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Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail: The man who hates liberal Britain

He's the most successful and most feared newspaperman of his generation. But after a bad year in which he was forced to defend his methods, how much longer can Dacre survive as editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail?

Paul Dacre by Ralph Steadman

Every weekday evening at around 9pm, in the Daily Mail’s headquarters in Kensington, west London, the slightly stooping, six-foot three-inch figure of Paul Dacre emerges into the main open-plan office where editors, sub-editors and designers are in the final stages of preparing pages for the next day’s paper. The atmosphere changes instantly; everyone becomes tense, as though waiting for a thunderstorm. Dacre begins with a low growl, like an angry tiger. His voice rises as several pages are denounced, along with those responsible. Imprecations reverberate across the office, sometimes punctuated by the strangely anomalous command to a senior colleague, “Don’t resist me, darling.” Pages must be replaced or redesigned, their order changed, headlines altered. New pictures are required with new captions. Dacre waves his long arms, hammers the air with his hands, shouts even louder and, if particularly agita­ted, scratches himself.

Nobody tries to argue. For all the fear and exasperation – “He never thinks of logistics and he has no idea of what’s an unreasonable request,” says one former sub-editor – there is also admiration. Dacre, Fleet Street’s best-paid editor, who earned almost £1.8m in 2012, has been in charge of the Mail since 1992 and, by general consent, is the most successful editor of his generation. The paper sells an average of 1.5 million copies on weekdays, 2.4 million on Saturdays. Only the Sun sells more but, on Saturdays, the Mail has just moved ahead. Its 4.3 million daily readers include more from the top three social classes (A, B and C1) than the Times, Guardian, Independent and Financial Times combined. Its long-standing middle-market rival, the Daily Express, slightly ahead when Dacre took over, now sells less than a third as many copies.

Under Dacre, the Mail has won Newspaper of the Year six times in the annual British Press Awards – twice as many prizes as any other paper. If anything, its authority and clout have grown in the past two years as Rupert Murdoch’s Sun has struggled with the fallout from the hacking scandal. Politicians no longer fear Murdoch as they once did. They still fear Dacre. The opposition from Murdoch’s papers to the government’s proposals that a royal charter should regulate the press is muted. Dacre’s Mail is loud and clear about the threat to “our free press”. Summoned twice before the Leveson inquiry – the second time because he had accused the actor Hugh Grant of lying in his evidence – he didn’t give an inch.

Everyone who has ever worked for Dacre, who has just passed his 65th birthday, praises his almost uncanny instinct for the issues and stories that will hold the attention of “Middle England”. No other editor so deftly balances the mix of subjects and moods that holds readers’ attention: serious and frivolous, celebrities and ordinary people, urban, suburban and rural, some stories provoking anger, others tears. No other editor chooses, with such unerring and lethal precision, the issues, often half forgotten, that will create panic and fear among politicians. “He’s the most consummate newspaperman I’ve ever met,” says Charles Burgess, a former features editor who also occupied high-level roles at the Guardian and Independent. “He balances the flow of each day’s paper in his head.”

“He articulates the dreams, fears and hopes of socially insecure members of the suburban middle class,” says Peter Oborne, the Mail’s former political columnist now at the Daily Telegraph. “It’s a daily performance of genius.”

But Murdoch’s decline leaves the Mail under more scrutiny than ever. Is Dacre at last running out of road? Rumours circulate in the national newspaper industry that members of the Rothermere family, owners of the Daily Mail, are increasingly nervous of the controversy that Dacre stirs up, notably this year with its attack on Ralph Miliband, father of the Labour leader, as “the man who hated Britain”. More than any other editor since Kelvin MacKenzie ruled at the Sun – and, among other outrages, alleged that drunkenness among Liverpool football fans led to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 – Dacre attracts visceral loathing. His enemies see the Mail, to quote the Huffington Post writer and NS columnist Mehdi Hasan (who was duly monstered in the Mail’s pages), as “immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting”.

