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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence