Paul Dacre: colossus to dinosaur
If any one person in the United Kingdom feels as shocked and as sickened as Theresa May by the outcome of the election, it must be Paul Dacre.
For the editor of the Daily Mail the past year has been one long hubristic swagger. He was sure the Brexit referendum result confirmed what he had felt since the 2015 election: that the Daily Mail not only spoke for Britain but led Britain, indeed perhaps in his mind it even was Britain – and in his messianic style he lived up to that conviction.
He lambasted the judges for upholding the rule of law. He lambasted the Bemoaners. He lambasted MPs and peers. He lambasted the BBC, Merkel, Juncker, NHS doctors, Gina Miller and more. And of course he lambasted Corbyn, Abbott and Labour in general.
The harlot’s prerogative was his: power without responsibility. This was laid bare when Michael Gove’s Mail-journalist wife Sarah Vine accidentally emailed the wrong person just after the Brexit vote and identified Dacre and Rupert Murdoch as the party’s king-makers.
And when Dacre came out in favour of Theresa May, so it proved. In a trice she was prime minister. Even Northcliffe and Beaverbrook never pulled off such a coup. And it is worth revisiting the dramatic declaration of preference that Dacre published in his paper, for it is a monument to pride and condescension:
‘In normal circumstances, this paper would hesitate to declare its hand before the closing stages of such a [party leadership] contest. But whatever these times may be, they are anything but normal. And among the five candidates vying to succeed David Cameron, the Mail believes only Mrs May has the right qualities, the stature and experience to unite both her party and the country — and possibly usher in a new, cleaner, more honest kind of politics.’
Once crowned, May responded with eager obsequiousness. Having paid court to Rupert Murdoch in New York (even David Cameron thought it more fitting for Murdoch to visit him), she invited Paul Dacre, alone among editors, to a private dinner at Downing Street.
It seemed there was nothing she and her party would not give these men. And of the two, while Murdoch might be the global player, Dacre was by far the more important domestically, for the Sun is a puny paper now beside the Mail, overshadowed in every way. (Murdoch, moreover, had preferred Gove or Johnson to May.)
So it was that she bowed to Dacre’s demand for the end of Leveson – both the regulatory reforms (Section 40) and the second phase of the inquiry looking into who was responsible for the collapse of standards (Leveson 2). First she kicked these into the long grass by launching a consultation. And then, discarding the formal consultation process with spectacular yobbishness, she simply announced in her election manifesto that if elected she would repeal Section 40 and cancel Leveson 2.
Never mind that she herself had, as Home Secretary, personally endorsed both. Never mind that this was the most blatant and shameless act of corruption, totally contrary to the public interest. It was what Dacre wanted and his was the paper that would win elections for May.
So, for the past year, Dacre’s front pages have been to Britain what Donald Trump’s tweets are to the United States – coarse, intemperate, ugly statements of what the man in power wanted to happen next, irrespective of what the law or the constitution might require. Brexit, terrorism, the BBC, the NHS, Leveson – from his mountaintop in Kensington he handed down his thoughts to Whitehall and Westminster, and brooked no defiance.
When the election came, he and his paper duly did their worst for May, and it was vile. On the penultimate day of campaigning, predictably, he called down Harry Potter’s ultimate curse – the killing curse, Avada Kedavra – on Jeremy Corbyn. Thirteen whole pages of monstering crafted by all the finest and most destructive writers and reporters on the Mail payroll – and remarkably, it did not work. Voters ignored it.
With that the Mail suddenly ceased to be a colossus bestriding our narrow world and giving the lie to the idea of waning press power. Instead it was revealed as something like a dinosaur: vicious and dangerous for sure, but with a pitifully under-evolved brain.
And yet, while it is a fine thing to imagine Dacre looking in bewilderment at his magic wand and wondering why it has failed him, that would be to underestimate the man. In his world, somebody is always to blame and that somebody must be made to suffer. It may be Theresa May or her advisers. It may be the Bemoaners again. It may be the young, who appear to have defied him most brazenly. Or it may be the electorate as a whole – the people are in danger of being declared Enemies of the People.
The rage in Paul Dacre will not die. But right now it looks weakened in a way few people in this country could have imagined even a couple of days ago, least of all him. He is cut down to something more like his size, and – whisper it – he might be wise to dust off his files and start briefing himself for an appearance before part 2 of the Leveson inquiry. Watch that space.