Paul Dacre is the editor of the Daily Mail – and, for that reason alone, one wouldn’t expect to find a sympathetic article about him in the New Statesman. Sure enough, Peter Wilby’s engrossing profile of Dacre is no hagiography, but what is surprising is just how much the author – a former editor of the Independent on Sunday – finds to admire in his subject.
Wilby kicks off by presenting the case against the Mail – and, by extension, its editor:
“To its critics… the Mail is as biased as it’s possible to be, and none too fussy about the facts. In the files of the Press Complaints Commission, you will find records of 687 complaints against the Mail which led either to a PCC adjudication or to a resolution negotiated, at least partially, after the PCC’s intervention. The number far exceeds that for any other British newspaper…”
However, the record also shows that “only six complaints were upheld after going through all the PCC’s stages and that the Sun and Telegraph, despite fewer complaints, had more upheld.”
The charges continue at some length, but ultimately all that they prove is that the Mail goes about its business in much the same fashion as any other national newspaper, only more successfully and with total disrespect for the liberal pieties of the metropolitan establishment.
To his credit, Wilby rises above the standard liberal outrage:
“…there is something magnificent about the Mail’s confidence and single-mindedness. Other papers, trimming to focus groups, muffle their message, but the Mail projects its world-view relentlessly, with supreme technical skill, from almost every page.”
His newspaper may be despised by the elites, but Paul Dacre does not seek their approval:
“He mostly eschews the trappings and opportunities of wealth and power. It is impossible to imagine him as a member of the Chipping Norton set or anything like it. He rarely dines or lunches with the powerful or fashionable, nor does he attend glitzy parties and social events. Frequently, he lunches in his office on meat and two veg. Sometimes he will lunch with politicians, but he has little respect or liking for them as a class and thinks it wise to keep his distance…”
Whatever his critics might claim, there’s nothing predictable about Dacre’s editorial line – nor can the more conservative elements of the establishment count on his uncritical support:
“…though self-made entrepreneurs are among the few people who can expect favourable coverage in the Mail, Dacre is, to most neoliberals, a tepid and inconsistent supporter of free enterprise. Nor is he a neocon. The Mail opposed overseas military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It has denounced Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and torture. It may be hard on immigrants and benefit scroungers, but it is often equally hard on the rich and famous, pursuing overpaid bosses of public-service utilities to their luxurious homes, exposing ‘depravity’ among the well-heeled and high-born…
“Many Mail campaigns have centred on liberal or environmental causes: lead in petrol, plastic bags, secret justice, the extradition to the United States of the hacker Gary McKinnon, and so on.”
None of this is to say that the newspaper always gets it right. Indeed, it can act in such a way as to undermine its own values – both directly and indirectly in the salaciousness and ungraciousness of some of its content.
If Britain – like America – could boast a wide range of unashamedly conservative media outlets, then we could afford to be a bit sniffier about the shortcomings of any particular operation. But the reality is that our options are limited. While British conservatives have a choice of specialist and upmarket sources of news and comment, there are very few mass market challenges to the voice of the BBC and the other major broadcasters – which, to varying extents, embody the assumptions and values of the liberal establishment.
So, whether it’s right or wrong, what really matters to the health of our democracy is that the Daily Mail is different – and not afraid to be so.