British Journalism Review    
HomeCurrent EditionArchiveBlogSubscription & Back IssuesAbout the BJRLinksContact the BJR


Bill Hagerty

Paul Dacre: the zeal thing

British Journalism Review
Vol. 13, No. 3, 2002, pages 11-22

Print this articlePrint this article

Contents - Vol 13, No. 3, 2002

Editorial - Time to heal ourselves 3

Peter Wilby - Letter 6

Special edition: editors and editing

Geoffrey Goodman - Bridging the generation gap 7

Bill Hagerty - Paul Dacre: the zeal thing 11

Bill Hagerty - The forgotten Cudlipp 22

Patrick Ryan - The art of the editor 28

The greatest editor of all? 33

Martin Rowson - High importance of being Low 37

Sarah Shannon - When the fox preaches, look to your geese 44

Bruce Page - Pricking the bubble: financial scandal and the media 49

Andrew Wasley - Indy journalism: facts are free, opinion is sacred? 58

Richard Littlejohn - Why I'll never give up the day job 65

Rudi Vranckx - Now truth is the first target 71

Michael Billington - Who shot Adrian Noble? 75

Mike Molloy on Richard Stott 80

David Eliades on Penny Junior 84

Phillip Knightley on Robert Capa 86

  Paul Dacre grants interviews with a reticence that has dictated very few public proclamations during the 10 years he has edited the Daily Mail. It is a scarcity that should be welcomed by many of the great and the good, those wandering the corridors of power, both in Westminster and the various branches of the media, for when Dacre does choose to speak out, it is with lacerating force. The Mail, as well as being one of the most successful newspapers in the land, is also the most pugnacious. It is the sort of paper you would not want to meet in a dark alley in the dead of night. One might suspect that the editor of such a bruiser of a title also has considerable muscle to flex – and such suspicions would be well founded.

Having spent much of one morning with Dacre in his Kensington office, I was later informed that he wished to “clarify a few points” he had made during the interview. This normally means that the interviewee is anxious to tone down at least some of his remarks: the wisdom of castigating in public those who are, more often than not, public figures, can look suspect indeed in the small hours of the following day. No so with Paul Dacre. Far from softening his blows, the “clarifications” wielded the cudgel with even more vigour. Those mauled by the most feared editor in Fleet Street – feared by both his paper's targets and, some claim, many of his staff – and editor-in-chief of the Associated Newspapers journalistic juggernaut, tend to stay mauled.

Paul Dacre, 53, is steeped in journalism. His father, Peter, wrote showbusiness features for the Sunday Express, and every Sunday lunchtime would chair a family discussion about that day's newspapers. One of five brothers – another, Nigel, is editor of ITN – Paul worked as a messenger at the Sunday Express during school holidays and as a trainee on the Daily Express during his gap year before university at Leeds. There he edited the student newspaper, winning a Student Newspaper of the Year award, and joined the Daily Express in Manchester as soon as he graduated. “There was never any desire to do anything other than journalism,” he says. Of his own two teenage sons, one has been made editor of his school newspaper. The dynasty is set to continue.

Manchester, Belfast, London and then to the United States for the Express: “I worked for a dizzying succession of editors and the last one I worked for in London, Roy Wright, sent me first to Washington, in 1976 to cover the Jimmy Carter election, and then to New York”. After six years in the Express bureau, he was poached by David English for the Mail: “Though I say it myself, the Express bureau had consistently beaten the Mail bureau. English made me bureau chief and said: ‘I want to forget about it [the bureau] – it's been a pain in the neck. Just get on with it'. Fifteen months later English recalled him to London, to the job of deputy news editor – “He dragged me back screaming” – and the start of a concentrated training programme that saw Dacre work in most editorial departments. It was “training excellence,” he recalls. “Not many people get that kind of experience – it was a great tribute to the culture of Associated and that of David English.”

