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November 4, 2018updated 30 Sep 2022 7:02am

Paul Dacre attacks The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, the BBC, Lord Leveson and judiciary in Society of Editors speech

By Freddy Mayhew

Ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre launched an attack on the Guardian and its former editor Alan Rusbridger this evening as he delivered the Society of Editor’s annual lecture.

Dacre was awarded the Society’s first ever lifetime achievement award, collecting it on stage in Manchester before going on to “stick his neck out” as he took aim at the Guardian, Rusbridger, the BBC, Lord Leveson and the judiciary.

Dacre, who stepped down as Daily Mail editor this summer after 26 years, dedicated several minutes of his more than half-hour long speech to delivering a riposte to Rusbridger’s recently published book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now.

“Much of the book is a thoughtful, if somewhat prolix, analysis of the tectonic changes – some exciting, others deeply disturbing – that the internet is effecting on journalism,” said Dacre.

“But its real message – and how insidiously it drips through the pages – is that virtually every national newspaper in Britain is scurrilous, corrupt and amoral with one iridescent exception. Yes, you’ve guessed it… The Guardian.

“A somewhat chilling lack of self-awareness fuses with a hyper-sensitivity to the flaws of others. Indeed, its sine qua non is that only Alan and the Guardian are capable of producing what he calls ‘worthwhile’ journalism.”

He went on: “Unedifyingly, it manages to combine rather cloying self-glorification and moral superiority with an almost visceral contempt of and disdain for the rest of the press.

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“And before you say ‘play the ball – not the man’, you should know that this book contains some of the most unpleasant ad hominem attacks on individuals that I have ever read in a work about Fleet Street.

“In it, the red tops have a business model based on invading people’s privacy and are beyond redemption.

“For the Mail’s journalism there is a sliver of begrudging respect, but the paper itself and I are beyond the pale.

“But it saves its real venom for the Telegraph which, with its blurring of the boundaries between editorial and advertising, did, at one stage, behave deplorably, but I suspect for Alan its real sin is to be a quality paper that actually makes good profits.

“Inevitably, Rupert Murdoch is the devil incarnate.

“But what a pity that the book can’t summon the generosity to admit that the Times today is an excellent, highly respected, profitable serious paper. More pertinently, its subscription package seems to have cracked the internet conundrum – something the Guardian has so conspicuously failed to do…

“But, of course, this memoir’s greatest omission is that it ignores one of the most fascinating media stories of the past few years: how a dramatic putsch by an utterly demoralised staff, deposed an incoming Scott Trust chairman after the once-profitable Guardian had been reduced to an economic basket case, by vanity, hubris and eye-watering financial misjudgement.

“That chairman, of course, was Alan but in his book he is eerily silent on all this. Nor does he begin to explain why, at the very time when, to use his own words, ‘printed newspapers were on a perilous slide to eventual oblivion’, the Guardian took the economically insane decision to move into lavish state-of-the-art offices – complete with specially designed bespoke desks – and to buy expensive new presses when a diminishing newspaper industry was awash with cheap, spare, rentable, printing capacity.

“Was the reason for the latter, perhaps, that the Guardian, piqued at Te Independent stealing a march on it by becoming Britain’s so called first quality tabloid, had to go one better with the slightly larger size Berliner?

“And, as its balance sheets dripped with red ink, was it perhaps hubris that persuaded Guardian Online, with no plausible business or journalistic model, to expand so recklessly and expensively into America, a country already awash with great liberal papers and media outlets?

“The result of this madness quickly became all too apparent. Hundreds of millions of pounds down the plug hole!  Countless brilliant journalists made redundant! And those Berliner presses?  Ignominiously ditched after a few years as the paper was forced to reduce its size in order to rent cheaper printing.

“So there you are. What a cautionary saga. And what a flesh and blood rendition of the belief – so endemic at the BBC and in much of the British public sector – that money grows on trees.

“And this cuts to the quick of the dangers of a subsidariat that is out of touch with the real world and its financial exigencies.

“How can a newspaper, that has shown such profligacy, be editorially objective about the financial activities of the City or the State, or the NHS or local authorities?

