Paul Dacre's evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee

In the last week or so, editors of the two papers I look at most often here appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to give evidence about press standards, privacy and libel. The evidence both of them gave is astonishing in its lack of connection with reality, leaving both of them looking like little kids with chocolate smeared around their chops pretending it wasn't them who ate the Easter eggs.

Roy Greenslade looks at the most obvious 'mistakes' in Express editor Peter Hill's evidence, so I won't rehash those. I do want to look in a little more detail at Dacre's evidence, on video over at the Parliament website, since it shows how his first instinct is to deny charges that are obviously true to anyone who spends more than a few minutes reading his paper. Handily, he later contradicts a lot of these defences himself to reveal the truth behind his claims so we don't have to.

The 'pretend we haven't done something we quite obviously have' defence is the standard for tabloids cornered by evidence of their misdeeds.

Back in January 2007, Robin Esser of the Mail gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights about his paper's treatment of asylum seekers. Despite years of conducting a campaign against them, including many distorted and untrue stories clearly intended to show them in a bad light, Mr Esser claimed that the paper was not biased against asylum seekers. The Committee doesn't seem to have been entirely convinced.

Last year, following another obvious and open campaign directed against Polish people including similarly distorted stories, the Federation of Poles in Great Britain complained to the PCC about the coverage. Despite amending some stories and removing others from its website, and agreeing to publish a letter from the FPGB, the paper ludicrously claimed there was no anti-Polish stance. Presumably, those stories that were removed were about fluffy Polish bunnies moving into Gumdrop Wood and making friends with the happy British woodland creatures.

The most striking of Dacre's denials is his strange claim that the Mail was never against the MMR jab. He says it's an urban myth. Rhetorically Speaking has more.

But that's not the only bizarre denial trotted out by Dacre as he gets increasingly agitated and uncomfortable when it becomes clear that he isn't going to be given as easy a time as he expects.

In my posts here, I include tags for stories with headlines that are shown to be completely false by the story underneath. They're so common that I often forget to tag them now, since I sort of assume the headline will be contradicted at least in part in the text without even thinking.

Dacre is asked about this practice at around 42 mins 45 secs into the video. His reply is, 'I'd like to think this doesn't happen in the Mail - I'm not going to hold my hand on my heart and say it doesn't. It does happen in some areas of the media.'

I've quoted this passage from Nick Davies's Flat Earth News before, but it deserves another airing:

...if by chance, reporters come up with the wrong angle, it is reversed before it gets into print, either because the copy itself is rewritten or because the headline changes the angle. 'Dacre kills with headlines,' as one long-term Mail reporter put it.


At other times, the killer headline changes the angle to enforce the Mail's political line.
Easter eggs? What Easter eggs?

Of course, Dacre then goes on to excuse this practice because papers need to attract readers, and as long as the body of the article is accurate, the headline doesn't have to be. Nice. Who else but a newspaper editor would think newspaper editors should be allowed to lie in massive letters in a headline as long as something approaching the truth is buried in the much smaller text underneath?

Another bizarre denial concerns churnalism. At around 54.06, he's asked about it. He spends a lot of time obfuscating, focusing too much on the financial pressures that Nick Davies claims in Flat Earth News drives churnalism, but very strongly 'refutes' that churnalism goes on in the Mail. Dacre himself contradicts his own claim at least three times in the same evidence session.

When issuing his tea-spit-inducing denial of an anti-MMR campaign, he includes the defence that negative stories about MMR were all over the media as well as the Mail. Which is an admission that his paper reported stuff because it was appearing elsewhere at the very least. In Flat Earth news, Nick Davies includes 'Ninja Turtle Syndrome' - or the tendency to print stories because they're appearing in other outlets - at number 10 in his list of what he describes as the rules of churnalism.

Later, at around 1.12.00 into the video, Dacre is nicely confronted about the Mail naming the village that Josef Fritzl's daughter was relocated to. He splutters that he didn't think the Mail was the first to print the detail and he'd have to go away to check what was on the wire services at the time. Printing stuff willy-nilly because it's come through via a wire service is the very definition of churn.

