"The Daily Malicious, sorry, the Daily Mail"

Naivety and aggression at the Leveson inquiry.

"The Daily Malicious, sorry, the Daily Mail." You knew from the moment that faux-slip passed his lips that this wouldn't be a run-of-the-mill appearance at the Leveson inquiry by Richard Desmond, owner-founder of Northern and Shell, owner of Channel 5 and proprietor of the Daily Express, Sunday Express, OK! Magazine, Daily Star and Daily Star on Sunday. And arch-rival of the Daily Mail.

There was plenty of knockabout stuff to entertain. "The Daily Mail is Britain's worst enemy," snipped Desmond, given the chance to talk about his 'worst enemy'. When asked of the notion of a non-aggression pact between the Mail and the Express, he retorted: "Two weeks ago Dacre vilified me in his horrible rag."

The mention of Paul Dacre, Daily Mail editor, clearly stuck in Robert Jay QC's mind, and he accidentally called Desmond "Mr Dacre" to howls of laughter shortly afterwards. "He's the fat butcher," chuckled Desmond. There didn't seem an awful lot of love lost.

The Express owner, like fellow Leveson attendee Paul McMullen, is a pen-twiddler. He spoke calmly and slightly boringly - not as boringly as Mail on Sunday editor Peter Wright, whose statements the other day were in the bland monotones of a hynoptherapy tape. But there was a clenched fist and a sense more animation when he became passionate about his business: "You have to love these products, you have to live these products."

He explained how he made cutbacks in staff when he arrived - "There's more to life than the chess correspondent based in Latin America" - as well as 'a very secretive reporting area'.

"We cut it out within a week or two weeks. If we didn't know what they did, we got rid of them." Was that for ethical or commercial considerations, he was asked? "We do not pay out cash without receipts. That was the ethos of the company."

Shortly afterwards, he was a little less sure of the meaning of those words: "Ethical, I don't know what the word means." Jay pointed out his own statement, where he had spoken of how 'everybody's ethics are different, we don't talk about ethics or morals'. Ah yes, that ethical.

Desmond made it clear he was a proprietor whose background was in advertising, not editorial: "With respect to journalists, (putting money on the front cover or giving away DVDs) is the only way you increase circulation." Later, he added: "Editors have to believe that by putting a good story in they're going to sell more newspapers. That doesn't necessarily correlate."

He also recalled the way in which he was greeted by his former Fleet Street rivals: "The Mail were the worst because they were upset they hadn't bought the Daily Express. The Mail were upset, the Telegraph were upset because they had this joint venture with a printing company. The Guardian were upset because we came from leftfield and nobody knew who we were. We were cutting their friends' jobs so they didn't like us. The Sunday Times, they wrote lovely things about us. The Independent, the Mirror and the Sun, I can't remember."

Desmond clearly felt he had on the wrong end of a character assassination, saying: "The only thing I wasn't accused of was murder."

Before too long, the conversation turned to Kate and Gerry McCann, who actually were accused of murder, in his newspaper, which reported the suspicions of Portuguese police with regard to the parents of missing Madeleine. Jay said: "In relation to McCanns, if one accepts other newspapers also defamed the McCanns, given the systematic and egregious defamations which your newspaper perpetrated on the McCanns it's a bit rich to blame the PCC to fail to provide you with guidance, after all it was up to your editor not to behave in such a way."

Desmond replied: "Every paper, every day for that period of time was talking about the McCanns. It was the story. Poor old Peter Hill, he thought I was going to fire him. He'd done to the best of his ability report the facts. Unfortunately when it came to it, it's fair to assume the Portuguese police would have been a reliable source."

It was interesting how Desmond's sympathies appeared to be with 'poor old Peter Hill' as the victim in that scenario.

Later, Desmond unwisely returned to the subject when talking about the role of the PCC. "With the McCanns, it took them a long time to get in a dispute with us. They were quite happy as I understand in articles being run about their poor daughter. It was only when new lawyers came along who were working on contingency..."

"That was grotesque characterisation," interjected Leveson. "Your newspaper had accused them of killing their daughter. Are you seriously saying they were 'quite happy'?"

Desmond apologised to the McCanns. He kept apologising to the McCanns, and made it clear that he was apologising to the McCanns, but couldn't leave the subject alone. He said the Express had been unfairly scapegoated over its coverage, even though 'everyone else' was doing it, saying that if there were 38 bad articles out of a total of 102, that meant there were a majority of positive articles.

With regards to the PCC, Desmond seemed flippant. His main gag was that it should be called the "RCD" (Richard Clive Desmond), though that joke fell a little flat after the tense exchanges over the McCanns. He seemed unwilling to want to talk about regulation, as if it were falling into some trap - the bad jokes were as good as it was going to get.

Earlier, Dawn Neesom, the editor of the Daily Star, had seemed similarly awkward when pressed on restructuring the PCC and regulation of the press, chuckling a rather bizarre comment to Leveson himself. "You're far more intelligent than I am so I know you're going to come up with something very good," she said. It seemed rather too deferent and cap-doffing for someone in such a high-ranking position, particularly with regards to self-regulation, where newspapers usually seem so keen to be involved.

But then if you take a lot of witnesses at their word, there is a lot of that kind of naivety about. People who have risen to the top positions in the highly competitive and cynical world of journalism do appear, at face value, to have an awfully kindly and trusting nature, and seem to like to see the best in others.

Hugh Whittow, editor of the Express, explained that he was aware that the newspaper had used search agencies, but not private investigators - a similar distinction to the evidence from Sun editor Dominic Mohan the other day. How was he sure that it wasn't going on? He said it hadn't been 'flagged up' to him. How did he know that sources weren't being paid? "I assume because no-one has come to me it hasn't happened."

You have to marvel at how a tabloid journalist could be such a trusting soul.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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