Dacre's speech to the Society of Editors

Paul Dacre has given a speech to the Society of Editors on the subject of privacy and press intrusion. Septicisle gives it a thorough going over in 'The Daily Mail in the Flesh', which you should read, now. But it would be remiss of me not to look at the speech to see what it can tell us about why the paper is the way it is. This is gonna be a long one, kids. Skip it if you like.

Before I start, it's worth pointing out that the two comments on the speech at the Press Gazette call Dacre out for being either wrong or misleading in his accounts of events in the speech. Septicisle does similar in his coverage, pointing out one or two areas where the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice Committee has been economical with the truth to create a misleading impression. So the factual content of a speech by the editor of the Daily Mail is questionable. Who'd have thought it?

Beyond that, the speech contains a couple of themes we're used to from reading the paper, plus a few nice extras we might not have seen before. It's broadly split into three main sections - an introduction, in which he sets out what made him become an editor and what he admired about papers in the past, an attack on the Human Rights Act for making it more difficult to intrude into anyone's private life, and an attack on the BBC and left wing broadsheets. I'll look at each section individually.

The Introduction
The speech's introduction covers Dacre's inspiration and a couple of rules he's learned about editing newspapers in his time. Dacre's dewy-eyed picture of the Sunday Express of the 50's, which he credits as his 'journalistic primer' and holds up as a model to emulate, bares little resemblance to the scandal driven papers of today, which he goes on to champion later in the speech.

In his praise of the paper, he revisits a theme that will be familiar to people who saw his Cudlipp lecture last year. Selling papers is the ultimate aim of the editor, rather than making sure that events are accurately reported to readers:
Some of you here tonight, I suspect, may sneer at the kind of family-values paper I’ve just described – that almost comic obsession with the letters page. Those values, you’ll argue, belong to another era. Well, maybe. My own view is that some values are timeless. And the fact is that, at its height, the Sunday Express had a circulation of about five million, of whom a staggeringly high percentage were ABC1 readers.
The interesting thing about that is that he's already revealed that the letters page he mentions here was actually largely made up of fake letters sent by newspaper staff, who 'were paid handsome bonuses to write'. Ethics be damned. The paper sold - and to richer people who advertisers pay more money to reach. (Which makes me wonder who writes those vomit-inducingly sycophantic comments on Littlejohn columns.)

Part of the success of the 50's version of the Sunday Express is, according to Dacre:
Firstly, the paper never, ever, forgot who its readers were and what interested them and their families.
Put the lack of concern with ethics and misleading readers together with the prioritising of selling papers and giving readers what interests them and it's easy to see where stories like 'Revealed: 40 per cent of drink drivers in Britain are now immigrants' come from.

The lessons Dacre learned early on about journalism go further in helping us understand where those stories come from:
Lesson One: Brains and education have little to do with the craft of journalism which is to ferret for information and then explain it clearly, informatively and above all, entertainingly. [...] Also: dull doesn’t sell newspapers. Boring doesn’t pay the mortgage.
Above all entertainingly. Not truthfully, or accurately, but entertainingly. After all, truthful and accurate might be dull, and that wouldn't sell newspapers.
Lesson Two: Sensation sells papers.
This becomes important when we consider some of what Dacre goes on about later, so it's important to remember it.

Lastly, the introduction shows that Dacre at least pretends to believe one of the biggest myths his paper propagates. A myth that he explodes himself in spectacular fashion without even realising it as the speech progresses. It's this:
but then no day is too busy or too short not to find time to tweak the noses of the liberalocracy which effectively run Britain.
Could have been taken straight from a Littlejohn column.

Press intrusion and the Human Rights Act
Having just told us about the 'liberalocracy which effectively run Britain', Dacre frames his attack on the Human Rights Act within a story about how he, Les Hinton of News International and Murdoch MacLennan of the Telegraph had dinner with the Prime Minister. At this dinner, the three men managed to win Gordon Brown over on a number of issues, until:
The Prime Minister – I don’t think it is breaking confidences to reveal – was hugely sympathetic to the industry’s case and promised to do what he could to help.

