats; we could bring back incandescent light bulbs, and so stop the epileptic fits caused by ‘supposedly eco-friendly fluorescent bulbs’. And lo, let’s celebrate, we were taking back control of… the right to eat our pet horses.
But despite the campaign having been won on lies – £350 million a week to the NHS, millions of Turks on their way to the UK, remember – anyone who dared to question the outcome was given the treatment, even if, like Patience Wheatcroft, they used to write for the Mail. Her call for a second referendum led to her being monstered as a ‘cheerleader for the moneyed Metropolitan elite’; she was guilty of an ‘arrogant and brazen contempt for democracy’ by advancing a ‘ludicrous idea’ to prove the public were misled. One of the triumphs of the campaign was for Murdoch and Dacre, two of the wealthiest people journalism has ever produced, to portray anyone in favour of Remain as part of this Metropolitan elite, though Dacre could buy out Wheatcroft, with her ‘£1.5m home’ (poverty-line stuff in Dacreland) many times over.
So Dacre was on the winning side, and quick to do what he could to stop Boris Johnson being the big political winner. Johnson has too many sexual and moral foibles to be on Dacre’s very short list of politicians he respects. David Cameron certainly wasn’t on it, either – too young, too flash, too old Eton, not new Eton – and my sense during the referendum was that Cameron loathed Dacre. Its mutuality became clear in the Mail’s near-hysterical coverage of Cameron’s admittedly ill-advised resignation honours, as those who had played leading roles in the Remain campaign were showered with awards. But I wonder whether part of Dacre’s venom flowed out of a deep-seated belief that honours should be for winners, not losers, and also perhaps that just as David English, Larry Lamb, Nick Lloyd, Simon Jenkins and other editors were given knighthoods, surely after 24 years at the helm of a broadly conservative newspaper, one of those Conservative leaders since Thatcher should have put him forward for one.
I don’t know if Dacre would like to be Sir Paul, but I suspect so – though, in fairness, he doesn’t seem to use his editorship to get himself the best invites, court popularity or build relationships with the great and the good. Nor does he really show them that much respect, and that includes Lord Rothermere, nominally his boss, but who has Dacre run rings round him on a regular basis (though – hypocrisy alert again – Dacre stops short of including the non-dom billionaire in any of the occasional editorial blasts at filthy-rich tax dodgers. This is my third favourite hypocrisy, after the EU grants, and the constant use of pictures of young girls as online clickbait, while raging at the sexualisation of teenagers).
But on the subject of honours, I have a confession to make. Dacre almost did become Sir Paul, back in our first term. Tony Blair took very little interest in honours (for all that Dacre played a leading role in hyping that ludicrous episode when the police responded to an SNP MP’s claim about so-called ‘cash for peerages’ with one of the most absurd police investigations of modern times). As a long-standing critic of the honours system, who believes that anyone who actively wants one should never be considered for it, I took even less interest.
But as press secretary, I had to brief the media about the list, and as one of the prime minister’s right-hand people, I was among the small team he sent off to the Cabinet Office to check the list well in advance, argue for a better ethnic mix, press for more head teachers, and a few more people the public had actually heard of – all so that he didn’t have to spend too much time ploughing through it himself. So there we sat, with the team from the Honours Secretariat, and there it was, the media committee recommendation that Mr Paul Dacre be the next journalist in line for a K.
‘I am pretty certain,’ I said, ‘that the prime minister would consider it highly inappropriate for a serving editor to be given such an honour, not least because of the criticisms we have made in the past about Mrs Thatcher’s use of honours to reward media owners and editors for political support.’ I said I would check and get back to them. Which I did. I think it was the Telegraph defence correspondent John Keegan, alas no longer with us, who was next in line and so able to benefit from this new prime ministerial edict.
Dacre has had plenty of other awards, though, several for Newspaper Of The Year. Nobody could have survived so long without knowing his trade, and knowing his market. This is not the same thing as the claim often made, not least by him, that he ‘knows his readers’. He doesn’t know his readers well at all. Why would he, when he meets so few of them and, frankly, wouldn’t particularly like them if he did? What he knows is what he wants them to read, to think, to fear, to hate, to hope for, because on that is built the success he has created. Mail columnist Peter Oborne put it flatteringly: ‘He articulates the dreams, fears and hopes of socially insecure members of the suburban middle class. It’s a daily performance of genius.’