The loathing is returned, with interest. In Dacre’s mind, the country is run, in effect, by affluent metropolitan liberals who dominate Whitehall, the leadership of the main political parties, the universities, the BBC and most public-sector professions. As he once said, “. . . no day is too busy or too short not to find time to tweak the noses of the liberal­ocracy”. The Mail, in his view, speaks for ordinary people, working hard and struggling with their bills, conventional in their views, ambitious for their children, loyal to their country, proud of owning their home, determined to stand on their own feet. These people, Dacre believes, are not given a fair hearing in the national media and the Mail alone fights for them. It is incomprehensible to him – a gross category error – that critics should be obsessed by the Mail’s power and influence when the BBC, funded by a compulsory poll tax, dominates the news market. It uses this position, he argues, to push a dogmatically liberal agenda, hidden behind supposed neutrality. Scarcely an issue of the Mail passes without a snipe and sometimes a full barrage in the news pages, leaders or signed opinion columns at BBC “bias”.

To its critics, however, the Mail is as biased as it’s possible to be, and none too fussy about the facts. In the files of the Press Complaints Commission, you will find records of 687 complaints against the Mail which led either to a PCC adjudication or to a resolution negotiated, at least partially, after the PCC’s intervention. The number far exceeds that for any other British newspaper: the files show 394 complaints against the Sun, 221 against the Daily Telegraph, 115 against the Guardian. The complaints will serve as a charge sheet against the Mail and its editor.

This year, the Mail reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax; that asylum-seekers had “targeted” Scotland; that disabled babies were being euthanised under the Liverpool Care Pathway; that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his home country; that 878,000 recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming “rather than face a fresh medical”; that a Portsmouth primary school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan; that wolves would soon return to Britain; that nearly half the electricity produced by windfarms was discarded. All these reports were false.

Mail executives argue that it gets more complaints than its rivals because it reaches more readers (particularly online, where the paper’s stories are repeated and others originate), prints more pages and tackles more serious and politically challenging issues. They point out that only six complaints were upheld after going through all the PCC’s stages and that the Sun and Telegraph, despite fewer complaints, had more upheld. But the PCC list, though it contains some of the Mail’s favourite targets such as asylum-seekers and “scroungers”, merely scratches the surface. Other complainants turned to the law. In the past ten years, the Mail has reported that the dean of RAF College Cranwell showed undue favouritism to Muslim students (false); the film producer Steve Bing hired a private investigator to destroy the reputation of his former lover Liz Hurley (false); the actress Sharon Stone left her four-year-old child alone in a car while she dined at a restaurant (false); the actor Rowan Atkinson needed five weeks’ treatment at a clinic for depression (false); a Tamil refugee, on hunger strike in Parliament Square, was secretly eating McDonald’s burgers (false); the actor Kate Winslet lied over her exercise regime (false); the singer Elton John ordered guests at his Aids charity ball to speak to him only if spoken to (false); Amama Mbabazi, the prime minister of Uganda, benefited personally from the theft of £10m in foreign aid (false). In all these cases, the Mail paid damages.

Then there are the subjects that the Mail and other right-wing papers will never drop. One is the EU, which, the Mail reported last year, proposed to ban books such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series that portray “traditional” families. Another is local authorities, forever plotting to expel Christmas from public life and replace it with the secular festival of Winterval. It does not matter how often these reports are denied and their flimsy provenance exposed; the Mail keeps on running them and its columnists cite them as though they were accepted wisdom.

The paper gets away with publishing libels and falsehoods and with invasions of privacy because the penalties are insignificant. Often the victims can’t afford to sue and, if they can, the Mail group, with £282m annual profits even in these straitened times, can live with the costs. The PCC, even when its rules allow it to admit a complaint, has no powers to impose fines or to stipulate the prominence of corrections.

Besides, many victims don’t pursue complaints because they fear the stress of going to war with a powerful newspaper. They included the late writer Siân Busby who, the paper wrote in 2008, had received “the all-clear from lung cancer” after “a gruelling year”. In fact, the diagnosis had come less than six months earlier and she hadn’t received the “all-clear”. More important, as her husband, the BBC journalist Robert Peston, explained in the James Cameron Memorial Lecture in November this year, she wanted to keep the news out of the public domain to protect her children.

