Paul Dacre writing in the Guardian – I almost had to rub my eyes. The strange sight of the photo byline of the Daily Mail editor in the paper he most despises was a defining moment in the latest bitter spat between these politically polarised British media rivals.
In the article published on Saturday, Dacre made a passionate defence of his paper’s recent coverage of Ralph Miliband, the Labour leader’s late father, presenting his pugnacious paper as a bullied victim. Swamped by the liberal media’s “tsunami of opprobrium”, the Mail had been “right royally turned over”, he declared.
It felt somehow as if Dacre – who has suddenly been the subject of large amounts of personal criticism – was looking for a truce. His enemies were not so much the Guardian, he indicated, as the BBC (“the Mail’s bête noire”) and “the phoney world of Twitter”.
Reaching out a hand, he noted how the behaviour of MPs over the Miliband row and the political pressure put on the Guardian over its publication of secrets leaked by Edward Snowden “reveals again why those who rule us – and who should be held to account by newspapers – cannot be allowed to sit in judgement on the press”.
The issue of press regulation was a primary cause of Dacre being drawn into his error of judgement in defining Ralph Miliband as “a man who hated Britain”. The editor is very aware that the hated Royal Charter on press regulation was finalised by politicians at a late-night meeting in Ed Miliband’s office, attended by members of the press reform group Hacked Off. As a wounded Dacre sought a right of reply to anti-Mail “hysteria”, he seemed to appeal for press unity.
Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, might be inclined to accept the olive branch. For although a row with the Mail will go down well with his readers, and amplification of the Snowden story is raising the title’s profile, the liberal editor has also been the subject of damaging criticism.
It must have been an extraordinary week for Rusbridger, even for someone who is becoming something of a Hollywood legend. A former London courthouse was his apt choice for a screening on Monday evening of the WikiLeaks film The Fifth Estate (in which he is played by Peter Capaldi). Within 24 hours, he would be feeling as if he was in the dock himself.
A speech on Tuesday by the director-general of MI5, Andrew Parker, claimed that the paper’s handling of Snowden’s files put lives at risk. “Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will,” he said.
Mr Parker’s words were also a gift – to the Guardian’s many enemies in the media. The Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail splashed on the story, with the latter’s chosen image of Alan Rusbridger, with ruffled hair and crumpled clothing, intended to epitomise a flaky north London liberal.
In the eyes of the right-wing press, the Guardian – the title that did most to bring about the Leveson inquiry – has had this coming. For four months, its team has been frustrated by a shortage of British coverage of the Snowden revelations and a perceived lack of sympathy over the detention at Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act of David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the story.
In contrast, the US has been gripped, helping the Guardian in its aim of gaining the attention of big-name advertising clients. The paper, founded as the Manchester Guardian in 1821, finds itself described in an 11-page cover story in the New Yorker as “the newspaper that took on the NSA” (National Security Agency). Under gentle questioning from Will Gompertz, the BBC arts editor, Rusbridger boasted that the Guardian was currently the subject of four feature film projects. Aside from The Fifth Estate, there are plans for a movie about the phone-hacking scandal and one based on the paper’s revelations about undercover British cops, while “Hollywood producers”, have been in his office lobbying for rights on the Snowden story.
But Fleet Street regards the paper with less admiration. To several publishers, its behaviour has betrayed a beleaguered industry. MI5 provided an opportunity to strike back – and with that same whiff of treachery. In an echo of the Ralph Miliband coverage, the Mail ran an editorial on “the paper that helps Britain’s enemies”. Pointedly, it compared the Guardian’s Snowden coverage to its treatment of Miliband Sr and the criminal offences of hacking and bribery. “By any objective yardstick, don’t such crimes and controversies pale beside the accusation levelled against the Guardian?” it asked.
At News UK, the focus of Scotland Yard’s hacking and bribery probes, Rupert Murdoch’s papers piled in. The Times suggested that – after four years of directing police towards Wapping – the Guardian could end up in the criminal courts. Sun columnist Rod Liddle claimed that the paper was read by “jihadis” and agreed with the Mail that the liberal title’s behaviour was worse than any tabloid criminality. “The phone hacking was unquestionably wrong. But it doesn’t compare to what the Guardian has done,” he said.
Both Rusbridger and Dacre have felt the heat that comes with their respective positions on the spectrum of the British media. Such ideological opponents are never going to be friends. But as the newspaper industry prepares its response to the Royal Charter, amid intense political criticism of its methods, there may be a brief pause in hostilities.
A slow, painful fade-out
There was a time when music journalism was one of the gateways to a high-profile media career. Danny Baker, Julie Burchill (pictured), Steve Lamacq, Miranda Sawyer, Richard Williams; so many big names had their start as writers in the music press. But the drawbridge is being pulled up.
Paul Scaife, founder of the music industry newsletter Record of the Day, which organises annual awards for music journalism, admits to asking himself “should we even bother any more?” before deciding to stage next month’s event. “I felt disillusioned, giving awards to magazines that were in a death spiral with sales,” he says.
According to the magazine ABCs, music titles are indeed in free fall. NME, which could once launch a band with a cover story, now averages just 20,000 sales.
Music websites which, five years ago, were expected to pick up the slack have failed to do so, much less offer journalists a decent wage. Many bloggers have seen the writing on the wall, Scaife tells me. Casting aside ambitions as writers, they promote themselves as talent-spotters, hoping for jobs in A&R.