Despite what some might say, Paul Dacre's departure from the Daily Mail won't stop Brexit

The editor's great skill was not to lead readers to views they didn't already hold, but rather to understand instinctively their existing concerns, hold an amplifying mirror to them, and reassure them that they have got things right

Will Gore
Thursday 07 June 2018 13:37 BST
Paul Dacre is to step down as Daily Mail editor in November

Paul Dacre, whose departure as editor of the Daily Mail was announced last night, has been a major force in British public life for more than two decades.

Much has already been written about his intensity, his love of journalism’s craft, his expletive-filled newsroom rants and the effectiveness of the Mail campaigns he has overseen.

He brought remarkable success to the paper; he also divided opinion among the public at large, and among politicians, like no other editor.

There can be no doubt that Dacre ran campaigns which had hugely positive consequences. The Mail‘s front page accusation of Stephen Lawrence’s alleged killers remains an astonishing act. The paper’s recent assault on plastic waste has covered very different territory, but has helped to bring the issue to prominence.

Yet there have been a great many occasions when the Mail has been merciless and outrageous in its attacks on those in public life (and others) whose opinions were regarded as incompatible with the views of the paper, its readers – and its editor. For those on the receiving end, it has been harrowing; and the tone of public discourse has been coarsened by it.

The “liberal, metropolitan elite” has been particularly scorned by Dacre. Most recently, perceived opponents of Brexit have felt the sharp end of his editing pencil, with withering attacks on judges (”enemies of the people”), Remainer peers (”out of control”) and Tory Brexit sceptics (“self-consumed malcontents”). Even when he didn’t write the headlines himself, they were inspired by the spirit he has created.

Some have argued that Dacre’s and the Mail‘s influence has been so significant that it can be held more or less responsible for Brexit. Certainly its focus on the supposed perils of immigration tapped into and raised the profile of a key current underlying pro-Brexit philosophy.

And the Mail rarely shied away from bashing the EU’s bureaucratic excesses. It cast European institutions as malign opponents of good sense, rather than as agreed components of genuine democracy.

If Dacre has been so central to enabling Brexit to reach the stage it has, does it therefore follow that his departure from the Mail‘s helm might aid the cause of those who would seek to undo the process? There are some who think so (and many more who live in hope).

Lord Adonis tweeted that the “liberation” of the Daily Mail from Paul Dacre “is the biggest media event since Brexit and will have major bearing on it. Greatly improves chances of a referendum on the Brexit deal – & defeating Brexit in that referendum.”

However, even if Brexit can be reversed, it feels unlikely that an absence of Dacre alone is key to the question of a second vote, or to the UK ultimately remaining in the EU.

For one thing, he will continue to have a considerable role at Associated Newspapers, the parent company of the Daily Mail, MailOnline and Mail on Sunday. When he steps down from day-to-day editing in November he will become Associated’s editor-in-chief and chairman.

Given that, he will have a say at least in his replacement at the Mail (indeed, the decision has presumably already been made – was it notable that the paper’s statement confirming Dacre’s departure made a point of praising Martin Clarke, editor of MailOnline?).

True, Associated may soon need to make the kind of structural changes that other news publishers have already undergone (finding “synergies” between digital and print operations), but Lord Rothermere, the company’s owner, is unlikely to rip up entirely formulas that are tried and tested.

Most fundamentally, that means the Daily Mail will continue to reflect the opinions of its audience (an audience which is distinct from that of MailOnline).

After all, that has been Dacre’s great skill – not to lead readers to views they didn’t already hold, but rather to understand instinctively their existing concerns, hold an amplifying mirror to them, and reassure them that they have got things right.

For many on the left, Dacre – like Rupert Murdoch – has become a bogeyman: a shadowy figure of malign intent who forces his audience to think like him.

That is a misreading of the situation, casting the Mail‘s perfectly mainstream readers as unthinking idiots – which is the one thing more likely than a Daily Mail front page to convince them of their opinions. Indeed, it is that attitude which underscores Dacre’s distaste for metropolitan liberalism.

When it comes to Brexit, the Leave campaign triumphed more because nobody presented a convincing explanation of the EU’s merits, than because of Paul Dacre.

His departure might (but only might) make the Daily Mail a moderately cuddlier beast, but you wouldn’t bet your house on it. And if Brexit is to be stopped, it will take more than Dacre’s departure to bring it to a halt.

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