by Brian Cathcart
Paul Dacre has made a speech at a NewstrAid charity event. The full text is available here. It shows the editor of the Daily Mail ambitiously playing the victim card, painting a picture of newspapers desperately holding aloft the tattered flag of liberty while being persecuted in every possible way by an intolerant, authoritarian state.
Dacre’s answer to this is to appeal for unity among the press and for a closer relationship between the press and the police and politicians.
What this amounts to, however, is a call to the establishment to sweep Leveson under the carpet and a call to the newspaper industry to ensure that the public never again finds out about press abuses.
Below are passages from his speech in italics, with comments in between.
‘[Leveson] was a draconian inquiry . . . One, whose authoritarian prescriptions, I have little doubt, were, in reality, decided long before the first witnesses for the press – and there were pitifully few of them – took the stand.’
The Leveson Inquiry was a properly-constituted inquiry under the relevant Act of Parliament, chaired by a very senior judge. Dacre didn’t like it because he was on the side of the proven wrongdoers and proven wrongdoers tend to resent scrutiny. If Dacre has evidence that it reached its conclusions prematurely he should produce it and not indulge in smears. As for press witnesses, they appeared in such abundance that it took around 10 weeks to hear them all (only two weeks were devoted to their victims). In fact Dacre’s Mail made a legal bid (invoking the Human Rights Act, no less) to reduce the number of press witnesses: the paper wanted to exclude whistle-blowers.
‘And we then had the appalling spectacle of the three political parties falling over themselves to see who could champion the toughest controls on the press and putting their proposals – shamefully stitched up in a late night session with Hacked Off – to baying MPs, and, shamefully, Lords, thirsty for revenge on newspapers who had dared to expose their crooked expenses.’
The proposals in question were the Leveson recommendations on press self-regulation, rendered into Royal Charter form. This was endorsed by every single party in our elected House of Commons, fully in line with how our democracy works. No baying was involved, except that of newspaper editors. There had been an election since the expenses scandal, so in the cases where voters wanted to get rid of MPs because of their expenses record they had done so. That too is how democracy works. As for the late-night stitch-up with Hacked Off, this is an old lie, and is fully exposed as such here.
‘And always in the background the drumbeat of cynically negative coverage from the BBC, a body which employs more journalists than the whole of Fleet Street put together and which, because of its subsidised torpor, is not in the same cosmos as the printed media when it comes to breaking stories and setting the news agenda.’
Those familiar with the Daily Mail may well choke on the words ‘cynically negative’ when used by its editor about anyone else. Dacre’s views on the BBC are addressed below.
And fuelling the whole sorry affair was a tiny, unrepresentative pressure group – but one with a very loud voice in parts of the left-wing media and political establishment – run by zealots, priapic so-called celebrities, and small town academics, all united to cast the debate as a biblical fight to the death between good and evil, with the press cast in the role of the devil.
He means Hacked Off. If Dacre had arguments he would not have to rely on calling his critics names. And as he knows from the countless opinion polls he refuses to report in his paper, the overwhelming majority of the public consistently supports the Leveson recommendations.
‘I note with some irony, that those who flaunt their liberal colours most ostentatiously are those who shout loudest for statutory controls of the press.’
I know of no one in this country, liberal or otherwise, who advocates press regulation based on statutory control of the press. Certainly Hacked Off does not. Nor did Leveson or any witness who gave evidence to him. Nor does any British political party.
To them I say, remember those journalists who work in repressive regimes who have been looking on aghast at the statutes being threatened in Britain.
If repressive regimes adopted measures equivalent to the Royal Charter, with all its unprecedented protections for journalism from political and other interference, they would find the consequent enhancement of press freedom very inconvenient.
‘I note with some irony that Leveson had barely a word of criticism for the police and the politicians.’
‘Barely a word’ is Dacre-speak for 358 pages on the politicians and 253 pages on the police. The report contains detailed criticism of the way in which both the police and politicians have conducted themselves over many years. And you might think from this that Leveson was tough on the press, but he wasn’t. Though the inquiry heard abundant evidence of appalling behaviour by journalists and editors, no individual and no paper was singled out in the Leveson Report for condemnation. Despite all he had heard, the only thing Leveson asked of the press was that they set up a self-regulator that met basic standards of independence and effectiveness. This they have refused to do.
‘Well, if the first [the police] had done their job properly and the second [the politicians] had not so sycophantically fawned upon Murdoch, Leveson would never have occurred.’
And when the police and politicians fail, who should step in and drag the facts into the open? The press. Did Dacre’s Daily Mail ever investigate or expose phone hacking at the Murdoch or the Mirror papers? No. And when the Guardian did that job, did the Mail support it? No. Instead Dacre’s papers joined in a conspiracy of silence about law-breaking by the big newspaper groups and a conspiracy of lies and myth-making about Leveson.
