By far the most powerful of all the national newspaper editors is Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail. No-one in the industry can seriously doubt that Dacre’s views have been decisive in determining the response of the big press companies to the Leveson Report.
This means that Dacre, more than any other individual, is responsible for the decision to reject the Leveson recommendations, ignore Parliament and – through the IPSO project – present an illusion of reform rather than its substance. Lesser figures such as Lord Black, Paul Vickers, Peter Wright and David Newall attended to the details, but the strategy is Dacre’s.
So what is Dacre’s track record in relation to press self-regulation? What has he done for press standards? And, since he is the puppeteer-in-chief of IPSO, can the public trust him to defend their interests?
1. Dacre bears a heavy personal responsibility for the failure of the PCC
For 10 years, from 1998 to 2008, Dacre sat as a member of the Press Complaints Commission, pronouncing on complaints from the public. In 2004, he became a member of PressBoF, the committee of newspaper executives that pulls the PCC’s strings. Since 2008, he has also been chair of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee of PressBoF – which writes the Code.
That is 16 years of continuous engagement at the highest level, in a period that included the Motorman data theft scandal, phone hacking, the McCann affair, the herd libelling of Christopher Jefferies and much, much more.
It is also 16 years of failure. The chair of PressBoF, Lord Black, admitted:
‘The evidence submitted throughout the Inquiry into Press Standards has made clear that the Press Complaints Commission ultimately failed.’ (P1595)
The Prime Minister said:
‘The Press Complaints Commission has failed.’
As for the Leveson Report, it found something worse than failure (p1579):
‘It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the self-regulatory system was run for the benefit of the press not of the public.’
If Dacre were a minor industry figure serving on the PCC – say, a local newspaper editor – he might have the excuse that he had no power to influence the organisation for the better. But Dacre is a major figure, so he must shoulder a significant share of the blame for failure.
2. Even as the PCC was failing, Dacre promoted it as a success
For years, Dacre has been one of the principal PR men for the PCC system, assuring Parliament and the public that it upheld standards, that it was respected and even feared by editors, and that it provided meaningful protection for the public. Some examples:
2003: ‘I think the PCC is showing that it can police the press very effectively and I think every year that has passed it is doing a better and better job.’
2009: ‘I think the perception of the PCC has improved considerably from what it has been in the past.’
2010: ‘The PCC has over the years been a great success story.’
For a dozen years or more, then, Paul Dacre was been urging members of the public to put their trust in what is now acknowledged to have been a deeply flawed system.
3. Dacre is in charge of the Code while his paper frequently breaches it
Remarkably, Dacre not only chairs the Editors’ Code Committee but also edits the paper that breaches the Code most often.
In 2013, by Hacked Off’s count, the Mail was responsible for 34 per cent of recorded Code breaches by major newspapers (with the Mail on Sunday and Metro, for which Dacre is also responsible, contributing another 8 per cent). The Mail papers accounted for 44 per cent of all complaints received by the PCC in that period.
The paper dismissed our figures as ‘wildly inaccurate’, but when the PCC was forced to publish its own count it revealed that ours was accurate.
The Mail then argued that, because it publishes the very popular Mail Online website, the high number of complaints was proportionate to its high output and readership. This too is nonsense, since the Mail attracted extremely high numbers of complaints long before Mail Online existed.
When Nick Davies researched his book Flat Earth News he found that over the 10 years to 2008 the Mail ‘had been provoking justifiable complaint about unethical behaviour at just over three times the rate of the other national titles’. (P366)
How can the PCC have been comfortable all those years with a Code chief who is also a serial Code breaker? How did it justify this to the public? With the blessing and no doubt the encouragement of Mr Dacre and his senior PressBoF colleagues, the PCC simply refused to acknowledge the fact.
4. Dacre’s Mail has benefited for years from the PCC’s flawed complaints system
The PCC operated by Mr Dacre, Lord Black and their friends has functioned as an ingenious mechanism for covering up press wrongdoing – including, conspicuously, wrongdoing by the Mail.
