4 Oct 2013

Paul Dacre: mystery man at the centre of the Miliband row

Daily Mail boss Paul Dacre is staying silent over allegations that his paper smeared the Labour leader’s father. What do we know about Fleet Street’s most publicity-shy editor?

The Daily Mail is refusing to back down after publishing a highly critical piece on Ed Miliband’s late father Ralph under the headline “The Man Who Hated Britain”.

Geordie Greig, editor of sister paper the Mail on Sunday, has apologised, along with Associated Newspapers proprietor Lord Rothermere, for sending a reporter to gatecrash a memorial service for the Labour leader’s uncle.

But Paul Dacre has refused to apologise for running the original piece and has avoided commenting on the controversy himself, leaving other senior Mail staff to defend the paper in public.

City editor Alex Brummer said it was the Mail that was entitled to an apology after Labour figures suggested its actions were motivated by anti-semitism.

Fleet Street-watchers are not surprised that Mr Dacre is avoiding the limelight. The 64-year-old is a famously reclusive figure, but his opinions have helped shape the political debate in Britain for more than two decades. Who is he?

A life in print

Paul Dacre grew up in the north London suburb of Arnos Grove. He is the son of Peter Dacre, a Sunday Express journalist, while his mother was a teacher.

He won a scholarship to the private University College School, where he edited the school magazine and “got into trouble with the masters” for his “aggressive, sensational” approach.

At Leeds University in the late 1960s, where he was a contemporary of future Labour front-benchers Clare Short and Jack Straw, he edited the student newspaper. He later remembered that his poetry tutor at the time “would fulminate against the Rothermere press”.

In a rare interview given to BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2004, Mr Dacre said he was a left-winger at the time “like most sensible young people at that age” and attended anti-Vietnam war marches in London.

He joined the Daily Express as a graduate trainee in the early 1970s and recalls making an ill-advised foray into a republican neighbourhood in Belfast in search of a story, only to find himself pinned against a wall by a group of local paramilitaries, guns jabbing him in the ribs.

Mr Dacre credits a later spell working as a correspondent in the United States with his conversion to small-state, free market conservatism.

He told the BBC: “I left an ossified, sclerotic Britain of great, state-nationalised, money-losing industries and vast council estates in despair, in thrall to corrupt Labour councils, and I went to America.

“And it was an utter revelation to me: the energy, the absence of any ‘us and them’ attitude, the absence of a class society. The most telling thing of all was that ordinary people lived much better lives materially.”

Mr Dacre was head-hunted by the Mail in 1980 and had spells in various senior roles in the newsroom before being given the editorship of the Evening Standard in 1991. A year later he took the helm at the Mail.

He has said that his finest moment was the 1997 headline branding five suspects accused of killing the black teenager Stephen Lawrence “murderers”.

Mr Dacre said he wrote the headline himself and took the decision to publish despite the legal risks. He said he could not face reading the first edition of the newspaper and had to take a sedative to get to sleep that night.

Daily Mail 'murderers' headline

Family values

Mr Dacre has defined the “soul” of the Daily Mail as “based on family values, on those two words – self-reliance and aspiration – and especially in countering that liberal, politically correct consensus that dominates so much of British public life”.

He expanded on that last theme when giving the 2007 Cudlipp Lecture, devoting much of his speech to an attack on the BBC.

The corporation, Mr Dacre alleged, was “in every corpuscle of its corporate body against the values of conservatism with a small ‘c’ which, I would argue, just happen to be the values held by millions of Britons.

“Thus it exercises a kind of ‘cultural Marxism’ in which it tries to undermine that conservative society by turning all its values on their heads.”

He has said that he owes all his achievements to his wife Kathy, saying: “No man can become a success unless he has a wife to pick him up when he is down, to put up with his shouting when he’s tired, and to encourage him in the dark moments.

“I have been very blessed in having that wife.”

Mr Dacre has denied attacking working mothers in the newspaper, pointing out that his wife is a successful academic and saying that the Mail depends on appealing to affluent women who may be juggling careers and families.

His son James edited the student newspaper while at Cambridge but ended up following his mother rather than his father, becoming a succesful theatre director.

The Mail’s Mugabe?

Former Mail staff testify to Mr Dacre’s fearsome management style, with any perceived slips in editorial quality greeted with four-letter rants.

Fleet Street legend has it that he has been variously nicknamed Benito and Mugabe in honour of his allegedly dictatorial approach, while the editor’s use of the “c” word in editorial meetings led to them being referred to as “the vagina monologues”.

Mr Dacre has admitted to doing “a lot of shouting” but said: “Shouting creates energy, energy creates great headlines, great headlines marry with great pictures, great pictures supplement great words.”

Former staff who experienced life under Mr Dacre in the Mail newsroom tell of living in fear of the editor’s ferocious rebukes, but respecting his relentless hard work throughout countless 15-hour days and hands-on style.

One former Daily Mail employee said he had witnessed the editor “wiping the floor” with a senior staff member after the paper had gone to press.

He said: “It was a horrendous beasting. ‘F*** this. You’re f***ing useless. You’re a f***ing c***.’

I would say he is a man of extremes. He is tyrannical but he is also quite touching sometimes. Former Mail employee

“I would say he is a man of extremes. He is tyrannical but he is also quite touching sometimes. He has a great propensity for bile and anger but I think it is actually wrong just to portray him purely as such he can be a very decent human being sometimes.

“From my experience of working with him, he can be horrible. He can also be someone who cares deeply about his readers.

“Is he a nice guy? On balance I think he is probably deep down a decent chap. That would be my view. It may not be a popular view to express.”

‘Never contradicted’

Our source said Mr Dacre’s fearsome grasp of the detail of what goes into the newspaper made it difficult for others to challenge his judgement.

“He knows news inside out and it is very intimidating trying to sell a story to him because he is excellent at the job.

“He will read absolutely everything. You don’t get many editors like that these days.

“He is a very tough man and he has been doing that job so long now and he has never been contradicted. Nobody has been in a position to question him. It is hard to contradict such a powerful man.”

Out of that vigorous debate we adopt a view that we feel best represents our position for our readers, looking after their interests. Paul Dacre

But it is unfair to see the Mail as an extension of Mr Dacre’s personal view of the world, our insider said, pointing to his willingness to listen to a broad range of opinions from senior editors and others.

“He surrounds himself with people with different views. He talks to those people, and actually his wife is a huge influence on him.

“He is presented often as an old-school misogynist. Actually that is very far from the the truth. He more than any of the senior editors had a feel for women’s issues, a great interest, and he deferred to women he respected as well.”

At the Leveson inquiry Mr Dacre denied that he used the newspaper as a vehicle for his own views, saying: “I employ an immensely diverse range of journalists.

“We vigorously debate the issues of the day. There’s no worldview there imposed by me. Out of that vigorous debate we adopt a view that we feel best represents our position for our readers, looking after their interests.”

No interference

Mr Dacre has said of Rupert Murdoch that the “the way he imposes his proprietorial views” is worrying, and is said to enjoy complete editorial independence, brooking no interference from the Mail’s owners.

Neither is the Mail editor afraid to take an idiosyncratic political line, declaring his dislike for Tory leaders John Major and David Cameron while forging an unlikely friendship with Gordon Brown.

The former Mail man told us: “Behind his desk there was a painting of a very small boat which is being tossed on a stormy sea, with the waves just about to crash over it. I think that’s how he saw himself.

“He saw himself as apart from the rest of politics. He rarely courted people and politicians, while they were always trying to court him.”

Mr Dacre said in his Cudlipp Lecture that newspapermen “should be outsiders and not part of any process, civic or otherwise”.