Difficult decision

A number of senior executive roles followed and he was appointed editor of the Evening Standard when he was 42. Targeting women readers helped the circulation to climb. Then came the catalyst that was to determine Dacre's future: Rupert Murdoch offered him the editorship of The Times. “It was a very difficult decision,” he recalls. “What journalist in the world would turn down The Times? But after a lot of agony I decided to stay and became editor of the Daily Mail [his tenth anniversary was in July]. You never know, do you, but I count myself very lucky to have worked with the Rothermeres. I think Murdoch is one of the most remarkable men of postwar years, the greatest media man, but I have a feeling that because I am the kind of man I am, he and I would eventually have fallen out. I don't want to be arrogant, but I am a strong editor and I believe passionately that editors must be free to edit and that if they have a proprietor above telling them what to do, it all goes wrong. So there isn't a day that goes by that I don't get on my hands and knees and thank the Lord for what I've got.”

Literally, I inquire? “No, I am not a religious man. But I am deeply aware of the privilege of working for a company run by a family that believes in letting editors edit. If they [the editors] get it wrong and the circulation goes down, they fire them. Good luck to them – it's their money.” There is a great joy, he continues, “in being free to edit and not being chastised when you offend one of the proprietor's friends. The joy of writing about whom ever you want and not worrying that the proprietor is going to scream at you because it's one of his best mates – I don't believe there is an editor in this group that looks over his [or her] shoulder in that sense.” He speaks from first-hand experience: “The late Lord Rothermere, Vere, was one of the main financial contributors and also in charge of fundraising on both sides of the Atlantic for the Rothermere College or Rothermere Institute for American Studies at Oxford. The other main fundraiser was Pamela Harriman, one of the great beauties of her day who had had a very fertile love life in the past, particularly with multi-millionaires. The day she and Vere were to have a joint lunch to launch the appeal, Nigel Dempster carried a piece with the intro: ‘Pamela Harriman, who knows more about rich men's ceilings than anyone alive...' I was called upstairs, Jesus, but he [Vere] chuckled and saw the funny side of it and that was the end of it. But she pulled out and he had to find a new fundraiser.”

He had, he says, always wanted to edit, “which is why I accepted David English's offer to come back and join the newsdesk. I reached a certain stage... I'm a good writer, but I'm not a great writer. I think if I had stayed as a writer I would have ended up as a frustrated chap contributing less and less as I got older.” He speaks of the late Sir David English as “a great teacher and a great journalist. I pay tribute to him,” but adds: “I suspect towards the end, when I was getting stronger and he was getting older, there were tensions – there always are between men at that level. His contribution to newspaper culture is there in history. But don't forget Vere. Vere was the strategist, David the tactician. And history hasn't quite accorded Stewart Steven the credit he deserved for making the Mail on Sunday a huge success.”

Dacre came to the editorship at the time of a Fleet Street price war, he recalls. The Times was selling at 20p and The Telegraph had responded with “what I think is a suicidally daft subscription deal – they're hoist on a petard and I don't know how they'll get out of it.” [For me] It was a wonderful learning curve, because one learned more than ever that the way you succeeded in Fleet Street – and again it's the culture of Associated – is that you invest in your product. And we did invest – I launched Weekend magazine. Saturday sales at that stage were about 1.8 million and the Mail's [average] circulation was about 1.7 million, I think. I knew, and my father always knew, that there was a home in Fleet Street for the definitive television magazine – he [Peter Dacre] almost got John Junor to do it. I think we achieved that with Weekend. We made it a warm, family-accessible magazine – we eschewed all the twee fashiony stuff in all the other Saturday and Sunday magazines – and we improved the Saturday paper. And last Saturday we sold more than three-and-a-half million.

“We went through that price war without cutting our price at all. It is my overriding belief that you can only survive and flourish by promoting and you can only promote by making money through your circulation. Now, 10 years later, we've come full cycle with a price war in Fleet Street again. Once again, we are refusing to cut our price. We invest in the product and the circulation rewards have been enormous.” His recipe for success? He has no hesitation: “Talent, talent, talent, belief in investing in the product, keeping the accountants at bay and having owners who understand that. And having a belief in what you write and the strength to eschew fashionable opinion and write for your readership – I think some newspapers and a lot of the radio and television media are now run by liberal, politically correct consensors who just talk to each other and forget that in the real world there are people who feel differently.”

