Contrary to the popular meme, Winston Churchill never actually said “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something.” (Most pithy quotes on the internet are made up, as Marcus Tullius Cicero famously put it.)
As ever, the true quotation is a little less catchy and comes from someone else entirely: Victor Hugo, to be precise:
‘You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats.’
Hugo’s words seem a fair way to judge the news that Paul Dacre intends to step down as editor of the Daily Mail after 26 years: by the reaction. Even in departure, he manages to inspire fury and bile on a scale matched by few public figures of his generation. Why? Not simply because of his worldview – as much as his critics would claim it is a question of pure ideological difference – but because of his success at promoting and propagating it.
In an age of declining newspaper influence, and supposedly of declining conservatism, Dacre managed to make the Mail not just a bulwark against fashionable leftism, but a loudhailer for many of the causes of Middle England’s quiet majority. Law and order. Controlled immigration. Democratic self-government. Free speech. His natural bullishness was combined with the hard truth that what he produced, people liked; the fact celebrities universally dislike the newspaper did not change the fact that large numbers across the country buy and read it.
When his front page editorial cried “Who will speak for England?”, at the start of the EU referendum campaign, it was only half seeking an answer. By implication, if no-one else had the gumption then at least the Daily Mail was willing to enter the fray. The headline was a distillation of the love and loathing the newspaper attracts – its message and unabashed emotion appealed to its audience, just as much as its perceived mawkishness stuck in the throats of those who also disagreed with the politics it expressed. What some call culture war was simply its culture.
There are few more sure ways to inspire the hatred of people who disagree with your cause than to be both effective and bluntly unapologetic. Dacre managed both, and one suspects he rather thrives on the depth of loathing he attracts in trendy quarters as a result. Consider the way in which the motley alliance of celebrities and would-be censors currently attacking the freedom of the press reserve specific loathing for one newspaper above all others; they would feel little need to ban or muzzle an outlet that they didn’t believe to be effective. (It’s no coincidence that, when announcing his decision to Mail staff last night, he reportedly assured them the would continue to fight for freedom of expression and against state press regulation.)
So Dacre isn’t completely going away – he will now become Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Associated Newspapers – even if his editorship is coming to a close. The big question, in the brutal way of such things, is now who will take over at the Daily Mail, and what will the future hold for the newspaper? This is a pillar of the centre-right press, with a sizeable political and cultural reach even in the fragmented modern media landscape. It can be a fearsome foe and a powerful ally, so, whatever your politics, where it goes does matter.
As much as the Mail has become totemic of a particular outlook, it would be a mistake to assume that is inevitable and permanent. There is no guarantee that it will stay the same under a new editor – if anything, the fact that Dacre was able to make it what it is largely through force of personality show that it could be transformed again by someone else. That might bring political opportunities or risks (or both) for Conservatives. Who, now, will speak for England?