Paul Dacre: a biography

Paul Dacre is probably the UK’s most successful national newspaper editor. He took charge of the Daily Mail in 1992, after a relatively brief stint at the helm of London’s Evening Standard, having first joined the newspaper group in 1979.

In 1998 he was appointed to the board of Daily Mail and General Trust plc and became editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, which includes both the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail in its portfolio as well as Metro, London Lite and Teletext.

Under Paul Dacre’s stewardship the Daily Mail has moved from strength to strength in a declining market where rivals struggle for survival. Dacre’s Daily Mail is credited with considerable political influence; cowed critics hide behind anonymity and government grants favours in the hope of a gentler ride.

His formative years taught Paul Dacre that ‘brains and education have little to do with the craft of journalism,’ and that ‘sensation sells’. Combined with his censorious instincts and a desire to ‘reflect the fears and anxieties of readers,’ he has created a newspaper that relies on common sense, those things his readers instinctively know to be true, to define its worldview.

Others counter that rather than simply reflect his readers’ instincts Dacre reinforces their prejudices; filtering out inconvenient facts and viewpoints to orchestrate news coverage in a way that supports xenophobia, misogyny and a hatred of contemporary Britain.

London’s most reactionary voice

It is the fate of the socially conservative, no matter how celebrated in life, to be remembered as fools. In the official Story of the Evening Standard, Angus McGill mockingly describes Charles Baldwin, that newspaper’s founder, as ‘…a business man whose response to events could always be relied upon… soon recognised as London’s most reactionary voice’.

That McGill’s words may quite easily be applied to Associated Newspapers’ current editor-in-chief is a tribute to how consistently these titles have held their line.

The secret of the Daily Mail’s editorial consistency is ownership; DMGT remains the UK’s oldest national newspaper company still in the hands of its founding family. The first Lord Rothermere, great-grandfather of the newspapers’ current proprietor, was an enthusiastic propagandist for fascism, supporting the Blackshirts in Britain and acting as cheerleader to Hitler’s invasion of Europe.

Times have changed. Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail doesn’t support today’s would-be Blackshirts, but the first Viscount Rothermere would surely smile at newsgathering techniques employed to report on immigration and to see that the Daily Mail carries more coverage of asylum seekers than any other newspaper, while failing to mention what they are escaping from.

Female celebrities are often harshly treated; allegations that Leslie Ash was a victim of domestic violence should apparently have disqualified her from receiving compensation after a hospital’s negligence left her permanently disabled, yet readers are still encouraged to gawp at her cleavage. Newsreaders easily take the Daily Mail’s mind off the news; Emily Maitlis has sparked thighwatch, Katie Derham inspired dominatrix fantasies, Sophie Raworth was caught in her nightie.

Sexuality of Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail

Paul Dacre may ‘cringe to recall’ the ‘albeit totally clothed “Leeds Lovelies”’ he modelled on Page 3 as a student, but under his editorship the Daily Mail has become increasingly sexualised and relies on images far more explicit – including upskirt and topless shots – to sell newspapers. Publicists secure coverage cheaply with photos of celebrity lingerie models or bikini clad starlets resulting in friendly puff pieces.

Yet while Page 3 is honest and consensual, the sexuality of Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail is far more in keeping with the newspaper’s misogynistic take on female celebrity.

A heavy reliance on paparazzi photographs, often taken at some distance by telephoto lens, gives Dacre’s Daily Mail the sexuality of a rather nasty peeping tom. ‘Click here to enlarge,’ the newspaper screams, while feigning shock, horror and disgust at the flesh it is so keen to show us; the bluster hinting at some internal struggle with ugly urges that cannot be fully contained.

Copyright © Stephen Newton, 9 January 2009.

Post script, 22 January 2009

Shortly after this biography was published, Paul Dacre was left red faced as it emerged the Evening Standard was for sale. Despite the editor-in-chief’s best efforts, London’s evening newspaper was a member of what Dacre calls ‘the subsidariat’ – those media outlets who cannot connect with enough readers to be commercially viable, and whose views and journalism are only sustained by huge cross-subsidy from profitable parts of their owners’ empires. It was sold to Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, for a nominal sum.