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The IoS Profile: Paul Dacre - Hate Mail

'The ideal Daily Mail story,' says one of its former reporters, 'leaves the reader hating somebody or something.' Which won't be of any comfort to Cherie Blair and the Labour Party. But it does offer a useful insight into the mind of Britain's most feared newspaper editor

Sunday 15 December 2002 01:00 GMT
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For a supposedly female-friendly newspaper, the Daily Mail has it in for a lot of women. Lesbian is a word it can hardly bring itself to utter. Single mothers are one of society's scourges. Working mothers aren't much better. And then there's Cherie Blair.

When Margaret Beckett said last week that there were many people who loathed the Prime Minister's wife, she undoubtedly had the Daily Mail in mind. Even though it was The Mail on Sunday which broke the story of Mrs Blair and the conman Peter Foster, it is the Daily Mail which has done most to turn the episode into a crisis for No 10, revelling in the process. And since the Mail is very much the vehicle for the views and concerns – many would say the bigotry and obsessions – of the man who edits it, there is no mistaking the source of the stream of bile to which Mrs Blair has been subjected.

Paul Dacre is in many ways the editor's editor. No editor possesses a surer grasp of the techniques of newspaper production. No editor has a clearer idea of what his product is supposed to stand for, or succeeds quite like Dacre in ensuring that every story plays its part in reinforcing a particular world view. No editor works harder, or more ruthlessly, to achieve his effects. No editor inspires more respect, or fear, among his staff. No other editor could claim to enjoy the degree of influence Dacre does over the political process. And the bottom line is that no editor can point to rises in sales that come anywhere near Dacre's in the 10 years that he has been in the job. The Middle England whose fears and aspirations Dacre taps into so unerringly has responded by lifting the Mail's circulation to 2.4 million, second only to the Sun and flying in the face of market trends.

Among the great editors of mass circulation, post-war newspapers, Dacre is up there with Hugh Cudlipp (the Daily Mirror of the 1950s and 1960s), Kelvin MacKenzie (the Sun of the 1980s), and Sir David English, who over 20 years at the Mail created the model that Dacre has gone on to develop. But while Cudlipp once said that "news is what somebody somewhere doesn't want printed", MacKenzie was a force of nature who produced pages of unprecedented stridency and irreverence, and English was the smooth master of propaganda that masqueraded as news, Dacre adds to those qualities a vitriol, blimpishness and misanthropy that are very much his own. One associate says that Dacre reminds more and more of Basil Fawlty – "intemperate and slightly mad" – every time he sees him.

"The ideal Dacre story is one that leaves the reader hating somebody or something," says one former Mail reporter, and what the paper really hates are the liberalism and multiculturalism at the heart of Britain's changing society. The Mail has worked itself into a lather over asylum-seekers, but accuse it of racism and you come up against Dacre's brilliantly orchestrated campaign to bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice.

The spreading of panic is of a piece with the general message that the country's on the slide, and a sense of outrage is palpable in stories such as last week's "You Could Win Our NOT the Turner Prize", and one about "the thug who won £75,000 damages". The Mail is forever knocking the NHS even as it delights in health scares. Nostalgic spreads on Britain's heroic past fill in different areas of the same picture.

Features such as the Perfect Party Cleavage typify where it thinks women's interests lie – or ought to. Columnists Lynda Lee-Potter and Melanie Phillips are used to attack other women's sexual conduct, ambitions and supposed dereliction of duty as wives and mothers. As far as Dacre is concerned, women have no right to go out and earn money of their own, let alone rise to positions of power, when they also have a family. Women like Cherie Blair, in other words. A woman's place is in the home, or if it has to be in the office, then it's on men's terms. Dacre is said to be unsympathetic to women on his staff who have babies, or try to combine family responsibilities with careers. Even without Dacre's unreconstructed attitudes, the Mail work ethic of total dedication doesn't permit it. One executive worked such long hours that his wife used to bring their children into the office so that he could see them.

Dacre, who is 54, is himself the product of a traditional home, and he maintains one now. He grew up in the north London suburb of Arnos Grove, where he and his father, a journalist on the Sunday Express, spent Sunday lunchtimes analysing the day's papers. A younger brother, Nigel, grew up to be head of news at ITN. Dacre won a state scholarship to University College School in Hampstead. He went on to read English at Leeds University, where he was caught up in the spirit of the times and had what he now regards as a merely obligatory left-wing phase. If you're not left-wing at university, he has said, "you should be shot". It was at Leeds that he met his future wife, Kathleen. They have two sons.

Dacre's right-wing conversion did not come until a few years later when, having established himself as a reporter on the Daily Express, he was given a plum posting to America. "I don't see how anybody can go there and not be enthralled by the energy of the free market," Dacre has said. Over at the Mail, English was impressed with Dacre's dispatches, and in 1980 he appointed him the Mail's New York bureau chief. Dacre and the Mail were made for each other. Returning to London in 1981, his performances in a string of executive roles earned him the editorship of the Mail's sister paper, the London Evening Standard, in 1991, before he took over at the Mail from the retiring English the following year.

The Dacre style is unmistakeable. "The Mail is no collegiate paper," says one former staffer. "Dacre rules like a monarch." So much so that he is credited with even greater power within the parent company than the Daily Mail and General Trust's proprietor, the fourth Viscount Rothermere.

At a salary of £700,000-plus, Dacre is the best-paid editor around, but nobody could accuse him of not doing all he can to earn it. "He is there from 9am until after the 10 O'Clock News," a former Mail writer says. "He is sleeves rolled up in the newsroom, reading every word of copy and poring over headlines and lay-outs. Pages are ripped up and done again. Acres of copy are thrown away, simply because they do not fit that day's formula." Then it's back to his London flat, or the Sussex home where Kathleen is ensconced.

That doesn't leave much time to cultivate high-level political contacts, but then they need Dacre more than he needs them. At a Rupert Murdoch party last week at which Dacre was talking with Iain Duncan Smith, Alastair Campbell came over and said to Mr Duncan Smith: "It's lovely to see you talking to your leader." As to the Mail being the real opposition, Dacre will have none of it.

Dacre's Mail showed initial goodwill towards New Labour. But Dacre turned against Tony Blair, despising what he called his "moral elasticity" in accepting a £100,000 donation from the Express's proprietor, Richard Desmond. Perhaps significantly in the light of recent events, the one senior Labour figure whom Dacre admires and is close to is Gordon Brown. Dacre was one of the mourners at the funeral of Mr Brown's baby daughter.

Dacre, ever proscriptive, said recently that he didn't think "you could have a newspaper editor who's not married with children". He would probably like us all to be married with children. And even then, if you're Cherie Blair, it won't be enough.

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