Over the coming months and battles ahead, Mr Brown was totally true to his word. Whatever our individual newspapers’ views are of the Prime Minister – and the Mail is pretty tough on him - we should, as an industry, acknowledge that, to date, he has been a great friend of press freedom.

Firstly, cost restrictions on freedom of information applications were dropped.

Secondly, the proposed restrictions on reporting of Coroners and Family Courts have been shelved, though we need to be vigilant over the latest move to ban reporters from inquests involving national security.

Thirdly, there is to be action on the “scandalous” greed of CFA lawyers. That adjective is not mine, by the way, but Justice Minister’s Jack Straw’s in a recent speech on the subject. For following Number 10’s intervention all those months ago, there have been many constructive meetings between the industry and the Ministry of Justice on what to do about CFA. A few weeks ago, I, Rebekah Wade and Murdoch MacLennan saw Jack Straw who assured us that, in the next few months, he is set to unveil proposals to reform CFA, including capping lawyers’ fees.

And lastly, what of Section 55 of the Data Protection Act with its proposed two year jail sentences for journalists? Again, under the brokerage of Number 10, there were meetings with Jack Straw and his officials.
Fantastic isn't it? There's a 'liberalocracy' that effectively runs Britain. Oh, and here's a story about how three right wing newspapermen had dinner with the Prime Minister and got him to agree to our demands and broker meetings with Jack Straw.

And by this point, Dacre has already told us this story:
I wrote thundering front page editorials in support of a student sit-in at the university’s administration block. It was to protest against the university keeping our academic records on file – tame stuff compared to the Brown Government’s terrifying proposals that the authorities should have access to every citizen’s internet and mobile phone records.

The sit-in was organised by our Student Union President, a certain Jack Straw, who some 30 years later would as Home Secretary introduce the Human Rights Act and who now presides over no win, no fee legislation, two issues causing our industry so much grief – more of which later.

If that wasn't enough, Dacre goes on to tell how fierce lobbying by the Press and the tories helped make sure that an Amendment to the Data Protection Act 'under which journalists faced being jailed for two years for illicitly obtaining personal information such as ex-directory telephone numbers or an individual’s gas bills or medical records,' was watered down. Hurrah for the liberalocracy!

Within this story of how three ordinary guys had dinner with the Prime Minister and got him to help out with a couple of things - as ordinary guys do every day - Dacre defends the reporting of sexual scandal by referring to the Max Mosely case:
Recently, of course, the very same Justice Eady effectively ruled that it’s perfectly acceptable for the multi-millionaire head of a multibillion-pound sport that is followed by countless young people to pay five women £2,500 to take part in acts of unimaginable sexual depravity with him.
Anyone familiar with attacks made on the basis of taste and morality will have seen the 'think of the children' angle that Dacre sneaks in with his 'countless young people' schtick. The thing is though, none of these young people would have been aware of Max Mosely's 'unimaginable sexual depravity' if the News of the world hadn't reported it.

Dacre is dismissive of the fact that the News of the World basically lied in its coverage:
The judge found for Max Mosley because he had not engaged in a “sick Nazi orgy” as the News of the World contested, though some of the participants were dressed in military-style uniform. Mosley was issuing commands in German while one prostitute pretended to pick lice from his hair, a second fellated him and a third caned his backside until blood was drawn.
Hey! Who cares if it wasn't a sick Nazi orgy? It was like a sick Nazi orgy. Who cares if only 55 people came from Romania and Bulgaria to be circus stars and not over 10,000? It's like 10,000. Er, hang on. No it's not.

