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Paul Dacre: Watch out, BBC. The political class may come for you next

29 October 2014

12:46 PM

29 October 2014

12:46 PM

The below is an edited version of a speech given yesterday by Paul Dacre to the NewstrAid Benevolent Fund, a charity for those who sell and distribute newspapers and magazines.

Newspapers are all only too painfully aware of how we are having to adapt to survive in today’s modern, fast-paced, ever-changing digital media world. But the way I look at it, we have always had to fight to survive, ever since the birth of the mass media in the 1890s – the decade, if I may indulge in a little product placement, in which Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail.

In more than a century since then, we’ve grown and we’ve changed out of all recognition – more so in the last ten years than at any time in the previous century. But one thing has always been a constant – that this is an industry which is always having to fight, tooth and claw, against those who would destroy us.

In the 1980s we faced the battle with militant trade unionism which was slowly and surely throttling our industry. The debt we owe Rupert Murdoch for facing down that enemy and for losing so much money on The Times should not be forgotten when decrying him over the phone hacking debacle.

In the 1990s we had to take on a Government in whose veins the desire to regulate and control ran deep. A chilling power to jail journalists who offended against The Data Protection Act.  A Human Rights Act that introduced a law on privacy for the first time and ushered in the horror of super-injunctions. And who can forget the baleful shadow Mr Justice Eady cast over our fundamental freedoms.

In the 2000s we faced an altogether different battle, as we had to re-engineer the entire shape of our businesses, and the skills of our journalists, in the face of the digital revolution.

And, of course, in the past three years we’ve had to fight for press freedom itself and our most precious heritage – the right to report free of Government control of editorial content.

Those battles often bring out the best in us. But they can also bring out the worst, dividing us and setting ourselves against each other in a way which only gives succour to those who wish to control us.

And, while I pay massive tribute to the way in which the regional press, the magazine industry and most of the national newspapers have stood united over the past few years it is, to my deep regret, impossible to deny that there are deep fissures in some areas of our business and beyond.

In some ways, of course, I don’t think that is surprising and I apportion no blame. Because consider for one moment what we’ve faced.

Firstly, Leveson. Let’s be blunt. It was set up with indecent haste to save the face of the Prime Minister who, against the advice of manifold players – myself included – decided to invite a man who became a convicted criminal into the inner sanctum of No 10.

It was a draconian inquiry, with more powers than those granted to Lord Chilcott in his investigation of an illicit war.  One, whose authoritarian prescriptions, I have little doubt, were, in reality, decided long before the first witnesses for the press – and there were pitifully few of them – took the stand.  A kind of show trial in which the industry was judged guilty and had to prove its innocence.

And we then had the appalling spectacle of the three political parties falling over themselves to see who could champion the toughest controls on the press and putting their proposals – shamefully stitched up in a late night session with Hacked Off – to baying MPs, and, shamefully, Lords, thirsty for revenge on newspapers who had dared to expose their crooked expenses.


And always in the background the drumbeat of cynically negative coverage from the BBC, a body which employs more journalists than the whole of Fleet Street put together and which, because of its subsidised torpor, is not in the same cosmos as the printed media when it comes to breaking stories and setting the news agenda.

And fuelling the whole sorry affair was a tiny, unrepresentative pressure group – but one with a very loud voice in parts of the left-wing media and political establishment – run by zealots, priapic so-called celebrities, and small town academics, all united to cast the debate as a biblical fight to the death between good and evil, with the press cast in the role of the devil.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Britain’s newspaper industry is not the devil. It’s a great industry composed of countless decent men and women who do not break the law and who work in very difficult conditions to expose the truth, to fight for their readers’ interests, to give a voice to the voiceless.

Yes, we make mistakes – who doesn’t? – but the fact there is relatively so little corruption in Britain is, I honestly believe, down to a rumbustious free press that must have the freedom both to behave badly – for which there must be safeguards and proper punishments – and to behave well.  Politicians must not be allowed to decide which is which.

Now most industries would have cracked under the strain and the unremitting pressure of fighting what I have no doubt was a concerted attempt by the Liberal Establishment, in cahoots with Whitehall and the Judiciary, to break the only institution in Britain that is genuinely free of Government control – the commercially viable free press.  But we didn’t – despite the fact that at the same time we have had to fight a daily battle to reshape our businesses and ensure economic survival.