“The Mail got away with it,” Peston said. “As it often does.” (The Mail, in a statement after the lecture, said the information had been obtained from Busby herself and that the reporter had identified himself as a Mail writer.) In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, the Guardian journalist Nick Davies compared the paper to a footballer who, to protect his goal, will deliberately bring down an opponent. “Brilliant and corrupt,” Davies wrote, “the Daily Mail is the professional foul of contemporary Fleet Street.”

Even a list of official complaints and court cases doesn’t quite capture why the Mail attracts such fear and loathing. It has a unique capacity for targeting individuals and twisting the knife day after day, without necessarily lapsing into inaccuracies that could lead either to libel writs or censure by the PCC. For instance, as publication of the Leveson report on press regulation approached, the Mail devoted 12 pages of one issue – and several more pages of subsequent issues – to an “exposure” of Sir David Bell, a name then almost entirely unknown even to well-informed members of the public. A Leveson assessor and former Financial Times chairman, Bell was allegedly at the centre of a “quasi-masonic” network of “elitist liberals”, bent on gagging the press and preventing freedom of expression. This network, based on the “leadership” training organisation Common Purpose, had spawned the Media Standards Trust, of which Bell was a co-founder, which in turn had spawned the lobby group Hacked Off, an important influence on Leveson. To the Mail, this was a perfect illustration of how well-connected liberals, through networks of apparently innocuous organisations, conspire to undermine national traditions and values.

The paper also targets groups, often the weak and vulnerable. The Federation of Poles in Great Britain complained to the PCC that the Mail ran 80 headlines between 2006 and 2008 linking Poles to problems in the NHS and schools, unemployment among Britons, drug smuggling, rape and so on. Most of the stories, as the federation acknowledged, were newsworthy and largely accurate. The objection was to the way they were presented and to the drip, drip effect of continually highlighting the Polish connection so that, as the federation’s spokesman put it, the average reader’s heart “skips a beat . . . with either indignation or alarm”. The PCC eventually brokered a settlement that led to publication of a letter from the federation.

Yet there is something magnificent about the Mail’s confidence and single-mindedness. Other papers, trimming to focus groups, muffle their message, but the Mail projects its world-view relentlessly, with supreme technical skill, from almost every page. It is a paper led by its opinions, not by news. It is not noted for big exclusives, nor even for rapid reaction. “We were often known as the day-late paper,” a former reporter recalls. “Dacre wouldn’t really be interested in a story until he’d seen it somewhere else. We would sometimes give our exclusives to other journalists. Dacre surveys all the other papers, selects the right lines for the next day and follows them.”

Although Dacre has little enthusiasm for new technology – he still doesn’t have a computer on his desk – his paper is perfectly primed for the age of instant 24-hour news, when the challenge is not so much to find and report news as to select, interpret and elaborate on it. Long before other papers recognised the merits of a features-led or views-led approach, the Mail under Dacre was doing it.

The Mail gives its readers a sense of belonging in an increasingly complex and unsettling world. Part of the trick is to make the world seem more threatening than it is: crime is rising, migrants flooding the country, benefit scroungers swindling the taxpayer, standards of education falling, wind turbines taking over the countryside. Almost anything you eat or drink could give you cancer. Above all, the family – “the greatest institution on God’s green earth”, Dacre told a writer for the New Yorker last year – is under continuous assault. The Mail assures readers they are not alone in their anxieties about this changing world. It is a paper to be read, not on trains or buses or in offices, but in the peace and quiet of your home, preferably with an old-fashioned coal fire blazing in the hearth.

“Readers like certainty,” says a former Mail reporter. “Newspapers that have a wavering grip on their ideology are the ones that struggle. The Mail is like Coke. It’s consistent, reliable. Dacre is one of the best brand managers in the business. He lives the brand.”

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Dacre lives mostly in the shadows. His two appearances before the Leveson inquiry gave the wider public a rare glimpse; apart from Desert Island Discs in 2004, he never appears on television or speaks on radio. If the Mail needs to defend itself (and it deigns to do so only in the most desperate circumstances), the job is assigned to an underling. Requests for on-the-record interviews are invariably refused, as they were for this article. A rare exception was made for the British Journalism Review, whose then editor, Bill Hagerty (a former editor of the People), in­terviewed Dacre in the tenth year of his editorship. There was also that audience with the New Yorker last year. Public lectures are equally unusual for him, though he gave the Cudlipp Lecture (in memory of Hugh Cudlipp, a Daily Mirror editor who was an early hero of his) in 2007, and addressed the Society of Editors in 2008.

Even former staff members mostly prefer not to be quoted when talking about Dacre. If they agree to be quoted, they wish the quotations to be checked with them before publication. BBC Radio 4 used actors for several contributions to a recent profile. The journalists’ fear is not only that they may be cut off from future employment or freelance work – “The Mail pays far better than anybody else and you don’t want to jeopardise the £2,000 cheque that might drop through the letter box,” said one writer – but also that the Mail may hit back. These concerns are shared by many politicians, who are equally reluctant to be quoted.

Dacre has few social graces and even less small talk. His body language is awkward, his manner prickly. He seldom smiles and, according to one ex-columnist, “He doesn’t laugh, he just says, ‘That’s a funny remark.’” He treats women with old-fashioned courtliness, opening doors and helping them with coats, but is otherwise uncomfortable with them, perhaps because he was one of five brothers, went to an all-male school and has no daughters. He speaks gruffly, with a slight north London accent and an even fainter trace of his father’s native Yorkshire. He sometimes buries his rather florid face deep in his hands, as though exasperated with the world’s inability to share his simple, common-sense values. He became notorious for the ripeness of his language – so frequent was his use of the C-word, almost entirely directed at men, that his staff referred to “the vagina monologues” – but when Charles Burgess told him women didn’t like hearing it he was profusely apologetic. On Desert Island Discs, he confessed to shouting at staff. “Shouting creates energy,” he said. “Energy creates great headlines.”

He still shouts, but in recent years, as an insider reported, “He’s no longer the expletive volcano he once was; his barbs these days tend to concern the brainpower of his target and their supposed laziness.”

He owns three properties: a home with a mile-long drive in West Sussex (known to Mail staff as Dacre Towers), a more modest weekday residence in the central London district of Belgravia and a seven-bedroom house in Scotland with a 17,000-acre shooting estate. He is a member of the Garrick Club, and sometimes takes columnists to lunch at Mark’s Club in Mayfair, which one recipient of his hospitality described as “very decorous, the sort of place you could have gone to in the 19th century”. He sent both of his sons to Eton.

There are no stories of past or present indiscretions involving women, alcohol or drugs. Jon Holmes, a contemporary at Leeds University who is now a sports agent, recalls him as “a very cold fish; he never, ever, seemed to go out in a group for a drink or a meal or anything”. A former Mail reporter says: “We’d all be in the Harrow [a Fleet Street pub, heavily frequented by Mail journalists], and he would come in, buy a half-pint, take it to the opposite end of the bar, drink alone, and leave without speaking.”

He has an apparently stable and successful marriage to a woman he met at university, which has lasted 37 years. He frequently attends Church of England services, but is not a believer. He likes and sometimes goes out to rugby union matches, the opera and theatre – the last partly because his wife, Kathleen Dacre, is a professor of theatre studies and partly because he has a son who is a successful director and producer with surprisingly avant-garde leanings. Asked what television he watched, he once mentioned Midsomer Murders and nothing else.

He mostly eschews the trappings and opportunities of wealth and power. It is impossible to imagine him as a member of the Chipping Norton set or anything like it. He rarely dines or lunches with the powerful or fashionable, nor does he attend glitzy parties and social events. Frequently, he lunches in his office on meat and two veg. Sometimes he will lunch with politicians, but he has little respect or liking for them as a class and thinks it wise to keep his distance; Oborne recalls how, one evening, he ignored at least five increasingly urgent requests to take a call from a senior Tory minister. He declines nearly all invitations to sit on committees; his chairmanship of an official inquiry into the “30-year rule” (under which Whitehall records were kept secret for three decades) was unusual. “Editorship is not for him a route to something else,” says a former employee.

 

Dacre was born and spent much of his childhood in Enfield, an unremarkable middle-class suburb of north London whose inhabitants, he told the New Yorker, “were frugal, reticent, utterly self-reliant and immensely aspirational . . . suspicious of progressive values, vulgarity of any kind, self-indulgence, pretentiousness and people who know best”. Though his parents divorced late in life, his family was then (at least in his eyes) stable, happy and secure.

But the more important clue to him and his relationship with the Mail’s Middle England readership is the Sunday Express of the 1950s and 1960s under the editorship of John Gordon and then John Junor. “That paper,” Dacre told the Society of Editors, “was my journalistic primer . . . [It] was warm, aspirational, unashamedly traditional, dedicated to decency, middlebrow, beautifully written and subbed, accessible, and, above all, utterly relevant to the lives of its readers.” Talking to Hagerty, he described Junor’s Sunday Express as “one of the great papers of all time”.

After leaving school in Yorkshire at 16, his father, Peter Dacre, joined the Sunday Express at 21 and stayed there for the rest of his working life – mainly as a show-business writer but also, for short periods, as New York correspondent and foreign editor. Each Sunday that week’s paper was discussed and analysed over the Dacre family dinner table.

It was then in its heyday, selling five million copies a week, and it didn’t go into severe decline (it now sells under 440,000) until the 1980s. It was a formulaic paper, which placed the same types of stories and features in exactly the same spots week after week. As Roy Greenslade observes in Press Gang, his post-1944 history of national newspapers, it was “virtually devoid of genuine news”; what it presented as news stories were really quirky mini-features, starting, as Greenslade put it, “with lengthy scene-setting descriptions or homilies”. Its staple subjects were animals, motor cars and wartime heroes. Its biggest target was “filth”, in the theatre, the cinema, books, magazines and TV programmes.

It particularly deplored any assault on the delicate sensibilities of children. Dacre’s father criticised the BBC in 1965 for the unsuitable content of its Sunday teatime serials. Lorna Doone, he wrote, ended “gruesomely”, with a man drowning in a bog, and in the first episode of a spy serial the actors used such expressions as “damn”, “hell” and “silly bitch” at a time supposedly reserved for “family viewing”. “Have the men responsible for these programmes,” asked the elder Dacre, “forgotten that there can be no family without children? What kind of men are they? Do they have families of their own?” Another piece denounced the BBC’s Sunday evening play for “an overdose of twisted social conscience”.

The young Dacre was hooked by newspapers. He only ever wanted to be a journalist and he always had his eyes on editing: “I’m a good writer, but not a great writer,” he told Hagerty. As a child in New York, during his father’s posting there, he would wake to the clattering of the ticker-tape telex machine outside his bedroom. In school holidays, he worked as a messenger for Junor’s Sunday Express and then spent a gap year before university as a trainee on the Daily Express. At the fee-charging University College School in Hampstead, north London, he edited the school magazine, and once ran, he told the Society of Editors, “a ponderous, prolix and achingly dull” special issue about the evangelist Billy Graham. It “went down like a sodden hot cross bus”, teaching him the essential lesson, which the Mail remembers every day on every page, that the worst sin in journalism is to be boring.

To his disappointment, his application to Oxford University failed. He went instead to Leeds, where he read English and edited Union News, taking it sharply downmarket from, in his own description, “a product that looked like the then Times on Prozac” to one that ran “Leeds Lovelies” on page three. It won an award for student newspaper of the year. The paper supported a sit-in (led by the union president, Jack Straw, later a Labour cabinet minister), interviewed a student about “the delights of getting stoned”, wrote sympathetically about gay people, immigrants and homeless families, and called on students to help in “breaking down the barriers between the coloured and white communities of this town”. At the time, he subsequently claimed, he was left-wing, though Jon Holmes, who worked on Dacre’s Union News, says: “I never heard him express a political view except in favour of planned economies for third-world, though not first-world, countries.”

His left-wing period, as he calls it, continued until the Daily Express, which he joined as soon as he left Leeds, sent him to America in 1976. He stayed there for six years, latterly working for the Mail. “America,” Dacre told Hagerty, “taught me the power of the free market . . . to improve the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people.”

The Mail brought him back to London in the early 1980s and made him news editor. According to various accounts, he would “rampage through the newsroom with arms flailing like a windmill”, shouting “Go, paras, go” as he despatched reporters on stories. He climbed the hierarchy until in 1991 he became the editor of the London Evening Standard, then owned, like the Mail, by the Rothermeres’ Associated Newspapers. Circulation rose by 25 per cent in 16 months and Rupert Murdoch sounded him out about the Times editorship. To stop him leaving, the Mail editor David English resigned his chair, recommended that Dacre should replace him, and moved “upstairs” as editor-in-chief, another title that Dacre eventually inherited after English died in 1998.

Dacre’s editorship has been more successful than his mentor’s but most staff do not love him as they did English. English, though capable of great coldness to those who fell into disfavour and no less likely to fly off the handle, had charm and charisma. “He would be delighted when you rang,” a former foreign correspondent says, “and he’d want to gossip and know about everything that was going on. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour. But Paul doesn’t give good phone.”

He will invite writers into his office, push a glass of champagne into their hands and start saying their latest story is rubbish even as he does so. “And you hardly got time to finish the bloody drink,” a former reporter complains. A former executive says: “His track record for creating columnists is nil. He buys them up from elsewhere. He doesn’t home-grow talent because he doesn’t nurture and praise it. That’s where he’s unlike English.”

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Dacre is a passionate and emotional man. Though the story that he sometimes sheds tears as he dictates leaders is probably apocryphal, nobody who has worked with him doubts that he is sincere in the views he and the Mail express. “He’s not an editor who wakes up in the morning and wonders what he should be thinking today,” says Simon Heffer, a Mail columnist. Another columnist, Amanda Platell, a former editor of the Sunday Mirror and press secretary to William Hague during his leadership of the Conservative Party, says: “When I was an editor, I had to second-guess my readership because they weren’t my natural constituency. Paul never has to do that.”

But while his views are mostly right-wing, he is not a reliable ally for the Conservative Party, or for anyone else. This aspect of his way of working is little understood. More than most editors, it can be said of him that he is in nobody’s pocket, not even his proprietor’s. He inherited from English a paper that was slavishly pro-Tory (“David was always in and out of No 10,” said a long-serving Mail editor), firmly pro-Europe and read mainly by people in London and the south-east. Dacre changed the politics of the paper and the demographics of its audience. Today, it is resolutely – some would say hysterically – Euro­sceptic and a far higher proportion of its readership is from Scotland and the English north and midlands. The Mail has ceased to take its line from Tory headquarters or to act as a mouthpiece for Conservative leaders. Indeed, every Tory leader since Margaret That­cher has fallen short of Dacre’s exacting standards. That applies particularly to John Major and David Cameron. According to a former columnist, Dacre regards the latter as “brash, shallow, unthinking and self-advancing” and he takes an equally jaundiced view of Boris Johnson. Twice he backed Kenneth Clarke for the party leadership, despite Clarke’s enthusiasm for the EU.

Clarke is a model for the politicians Dacre generally favours even if he disagrees with most of what they say: earthy, authentic, unpretentious, consistent in their values. Jack Straw and David Blunkett – both, like Clarke, from humble backgrounds – are other examples. For a time, Dacre took a relatively kindly view of Tony Blair, having been impressed by the future prime minister’s “tough on crime” approach as shadow home secretary. But he was always suspicious of Blair’s socially liberal views on marriage, gays and drugs and he told Hagerty that once Labour attained power, he saw the new government as “manipulative, dictatorial and slightly corrupt”. He wished, he added, that Blair had “done as much for the family as he’s done for gay rights”.

Gordon Brown, however, was smiled upon as no other politician had ever been. The two men developed a strange friendship, involving meals together and walks in the park, which one Mail columnist described to me as “the attraction of the two weirdest boys in the playground”. Brown, Dacre told Hagerty, was “touched by the mantle of greatness . . . he is a genuinely good man . . . a compassionate man . . . an original thinker . . . of enormous willpower and courage”. At a Savoy Hotel event to celebrate Dacre’s first ten years as editor, Brown was almost equally effusive, describing the Mail editor as showing “great personal warmth and kindness . . . as well as great journalistic skill”. “We tried to tell Dacre,” says a former Mail political reporter, “that Brown was not a very good chancellor and the economy would implode eventually. But frankly, Dacre has poor political judgement. They were united by a mutual hatred of Blair. Both are social conservatives; they’re both suspicious of foreigners; they both have a kind of Presbyterian morality. Dacre would say that Brown believes in work. It’s typical of him that he seizes on a single word as the key to his understanding of someone else.”

