2017 will see the 25th anniversary of Paul Dacre becoming editor of the Daily Mail. No journalist in recent history has had such longevity – his mentor Sir David English, who is credited with creating the modern Daily Mail was only editor for 21 years; his nemesis Alan Rusbridger was editor of The Guardian for 20 before retiring in 2015. No journalist in the modern era has had such a wide ranging influence on the media – both the tone of commentary (often dressed as news) and nature of how it is delivered, MailOnline is the most visited English language newspaper website in the world. And no journalist divides opinion – and when I say divide, it’s fair to say that a few people respect him, many fear him and a great deal hate him.
Not that the “king of Fleet Street” will mind that much. Hate and fear have been two of the main driving forces behind the editorial stance of the Daily Mail under Dacre. It is a cliché to say that the publication has thrived by pandering to the prejudices of middle England but analysis of what is written will uncover at least one of the following in almost every edition:
- Something you eat or drink will be detrimental to your health – usually causing cancer, but Alzheimer’s, early menopause, heart disease are all also on the menu. Occasionally there is something that make you live longer – but that’s more Daily Express territory;
- Something someone does – usually the Government, a loony Left council or a union – will have a serious impact on your income, lifestyle and/or house price;
- A much loved celebrity – and by celebrity I’m drawing the circle widely because someone who appeared on The Archers in the 1970s might count – has a deep and dirty secret to do with an affair, family row or tragedy.
Often the paper launches a campaign against a person, group of people or institution because it disagrees with then. The most famous recent case being the “Enemies of the People” attack on the judges who ruled that Parliament needed to vote on Brexit. The Mail was widely mocked for describing Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, as an “openly gay” former Olympic fencer! A friend of mine was the target of the Mail’s ire recently, and she can testify that it was a terrifying experience.
The influence of Dacre’s Daily Mail on British politics is hard to overestimate. The Sun might claim to swing elections, but no publication has the same consistent record of steering public policy, and its championing of Brexit is a clear case in point. You could argue that Paul Dacre, more than Boris Johnson, more than Nigel Farage, tipped the vote to leave.
Many people have tried to predict the sunset of the Dacre era. However, 2017 might be the year. Dacre will be 69, though that’s young compared to, say, Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch. Changes at the top last year, which saw veteran deputy editor Jon Steafel replaced by Gerald Greaves, who moved over from the Mail on Sunday, were interpreted in one of two ways:
- Dacre cementing his power base to continue for many more years;
- The way being cleared for Geordie Greig, the Mail on Sunday editor who is known to be close to the paper’s “proprietor” Lord Rothermere, to take over as editor.
Which of those interpretations is right is hard to tell, as charge moves slowly at a paper which hasn’t had a redesign since the 1970s. What may change matters is economics. Sales of the Daily Mail fell nearly 5% between 2015 and 2016 – in line with most of its competitors. While MailOnline continues to grow the group has been struggling to “monetise” its success. Print advertising fell 23% in the most recent financial year.
While it is assumed that Lord Rothermere decides the future of the Daily Mail and General Trust, the owner of the Daily Mail, it is actually a public company, albeit one where the Rothermere’s family control the voting shares. Faced with pressure on profits, DMGT’s chief executive Paul Zwillenberg was recently quoted as saying: “There are no sacred cows. We are, have been, and continue to be an active portfolio manager. If someone values our business significantly greater than we value it ourselves, we will listen.”
When talking of sacred cows, it was assumed that Zwillenberg was talking about the Daily Mail. But could that term be applied to Paul Dacre. Could he, would he, should he be out to pasture?