10 questions for Daily Mail boss Paul Dacre

The editor's appearance before the Leveson inquiry is the perfect time to ask about Mail Online.

The editor's appearance before the Leveson inquiry is the perfect time to ask about Mail Online.{C}

The timing couldn't be better. Just as Paul Dacre prepares to appear before the Leveson inquiry, his newspaper appears to be vindicated over its calls for Fred "The Shred" Goodwin. Coming so soon after Dacre's slightly odd appearance on his own website, proclaiming the value of his publication's campaign in the Stephen Lawrence case, it's a time to celebrate the Daily Mail, isn't it? While it will be easy to point to the inflated role of the press in general -- and the Mail in particular -- in the Stephen Lawrence case, there's not as much to shout about when it comes to Mail Online.

Sure, it's the No 1 news website in the world; which would be a real bauble worth having if most of the traffic came there to look at news. But get beneath the bold headlines and political comment and you'll see a bewilderingly high number of stories about obscure (to British readers, anyway) American celebrities on holiday, wearing bikinis or being "poured into" (a favourite phrase, this, of Mail Online's) swimwear or little black dresses. As The Media Blog pointed out last week, you have to ask whether this recipe for success is really something to shout about.

Maybe it is. Maybe Paul Dacre is delighted to have the Mail brand associated with softcore masturbators seeking out cheesecake images of women in lingerie and bikinis -- though I doubt that would be the first thing he would bring up when asked about the relative success of Mail Online and what it means for the future of journalism. But as editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, and a highly remunerated editorial expert on the Daily Mail and General Trust board, he'd be hard pressed to claim it's nothing to do with him.

All that aside, there are other nagging issues about Mail Online: photos used without the takers' permission; articles that border on the tasteless and unethical which are only pulled after they've attracted thousands of visitors to add to Mail Online's growing statistics; hundreds of stories about young children who happen to have famous parents; trashy articles speculating on the weight gain (or loss) of (mainly female) celebrities. How does that kind of activity sit with the Mail brand?

So here are 10 questions for Paul Dacre ahead of his appearance before Leveson about Mail Online and whether its standards live up to those of his flagship printed edition.

1) Do you think it is appropriate to embed a 7 minute video of an alleged rape in a story about an alleged rape in Brazil's Big Brother? The footage was available to view for several hours.

2) Do you think it is acceptable to use photographs from Facebook/Twitter/Flicker/blogs without the permission of the copyright holder, even when that person has explicitly denied permission?

If not, why does it keep happening? Would the rules be different for photographs sourced for the print edition of the Mail?

3) Do you think it is appropriate to run stories about children where the reason for their newsworthiness is their family connection to a public figure, for example 572 stories about Suri Cruise, including the agenda-setting "The tiring life of Suri Cruise: Katie Holmes' daughter snuggles up in her favourite pink 'blankie'"?

4) How does this sit when bearing in mind the PCC Editor's Code, section 6, part v: "Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life"?

5) Do you use pictures taken by paparazzi photographers where the person being photographed is on holiday or in other situations where they may have an expectation of privacy? Why were pictures of Rebekah Brooks on holiday (along with caption comments about her paleness) with her partner removed from the Mail website initially and then repurposed to illustrate a story about another NI employee being arrested?

6) Do you believe it is acceptable to digitally manipulate photographs without making the reader aware manipulation has taken place? Here's one example, and there was another where the PCC intervened: Here's an image on the website today.

7) What editorial considerations are made before the decision to run stories about weight gain/loss of celebrities? There are hundreds of examples but here and here are a couple on the Mail's website today.

8) What procedures do you have in place to deal with complaints about stories on Mail Online?

9) How many stories about women in bikinis do you run each month on Mail Online?

10) Are you as proud of the Mail Online as you are of the Daily Mail?

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Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear