The rag without qualities
Paul Demarty bids farewell to the most hated man on Fleet Street
So, perhaps for the last time, Paul Dacre makes the front pages himself. A long and - by the usual metrics of professional life - successful career as a newspaper bigwig will, for all intents and purposes, end in November.
Sure, the Rothermere family have given him another job title to take up, as the reins of the Daily Mail are taken over by Geordie Grieg, the editor of its Sunday sister paper; and no doubt the most spiteful man on Fleet Street will find ways to get a few pieces of cheap revenge on Greig, whom he despises. Yet he must know, as we all do, that this is basically a sinecure. Dacre’s career in the Fleet Street firmament is over. The question is merely what else dies with it.
Why now? The better question might be: why did it take so long? Roy Greenslade’s condemnation of Rothermere’s reluctance to offload Dacre - “an extraordinary example of procrastination”1 - has at least the ring of plausibility to it. Dacre is, for a start, not so virile as he would like us all to believe - he has had major heart surgery. He is not, to be blunt, getting any younger. There have been a few signs that the tyrannical authority he is permitted to impose on the newsroom is starting to go to his head - we think of the bizarre stunt of dedicating the paper’s entire front page to a revenge diatribe against The Guardian, after the latter published a cartoon implying the Mail had something on its conscience after the Finsbury Park mosque attack. It seems also that Greig is better at Rothermere family politics, and is a favourite of Claudia Harmsworth, the wife of the current viscount.
The main matter in the press coverage of the affair has to do with politics in the wider sense. Dacre not only backed Brexit, but did more perhaps than any other individual to force it onto the agenda. He was already demanding a referendum over Maastricht, while still at the Evening Standard. The Rothermeres, however, are Europhiles - they are even domiciled in France. The feverish EU hatred of the paper they own was tolerable so long as there was no chance that Dacre might be successful in his crusade against straight bananas; now that Britain is actually shambling towards the cliff edge, the joke just is not funny any more, and - worse still - is apparently costing our plucky aristocrats their invitations to the right society dinners.
Greig surprised many by supporting a ‘remain’ vote in the Mail on Sunday, a decision that finishes off a picture of a man in the right place at the right time. Which brings us back to the question of what changes to expect. Reading some of the more exultant coverage in the liberal press - understandably cheered that Dacre is gone - you might almost have thought that the political line of the paper is about to be outsourced to Hackney council. Nothing so dramatic is likely, of course. But if Greig managed to walk the MoS back from the Brexit precipice, he can do the same at the daily. There will be no shortage of calamities that can serve as the ‘enough is enough’ excuse for a switcheroo.
There is another aspect of Dacre’s paper that even the most liberal hacks will mourn, which is that it is almost the last well-resourced daily in Britain. The Mail has a very generous budget. It can be very long, sometimes as long as TheSun and the Daily Mirror combined; it has a bottomless fund for book serialisations and the like. Mail staff must put up with Dacre’s relentless bullying - the so-called ‘vagina monologues’ where journalists consider themselves lucky to escape one of the editor’s notorious ‘double-cuntings’. Apart from that, they are fully able to do a good job. If ever there was a moment for the proprietors to do a bit of belt-tightening, this is it; and if you want to know what a blood-drained, parsimonious Mail looks like, pick up a copy of the Express one of these days.
Beyond good and evil
To talk of ‘doing a good job’ at the Mail is not a simple thing, however, and must lead us from talk of good and bad journalism, to good and evil. We have danced around the issue so far, but the main reason why Dacre’s departure is so widely feted is simply that for the last 25 years he has been publishing the most psychopathic mainstream paper in the western world. The Mail is like a vast pump, sluicing poison into society. Its meanness and cruelty is matched only by its hypocrisy.
One of the questions that has dogged moral philosophy for thousands of years is: is it possible to be good at evil? It is a problem particularly for Aristotelian types, who believe that moral virtue is something that you get better at with practice - and the usual response is to say that indeed it is not possible, that being a skilled torturer is not so much like being a skilled footballer, but rather a matter of being an extremely bad doctor. The torturer’s decision to improve his technique at inflicting pain is, in the end, not at all the most important choice he has made: that would, instead, be the decision not to cultivate a better moral understanding.
One could not wish for a better exemplary case, if one were of that view, than Paul Dacre. It will surely be unnecessary to press the point further that he is a moral pygmy, in this of all papers. We would stress, rather, that part of Dacre’s Mail’s pathological effect on the body politic consists in the mythological image of this man as a sort of diabolical genius. Yet there is not a single thread of his inglorious career that does not point to a total shallowness. To call him a genius, even an evil one, is to sin unforgivably against Einstein, or Marx, or - since we have him in mind - Aristotle.