It is remarkable, I observe, that a succession of rival proprietors have thought they can discover a magic formula that can dent the Mail's success without serious investment in their titles. At the Express, for example. Dacre grimaces at the first mention of the paper that, under the direction of Richard Desmond, snaps at the Mail's trouser turn-ups like an irritating puppy. “The Express is a wonderful example of what can go wrong in Fleet Street, isn't it? It was a great paper and John Junor's Sunday Express was one of the great papers of all time with a massive circulation. I learned an awful lot from it, actually, at those Sunday lunches. JJ was left alone, by and large, because he was so powerful, while the [Daily] Express declined, changing editors because of stupefying, criminally ignorant management – criminally bad management that Max Aitken started, really, and that destroyed in a matter of a few years one of the great groups. It's terribly sad. I remember meeting Lord Hollick at a [political] party conference when he took it [the Express group] over. He said to me: ‘I hate everything the Mail stands for and I am going to destroy you'. This fine socialist then proceeded to treat his staff like a Victorian mill owner, sacking scores of fine journalists, saw his circulation plummet and ended up selling Beaverbrook's once great newspaper to a pornographer.”

The P word. That's it, the P word. It arrives like Jimmy Durante striking the Lost Chord. Top-shelf magazine publisher and Express group boss Richard Desmond, having put the private lives of the Rothermeres under a very public microscope after the Mail had continuously referred to him as a pornographer, came to an arrangement with Associated whereby hostilities in the rival papers would cease. As Dacre has demonstrated previously, he does not consider the truce to inhibit comment elsewhere. “I think that [the sale of the Express papers to Desmond] was one of the shaming moments during my career in Fleet Street,” he continues. “And I don't want to be pompous, but I do believe Tony Blair's acceptance of money from Richard Desmond marked a new low in public life in this country. Richard Desmond is an appalling man. He is bad for British journalism. He's bad for public life and he's bad for civilized standards. For Tony and Cherie Blair to court him so assiduously speaks volumes for their moral elasticity. As long as I've got energy in my body, I'm going to devote everything to try to see him off.”

Going to America

A constant thorn in the side of the Prime Minister and the Government, Dacre, like so many right-wing activists, leaned towards Labour when young. “Yeah, like all students,” he concedes. “If you don't have a left-wing period when you go to university, you should be shot. I was left-wing and I don't regret it one bit. I felt passionate about a lot of things. It was going to America [that changed his politics]... I don't see how anybody can go to America, work there for six years and not be enthralled by the energy of the free market. America taught me the power of the free market, as opposed to the State, to improve the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people. I left a Britain in 1976 that was ossified by an us-and-them, gaffers-versus-workers mentality in which a tribal working class was kept in place by subservience to the Labour authorities who owned their council homes, to the unions and the nationalised industries. Mrs Thatcher, in what was a terribly painful process, broke that destructive axis, empowered the individual and restored aspiration and self-reliance in this country. And, I suppose, if there are two words that sum up the Mail's philosophy, they're ‘aspiration' and ‘self-reliance'.”

The Mail's initial goodwill towards New Labour did not last long: “I very much regret that much of what she [Lady Thatcher] did is slowly being unwound. Regulations are increasing, business is being throttled again by red tape. I had a good relationship with the Prime Minister in the early days. I've been to dinner at No. 10. I think Tony Blair is a remarkable man and I think history will give him enormous credit for making the Labour Party electable, but I think he is a chameleon who believes what he said to the last person he talked to. I vividly remember when, in the days before his first election victory, for the first time ever a Labour leader would come here [to the Mail offices] to have lunch or dinner. He [Blair] came several times. I was enthralled by this man who told me he was going to devote his Government to restoring the family, he was going to do this for the family and that for the family, was going to think the unthinkable on the welfare state – I promise you, that was his language. Seven or eight years later, if he'd done as much for the family as he's done for gay rights, I'd be a very happy man. Now, I don't have a good relationship with him, although I get messages from senior ministers every other day with a view to seeing if there is any common ground we can discuss.”