In practice, the PCC filters out and never addresses most of the complaints it receives (12,763 in 2013) on a great variety of grounds. Of the remaining complaints (2,050 in 2013), more than seven out of ten are ruled by the PCC to have not breached the Editors’ Code, with the bulk of those left going to ‘resolution’ – a mediation process weighted against the complainant. If, at ‘resolution’, it is very clear that a newspaper has breached the Code, no record of that breach is ever made.
Only a tiny fraction of the total number of complaints (44 out of 12,763 in 2013) ever go to ‘adjudication’ by the PCC commissioners, and, of those, just over a third get ‘upheld’ – meaning that the complainant is vindicated.
Thanks to this process the Mail, though it attracted 1,214 recorded complaints last year, was able to say: ‘Neither the Daily Mail nor Mail Online had any PCC complaints upheld against them in 2013.’
Buried in the detail of the published ‘resolutions’, however, is the evidence that the Mail in fact breached the code 118 times in 2013. That is bad enough, but given the inadequacy of the process, the filtering-out of many complaints and the unwillingness of many people with valid complaints ever to engage with or trust the PCC, it is without doubt only a fraction of the real total of Mail code breaches.
In the 16 years that Dacre has been at the PCC, it is believed that only four complaints have been upheld against his paper. A mere six complaints have been upheld against the Daily Mail in the entire history of the PCC.
5. Mr Dacre’s paper has a history of unlawful and unethical conduct.
The Mail libelled Robert Murat over the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and went on to libel the McCanns themselves, and then libelled Christopher Jefferies. Though the paper’s conduct was similar in all three cases, it failed to learn appropriate lessons.
In the Motorman scandal relating to personal data plundering, 65 journalists from the Mail and its Weekend supplement made more than 1,700 requests to a private investigator to acquire information in potentially illegal ways, paying him £143,150. Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Mail, paid a further unexplained £268,311 to the same investigator, who was later convicted of data protection offences.
In 2012 the Daily Mail was convicted of contempt of court and fined £10,000 for risking serious prejudice to the trial of Levi Bellfield, the murderer of Milly Dowler.
There are far too many examples of unethical practice and wanton inaccuracy to list, but they include journalism in the cases of Stephen Gateley, of Lucy Meadows and of Ralph Miliband. At the turn of the year, the Mail published wildly inaccurate information about the supposed threat of a flood of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria.
Even while the Leveson Inquiry was underway, Mail journalists continued to breach the Code of Practice freely, breaching a single clause of Dacre’s Code – the one prohibiting intrusion into private grief – nine times.
A recent profile of Mr Dacre in the New Statesman pointed out that in 2013 the Mail reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax; that asylum-seekers had ‘targeted’ Scotland; that disabled babies were being euthanised under the Liverpool Care Pathway; that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his home country; that 878,000 recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming ‘rather than face a fresh medical’; that a Portsmouth primary school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan; that wolves would soon return to Britain; that nearly half the electricity produced by wind farms was discarded.’ As the profile pointed out: ‘All these reports were false.’
Paul Dacre rarely speaks publicly, but he uses the leader column of his newspaper more than any other editor to score points and raise scare stories about press regulation. His is closely and passionately engaged with the issue, and determined to foist the IPSO on the public.
Yet he is not a figure the public can trust, because his record in relation to press self-regulation and press standards, set out here, is so bad. To Paul Dacre, it is clear: press self-regulation is a device to palliate public concerns while obscuring persistent press wrongdoing.
Paul Dacre’s record on self-regulation and standards in summary:
– He bears a heavy personal responsibility for the failure of the PCC
– Even as the PCC was failing, he promoted it to the public as a success
– He is in charge of the Code, yet his paper breaches it far more often than any other
– His paper has benefited for years from the PCC’s flawed complaints system
– the Mail has a long history of unlawful and unethical conduct under his editorship.