But even if once he did know Mail readers, growing up as the son of a journalist in Arnos Grove, London, privately educated on a state scholarship at University College School, then at Leeds University (his failure to make Oxbridge cut deep), always wanting to be a journalist, and always wanting to be an editor, Dacre has little in common with the people who imbibe his worldview day after day. He sees the world mainly from the back of a chauffeur-driven car and the inside of an ivory tower, where his editorial conferences are less discussions about what the reader might think than competitions between executives to provide the ideas that chime with what Dacre already thinks. Highly paid columnists queue to tell him what they intend to write and, guess what – nine times out of ten it chimes with what they know his views to be.
That these meetings have become known as ‘The Vagina Monologues’, on account of Dacre’s fondness for dismissing as a ‘c***’ anyone who falls short of his demands, philosophy and expectations, is an indication of how often his poor underlings fail in their desire to impress. He is not so much First Among Equals, as first, second, third, fourth, and forget any thought of equality – they are there to serve. He has little in common with his staff, let alone his readers. I have never met anyone who describes himself as a personal friend of Dacre’s. When Gordon Brown was constantly being described as such, he adamantly denied it, to me at least. In so far as they got on, I suspect it was a mutual respect for hard work, a dislike of modern celebrity culture, and a shared belief that Tony Blair shouldn’t be prime minister for too long.
Dacre’s wealth and lifestyle alone sets him apart from almost all of his readers, though at 67 he is in the same age bracket as most, with eight out of ten over 45. He rarely uses the public services his paper regularly condemns. When ill, and he has been seriously ill at times, though Fleet Street omerta has made sure it has been kept quiet, he goes private. His two sons both went to Eton, which reveals not just the everyday Mail-reading desire for one’s children to have a good education, but a desire too to be part of the establishment he claims to shun and even despise. Ditto the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ landowner role.
He is a member of The Garrick Club, but in the days around the turn of the century, when he and I had a reasonably civilised, if spiky, relationship, his choice of venue for our occasional lunches was Mark’s Club, where men in old-fashioned clothes with old-fashioned manners would call him ‘Sir’ as they escorted us up a gloomy staircase, and he would be visibly irritated because I stopped to talk to Julie, the woman working in the cloakroom, whose children were friends of my children at school. I don’t know if she read the Daily Mail. I do know that Dacre found it odd that I knew someone like her, and even odder that I seemed to want to talk to her. He is not, it is fair to say, a people person.
Mark’s Club bills itself as an ‘elegant and traditional private members’ club in Mayfair,’ and was opened in 1973 as ‘an alternative to the St James’s gentlemen’s clubs.’ This is classic Dacreland. He can pretend it is anti-establishment, while being treated as a fully fledged member of the ‘moneyed Metropolitan elite’ he professes to hate, with all the bowing and scraping, and a man to sweep breadcrumbs from your crisp white tablecloth. Even better, the club’s website devotes more space to its dress code than to food and drink. So, ladies must on no account wear denim, suede, leggings, sportswear or, perish the thought, ‘exposed undergarments’. This is very much a Dacreland club. Exposed undergarments are always to be discouraged, unless in print, on the sagging breasts or buttocks of a fading celebrity being overcome by cellulite (one of the oddest of his fixations), or on the young girls on the Mail Online ‘sidebar of shame’.
We would always sit at the same table, and he would usually say the same thing, namely that the Labour Party under Blair had it too easy, because the Tories were useless and I had the press eating out of my hand. The first may have been true. As for the second, it never felt like it, but, almost apologetically, he told me that with the Tory Party so weak under a succession of ‘hopeless leaders’, and all these lickspittle leftie journalists at the BBC (the same lefties who became beacons of truth when they turned on me over Iraq, of course), he felt he and the Mail had a duty to ‘be the Opposition’. At least he was honest about it. I like honesty, for all that he and his papers have systematically employed dishonesty as one of their key tools of influence.
It’s fair to say that these lunches stopped by ‘mutual consent’, and I don’t think we have exchanged a word verbally, civil or otherwise, since 2001 or so, unless you count the time he won an award at a lunch at The Savoy and, as he left the stage, gong aloft, snarled (weirdly, I thought): ‘This is for Alastair Campbell.’
It was when Dacre’s honestly stated desire to ‘be the Opposition’ to what he saw as an all-powerful, overbearing, arrogant, far-too-modern government and prime minister turned into systematically, strategically dishonest reporting that I decided my occasional efforts to keep him a little tamer than he otherwise might have been – and indeed than he was when he had the calming, civilising influence of his former boss, Sir David English – were a waste of time and energy. Three episodes in particular, fairly close to each other, had the iron enter my soul so far as Dacre was concerned. None of them were personal to me, though there were plenty of those once his word went out that ‘Liar-in-Chief’ was the new label for his one-time lunch guest. They were the controversy over the MMR vaccine, the fuel protests of late 2000, and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the spring of 2001, as we were preparing for a second general election. What became clear was that anything that might damage the government, and especially Tony Blair, was considered fair game, whatever the facts, and whatever the possible consequences.
