Today
Fri 7 May 2021

Brian Cathcart gives a personal view of why the former Daily Mail editor would be the worst thing to happen to the broadcasting regulator entrusted with upholding journalistic standards

Paul Dacre is reported to be on the brink of becoming the new chair of Ofcom – the UK’s statutory regulator of broadcasting which is responsible, among other things, for upholding journalistic standards, maintaining impartiality and protecting the public interest. 

Dacre was for 22 years editor of the Daily Mail, one of the country’s most influential newspapers, and since 2018 has been the chair and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers – a title that implies he has oversight of, and bears some responsibility for, the group’s journalistic output across all of its titles. 

He is thus a known quantity. So is he a fit person to chair Ofcom on behalf of the UK public? Here are ten reasons why he is not, with fuller explanations given below:

  1. Dacre has a known, visceral objection to the statutory regulation of journalists, which is one of Ofcom’s most important jobs.
  2. He has a 20-year record of repeatedly breaching regulatory codes and of failing to improve his conduct in response to regulatory action.  
  3. He failed to notice his own Daily Mail staff commissioning unlawful activities and failed to investigate this when it was pointed out to him.
  4. He repeatedly published misinformation on an important medical matter affecting the lives of millions of children.
  5. He has a well-known and frequently expressed hatred for the most important organisation regulated by Ofcom.
  6. He has limited respect for, or understanding of, the rule of law. 
  7. He has shown no understanding of ethical boundaries when challenging those whose beliefs he dislikes. 
  8. He created myths about the Stephen Lawrence case that have been used to defend him against charges of racism.
  9. He broke a public promise made by his employer to the readers of his newspaper.
  10. His workplace conduct is widely reported to be far below what is reasonably expected of a very senior public servant. 

1. An Opponent of the Regulation of Journalism

If he were appointed chair of Ofcom, Dacre would be in the unusual position of acting as a statutory media regulator of journalism when he is, by his own account, appalled and revolted by the very idea of statutory regulation of journalism.

Ofcom is a state regulator, regulating – according to statute – the work of considerably more journalists than operate in the national press. (And hitherto doing so in a way that enables the public to trust those journalists far more than they do, say, Daily Mail journalists.)

But Dacre believes that one of his greatest career achievements is to have “spearheaded the battle for freedom of expression against those who seek to impose statutory regulation of the press”. His newspaper campaigned against the Leveson recommendations and the 2013 Royal Charter on press self-regulation on the alleged grounds that, however scrupulously they excluded politicians from influence over regulation, they represented or threatened a form of state regulation of journalism, which was, he insisted, intrinsically abhorrent and unacceptable.   


2. Serial Breaches of Regulatory Codes

Dacre’s own record in relation to regulation reveals a persistent failure to maintain standards.

In 2008, by which time he had been editing the Daily Mail for 16 years, his regulatory record was analysed by Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. Davies found that, over a 10-year period, the Mail had been “provoking justifiable complaint about unethical behaviour at just over three times the rate of the other national titles”. In other words, not only had Dacre’s newspaper breached the industry’s agreed code of practice far more frequently than other newspapers, but it had done so year after year after year.

This strongly suggests that Dacre failed to learn from adverse regulatory findings and failed to adjust his newspaper’s conduct accordingly. Indeed, his record never improved. The Daily Mail was still topping the list of code breachers in 2016, 2017 and in his final year as editor, 2018.  


3. The Daily Mail and Data Theft

Journalists at Dacre’s Mail were not fastidious about obeying the law, indicating at the very least a serious failure of oversight on his part.

In 2006, after he had been in charge at the paper for eight years, the Information Commissioner’s Office published a report on the unlawful trade in confidential personal information. It gave details of news organisations where journalists helped drive that trade by employing a private detective who routinely employed unlawful methods. Top of the list, with 58 of its journalists known to have commissioned 952 transactions, was Dacre’s Daily Mail.

Asked about this at the Leveson Inquiry – held in 2011-12 into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the phone-hacking scandal – Dacre said that it was a long time before (six years) and his memory was hazy. He rejected the idea that he ought to have mounted an internal inquiry on the grounds that other newspapers had been doing the same thing and that “there was a very hazy understanding” of whether it was illegal.  


4. Dacre and Medical Misinformation

Twenty years ago, and for several years thereafter, Dacre’s Daily Mail played a significant role in unjustified and harmful scaremongering about the MMR triple vaccine for children, by promoting unjustified claims by Andrew Wakefield that it caused autism.

The British Medical Journal has said that a number of newspapers were guilty of this but singled out the Daily Mail.

One prominent Mail article, for example, written by columnist Melanie Phillips, crudely dismissed a thorough scientific review disproving Wakefield’s claims as “baloney”.

Dacre’s successor as editor, Geordie Greig, has offered an apology for the newspaper’s endorsement of the fraudulent autism claim: “Knowing what we all know now, it should never have been given such credence – and that is a matter of profound regret.”


5. Animosity Towards the BBC

Dacre has never hidden his hatred of the BBC – by far the country’s most trusted and popular broadcaster, the journalistic output of which is regulated by Ofcom.

Under his editorship, the Daily Mail never missed an opportunity to denigrate the corporation and, in 2007, Dacre turned a public lecture in memory of Fleet Street giant Hugh Cudlipp into an anti-BBC diatribe.

A subsidised monolith, he said, the BBC was “distorting Britain’s media market, crushing journalistic pluralism and imposing a mono culture that is inimical to healthy democratic debate”. It had “an awesome stranglehold on the airwaves reaching into every home every hour of the day” and was “institutionally anti-Tory”, with “two Labour stooges” installed as Director-General and chairman. (Does this make him a ‘Tory stooge’?)