The family is at the heart of Dacre's, and therefore the Mail's, political drive: “I believe that at the end of the day families, decent families, all families spend their money more wisely that the Stephen Byers of this world,” he says. “I shall go to my grave believing that children need a father and mother and a stable upbringing. I am not saying that people who grow up in single families don't have wonderful mothers or wonderful dads, but I believe children should be conceived in love and, in an ideal world, have a father and a mother. The breakdown in that belief is responsible for a lot of the unhappiness in the 21st century.”

Politicians, by and large, do not rate high among Paul Dacre's passions – and that includes those from both major parties. “I'm afraid I feel rather strongly that we have a Government that is manipulative, dictatorial and slightly corrupt. No. 10, in particular, cannot stand dissent. It has broken the second chamber, weakened the Civil Service and sidelined Parliament.” And the Opposition? “One thing I knew was wrong [when he became editor of the Mail] was David's [English's] slavish devotion to Thatcherism. I'm a Thatcherite politically, but Major was in power by then and you could smell the decay. I was determined to break the kind of umbilical cord between the Tories and the Mail, which in my view was offensive; it was so obsequious and sycophantic. I did that. I like to think that now in terms of party politics the Daily Mail is independent; in terms of values I suppose we are conservative with a small ‘c'. I do regret, deeply, that for many years we have had such a weak opposition, because too much focus is put on the press, with daft accusations that they [newspapers] are the official opposition. It's twaddle. Tony Blair's got five years – I have to face a general election every day to persuade people to spend 40p to buy a paper. So this nonsense about papers having too great a power and destroying politics – I do feel quite angry about it.

“I try and ration my lunches with politicians, but you have to have the odd lunch to understand the texture and tone of the Government. I must tell you – and I don't say this in an arrogant way – that with too many politicians, I come away thinking that, golly, I don't think I'd employ that person as my deputy features editor. They just aren't of sufficient calibre.”

Not all politicians get a tongue-lashing, however: “I have an awful lot of admiration for Gordon Brown. I feel he is one of the very few politicians of this administration who's touched by the mantle of greatness. I disagree with a lot of what he says, but I think he is a genuinely good man; he's a compassionate man with strong socialist principles and I think he's an original thinker and a man of enormous willpower and courage.”

Such praise for the Chancellor may not be greeted with ebullience at No. 10, where Dacre's coolness extends past the Prime Minister to his director of communications, Alastair Campbell: “I find his hectoring of newspapers, for a man who's made money and paid his mortgage out of newspapers, perplexing. 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 who is as zealous in his support of Tony Blair as he was of Robert Maxwell. He believes in the cause and that the means justify the end, and I don't believe that.” So you are not, I inquire, a zealot? “A fair question. I don't believe I am a zealot. I think I have a wide sense of values – I'm quite liberal on some things. I sometimes worry that the Mail has too much energy and it comes out in the paper as zealotry, but I also happen to believe a newspaper should also be zealous in attacking pomposity, cant and corruption. And I'm zealous in selling newspapers – nothing comes between that and me. Unlike Mr Campbell, I think that Britain has a tremendously vibrant, diverse and creative newspaper industry. It has its faults – it is sometimes vulgar and intrusive, often inaccurate and frequently unfair – but it possesses a plurality of opinion and an irreverence that acts as a great counterfoil to the pompous and corrupt. Our biggest fault is our compulsion to shit on our own [kind]. The way British newspapers – and the so-called quality papers are the worst offenders – so venomously slag each other off never ceases to depress me. We have a dismal enough image with the public as it is without fouling our own nest.”

Despite being regarded by many as a journalistic rotweiller ready to savage anybody or anything that doesn't agree with its agenda, the Mail's record as a campaigning newspaper bears scrutiny: its bite has been as good as its bark on the Omagh bomb victims, prostate cancer, “Frankenstein foods” and the continuing deficiencies of the National Health Service, in which Dacre profoundly believes. The paper also recorded a notable journalistic first, attracting acclaim and opprobrium in equal measure, in branding those acquitted of killing Stephen Lawrence “murderers”.