I am fairly certain that if he ever met him, Dacre would have little respect for Dr Andrew Wakefield, the single ‘expert’ swimming against the tide of science in making a link between autism and the MMR triple jab. But he knew his market well enough to know how easily parents might be scared into believing Wakefield if he could be presented as a credible voice, and all other voices just part of the government spin machine led by the Liar-in-Chief. And if the price of this was a measles epidemic, and even deaths of children, well wouldn’t that be a good story, especially when we can say it only happened because Tony and Cherie Blair refused to say whether their own son Leo had had the jab, and it had nothing to do with the press fuelling the scare for all it was worth? Nor were the leaders of the fuel protest, with their desire to bring the country to a halt, natural bedfellows for a man almost always opposed to industrial action. But again, what could be better for the Mail as an election approached than the chance to present Britain as a modern version of Three-Day-Week Britain during the Winter of Discontent, where greedy government tax addicts took all this money in fuel tax so they could fund welfare scroungers, gays, immigrants, asylum seekers, overseas aid and all the other Dacre pet hates? Forgive the question mark. But the question mark is such an important part of the Dacre armoury. ‘Will there be panic-buying?’ he wondered at the time. No prizes for guessing what happened next. Out they went, those Mail readers who pretend not to believe what it says, to sit in queues at petrol stations.
With foot-and-mouth, too, the new approach was clear – if it was bad for Blair, it was good for the Mail, even if it was bad for Britain. That was when I first coined a view of the Mail I have used many times since, and believe as strongly today as when I first said it: ‘The worst of British values posing as the best.’
As head of comms at Downing Street, at one point I instigated something called ‘Mailwatch’, where our rebuttal team would prepare a note for publication each morning, on stories which were factually inaccurate, taken out of context, or which failed to include any response from those who were being attacked, criticised or lied about. Sometimes this ran into dozens of pages. It did seem, for a while, to have the desired effect of calming them down, or at least – my real intention – of stopping broadcasters leaping, like Pavlov’s dogs, to follow up anything which Dacre deemed to be front-page material. But Tony Blair was persuaded by David Blunkett and others that I was going too far, and it was stopped. I still think that was a mistake, that the only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them, and this was one way of doing so; that in a modern media world where newspapers are more players than spectators, the rules of engagement have to change.
‘If you’re not a liar,’ someone asked me recently, ‘why have you never sued them?’ It is partly the old journalist in me, and the contempt I used to feel for people who resorted to the courts rather than a good old barney played out in the public arena. It is also very expensive, and even if you know you’re in the right, I have seen enough of the courts to know that does not guarantee success. Also, to be frank, the Mail is very skilful at dealing with complaints and wearing people down. The Leveson Report had several accounts of that – look up Neil Morrissey. Or ask Ed Miliband (son of the ‘man who hated Britain’).
To be absolutely sure of a win, it has to be so black and white that even Dacre and his clever lawyers cannot wriggle out of it. I got mine in September 1999. Journalist Peter Oborne, then on the Daily Express, had written a book about me, which Dacre wanted to serialise. Oborne’s publisher was happy with that because the Mail pays more than most for book deals. Oborne’s employer, on the other hand, was not, and made clear he should do the book with them. Dacre, displeased, set a Mail team on the task of writing a ‘book’ in the few days left before the Express began its serialisation. The Mail ‘book’ was never published, nor was it ever intended to be, but the serialisation was. And in part one, readers learned that the formative experience of my life, perhaps the one that had made me the vile, evil, twisted person that I am (sic), was the death of my father in an accident involving a farm animal when I was a child. Now, my father was indeed a vet. He did indeed have a terrible accident when attacked by a sow when I was a child. But he wasn’t dead. He was alive and well when I reported back on the phone conversation I had with Dacre.
AC: This serial you’re running.
PD: Yes, over the top if you ask me, far too personal – I wasn’t in yesterday or I would have toned it down.
AC: No, I’m not bothered about that. It’s the thing about my dad’s death.
PD: Yes, I hadn’t read that before.
AC: Nor had my dad. He’s just read it now.
AC: I know you can’t libel the dead, but you can libel the living, surely, by saying they’re dead, and I am about to read you the correction and apology I would like to see on a right-hand page tomorrow.
It ended with the words ‘donation to Mr Campbell Junior’s children’s primary school’. The Dacre gates and the Dacre playground equipment have served us well.
