Dacre: the Ferguson or Wenger of Fleet Street
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National newspaper veteran LIZ GERARD on the legacy of the Daily Mail's departing editor
On St Valentine's Day in 1997, the Daily Mail put a rogues' gallery of photographs on its front page and accused five men of the murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence, four years earlier. It was arrogant, bold, contemptuous. The very definition of what the newspaper has become under Paul Dacre. And 21 years on, it is still the edition he harks back to when his journalism is challenged. Racism? Look at our Stephen Lawrence coverage. Press freedom? Look at our Stephen Lawrence coverage. Campaigns? Look at our Stephen Lawrence coverage.
But when you've been in the job for a quarter of a century and you're the 'greatest editor' of your generation – as Lord Rothermere asserted, once he'd finally prised Dacre from his chair – there should be more in your locker than one story from the early days.
So what is Dacre's record? His newspaper has been accused of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, and yet he has been exalted as a great campaigner, the man with his finger on the pulse of Middle Britain. Is he the Alex Ferguson of popular journalism, the master right to the end? Or the Arsene Wenger, the man whose early invention and genius kept him in his job long after the magic touch had deserted him?
In his farewell message, Dacre pointed out that his team had increased circulation by almost a million in a declining market. That seemed an odd boast, given that it referred to sales 15 years ago, since when they have fallen by much more. But when you look at the Mail's figures compared with the rest of Fleet Street, you have to hand Dacre the credit for containing the slide. Only the Times has done less badly. The Mirror, Express and Sun have all lost most of their readers. Then there's the wit and polish, the smart editing. That was all there under predecessor David English, but Dacre took it to another level. 'Whatever you think of the paper and its politics, you have to admire him,' one editor said. 'Paul's fingerprints are on every page from front to back; every word in the paper conforms to his agenda.'
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Some editors make a point of reading every word – Andrew Neil did at the Sunday Times – others set the agenda and trust those beneath them get on with their jobs. Editors who allow department heads to develop their own ideas and commission writers with contrary views produce less predictable newspapers. But there may be ragged edges. The Mail doesn't do ragged edges. Even 'ordinary people' who appear in its pages have to look like 'one of us'.
The attention to detail is breathtaking. If the Mail wants to tell us that a particular star or royal is extravagant, it will price her (it's always a woman) wardrobe down to the smallest accessory. If Prince Andrew courts a woman who once went out with George Clooney, researchers will come up with photographs to show they're one and the same man (both of whom happen to have their own conflicts with the paper). It is utterly brilliant.
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No one can touch the Mail when it comes to specials and picture features, but how much of that is down to inspired journalism and how much to money? Freelances defend the paper in the face of its worst excesses with the argument that it is one of the few organisations that still invests in journalism. Or put another way, the Mail has lots of pages to fill and it pays well.
Rothermere gave his editors the freedom to spend while Richard Desmond was squeezing every penny out of the Express and Star. Would Dacre have fared so well, still been 'the greatest', with less than half the staff and an eight-year pay freeze? Maybe not quite so great – but he'd still be ahead of the pack. Look at the wannabes at the Express and Sun: Hugh Whittow (now departed) and former Mail man Tony Gallagher both tried to affect the attitude, but they don't have Dacre's deftness. The key is in the headlines: the Mail's, with their colourful lexicon, are just so much sharper – and that's the man, not the money. Though he is paid an awful lot of money.
Last year, he received almost £2.5m: a million more than the previous year and a country mile ahead of every other Fleet Street editor, not to mention 'greedy' bankers, 'fat cat' energy chiefs and 'hypocritical' Gary Lineker, who is paid an 'astronomical' £1.75m by the BBC. Naturally, Dacre's pay is nobody's business, because his – unlike Lineker's – is not coming from the public purse, and the Mail – unlike the banks and utilities – is not 'ripping us off'.
Remuneration is just one area where Dacre towers over his press rivals. He bristles at any suggestion that his journalists engaged in phone hacking, but the Mail was way out in front in the list of papers using sometimes questionable private investigators. Deep pockets again.
His efforts have also been the subject of far more complaints to regulators – both IPSO and its predecessor, the PCC – and far more libel suits than any other paper. Just as being arrested isn't the same as being convicted, so being the subject of a complaint doesn't mean it's justified. Many complainants are sent away, back down, or see their cases fall on technicalities. But there are still more adverse rulings or 'resolutions' against the Mail than others. And these are the results of those who dare to take on the tiger; many are too fearful of the vindictiveness that might follow even to venture down these routes. Not everyone has the heft of a JK Rowling or a Melania Trump.
Fear has been the biggest weapon in Dacre's arsenal. He is such an expert that it's no wonder he identified and skewered the Remain campaign over 'Project Fear'. He uses it in the office – millionaire businessmen are often accused of double counting, Dacre is notorious for a practice with fewer vowels – and he uses it in print. Politicians, police, public servants and personalities are all supposed to follow the Dacre line or risk denunciation and humiliation. Special opprobrium is reserved for bankers, GPs, dentists – when that American trophy hunter shot Cecil the lion the Mail asked 'Are all dentists natural born killers?'– and, of course, the Left and the 'liberal elite'.