So, yes, there are deep wounds in our industry.  So what lessons can be learnt?

Well, I note with some irony, that those who flaunt their liberal colours most ostentatiously are those who shout loudest for statutory controls of the press.  To them I say, remember those journalists who work in repressive regimes who have been looking on aghast at the statutes being threatened in Britain.

Again, I note with some irony that it’s those national newspapers that lose the most money who have been most reluctant to support the industry in its battle against government controls.  To them I say, you should be grateful for your various subsidies and remember that united, the whole of our industry is bigger than its parts.

Again, I note with some irony that Leveson had barely a word of criticism of the police and the politicians.  Well, if the first had done their job properly and the second hadn’t so sycophantically fawned upon Murdoch, Leveson would never have occurred.

To the police and politicians, made so suspicious of the press by Leveson, I would argue that it’s in all our interests to drop hostilities and to try to restore the mutual respect we should have for each other and which is an important ingredient in a healthy democracy.

And, yet again, I note with some irony, that there has been no judicial inquiry into the BBC’s role in the Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris scandals.  The News of the World may have hacked celebrities’ phones.  It didn’t sexually abuse teenage children.

And as for the BBC’s negativity about the popular press I say, ‘Be careful what you wish for’… Support government controls, shackling the press, and you may find that the political class comes for you next.  The media as a whole should ALL be united in defending freedom of expression.

And lastly, to that self-appointed so-called ‘watchdog’ the Media Standards Trust – seemingly so beloved by judges – I say, remember your links to the body that, through scandalously inept journalism, heinously defamed Lord McAlpine in the last months of his life.

And oh, remember the award you made to a left-wing journalist who subsequently, it emerged, filled his articles with plagiarism.  Yes, we sometimes get things wrong, but so do you.

So there ARE scars which need to be healed.  And now, more than ever, is the time to do so for four reasons…

First, IPSO has been safely launched and no one, not even Hacked Off, can deny that Sir Alan Moses has made clear his determination that this really will be an Independent Press Standards Organisation.

There may be some who think that in creating the toughest regulator in the free world we have perhaps gone too far. But I believe the industry had to do it, I’m proud we’ve done it and now we leave it up to the integrity and sound judgment of Sir Alan and his team.

Second, there is about to be a sea-change in the way the industry’s organisations are constituted. In the next few weeks, the merger – about time, too – of the national press and the regional press into one new representative body, the News Media Association, gives us far more clout than we have ever had before to oppose those things that undermine us and fight for the changes we need.

Third, we are – probably thanks to the imminence of a general election, if that doesn’t sound too cynical – in relatively quiet political waters. The politicians are waiting to see what happens with IPSO and have bigger fish to fry than an issue on which they in any case spent far too long.

I know in my bones that this won’t last, but let’s use the opportunity to move ahead.

And finally, we need to understand the nature of the threats that face us, and unite in response to that. Those threats are considerable…

  • Threats from the Royal Charter and the imposition of punitive damages, backed up by the iniquity of ‘costs shifting’. That could see newspapers paying the other side’s costs, win or lose, however big or small they are. It will be a defamation derby for all those who want to gag or punish the press.
  • Threats to the confidentiality of our sources – crucial to all journalists – through the disgraceful misuse of the RIPA legislation.
  • Threats from Europe in the grisly shape of the right to be forgotten which hits at the heart of freedom of expression.
  • Threats to the sanctity of our content by the undermining of copyright protection here and in Brussels.
  • Threats to the local press from the taxpayer-funded BBC, whose own Charter comes up for renewal shortly – a crucial moment for the industry.
  • And finally the dark warnings of some politicians that once the election is out of the way, they’ll be back to finish what they began with Leveson and impose the so-called ‘will of Parliament’ on our industry for the first time since 1695.

These and many other issues require our industry to be united if we are to survive and prosper, and if we are to be able to pass onto the next generation that precious heritage of a free, fearless press that we inherited from our forefathers.

The time is right to put the past behind us and move on, aware of the tough fights ahead. And I hope we can do so in the same spirit that we come in together today to support great causes such as this one.

Paul Dacre is the editor of the Daily Mail


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