“How, when it has been so financially feckless itself, can it call for ever more state spending or question a government’s need to balance the nation’s books?

“These are serious questions.”

Dacre, who is now chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Metro newspapers and Mail Online, said it was “the country’s worst kept secret” that the Guardian “is the in-house newspaper of the BBC, that subsidised behemoth”.

He added: “If the corporation, Britain’s main news provider and its thousands of journalists – far more than employed by Fleet Street – hold the same financially irresponsible views as its in-house crib sheet, then Britain has a huge problem if it is ever going to return to economic solvency.”

Dacre criticised the Guardian’s decision to publish the leaked Snowden files, but went on to say he “passionately believed” the Guardian “must have the freedom to carry such stories”.

“The sadness is that Alan [Rusbridger] cannot see that the Sun should have the freedom to write about the love lives of celebrities and footballers who are of such interest to their readers. In order to act in the public interest, they need to interest the public.

“Equally, the Mail should have the freedom to write a headline about judges being the enemy of the people. The title of an Ibsen play, it was meant to be a distillation of the views of Brexit MPs angry that the High Court was becoming involved in the political process. In retrospect, the Telegraph’s banner ‘The Judges Versus The People’ was, to coin a phrase, a tad more judicious.

“But what the hell. The point needed to be made. And it was the Mail’s headline, not the almost identical Telegraph one, that, as happens so often, put an issue on the agenda.

“And I just hope that their Lordships’ bruised feelings are soothed by the £60,000 pay rise they are in line to collect.”

In sharing his love for the newspaper industry, Dacre later praised Rusbridger, saying he was “proud of the Guardian, which, when Alan was a fully engaged editor rather than a visionary business strategist, was a great paper and is still a great and important paper as its new editor – if I may be politically incorrect – struggles manfully, to restore economic coherence.”

Dacre also found time to take aim at Lord Justice Leveson, whom he said had been “fixated by the press” and “seemed oblivious to the fact that the newspaper industry – which for centuries had played a significant part in our democratic process and was already subject to 50 bits of law affecting media freedom – was terminally ill”.

In closing his remarks, Dacre said: “I’ve stuck my neck out and, indeed, with the Guardian, put it on the block.” He added: “Well, frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.

“What I do care about is the future of newspapers and how we improve our image when so many self-interested people seem determined to bang nails into the collective coffin that is Britain’s free press.

“And is it now too much to hope that our industry – all of us – pull together to improve that image and, yes, confess that we make mistakes but also do much good which, more often than not, shines a light from the top of the lamp post and makes the world a better place.”

Dacre also offered four predictions on the future of journalism. 

He said the BBC would “diminish in power as the streaming giants undermine the licence fee” and that a “right-of-centre TV network will one day take root in this country”.

Dacre said the “internet giants”, such as Facebook and Google, “will be regulated”, but that the “ultimate solution – as with the oil barons in the last century – is to break them up”.

He said: “Their monopolistic power is too great and that fundamental human characteristic – the need for privacy against the industrial scale theft of our data – will reassert itself.”

The former Evening Standard editor also said there would be a “turning away from algorithm created news in favour of authentic, regulated, curated journalism, both online and in print, that is created by brilliant minds that love pictures, headlines and words and possess extraordinary empathy with their readers”.

And lastly, he predicted that newspapers “have a longer future than the Jeremiahs predict which is why I worry that there is a danger that repeated morbid predictions of our death will become self-fulfilling”.

He added: “Of one thing I am absolutely certain: man’s hunger for news, information, analysis and, yes, sensation and gossip, is as old as time itself.”

Responding to Dacre’s speech, Rusbridger tweeted: “After 27 years of editing, Paul Dacre spends much of his valedictory speech attacking the liberal media.

“Only Donald Trump is more obsessed.

“He also really, really doesn’t like my book, Breaking News. Could have been worse: he could have praised it.

“Read it and judge whose idea of journalism you feel more drawn to. It’s a critical choice.”

Read the full text of Paul Dacre’s speech to the 2018 Society of Editors’ Conference.

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