Eamon de Valera used to say that if he wanted to know the true feelings of the people of Ireland he needed only to look into his own heart. You could say the same about Paul Dacre, shortly to step down as editor of the Daily Mail. When it comes to the sentiments of Middle England, or at least quite a bit of it, he knows what it loves and fears because those are his own sentiments. He doesn’t second guess his readers; he is properly authentic.
I knew him from his brief, two year stint at the Evening Standard, and he was the best editor I have ever worked for, and I say as much even though I got my only ever written warning from him (deservedly). He knew exactly what he wanted and he was clear about how to get it. And he had both a sense of humour and a sense of self-preservation – while he would never have described himself as an intellectual, he was wary of being bamboozled by those who professed to be. It’s worth remembering in this context that he was being courted to be editor of the Times at the same time as the Mail (I walked in on him when he was taking their call); he chose the Mail.
As editor there he had the invaluable attribute of having no friends. Not no personal friends; no political ones. While the late, lamented Stewart Steven was forever holding John Major’s hand, Paul would never let himself be lured out to lunch with politicians if he could help it. That meant that he could approach most issues without the fatal handicap of not wanting to offend the people he knows. He is regarded by his enemies as tribal, but in fact his social conservatism meant that he could embrace politicians of either party: he was famously easy on Gordon Brown, pastor’s son, as on Theresa May, vicar’s daughter. And his bona fide sense of common justice meant that he could take on the Stephen Lawrence suspects, as no one else would have had the nerve to. Crucially, when the Mail went in on a story, it did it with something like a force of physics: irresistibly.
And if you are to judge a man by the qualities of his enemies, his include the most fabulously irritating people in Britain: from Polly Toynbee (about which there’s much to say) to practically everyone that he himself would unhesitatingly describe as a luvvie; his resignation will be meat and drink to them. He was particularly good about taking on the chancers and self-interested and self-important celebs who made up the Hacked Off lobby; the only good thing in his resignation letter is his commitment to continue to defend press freedom against them.
The trouble about the Mail wasn’t Paul Dacre; it was a dearth of Dacre. That is, in his absence, of which there was quite a bit, his lieutenants tried to second guess him, and the people who commissioned journalists on his behalf were, as so often, plus royaliste que le roi, taking control freakery to a point where the paper’s style became formulaic. I could never really write for it, because you knew perfectly well that you would be writing to a formula; frankly it was easier just to let Mail executives write whatever it was they were asking you to. And only very good columnists, like Stephen Glover or the excellent Jan Moir, could pull off the trick. If one of the secrets of good leadership is operational freedom for well-chosen lieutenants, that’s what the paper lacked.
The word is that his successor will be Geordie Greig, a charming, clever man and, unlike Dacre, who was always a bit anti-establishment, an old Etonian. He’s an excellent writer in his own right, and fabulously well connected. No one could accuse Geordie of not having friends; rather too many perhaps, if he’s to do this job well. And he’s not anyone’s idea of a social conservative, though that may change if he is appointed – an alternative would have been Tony Gallagher, who genuinely shares something of Dacre’s world view. The Mail is in a right state at present; the normal terrors of any succession for the small fry are heightened because most didn’t see this coming. The rest of us should lament his loss too: Paul Dacre was one of the great champions of print newspapers and British journalism will be the poorer for his going.