The Media Column: For the industry's sake, Dacre and Campbell should bury the hatchet

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The Independent Online

Private squabbles between media heavyweights that spill into the public arena are rarely edifying.

Private squabbles between media heavyweights that spill into the public arena are rarely edifying. Richard Desmond's savage outburst at a meeting with Telegraph group executives was more grotesque than most - even someone with as minimal a grasp of the news media as he should have realised that it would be publicised, to the considerable embarrassment of his new friends in the Conservative party - but it is by no means the only such spat to make newspaper journalism want to hide its head under a pillow.

Desmond, whose humourless Basil Fawlty imitation must soften the memories of those who suffered from Robert Maxwell's less vulgar histrionics, should perhaps have undertaken a crash course in previous ludicrous Fleet Street feuds that have contributed to the industry's dismal reputation.

For example, when the Mirror's Piers Morgan and David Yelland, then editing The Sun, swung handbags at one another in the columns of their papers, their readers must have wondered why this exchange of often juvenile abuse was being inflicted upon them. Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier it wasn't.

The current conflict between Alastair Campbell ( pictured) and the Daily Mail is different in that mainly it is not being conducted in the press. Campbell is lambasting his enemy from the theatre stages wherever his "An Audience With..." roadshow hangs its hat. Paul Dacre, having in the past bludgeoned Campbell with the mighty Mail, does not retaliate in print, presumably on the grounds that to do so would only be seen to dignify Campbell's assaults.

None the less, this is a serious and damaging dispute that needs addressing before it goes the way of the Morgan-Yelland and Desmond farces in convincing a large portion of an already diminishing national newspaper readership that their time would be better spent on tiddlywinks.

I caught "An Audience With Alastair Campbell" at Guildford, Surrey, where a first-half jog through his personal history was punctuated by sideswipes at "the Daily Mail's lexicon of hate" and the paper's editor, "one of the most poisonous men in public life". Campbell recounted how, in a profile of himself, the Mail had suggested that "the death of his father scarred his life". Most upsetting for his very-much-alive dad, said Alastair, although he was subsequently delighted with the wrought-iron gates paid for by the Mail's financial compensation (the Mail says it deplores the mistake, but that unfortunately such things happen in newspapers).

A benign audience, charmed by Campbell at his most personable, laughed dutifully. But during the interval I heard a bemused woman ask her male companion, "Who is Paul Dacre?" And during a lengthy second-half Q&A session, not one question concerned the Mail or its editor.

So I went backstage to discover what possessed Campbell to include in his performance a stream of vilification that seemed as pointless as it was boring for those paying to see him. He was, he admitted, unlikely to achieve anything by his criticisms, but wanted people to know "what a very unpleasant, horrible right-wing rag" the Mail was. According to Campbell, the paper has been responsible for making readers phobic about the Prime Minister, his wife, their children and anyone friendly with them.

What about John Major's underpants? I asked. As a political editor, Campbell lampooned the then Prime Minister mercilessly and has admitted that he spun in print against the Tory government whenever he could. Drawing attention to Major wearing his shirt tucked into his pants was, Campbell conceded, "not a great piece of journalism". But he insisted that he and the papers he worked for possessed an honesty and integrity lacking at the Mail.

Unsurprisingly, Paul Dacre does not agree. He would speak with me only off the record, but patently deplores Campbell's behaviour as much as the former Downing Street director of communications loathes the Mail, its editor and everything they stand for.

Dacre has not changed his opinion since he expressed to me some time ago this view of Campbell: "I think the way he has used spin and mendacity to manipulate great parts of the media has damaged both politics and the press. He's a zealot who is as zealous in his support of Tony Blair as he was of Robert Maxwell." To Campbell's fury, he expressed similar sentiments to the Commons public administration committee.

Far be it from me to assume the role of peacemaker, but as the Daily Express's clichéd front page had it when announcing the paper would no longer support Labour: enough is enough. I urge these formidable talents to bury the hatchet somewhere other than in the other's head. After all, Richard Desmond is obviously capable of denigrating the industry all by himself.

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