Dacre's Mail sees itself as being on the side of 'real people', not the 'elite' with their cosy, pampered existence in their opulent homes. The exception being the super-elite with their cosy, pampered existence in opulent palaces and royal titles. Then, fawning is the order of the day: 'Thank you, Sir'; 'Thank you, Ma'am'. Although, to be fair, there is less admiration for the 'pampered, self-pitying, petulant' Prince Charles, who happens to have been born on the same day as Dacre.
It is in his 'defence' of 'real people' that Dacre makes his most sinister use of fear: by convincing his readers that everything they cherish – their lives, their families, their homes, their health, their money – is in jeopardy because some other 'They' with a capital T, be they Remoaners or the Labour Party or immigrants, are out to do them down. Only the Mail is looking out for their interests, pointing up the charlatans and the carcinogens.
Whether it is thanks to sensitive news antennae or cute animal pictures, Dacre's Mail has certainly been a success story in a torrid time for newspapers. That has earned him the admiration of his peers – he has won the Newspaper of the Year award seven times, matching Wenger's record FA Cup tally – and even more clout in Westminster than Rupert Murdoch. It seems he has only to lift his finger and Theresa May promises action, whether it's on drivers using their mobiles, funding for the Open University or prostate cancer cash. And then the Mail claims credit. Because it's a campaigning newspaper. Which takes us back to Stephen Lawrence, its most lauded 'campaign'. Except it wasn't. It was a daring front page. As Hacked Off chief Brian Cathcart has pointed out, the Mail didn't campaign for a public inquiry; it resisted one, and it refused to accept that police racism had any part in the failure to bring all the killers to justice. It just so happened that the editor knew the victim's father and that the suspects were the very sort of louts he despised. Without those two elements, Lawrence would, to Dacre, have been just another dead black boy. He's admitted as much.
The Mail has a habit of categorising any issue it reports on more than once as a 'campaign'. Some it wins, some – like the printing of blue passports and the takeover of GKN – it loses. Some ideas, like boycotting the World Cup in Russia, are never going to fly. Many are born on the back of work started by other, less influential, journalists. Take the Windrush scandal: Amelia Gentleman had done all the spadework over months in the Guardian, but it wasn't until the Mail piped up that a true momentum was built. That's got to be a sign of success.
But there is one where it has truly campaigned in the best sense of the word and that is on plastic. It started it in February 2008 with a splash, a series of spreads, a leader and an op-ed by John Humphrys and has been hammering away at it ever since. It's had a bit of help of late from David Attenborough, but it's beginning to get results and for this it should be applauded.
It has never, however, claimed as a 'campaign' its most far-reaching triumph: Brexit. Once again, this was a case of picking up someone else's baton. Hugh Whittow of the Express started the push a decade ago after running a poll asking readers if they wanted a vote on leaving the EU. More took the trouble to fill in a coupon to say 'yes' than buy the paper these days. The Express may have set the ball rolling, but it was the Mail that took it over the line.
First it vilified Ed Miliband (and, notoriously, his father) to secure an election win for Cameron, then it piled on the pressure until the vote was set. In the blink of an eye, the word 'Dave' went from being a sign of chumminess to one of contempt; 'George', who had slain the Budget dragons, became 'Osborne' the incompetent. One retired insurer's pro-Brexit view was given the same weight in print as the anti-Brexit opinions of 300 Cambridge academics, with Stephen Hawking's opinion a mere afterthought.
Migrants were cannon fodder, brought in to play when there was a lull in the fighting or at decisive moments: seven pages on the evils of migration and rampant asylum seekers in Calais on the day before the vote (a tactic repeated before last year's general election when there were 14 pages attacking Corbyn).
And there could be no let-up once victory had been secured. Anyone who dared ask for details of what lay ahead was demonised. That Stephen Lawrence 'Murderers' front page proved a useful template. It has been wheeled out half a dozen times in various guises when Dacre has decided to put someone in the dock, but never more notoriously than in November 2016 when he denounced judges as 'Enemies of the people'.
But what now? The Remainer Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig is to take over before Dacre hits 70 in November. Will Dacre the chairman and editor-in-chief afford him the courtesy for which he thanked Rothermere in his parting statement – the freedom to edit?
One former national editor says that Dacre would never have supported Greig's appointment and that, he believes, proves that Greig is now the power in the land, the one who holds sway with the pro-European Rothermere.
But is it too late to stop the train going over the cliff? Will Dacre be a lame duck or will he plumb the depths of his vat of bile, ever more determined to see the project through and claim his Brexit legacy? This matters, because if the handover does not come until the autumn, it will be all over bar the shouting for a 'People's Vote' and any chance of stopping Brexit. There may have been a clue this week with the key debates on the Withdrawal Bill. On Tuesday the Sun and the Express came out with poster fronts warning MPs to do their duty. There wasn't a word on page one of the Mail. Yes, there was a spread and a full-page leader. But the tone of the editorial was less strident than in the past. The Dacre era is over.
Liz Gerard worked on national newspapers for 40 years. She blogs at www.sub-scribe.co.uk
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