His paper has topped the table for the most complaints made against a national, under the various so-called self-regulating media bodies, in which Dacre has often had a leading role, not least as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission editors’ code of practice committee. This was, as Tony Blair forbade me from saying at the time, like putting Harold Shipman in charge of the ethics committee of the BMA. While he explodes in synthetic rage if you dare to say Mail and phone-hacking in the same breath, it is worth noting that the Mail topped another league table (by a mile) when the Information Commissioner published a list of newspapers which hired private detectives engaged in illegal activity, with 958 transactions involving 58 journalists. The Mail On Sunday was a runner-up. Given the findings of the Information Commissioner, I’d be interested to see if the boast one of his journalists is said to have made, that he has all my emails going back to 2002, was more than bluster and, if not, whether they were obtained illegally.
Though I have only ever taken his money that once – the only time I asked for it – plenty of others have been beneficiaries of his commitment to pushing the truth to the absolute limit and beyond. Alan Sugar, Elton John, JK Rowling, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Rowan Atkinson, Diana Rigg, George Clooney [that’s enough celebs, Ed]. OK, there was also the Tamil hunger-striker they falsely accused of secretly eating McDonald’s, the dean of Cranwell RAF College, the prime minister of Uganda, a Catholic Church spokesman… I could go on and on; it’s no wonder they’re so well insured against libel.
All of us are likely to stay in Dacre’s little black book. His consistency also applies to his hatreds. I find it odd, though, that he still bothers with me these days, given it is 13 years since I left Downing Street (sorry, was ‘hounded out in disgrace for my role as Iraq War Liar-in-Chief,’ Mail passim) and I am not exactly a major part of the drive to get Labour under Jeremy Corbyn back in power. But, as the New European will no doubt discover for daring to publish this, he will still jab back if jabbed at. As he did recently, when neighbours of his in the Highlands invaded his estate by night and erected a banner: ‘Welcome to Langwell Estate, Subsidised by £460,000 handout from the EU #hypocritesOut!’ complete with a European flag and a Daily Mail masthead. I was not involved in this splendid stunt (though would have been happy to be so), but I did tweet the picture far and wide and often, with plenty of comments on the aforementioned hypocrisy. How gratifying, then, to find not only that Dacre went berserk on seeing the picture of the invasion, but then also published a huge spread about me, under the headline ‘MONSTROUS HYPOCRITE’ and, lest anyone be in any doubt as to who the #hypocrite might be, a sub-head saying ‘Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Liar-in-Chief.’
I do sometimes wonder if we can make an assessment of people by looking at how they criticise others. It’s why my partner, Fiona, will sometimes raise an eyebrow if I condemn someone as a control freak or an obsessive, for example. Also, I have admitted above that there are certain characteristics in Dacre that, in others, I see as admirable. It is his values that appear to me to be askew, and his total lack of self-awareness, an inability to see why others might see him as they do. Above all, it is his cowardice that makes me view him with contempt. When interviewed for Desert Island Discs, and asked what he felt his staff thought of him, he said: ‘He’s a hard bastard, but he leads from the front.’ But he doesn’t, does he? Leaders who lead from the front have their heads above the parapet. Transparency means opening yourself to questioning and scrutiny. His testy appearance at Leveson and select committees, and his refusal ever to engage in real debate, shows how much he hates having to answer to anyone. Even when the killers of Stephen Lawrence were convicted, he chose to comment in a bizarre 12-minute in-house ‘interview’, which was actually a speech. He wasn’t leading from the front. He was continuing to live in denial of who and what he is, instead choosing to communicate in the manner of a despot.
I owe him for the cowardice, though. It was my demolition of his then-deputy, Jon Steafel, sent onto Newsnight in place of Dacre, that prompted GQ Editor Dylan Jones to call the next day and ask if I fancied a regular interview slot. Thanks, Paul.
Dacre once said of me: ‘I think the way he has used spin and mendacity to manipulate great parts of the media has damaged both politics and the press. He’s a zealot… He believes in the cause and that the ends justify the means, and I don’t believe that.’
Pot, kettle, black? Is my sneaking admiration for certain qualities in this sociopathic monster due to the fact that he is a superb spin doctor, who has manipulated opinion of virtually an entire class of British life over a generation? Dacre believes in the cause – the Mail as a vehicle for his worldview – and he certainly believes the ends justify the means. And as for zealot – Oxford dictionary definition ‘fanatical and uncompromising’; Cambridge definition ‘a person who has very strong opinions about something and tries to make other people have them too’ – then he fits the bill rather better than I do. Spin, mendacity, manipulation… Dacre has absolutely nothing to learn from me, or anyone else. He is the Daddy.
This article was originally published in British GQ