Apparently, reporting Mosely's perviness was of utmost importance at the time, because:
Since time immemorial public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour, helping ensure that citizens – rich and poor – adhere to them for the good of the greater community. For hundreds of years, the press has played a role in that process. It has the freedom to identify those who have offended public standards of decency – the very standards its readers believe in – and hold the transgressors up to public condemnation. If their readers don’t agree with the defence of such values, they would not buy those papers in such huge numbers.
All of which helpfully skirts over the fact that the News of the World reported on the Mosely case misleadingly, and did so at least partly because there wouldn't otherwise be a reason for publishing the story.

Remember, papers must be allowed to report scandals in order to 'defend the parameters of what are considered acceptable social behaviour. This stuff is for 'the good of the greater community'.

Except there is another motive for reporting sex scandals in the papers, and as you would expect, it's a financial one. You might not expect Dacre to be so up front about it though, especially in the same speech that he's claimed his motives are noble:
Put another way, if mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.
No scandal, no sales. That's the bottom line, sucker.

What we have here is a man who attacked the Guardian for being subsidised by the sales of Auto Trader and the BBC for being subsidised by the licence fee admitting that his own news and political coverage is subsidised by scandalmongering. He also says:
If the News of the Word can’t carry such stories as the Mosley orgy, then it, and its political reportage and analysis, will eventually probably die.
If that's not enough, he quotes Baroness Hale from 2004, saying:
It may be said that newspapers should be allowed considerable latitude in the intrusions into private grief so that they can maintain circulation and the rest of us can continue to enjoy the variety of newspapers and other mass media which are available in this country.
Of course, what is being missed here is that every story is driven by scandal in tabloids. Dacre makes it sound as though there's a little bit of scandal necessary to sell the real, scandal-free news coverage. But this kind of news is virtually non-existent. Almost everything the tabloids report - especially the Mail - is driven by faux outrage, and exaggerated to the point of being unrecognisable from the truth. 2 in 5 people caught drink-driving or driving without a licence in one area of the country being from overseas becomes 40% of drink drivers across the UK are immigrants. A couple of eejits making offensive comments on someone's answerphone becomes a week's worth of front pages resulting in a couple of resignations, despite the victim saying he was happy with apologies. Today's front page screams 'NOW NANNY STATE REWARDS JUST FOR TAKING WALK - PAY THE OBESE TO TAKE A WALK'. Of course, the headline is shown to be a bit of an exaggeration by one sentence in the article:
They will collect points on supermarket-style loyalty cards which would be redeemed against healthy food, sports equipment or gym sessions.
That wouldn't make as scandalous a headline and wouldn't sell as many papers, so let's ditch it for distorted outrage.

The idea that there needs to be the odd scandal story in the tabloids to sell otherwise serious news coverage is just funny.

Attacking [business] rivals
Dacre predictably attacks the left wing press, such as it is, for criticising the tabloids. Before I go on, there's this gem:
Why does not half an hour go by that the high priests of the subsidariat, the BBC, can’t resist a snide reference to the popular press, again blissfully oblivious that all too often they are following agendas set by those very popular newspapers whose readers pay their salaries.
There's a 'liberalocracy', which includes the BBC, that runs the country. But the BBC is following agendas set by tabloids like the Mail. So who's running the country? Such questions, you'd imagine, would just make Dacre's head hurt as he gets ready for another dinner where he'll ask a couple of favours of the Prime Minister.

Beyond that, there's this:
No, the problem, of course, is that it’s only leftish and liberal media outlets – who, almost by definition lose millions of pounds a year – that have media sections. With such a monopoly, they exert a huge and disproportionate influence on what people – particularly, I suspect, the judiciary – think of the British media.
This is good. Because only leftish papers have media sections, they must have a monopoly of influence over what people think of the media. This is after Dacre's paper devoted a whole week of front pages vilifying the BBC until two people quit, and continues to attack its idealogical rivals at every turn. The Mail doesn't need a media section. It disguises its media stories as bona fide news. Not liking Sophie Raworth's blouse can make the main photo box on the website's homepage! Fuck's sake.