Once in a lifetime

“The old Daily Mail, I'd be the first to admit, was slightly racist,” he says. “But we are not now and Stephen Lawrence was the turning point on that. It was a pivotal moment and, not that we did it for this reason, we now have a lot more black and Asian readers and, by God, I'd like more of them. Racism appalls me and I wish I could get more black and Asian reporters working for us, but they don't come into journalism. It [the Lawrence ‘Murderers' front page] was a thing you do once in a lifetime. It happened in about three hours. We'd done a massive amount of background on the case and knew people on the estate and in that part of London and the police were convinced that those guys were guilty. Then there was one of those strange, eerie coincidences. The day they came strutting out of the coroner's court, having elected to remain silent, I was having lunch with the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner [Sir Paul Condon], who very eloquently told me they were as guilty as sin. So we came out with that front page. I was expecting reader criticism but received huge support. The Telegraph and The Times, as usual, shat on us, but The Guardian supported us – I give The Guardian great credit for that. Then the Attorney General was asked to look into whether I should be tried for common contempt. I wouldn't say I slept well those nights until, a week later, a fax came saying we weren't going to be done.”

Other Mail editorial initiatives have prompted equally mixed reaction and the paper's no-holds-barred resistance to adoption of the euro seems unlikely to prevent Britain eventually fully embracing the European Community. “I suspect that in the long term it may be inevitable,” Dacre concedes. “I don't know that I can win this one, but I can't change on it. If I suddenly felt in my waters that 75 to 80 per cent of the British public were in favour of the euro, I can't say, hand on heart, that the Daily Mail wouldn't change its policy. But it would be with the greatest reluctance, because I am passionate about it. If you want to use the word, I'm zealous about it, I suppose, but I don't believe editors should have the arrogance to fly in the face of the readers' views. The lesson of history is that artificially imposed hegemonies simply don't work. And I believe that if you give up your right to tax yourself, you give up your sovereignty and, ultimately, I'd rather my fools ran the country than their fools.”

Of the Mail's stance on asylum seekers, another hard political line that has been roundly condemned by the more liberally minded, Dacre says: “We favour economic migration to this country – clearly it can bring great bene- fit to industry and to the NHS. But people risking their lives on trains, at the mercy of gangsters, coming in willy-nilly on boats and trains and planes, it's horrible, it's obscene. And I know that unless you get hold of this you are going to give rise to the ugly right wing. We've been saying this for years – the Mail's values are consistent. It campaigned for years for the restoration of some degree of competition in British schools and it gives me enormous joy to see that the Government now accepts that. It gives me some satisfaction that after the years we warned about the social break-up of the family, left-wing academics – not just the right-wing – are now devoting vast areas of northern tree forests to showing that single-parent children, born without love, are under-performing in life, which I think is a terrible betrayal.”

Dacre's self-belief radiates so strongly from him that you could toast bread on it. Working for someone so uncompromising cannot be easy. Within the Mail office is he the ogre so often depicted by his critics, I ask? “An ogre!” he cries, followed by a hoot of laughter that rattles the windows. Well, perhaps tyrant is a better word, I suggest? “Tyranny? I'm privileged to be surrounded by a hugely dedicated and talented bunch of professional journalists. The day I tyrannise them into silence is the day this paper will die. Look, newspapers are all about energy. I like to feel I lead from the front and I work as hard as anybody, if not harder. There's not a job on the paper I can't do and I work with them [his staff] very closely. I think if you were to ask them, honestly, they'd say he's a big-mouthed, loud-mouthed tyrant, but he does his fair share and he gets the paper off at night and we all go home pretty proud of it. Yes, there's a lot of shouting and a lot of swear words, but it's never personal. I suppose I have a fault in that I don't dwell on the great things we have in the paper that everybody else [other newspapers] didn't do – I always highlight the three probably footling things we didn't do. But the day you stop doing that is the day you start going backwards.”