‘To the police and politicians made so suspicious of the press by Leveson. . .’
Leveson did not make the police and politicians suspicious of the press. The press did that all by itself, just as it squandered the trust of the public. Leveson, a senior judge, led a long and careful formal public inquiry – the best means our democracy has for tackling complex problems – and when he recommended better means of redress for ordinary people mistreated by the press Dacre and his friends raised two fingers to him.
‘. . . I would argue that it is in all our interests to drop hostilities and to try and restore the mutual respect we should have for each other and which is an important ingredient in a healthy democracy.’
This is a clear call for the restoration of levels of collusion in high places that worked against the interests of the public, not for them. Before the Leveson Inquiry, for example, senior Murdoch executives got so close to Scotland Yard chiefs it was hard to tell who was working for whom. And back then Dacre and his chums were able to march into Downing Street and tell the Prime Minister – in a secret meeting – which laws the press would accept and which it would not. This conduct was not just undemocratic; it was no longer clear whether it was elected politicians who were running the country or editors and proprietors.
‘And, of course, in the last three years we have had to fight for press freedom itself, and our most precious heritage – the right to report free of Government control of editorial content.’
Leveson’s terms of reference explicitly required him to recommend a new regulatory regime ‘which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media, and its independence, including from Government. . .’ In other words, he could not have advocated government control of editorial content if he had wanted to. In fact the Leveson-based Royal Charter offers journalists better protections against interference by the powerful and by government than they have ever had before. The freedom that Dacre and his friends have been fighting for, by contrast, is the freedom to lie about and abuse members of the public with impunity, and that’s what IPSO delivers for them.
‘Those battles often bring out the best in us, but they can also bring out the worst, dividing us and setting us ourselves against each other…’
Dacre wants all the papers to sing to the same song-sheet on these issues, which means colluding to cover up press wrongdoing and tell more lies about the purported ‘independence and toughness’ of the latest press industry poodle, IPSO. He doesn’t want the public to have any means of knowing, for example, that the chair of the committee that writes the press code of conduct is also editor of the paper that breaks the code most often. (Yes, that’s Paul Dacre.)
‘. . . in a way which only gives succour to those who wish to control us.’
Nobody wishes to control the press, except perhaps the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere. The overwhelming majority of people, however, want to see the press made accountable when it causes harm to the innocent and the vulnerable.
‘And as for the BBC’s negativity about the popular press . . .’
Dacre predictably wants to silence the BBC too. After all, if the newspapers don’t report press wrongdoing and cruelty (and most of them don’t), the public might still hear about it from the BBC.
‘I say [to the BBC] be careful of what you wish for. Support government controls shackling the press and you may find that the political class comes for you next.’
Again there is no threat anywhere of ‘government controls shackling the press’ and Dacre has never been able to identify such a threat. And if there is a threat to the BBC it is more likely to come from the Mail: the BBC has very few more powerful, more vitriolic and more persistent enemies.
‘I note with some irony that there has been no judicial inquiry into the BBC’s role in the Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris scandals. The News of the World may have hacked celebrities’ phones, it didn’t sexually abuse teenage children.’
This is like a burglar saying he shouldn’t be prosecuted because murderers and rapists do far worse things. Maybe there should be an inquiry into the BBC and maybe not, but there is a very significant difference between these two cases which Dacre cannot have failed to notice. Widespread and habitual illegal phone hacking at the News of the World was approved by senior editorial figures (some of them individuals well known to Dacre), was consciously and persistently covered up even after the police were involved, and was used to help the paper make money. By contrast the abusive conduct of individuals at the BBC was not official policy and was not approved by the management. The BBC may have been guilty of failures to act but it did not have a criminal conspiracy at the heart of its operations.
And grave as they are, the Saville and Harris scandals do not render phone hacking harmless or insignificant. Nor, for that matter, was the Leveson Inquiry into hacking alone, but into decades of press abuses affecting thousands of innocent people and implicating the police, politicians and others.
‘The media as a whole should ALL be united in defending freedom of expression.’
Indeed it should. But what Dacre is really suggesting here is a cartel, a conspiracy to prevent legitimate accountability for editors and redress for the public.
‘The fact that there is relatively so little corruption in Britain is, I honestly believe, down to a rumbustious free press.’
The press plays a part in fighting corruption in the UK, but Dacre has clearly not seen Transparency International’s global barometer report for 2013, which found that 69 per cent of British people surveyed believed that the British media itself has a corruption problem, which means the media are perceived as the most corrupt element of our society. What Dacre wants, of course, is to change the perception by a concerted cover-up, without having to alter any of the disgraceful conduct that gave rise to the perception.