British editor denounces enemies of populist press

The Daily Mail's editor electrified the official inquiry into the press yesterday. He condemned phone hacking but attacked what he claimed were attempts to muzzle the free press.

He's a man very rarely seen or heard, but Paul Dacre is arguably one of the most powerful individuals in British public life. Yesterday the editor of the Daily Mail stepped into the spotlight as he gave televised evidence to a public inquiry into the tabloid phone hacking scandal.

It was a short but angry speech described as 'electrifying' by journalists covering the event – a tirade against the people and institutions that Dacre believes are damaging the UK. These include politicians, the liberal intelligentsia, the internet, and courts using the Human Rights Act. He doesn't, however, see what he calls 'the popular papers' on the list of villains.

In fact, he argued forcefully that the current system of Press Complaints Commission self-regulation by newspapers and magazines should remain, with a few tweaks, because the tabloid press is 'vastly better behaved and disciplined' than it was when he came into journalism in the 1970s, when he said stealing pictures and press harassment were widespread.

The argument was simple: that there was a danger of over-reacting to the recent scandal about the News of the World using private investigators to hack into private phone messages; and that the official public inquiry, being led by Lord Leveson, was too powerful, and led by people who don't have the faintest clue about the popular press.

Over two million people buy the Daily Mail during the week, and more than four and half million the Mail on Sunday.

And although Rupert Murdoch's News Corp closed the News of the World in response to the hacking scandal, the tabloids still enjoy widespread appeal and, as Dacre was keen to point out in his speech, they tend to be profitable enterprises, unlike most of the broadsheets.

The readership and the profitability are proof, he argued, that the Daily Mail and its competitor papers were more in touch with the nation's tastes and beliefs than those he attacks as 'leftish and liberal media outlets'.

Fourth Estate

There is one thing on which all the editors to have made submissions to the Leveson inquiry agree: a free press is central to the healthy function of a democracy, which is why so many countries around the world have copied the current UK model. Heavy-handed regulation, they say, would damage both.

But after that the tabloids and broadsheets part company. The broadsheets see their way of covering the news, with less shock and sensation, as superior. The tabloids have a counter-argument: how can you be playing a useful role in society if only a tiny fraction of the population buys what you produce?

You Decide

  1. Is 'beefed-up' self-regulation the best way to reform the press, as all the newspaper editors, tabloid and broadsheet, argue?
  2. 'You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank god) the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to.' What does this famous Humbert Wolfe epigram mean? How about a limerick about the media today?

Activities

  1. Role play: Conduct a mock broadcast interview about the state of British journalism, of 5 minutes, with one of you playing the editor of a prominent tabloid and the other a BBC news journalist (broadcasters are regulated by Ofcom and the BBC has its own accountability structure, so the Leveson inquiry relates to the print media).
  2. Politicians fear him. Journalists and editors on other newspapers and media outlets both despise and admire him – write a 500 word profile of Paul Dacre and explain his power. Is it increased by rarely making public appearances?

Some People Say...

“Tabloids have power without responsibility.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So did Paul Dacre give any ground?
He condemned the criminal practice of hacking phone messages, suggested a pressombudsman to back up the PCC and promised to introduce a prominent corrections column in his newspapers.
Constructive then?
Up to a point. Fundamentally, he is at war with the whole inquiry and reform process, seeing it as an attempt by a corrupt political elite to silence papers like his own. But many ordinary people have been victimised by tabloid papers.
And the PCC protects them?
Not enough. Which is why people attacked unfairly by the press have to sue in the courts.

Word Watch

Tirade
An angry verbal attack or list of complaints. Implies a bit of a rant.
Tabloid
Literally the smaller format favoured by popular newspapers. Used to refer to the class of papers which have mass circulation, and the style of writing, presentation and culture of those papers.
Broadsheet
Like tabloid, this refers literally to the large format of the more upmarket, high-brow newspapers, even though some of them (The Times and The Independent) have now changed their size and layout. Used to mean the style of journalism, values and culture of the upmarket press.
Fourth Estate
A term which refers to the media as part of the necessary structure of a society. Derives from the medieval idea of three 'estates of the realm', the nobles, the common people and the clergy, each with its role and power.
Ombudsman
An independent assessor of severe failings by organisations or industries. Can impose fines.

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