Once in a blue moon

What of suggestions that as editor-in-chief he also pulls the strings at both the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard? “I take charge of the broad strategic promotion of those papers,” he says. “People don't believe this, but I have absolutely nothing to do with what appears in them. Peter Wright is the autonomous editor of the Mail on Sunday and Veronica Wadley the autonomous editor of the Evening Standard. I don't have enough seconds in the day to discuss what they put in their papers. That is not to say that once in a blue moon Peter Wright won't come to chew the fat with me and say: ‘Look, what do you think?' And I do reserve the right, as editor-in-chief, to say that I think they are going too down-market or too up-market and I have constructive conversations with both editors. But I resent the accusation [that the other editors are required to dance to his tune]. The editor-in-chief role I relish most is spotting opportunities for the future and working with Jonathan [Harmsworth]. Metro was his idea, but I and the team made it work. Now it's distributing nearly 900,000 copies a day and it's making money.

“My problem is that being an editor is 99 per cent a full-time job. It is not something you can do halfway – the moment you take your eye off the ball and you don't put in a 14-hour day, the paper starts going backwards. My own belief is that in the next few years we are going to see some quite seismic changes in the newspaper industry. I think, inevitably, there is going to be the long talked-about contraction. I think that if there is a serious recession, as opposed to this eerie dormant advertising period at the moment, we'll see one or two papers merging or going under. I guess The Independent can't survive for ever. Trinity-Mirror are a clever group and Piers [Morgan] edits with enormous flair and chutzpah that's matched only by his lack of judgement, but I think Trinity acquired something [the group] they don't understand and my guess – and I don't say this in any pejorative way – is that one day they will accept that. As for Murdoch, the nearer to the grave he seems to get, the faster he seems to go, as if in some way he can defy the grim reaper. But some day, you know, he will [die] and I believe his group will unravel pretty quickly. I mean, television stations, satellite TV, that will go on, but newspapers need love, they need one man's proprietorial love, which he [Murdoch] understood in the early years. The Mail is the last totally family-run group. We have layers of talent and skill I have quite carefully nurtured and brought on. And while dynasties can go wrong, disastrously wrong, they can also produce people who learn the wisdom of their forbears, and we are lucky to have a proprietor who possesses his father's skills. So I believe, and I could be fooling myself, that we are in a unique position to exploit the opportunities.”

Before I leave, Dacre proudly conducts me on a brief tour of the Daily Mail editorial floor. This, rather than the London apartment where he spends most nights of the week, or the Sussex home where he lovingly tends his garden at weekends, is where his roots are. “I couldn't work 14 or 15 hours a day – it's a hard job, it really is, I went home last night like a wet rag – without loving it. I love journalists, I love the intrigue, I love the gossip, and I love words and great layouts and everybody on this floor does, too.” It is a well-rewarded love affair, I suggest: his salary has been reported as £727,000 plus bonuses. He does not demur. “I don't want to lay it on, but I grew up in a family where we watched the pennies just like everybody else. Now I'm wealthy, I'm comfortable, but certainly not very wealthy. Money means to me the freedom not to worry about my family and my house, which would take minutes away from the day that I could be spending on the Daily Mail or the Mail group. I will buy a house in France one day, when I have the time to go there, but do I want to own a gin palace in France, have Picassos on the wall and a Bentley? That doesn't interest me one little jot.” He walks me to the lift.

“Most things in life come back to family – wanting the best schools for your kids, wanting a happy marriage,” says Paul Dacre. “I don't think you can have a newspaper editor who's not married with children...they wouldn't understand the human condition.” That rules out gays, I remind him, and his brow furrows. “All right, I take back that generalisation because many gays are more sensitive to that condition that heterosexuals are, but you really do have to understand those areas of life to edit a paper.” His boys are away at school and “I am blessed to have a most wonderful wife, who has put up with not seeing me much over the last 30 years. Kathy has always backed me – I really couldn't have done it without her. If you can go home to the real world, where real children and a real wife remind you: hang on a minute, you might be a tin god in the office but here you're nobody – go and do the dishes...” Doing the dishes? Paul Dacre in a pinny is an image both friends and enemies may find it difficult to visualise.