Media: Mr Dacre needs a minder

Gerald Kaufman explains why he is taking on the Daily Mail - and warns that The Guardian might be next

When, a couple of weeks ago, the Labour party asked me to sponsor a Daily Mail Monitor project, my first inclination was to refuse. As a paid-up member of the National Union of Journalists for more than 40 years, I am by principle and profession an advocate of a free press. Nor, as an early and incompetent pioneer of the spin-doctor trade, am I much in favour of complaining to or about newspapers because of the opinions they have expressed. When I worked as a press aide for Harold Wilson at Downing Street, I more often than not used diplomatically to "forget" his instructions to complain to this journal or that TV station. When Peter Mandelson, whom I like and admire, told off George Jones, The Daily Telegraph political editor, in public, I wrote an article advising Mandelson to apologise (which he did).

It is true that the Mail has, for three-quarters of a century, occupied a special place in Labour Party demonology. It was instrumental in driving the first Labour government from office by publishing the scaremongering Zinoviev letter, subsequently proved to be a forgery; this later led Michael Foot, under parliamentary privilege, to dub the Mail the "forgers' gazette." It supported Oswald Mosley for brief time, and its attitude to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy before the war fell far short of condemnatory. During the last Labour government it libelled a cabinet minister and was required to pay damages.

But nobody, not Alastair Campbell, not Tony Blair, not myself, claims that the Mail indulges in behaviour of that kind now. Nor do I, or anyone else, have the right to whine if it opposes the Government, however vigorously. It is a Conservative newspaper, and has a perfect right to espouse and expound Conservative policies, and to publish features and leading articles criticising the Government. From time to time it may even be right to do so. After all, as Joe E. Brown said at the end of Some Like It Hot: "Well, nobody's perfect."

So why, after setting out all those reasons against singling the Daily Mail out for reproof, did I agree to sponsor the Monitor project? The answer is that, while I am temperamentally opposed to complaining, I am temperamentally addicted to correcting. My first job in journalism, on the Daily Mirror in its greatest days, was as what my job title described as a research assistant. In reality I was a fact-checker, signed up to fulfil the gargantuan assignment of making sure that Dick Crossman's twice- weekly column for the Mirror was factually accurate. Since Crossman's regard for accuracy was, at best, tangential, I had to struggle hard. The reverence for fact that I thus acquired brought me into regular collision with Crossman, but impressed the Mirror's editorial director, Hugh Cudlipp, whom I on one occasion protected from making a very serious factual bloomer; by doing so, I almost certainly saved my job.

The scope of my work was thenceforth extended to fact-checking for other Mirror group columnists such as Barbara Castle, whose punctiliousness needed far less invigilating. So I am a fully-paid-up subscriber to the dictum of C P Scott, the greatest editor of the old Manchester Guardian: "The newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul, it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free but facts are sacred."

Now it may be argued that The Guardian, successor to Scott's newspaper, long ago shoved that dictum into the margins and from time to time into the gutter. I would not seek to controvert such an argument. I long ago gave up patience with The Guardian, and I long ago gave up wasting my money on buying it. Why, then, should I care that the Daily Mail should separate comment from reporting, when I can't be bothered whether The Guardian does so? The answer is that the Mail is a much more important newspaper than The Guardian, whose circulation hovers around 400,000. Its readership consists of relatively few potential switch voters, comprised as it is of Labour supporters, Liberal Democrats and assorted Trots, many of whose opinions are reflected in The Guardian's columns and its malevolent letters section.

The Daily Mail, Britain's second-most popular daily, outsells The Guardian by more than five to one. Moreover, its 2 million-plus purchasers represent a key political audience. Fewer than half, 46 per cent (according to MORI's figures for the third quarter of this year), are Tory voters, while almost as many, 37 per cent, vote Labour and 14 per cent Liberal Democrat. The Mail's readers do not represent a cross-section of England, but they undeniably represent a certain cross-section of Middle England, Labour's crucial electoral market.

It is therefore important that these readers should have the chance to make political judgments on the basis of factual information provided by their favoured newspaper. And, as I said in my statement accompanying the launch of Mail Monitor, "Certain inaccuracies stray into the pages of even the best intentioned newspapers. The Daily Mail has been suffering from such problems recently."

What was interesting about the Mail's reaction to the launch of the Monitor was that the paper devoted a full page to Labour's criticisms of certain Mail stories even though, as it had the right to do, it then printed its own retorts to such criticisms. Moreover, in eight editions since then, the Mail seems to have taken more trouble to present the facts, while reserving its right to interpret those facts in leader columns and features. Those features, too, have been often been thoughtful.

There were notable articles on the North-South divide by Roy Hattersley (much less critical of the Labour government than he generally is in The Guardian) and by Bill Hagerty, Labour former editor of the Sunday People. Moreover, the coverage of some of the Government's battles in Europe has been quite even-handed, especially on what the Mail called the "art tax row" and on the withholding tax ("Britain won a reprieve..."). In yesterday morning's main leading article, the Mail even conceded: "After two and a half years in office, Mr Blair's popularity remains high - deservedly so, on the whole.

I am not claiming that such coverage is necessarily due to the Monitor, and would not have been published had the Monitor never been launched. Nor am I suggesting that the Mail is a completely reformed character. Some of its stories seem to continue to contravene the C P Scott dictum, and its headlines, in particular, remain almost completely unreconstructed. When I read below the banner front-page streamer about "PASSPORT FURY", I learned that this fury belonged to Miss Widdicombe, who seems to be in a state of fury about everything all the time.

While I do not absolve the Mail from bias in its news columns, it often seems now that the impression of bias is conveyed by the headline rather than the text. "Brown in retreat on scrapping the pound" headed a perfectly reasonable news report by the deputy political editor, Paul Eastham. If the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, cares enough about the Monitor to want it closed down, he might have a word in the ear of those on the subs' bench.

If the Monitor persuades the Mail completely to separate comment ("free") from reporting ("sacred"), the exercise will have been worthwhile. Indeed, if this exercise works, it might be worth starting on The Guardian.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'