While attacking the BBC, Dacre confirms that much of his dislike stems from the fact that it is his business rival. He argues:
The politicians and regulators, too, are going to have to think the unthinkable. They are going to have to allow previously outlawed mergers – particularly in the provincial and the local press arenas. When local papers are fighting for their very existence in a market already crowded by TV, radio, internet sites, search engines and, of course, an unstoppable BBC, it’s crazy to regard the ownership of a few local papers as a monopolistic threat to diversity.
Hey, it just happens that Dacre's company would hugely benefit financially from such regulations. But that's a coincidence - Dacre wouldn't be concerned with anything as base as shifting more product.

He goes on:
Thirdly, something must be done about my favourite bĂȘte noire: the ever growing ubiquity of the BBC. For make no mistake, we are witnessing the seemingly inexorable growth of what is effectively a dominant state-sponsored news service.

The corporation has all but seen off ITV’s news services, both nationally and locally, has crippled commercial radio, is distorting the free market for internet newspapers and now, with its preposterous proposal for 65 ultra local websites, is going for the jugular of the local newspaper industry. Lines must be drawn in the sand.
Would these lines look anything like confected outrages about what this or that presenter might have done, or whay blouse this or that presenter might wear, by any chance? Or do you think Dacre really and truly believes that what Sophie Raworth is wearing is newsworthy? And would those ITV news services have anything to do with the ones part owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust?

As well as the BBC and nominally left wing papers, Dacre attacks the brilliant 'Flat Earth News', although he doesn't name the book. He says:
There was, of course, that recent book that savaged the behaviour of virtually every national newspaper. The book, which began with a presumption of guilt, was itself a pretty sloppy piece of journalism, full of half-truths, anonymous sources, gossip and urban myths presented as facts, and the very selective reporting that it accused papers of employing. And heaven forbid that its author should have observed the basic journalistic nicety of checking those facts with the parties concerned.
Now that's funny. The editor of the Mail criticising someone for allegedly presenting gossip and urban myths as fact. Winterval anyone?

On the subject of Flat Earth News, I have seen defences of Dacre saying that Stephen Lawrence's father never worked for him - and there's this criticism that takes Nick Davies to task for his description of Dacre's carpet. I have not, however, seen anyone claiming that the stories about the paper's insidious racism are not true. Anyone who has - stick a link in the comments, please. I'd like to see it.

Overall, reading this speech is like reading any other self-serving defence of tabloids by an editor or employee. Without claiming some kind of higher purpose, or inserting excuses for what is essentially inexcusable behaviour, the whole thing would look preposterous. Like other defences, Dacre points toward individual defensible actions or stories to make it seem as though everything else is worthwhile. The paper defended its despicable treatment of Polish people by pointing toward one story that sort of included a half-hearted defence of Polish immigrants, as if that cancelled out everything else. It defended itself for attacking asylum seekers by - well, by claiming it wasn't aware of that many positive asylum seeker stories. These defences only work if you're unaware of the sheer scale of what has gone before. One measly story that gives a sort of balanced view of Polish immigration only works if you haven't seen the mountain of negative stories, or you don't know that hacks at the paper offered money for horror stories about Polish people, or offered money to Polish people for breaking the law in order to prove that Polish people break the law.

In this defence, Dacre does the equivalent of using the nuclear option:
And lastly, whether it’s over a front page that accuses five thugs of murdering a black teenager or a campaign that demands a ban on plastic bags, the essential art of successful editing is to be bold and cautious in equal parts.
He goes Stephen Lawrence on our asses. Look at how lame the plastic bag campaign looks compared to the Lawrence thing - the last time the paper actually did anything approaching noble or brave. Dacre has to mention it though - because there's been nothing else for eleven years.

If we're to believe the logic of pointless scandal having to sell papers so that they can do something positive - that's ten years and up of horrible scaremongering, attacking vulnerable groups and telling us how digustingly fat the paper thinks Fern Britton is for every worthy campaign.

Yeah, that's worth it.

1 comment:

septicisle said...

Excellent as always.