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.

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