“Never explain, never apologise” is an injunction usually attributed to the Oxford don Benjamin Jowett. The conjunction of the two verbs is important. To explain is to go halfway towards apologising. That is why, to my mind, an article by the Daily Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, published in both the Mail and the Guardian on 12 October, deserves closer study than it has so far received.
On a superficial reading, Dacre’s piece was another rant against the Mail’s usual enemies: the BBC, the liberal left, the “metropolitan classes” and the “Twitter mob” which, at 500 million users, is certainly some mob. But the first third was devoted to the Mail article on the late Ralph Miliband, headlined “The man who hated Britain”. Dacre wrote: “Yes, the Mail is happy to accept that in his personal life Ralph Miliband was . . . a decent and kindly man . . . he cherished this country’s traditions of tolerance and freedom . . . yes, the headline was controversial . . . may indeed seem over the top.”
I have wrenched Dacre’s words out of context (a former Mail executive once told me I should have been a tabloid hack) and my dots conceal some hefty “buts”. Nevertheless, the passages quoted and the space devoted – in the Mail’s prime Saturday features slot – to a rather tortured explanation of why the Miliband article was published suggest he was rattled by the reaction to it. Dacre prides himself on knowing the mind of “Middle England”. If he felt the need to explain, perhaps he thinks the Mail got it a tiny bit wrong.
The article was odd in another respect: by then, the Mail itself had moved the debate on. On 9 October, quoting from a speech by the MI5 head, Andrew Parker, it splashed across its front page allegations that the Guardian had “handed a gift to terrorists” by publishing documents from the former CIA and US National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden. That day and the next, it argued the paper had “given succour to our country’s enemies and endangered all our lives”. The Guardian responded with the views of “the world’s leading editors” who agreed the revelations were “important for democracy”. Given that the said editors did not include any employed by Rupert Murdoch –one editor would have been sufficient, since, in a journalistic equivalent of what physicists call quantum entanglement, they all hold identical views – it seemed a somewhat biased sample.
In a leader, the paper welcomed “the debate”. But there was not much of one in its own pages.
Yet I am inclined to give the Guardian the benefit of any doubt. Having worked many years ago on an investigation into Kim Philby, the “third man”, I am instinctively sceptical of security-service claims that we will all be found dead in our beds unless they closely guard details of how they are “keeping us safe”. In the cold war, we knew nothing but, thanks to Philby and others, the Russians knew nearly everything.
Spies like us
The people who run MI5 are bureaucrats. It is a Mail article of faith that such people are lazy, good-for-nothing time-servers, guilty of milking the taxpayer and covering up blunders and misdemeanours. Why should spies – untrustworthy people by definition – be spared the Mail’s usual hostility towards public servants?
The Mail happily accepts the security services’ line that only they can judge what is safe to publish. “How, in the name of sanity,” it asks, can Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, know what will endanger lives? “He’s a journalist, not an expert on security.”
Indeed, and nor is Dacre an expert on medicine, education, child protection or most other subjects on which his paper passes trenchant judgement every day. But journalists can talk to experts, as Rusbridger did – although, come to think of it, “experts” are yet another category of person that the Mail denigrates.
Freed or gagged?
Even the normally calm Jonathan Freedland rambles in the Guardian about how the press regulation agreed by politicians “will hand a gag” to the state’s “most secretive elements”, allowing them to “hound” Rusbridger “for revealing that all of us are watched around the clock”.
Let’s be clear. The proposed regulatory system permits no pre-publication censorship and creates a bewildering network of bodies to insulate judgements on the press from political influence. To alter the royal charter that underpins the legislation, ministers would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament.
A simple majority, Freedland writes, could overturn that requirement. Well, yes, but so what? It needs only a simple majority to shut every newspaper in the land and fling every hack into jail.