An old journalist told me that there was a time when people used to know the names of national newspaper editors. It’s a mark of Fleet Street’s decline, he said, that Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian and Paul Dacre of the Mail are the only well known editors today. He added that Rusbridger is famous because he has made himself into a public figure; but people have heard of Dacre despite his being remarkably private. Neither of us could recall Dacre doing a broadcast interview or even writing an article. He’s an enigmatic beast.
All of which makes Dacre’s appearance in this morning’s Guardian under the headline ‘Why is the left obsessed by the Daily Mail?’ rather interesting (he’s also written in this morning’s Mail). The Guardian piece amounts to a defence, not only of The Mail in the case of Ralph Miliband but of the popular press and its methods. Dacre writes:
‘Out in the real world, it was a pretty serious week for news. The US was on the brink of budget default, a British court heard how for two years social workers failed to detect the mummified body of a four-year-old starved to death by his mother, and it was claimed that the then Labour health secretary had covered up unnecessary deaths in a NHS hospital six months before the election.
In contrast, the phoney world of Twitter, the London chatterati and left-wing media was gripped 10 days ago by collective hysteria as it became obsessed round-the-clock by one story – a five-word headline on page 16 in the Daily Mail.’
Dacre asks ‘fair readers’ to judge whether this was a proportionate response to the Mail’s story. Direct appeals to readers is what the Mail and the Sun (I have no doubt that Rupert Murdoch would agree with the thrust of Dacre’s article) pride themselves on. The popular press does not preach or patronise; it empowers – or at least that’s the theory. Dacre writes:
‘The metropolitan classes, of course, despise our readers with their dreams (mostly unfulfilled) of a decent education and health service they can trust, their belief in the family, patriotism, self-reliance, and their over-riding suspicion of the state and the People Who Know Best.
These people mock our readers’ scepticism over the European Union and a human rights court that seems to care more about the criminal than the victim. They scoff at our readers who, while tolerant, fret that the country’s schools and hospitals can’t cope with mass immigration.
In other words, these people sneer at the decent working Britons – I’d argue they are the backbone of this country – they constantly profess to be concerned about.’
By this stage, Dacre is giving the Guardian a lesson in how to sell newspapers. The middle section of the article is devoted to the Ralph Miliband affair; but there are some general insights that are worth extracting:
‘…yes, the headline was controversial – but popular newspapers have a long tradition of using provocative headlines to grab readers’ attention. In isolation that headline may indeed seem over the top, but read in conjunction with the article we believed it was justifiable.’
This reference to ‘long tradition’ is typical of the piece, which carries a slightly old fashioned air. It seems to be saying that the old ways in journalism are still the best ways: appeal to the reader, don’t be vain, have a sense of perspective, know what’s important. He ends the article by driving some of these rules home:
‘For the record, the Mail received a mere two letters of complaint before Mr Miliband’s intervention and only a few hundred letters and emails since – many in support. A weekend demonstration against the paper attracted just 110 people. It seems that in the real world people – most of all our readers – were far more supportive of us than the chatterati would have you believe.’
And then there is this cutting post script, which appeals directly to the reader’s judgement:
‘PS – this week the head of MI5 – subsequently backed by the PM, the deputy PM, the home secretary and Labour’s elder statesman Jack Straw – effectively accused the Guardian of aiding terrorism by publishing stolen secret security files. The story – which is of huge significance – was given scant coverage by a BBC which only a week ago had devoted days of wall-to-wall pejorative coverage to the Mail. Again, I ask fair readers, what is worse: to criticise the views of a Marxist thinker, whose ideology is anathema to most and who had huge influence on the man who could one day control our security forces … or to put British lives at risk by helping terrorists?’
Alan Rusbridger is a star of The Fifth Estate (read Deborah Ross’s review in this week’s edition of The Spectator). Paul Dacre is very much of the fourth estate.