It was also “institutionally Marxist” and “in every corpuscle of its corporate body against the values of conservatism with a small ‘c’, which, I would argue, just happen to be the values held by millions of Britons”.

All of these are opinions to which Dacre is obviously entitled, but should someone with so furious an animus towards such an important institution be placed in a position to regulate its output?

If appointed to Ofcom, Dacre would have to resign his Mail posts, but would it be appropriate if he was allowed to step across and use his new position in ways that enriched his former employer? 


6. Dacre and the Rule of Law

Dacre’s respect for the rule of law must be in doubt. He has a record of attacking judges personally simply for doing their job and playing their part in an independent judicial system.

In 2008 and 2012, for example, he mounted personal attacks on a judge, David Eady, describing him as “arrogant and amoral” because he disliked Eady’s legal rulings.

In November 2016, after three High Court judges ruled that the Government needed Parliament’s consent before it could begin the formal processes of Brexit, the front page of the Daily Mail denounced them as ‘Enemies of the People’. One of the judges was also described as an “openly gay ex-Olympic fencer”. The then President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, said that this undermined the rule of law. The then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, said that it was “the only time in the whole of my judicial career that I have had to ask for the police to give us a measure of advice and protection”.


7. The Man and Not the Ball

Dacre’s weak grasp of ethics is evident in his obvious preference for ad hominem attack over reasoned argument.

Here are two examples among many.

In November 2012, he devoted 11 pages of his newspaper to a bizarre assault on a man barely known to the public, Sir David Bell. Bell’s offence was to advocate for press reform and to be an ‘assessor’ at the Leveson Inquiry, which Dacre hated. The Daily Mail’s hysterical charge-sheet against this former Financial Times executive, a fanciful series of ‘liberal’ connections, was worthy of a David Icke conspiracy theory.

A year later, Dacre’s Mail chose to attack the Labour leader Ed Miliband by denouncing his dead father as ‘The Man who Hated Britain’. Ralph Miliband came to Britain from France aged 16 and went on to become a distinguished sociologist. He died in 1994. The Daily Mail justified its headline on the basis of its interpretation of a single short quotation from a diary written when he was 17 years old, while it failed to acknowledge as possible evidence of attachment to Britain his three years’ wartime service in the Royal Navy.


8. Racist? The Stephen Lawrence Case Does Not Disprove It

Dacre’s Daily Mail was often described as racist and there is strong evidence to support this view, perhaps most vividly this cartoon, published in 2015:

Responding to this charge, the newspaper’s defenders often cite its role in the case of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager murdered in a racist attack in 1993 in south-east London.

Yet, most of what Dacre and the Daily Mail have claimed about this case is myth. In 2012, after two men were convicted of the killing, Dacre asserted that, but for the Mail, “Britain’s police might not have undergone the huge internal reform that was so necessary, race relations might not have taken the significant step forward that they have, and an 18-year-old ‘A’ Level student who dreamed of being an architect would have been denied justice”.

The Mail has also claimed that its campaigning brought about the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder and led to the reform of the ‘double jeopardy’ rule in English law, while Dacre has asserted that he risked jail when he published the famous ‘Murderers’ front page in 1997.

In reality, Dacre’s Daily Mail never supported the Lawrence family’s demands for a public inquiry and rejected most of the findings of the Macpherson Report about race and policing. Nor did the Mail campaign for double jeopardy reform or discover any evidence to support the police investigation. And Dacre never risked jail.


9. A Promise Set Aside

In 1997, days after the death of Princess Diana, the Daily Mail made a bold public promise in a bid to win back public trust at a time of widespread fury towards the press.

In a front page statement the proprietor, Lord Rothermere, gave a solemn undertaking that his newspaper would cease to use paparazzi photographs. Not quite an admission of guilt, this was nonetheless an important gesture, given that many blamed paparazzi harassment for wrecking the princess’s life and even for her death in a Paris road accident.

“I am, and always have been, an admirer of Diana, Princess of Wales,” Rothermere assured readers. “I have instructed my editors no paparazzi pictures are to be purchased without my knowledge and consent.”

Dacre was editor at that time. Despite that promise, his newspaper was very soon using paparazzi photographs again and has since published thousands. 


10. Workplace Conduct

Dacre’s loud and foul-mouthed conduct in the workplace is legendary in the press industry and hardly consistent with his professed enthusiasm for traditional family values.

In 2012, the New Yorker magazine wrote that “because Dacre tends to refer to underlings as ‘c*nts’, the daily meetings are known as the Vagina Monologues”.

And this is a passage from a review in the London Review of Books of a 2017 work by Adrian Addison about the Daily Mail:

“Paul Dacre, that nice man who edits the Daily Mail, has become famous in recent times for ‘double-c*nting’: a colleague, usually male, will be ticked off via a thunderous, compound deployment of the Old Frisian. ‘You call that a good c*nting headline, you c*nt?’ might be a typical start to the afternoon. ‘Dacre would call us a “load of c*nts”,’ the former Mail crime reporter Tim Miles told Adrian Addison, ‘or a “shower of c*nts”. It was always “c*nt this” and “c*nt that”. He did like the word c*nt.”

Most of us swear occasionally, and how the Daily Mail allows its executives to behave may be chiefly a matter for the Daily Mail and its staff, but would it be acceptable for the chair of Ofcom, an important public body which, incidentally, employs many women, to vent in this way towards his subordinates?   

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)

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