For genius, as we were told by our grandparents, is one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration. Dacre’s Stalinesque monomania and apparent work ethic belies a fundamental laziness. How did he get so rightwing? After all, he was a liberal at university: “I was leftwing and I don’t regret it one bit,” he told the British Journalism Review in 2002. Then he found himself working in the US bureau of the Express: “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.”2 We highlight this because it is so clichéd as to be almost uncanny. His student leftism was merely a matter of being a student (“everyone was doing it”); his rightwing politics is a matter of excitement at the plastic sheen of American capitalism, the complacent self-delusion of a man who has never seen strikers shot at Kentucky coalfields, or entire cities, like Detroit, condemned to economic collapse. The two phases of his opinions are united in that they are, exactly, shallow.
As for his achievements as Mail editor, which are certainly substantial so far as his own and the Rothermeres’ bank balances are concerned, let us refer to the usual explanation of the man’s ‘genius’: that he has an unparalleled insight into the psychology of the suburban British lower-middle classes. Yet if we were to describe these prejudices - the Daily Mail reader in purest stereotype - we would end up with a bundle of contradictions: the state should not interfere in people’s lives, except to obstruct homosexual relationships and other ‘disgusting’ things of that sort; the EU is a vast enemy of liberty, unlike the monarchy; and so on, the cracks papered over by appeals to a phantom ‘common sense’.
This mindset - which exists in pure form more or less only as the editorial Weltanschauung of the Mail - is characterised by a refusal to learn to think about society as a connected whole at all, not even badly. This is deficient even compared to religious apologetics or vulgar social Darwinism. We have heard a common story about Dacre repeatedly in the past weeks, that in his early days as news editor of the Mail, on his way up, he had a habit of compulsively scratching himself, as the deadline approached - to the point that his back would bleed through his shirt. His editorial style is no less a matter of self-harm, however, for it consists in denying himself any meaningful intellectual development, in the service of the most trivial ends: demagogic appeals to low bigotry to make money.
Liars in chief
We will not deny ourselves a toast to the end of this particular era, then. However, we do find ourselves a little uncomfortable with some of the others clinking glasses.
We turn - why not? - to Alastair Campbell in GQ Magazine, who offers us a fine bit of score-settling (originally published a few years ago but resurfaced in honour of the happy day).3 He has a few good lines - for instance, having Dacre in charge of the editor’s code of practice committee is “like putting Harold Shipman in charge of the ethics committee of the BMA”. One tic jumps out at us, however: Campbell repeatedly references the Mail calling him “Blair’s Liar-in-Chief”, in a tone that is unmistakably ironic. You would certainly get the impression that he thinks that Dacre is dishonest and cruel to keep going on about it. Yet perhaps it is not entirely off the point that the things Campbell had us believe about Iraq were actually, in point of fact, radically untrue?
That is the nub. The Mail gets special attention because it is so obviously malignant. The more subtle sort of damage it can do is precisely by making other ne’er-do-wells - certain liars-in-chief we could mention - look positively saintly by comparison. The same goes, of course, for its peers in the press. We should resist the temptation to believe that for most papers, in CP Scott’s words, facts are sacred, whereas in the Mail facts are Dacred. TheTimes is not qualitatively more honest than the Mail, at least not when it comes to matters of politics. It still promotes ‘big lies’. It is merely more civilised about it - except when the by-line belongs to Rod Liddle.
This is the best viewing angle for the particular argument as to whether the Mail - as its defenders would have it - echoes its readers’ views, or whether it changes those views for the worse. The answer must be both - while we cannot blame the Mail for anti-migrant prejudice as such, we certainly can blame it for the widespread perception that most asylum applications are bogus, that child refugees are not really children, but scheming 30-somethings on the make - in short, for providing a mostly illusory ‘factual’ basis for such prejudices.
That leaves out a crucial component of the Dacre world view, however, and exactly the one that most vexes Alastair Campbell. This is the idea that society is run by an out-of-touch metropolitan elite: a caste which includes basically all politicians except those with the common touch like, er, Jacob Rees-Mogg. (It also conveniently excludes Dacre, with his chauffeur and his four enormous homes … ) The trouble is that this is at least 75% true. The evidence keeps piling up. It is perfectly well true, for example, that the EU is not specifically to blame for the democratic deficit in Britain and elsewhere - but the deficit really does exist, and I fail to see what Alastair Campbell did to help matters.
Blaming Dacre for every cruel instinct of the British petty bourgeoisie is worse than an exaggeration, then - it is a refusal to acknowledge complicity. Establishment critics of his paper should give a thought or two to why its broadsides were so easily believed, and they should look closer to home than they presently do.