Many people believe that the Daily Mail is the most successful, influential and controversial newspaper in Britain today. And few would doubt, even among those who can’t stand it, that the credit must go to Paul Dacre. Mr Dacre has announced that he will resigned from the editorship after 26 years when he reaches the age of seventy in November. His retirement inevitably raises the question: has the newspaper he dominated for so long been a force for good or bad in Britain today.
Paul Dacre always had a very clear view of what he wanted his paper to be. Its first job was to report the news and he spent a very large chunk of his budget on his reporting staff. It was the biggest in Fleet Street and journalists themselves knew that if you wanted to know what was happening in the world the first paper you looked at was the Mail. But beyond that he wanted it to be a campaigning paper, and that’s what won him so much praise and so much opprobrium: not just because of the issues he chose but because of the zeal with which he pursued them
It has long been Dacre’s view that Britain suffers from the pervasive and corrosive dominance of an elitist, liberal consensus that regards Britain and its past as (in his words) ‘shameful, racist and sexist’. He believes the vast majority of the population simply do not share that view. Instead, he thinks, they have a different set of views and values. He has always claimed that they scorn political correctness; believe in the sanctity of the nuclear family that the liberal consensus mocks and undermines; are uneasy about the levels of immigration the consensus has promoted; are fundamentally proud of their nation and resent being called chauvinist bigots for it. Paul Dacre sought to use the paper he edited to champion these views and to campaign on behalf of the values that underpin them.
Not all the campaigns he took up reflected this division in British society and some even drew praise from across the political spectrum. The most celebrated of these was in pursuit of justice for Stephen Lawrence, the young black student murdered in south London in 1993, the year after Dacre became editor. The police had failed to catch and charge those responsible for the murder, even though the identity of the suspects was well known, so Dacre took the decision to publish the face of five men on the front of the paper under the title ‘Murderers’. Two of them were later convicted of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. It was a brave decision that could have ended up with him going to jail if he’d been proved wrong.
Other Daily Mail campaigns that drew broad support included those on behalf of the victims of the Omagh bombings, the pursuit of dignity for the elderly in their treatment by the NHS and in care homes and, most recently, against our profligate use of plastic. The paper did more than raise awareness of the issue with vast amounts of coverage, it also persuaded its readers to get together in groups and doing something about it, by clearing up vast amounts of the stuff polluting rivers and streets, parks and beaches.
Not all his campaigns proved praiseworthy. Dacre supported the campaign against the MMR vaccine, which was falsely believed to produce autism in children. He got it wrong.
But it is the politically controversial campaigns he has launched which, inevitably, have caused his paper to be seen as either the saviour of the nation or as corroding its most fundamental values.
Immigration was one. Brexit was another. He has been accused of souring public opinion through a relentless drip of vitriol and pandering to prejudice more than through facts and arguments. His critics also accuse him of undermining the very institutions of our democracy by his no-holds-barred attack on anyone who acts against what he believes to be in the national interest. Perhaps his most notorious headlines was ‘Enemies of the People’ above the pictures of Supreme Court judges who had ruled in favour of Parliament being given a say over the final Brexit deal.
The Guardian commentator, Polly Toynbee, became one of Dacre’s sternest critics. She described him as ‘national bully-in-chief’, a ‘poisoner of British politics’, someone who ‘terrorised’ politicians into doing what his paper demanded and who saw his task as fulfilling the mission of the founder of the Daily Mail who is said to have claimed on his death-bed that his success had been because ‘I gave my readers a daily hate’. She was not alone. The liberal consensus accuses Dacre’s Daily Mail of undermining the norms of democratic debate and so damaging the very fabric of society.
Dacre argues that it is precisely the failure of the liberal consensus to take heed of what people actually think that is doing the real damage to that fabric, to social cohesion and the future of democracy.
From November he will become chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers. His boss, Lord Rothermere, described him as ‘the greatest Fleet Street editor of his generation’. Whether or not people agree will mostly depend on whether they share his views and approve his methods. But there is perhaps a more pressing question to ask: whether or not Paul Dacre will prove to be among the last of the campaigning editors.
He may have had great success over twenty-six years in increasing the circulation of his paper but newspaper readership more generally has been falling over recent years and is going to fall further. That is largely because newspaper advertising – the main source of a paper’s profits – has been collapsing for many years. The reason: the emergence of social media, of increasing numbers of people getting their news from sites such as Facebook and of debate (if that’s what it can be called) being conducted via apps such as Twitter.
All that poses a real threat to the very existence of newspapers as the medium in which news gets reported as accurately as possible and journalists are paid to dig out that news and analyse it according to standards that still have some relationship with the truth. Commentators are employed to encourage rational debate about what is happening. Instead we face a future in which, many believe, all this risks being swept away by a social media that has no respect for truth, that is merely a forum of exchange for ‘fake news’ and, far from promoting the sort of debate on which a healthy democratic system depends, trades in hate-filled abuse that makes the proper democratic exchange of information and opinion impossible. In that future, some believe, even Dacre’s sternest critics may look back at his era as a golden age.
What’s your view? Has Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail been a force for good or bad in Britain? Do you think newspapers should be campaigning institutions and if so, has the Daily Mail fitted the bill well or not? Do you think Dacre’s challenge of the liberal consensus in Britain has been beneficial to our democratic debate or undermining of it? And how much do you share the view that, whatever you may think of the Daily Mail today, the era of campaigning newspapers is about to be superseded by a social media much less concerned about reporting, truth and the future of democratic debate?
Let us know what you think.