Later than that, at around 1.29.30, he's confronted with the fact that despite having claimed the Mail wouldn't have broken the Max Mosely story, the paper still printed a lot about it after it broke. His defence is to squawk, 'of course we did, and so did the BBC and so did the Guardian'.

Dacre's claim that the paper isn't guilty of churnalism rests on his insistence that the paper challenges government press releases. More people than the government issue those. Like MigrationWatch, furniture companies and employment law firms. But especially MigrationWatch. And the paper does more than just challenge government press releases - it sometimes pretends they've said something they haven't and argues against that instead.

Throughout the session, Dacre is incredibly defensive about the role of the PCC, talking about how editors feel great shame about being on the receiving end of an adjudication. The trouble is that very few cases get adjudicated at all because the PCC actually measures its success by how few cases are taken that far.

He actually lists as a 'success' the case of the paper running a story with a headline about Anne Frank's father betraying her family above a story that said nothing of the sort. This is because the paper printed a letter pointing this out some time later on page 61. (Dacre claims that the letters pages are the most widely read pages of the paper without any evidence).

The whole point of the PCC is to resolve cases before they get as far as being adjudicated. I've already mentioned Dacre's insistence that editors should be given latitude to print misleading headlines. Like I said, who but a newspaper editor would argue that? Lucky this particular newspaper editor is Chair of the PCC Code Committee, eh?

Another lucky strike is that Dacre is in charge of the Code which says that only individuals affected by a story can complain about discrimination, as well as editing a newspaper responsible for wide ranging campaigns targeted against specific groups. Oh, hang on. The paper doesn't do that at all. I forgot. *Ahem*.

Other highlights include:

Around 41.40 minutes in, Dacre crows about how changes have been made in the paper to ban the use of 'information agents' to uncover information after it was revealed that the Mail used one particular agent more times than any other paper. He's absolutely firm that everything has changed and the practice has been stopped.

At 47.10, he's asked if there are any circumstances where the paper would use these agents again. His answer is that the paper would if there was a very strong public interest. Given that he defines 'public interest' to mean 'anything that interests the public', then it's obvious that not much has changed at all. The paper will still use information agents to obtain private information. He ends up saying, 'long may we be free to do that' about the sort of thing he's just said won't happen again. At less than ten minutes between the two statements, that's a quicker reverse ferret than the paper made over Jade Goody.

That confrontation about Josef Fritzl's daughter at 1.1200 is worth watching to see him deflate at the knowledge that his paper almost certainly has overstepped the boundaries it did in the McCann case and that he's about to be confronted with examples.

At around 1.29.00, Dacre claims the Mail wouldn't have broken the Max Mosely story because it's a 'family newspaper'. I'd like to draw your attention to Buff the Banana with Paul Dacre for more on the Mail's position as a family newspaper.

Throughout the session, Dacre claims to refute things the doesn't refute, but merely denies.

Although he was given a harder time than he expected, this still wasn't as uncomfortable a grilling as it might have been. Perhaps the remit of the Committee didn't stretch far enough, but it would have been nice to have seen him grilled about the racism outlined in Flat Earth News. It would have been nice if the Committee had a bit more evidence to hand than Flat Earth News, too - including more examples of where the paper has quite clearly distorted the truth, but still.

Is it any wonder that a man prepared to say things that are so at odds with observable fact can produce a paper like the Mail?

NEXT WEEK: Rebekah Wade appears before the Committee to refute the urban myth suggesting the Sun prints pictures of bare-breasted women.

**UPDATE** An uncorrected transcript of Nick Davies and Roy Greenslade's evidence session with the same Committee is now available on the Parliament website.


Kit said...

Excellent post. I very much like your blog.

Forgive me if mentioning this is annoying rather than helpful but - “Dacre claims to refute things the doesn't refute, but merely denies.” Do you mean ‘then’?

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Cheers Kit. I meant 'he' rather than ''then'. Fixed now!