Leveson sketch: Dacre – the sequel

Hugh Grant's "mendacious smear" has got right up the nose of the Daily Mail chief.

It was clear as soon as Paul Dacre came into Court 73 that someone had lit the blue touch paper attached to the editor of the Daily Mail and quickly retired out of harm's way.

To see the boogie man's boogie man in broad daylight once in a week is a rare event but to see him twice was enough to keep the audience in their seats, as the Leveson inquiry meandered through it's 40th day on Fleet Street's malpractices. There had already been some entertainment during the day as Heather Mills-no-longer-McCartney told how the press turned on her post-Macca, and Max Clifford revealed that Simon Cowell and other famous faces pay him £250,000 a year -- first to get them into the papers then to keep them out.

But for the aficionados who had been lucky enough to be present on Monday it was Dacre: the Sequel which got them back early from the pubs which help lubricate the wheels of justice on a daily basis. Those who were there on Monday heard Dacre reveal that the Mail's world view is not his alone but honed by independent thinkers like Simon Heffer and Amanda Platell. He demurred at the suggestion from one of the inquiry advocates (whose particulars will no doubt have been taken down) that the Mail played to the "fears and prejudices" of its readers; preferring the word "anxieties" -- but that was when he was still in what his staff would call a good mood.

All that changed when the name Hugh Grant was mentioned.

Grant, it now appears, has taken the place in the Mail lexicon that used to be occupied in previous decades by Arthur Scargill and Red Robbo. Indeed, he even seems to have supplanted more recent heroes like John Prescott and Bob Crow -- a rare achievement for someone whose road to revolution started with Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But Hugh has done something successfully that the rest never managed by getting right up the nose of the editor-in-chief of the newspaper group
that wants to be closer to the squeezed middle than even Ed Miliband. Dacre's nose is not a place you would want to be. You could see that yesterday as it led his face, still ruddy red from his foreign holidays, glowering into the courtroom.

After 20 years running the Mail, Dacre is not as used to democratic debate as others might be. Indeed, his morning conference is described by attendees as the Vagina Monologues because of his use of certain colourful words to enhance his world view.

But he did his best to keep his temper under check as he tried but failed to submit to questioning from barrister David Shelbourne. Instead he launched into answers to questions he had not been asked, as he took his temper out on a pen he had obviously been given to strangle. His demeanour was not helped by the suave Shelbourne, clearly as keen on Dacre as he was on him.

But back to Grant whose name emerged from between the Mail man's teeth as if drawn by a dentist. The nub of the matter is a claim by the actor on day one of the Leveson inquiry that one of the Mail newspapers Dacre runs may have hacked phone messages between him and friends and used them to run stories.

This led Dacre -- who heard the allegation on another of his bête noires, the BBC -- to fall into a Monologue moment and accuse Grant of a "mendacious smear," thereby suggesting, as Corporal Jones said, that they really don't like it up 'em.

What followed yesterday was one of those courtroom comedy moments when barristers on both sides got up and down, Lord Justice Leveson tried to keep the peace and his temper, and the man with his finger on the nation's fears snorted loud enough to bring traffic to a stop on the Strand. Would Mr Dacre now care to withdraw the "mendacious" charge, said Shelbourne, as he managed to get a word in during one of his rare pauses. No chance, said the editor-in-chief, unless "the poster boy" for the Hacked Off campaign withdrew all allegations of hackery against the group "that I love".

The day had begun with a live link to nighttime Australia where a man with a red and white punk haircut had tried to explain the mysteries of the freelance photo business to "sir," as he described Lord Leveson.

This brought to an end "module one" of the inquiry which seemed to mean something to a courtroom full of people for whom tabloid newspapers were a mystery a month ago and now must be beyond their understanding. A few more people picked up their cheques from Rupert Murdoch for crimes committed by the News of the World and others joined the queue. The hacking, blagging and bribing cases haven't even hit court yet.

As Dacre packed up his temper to take it back to the office for the night conference, Lord Leveson said he might have him back again. Book early, this one will run and run.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.