It is inconceivable that the Mail would ever back a party other than the Conservatives in a general election, but Dacre’s support can be cool, as it was in 1997 and 2010. Although he described himself to Hagerty as “a Thatcher­ite politically” and though self-made entrepreneurs are among the few people who can expect favourable coverage in the Mail, Dacre is, to most neoliberals, a tepid and inconsistent supporter of free enterprise. Nor is he a neocon. The Mail opposed overseas military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It has denounced Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and torture. It may be hard on immigrants and benefit scroungers, but it is often equally hard on the rich and famous, pursuing overpaid bosses of public-service utilities to their luxurious homes, exposing “depravity” among the well-heeled and high-born, and rarely treating TV and film celebrities with the deference that is the staple fare of other tabloids.

Many Mail campaigns have centred on liberal or environmental causes: lead in petrol, plastic bags, secret justice, the extradition to the United States of the hacker Gary McKinnon, and so on. For a time, the Mail furiously campaigned to stop Labour deporting failed (black) asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe, even though, almost simultaneously, it was berating ministers for allowing too many illegal immigrants to stay. Other campaigns, such as those against internet porn and super-casinos (both of which influenced government action), though reflecting the Mail’s conservative social agenda, highlighted issues that concern many on the left.

Dacre’s most celebrated campaign, which even some of his enemies regard as his finest hour, was to bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice. In 1997, over the five photographs of those he believed were responsible, he ran the headline “MURDERERS” and, beneath it, asserted: “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us”.

It was hugely courageous, but did it exonerate the Mail from accusations of racism? Critics point out that the paper rarely features black people except as criminals, though this is not exceptional for the nationals. The “soft” features on women, fashion, style and health are illustrated almost entirely by white faces and bodies.

 

Dacre’s somewhat belated support for the Lawrence campaign was prompted by a personal connection: Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father, had worked as a decorator on Dacre’s London house of the time, in Islington. The Mail’s campaign, critics argue, was based on substituting one frame of prejudice for another. Young Stephen eschewed gangs and drugs, did his homework and wanted to go to university. His parents were married, aspirational and home-owning. In everything except skin colour, the Law­rence family represented Middle England, while his white alleged killers were low-class yobs who threatened the safety of all res­pectable folk.

In that, as in much else, Dacre’s Mail recalls 1950s Britain, which rather patronisingly welcomed migrants from Asia and the Caribbean as long as they behaved as though they and their ancestors were English. “If you’re in twinset and pearls, your colour is irrelevant,” says a former Mail journalist. “And Dacre’s attitude to gays changed when he realised it’s possible to be an extremely boring gay person.”

The Mail’s attitudes to drugs are also redolent of the 1950s. Writing about the disgraced Co-operative Bank chairman Paul Flowers, Stephen Glover – the Mail columnist whose views, according to insiders, track Dacre’s most closely – criticised commentators who “concentrated on his financial unsuitability”, placing “relatively little emphasis” on his “moral turpitude”.

Most of all, the Mail seems determined to uphold the 1950s ideal of womanhood: the stay-at-home mother who dedicates herself to homemaking and prepares a cooked dinner for her husband on his return home every night. That, the paper’s defenders say, is something of a caricature of the Mail’s position. It objects not so much to working mothers as to middle-class feminists who insist that women can “have it all”. English aimed at turning the Mail into “the women’s paper”, and succeeded: it became the only national newspaper where women accounted for more than half the readership. That remains true, and yet Dacre sometimes seems determined to drive them away. The paper subjects women’s bodies, clothes and deportment to relentless and detailed scrutiny, and often finds them wanting, particularly in the thigh and bottom department. It gives prominent coverage to research that warns of the negative effects of working mothers on children’s lives.

The Mail’s poster girl is Liz Jones, the columnist and fashion editor celebrated for her self-hatred and misery. “She has so much,” says another Mail journalist, “lots of money, expensive houses, the newest clothes. But she’s never had a child, she hasn’t kept hold of a man, and she’s unhappy. The message is: it’s what happens to you, girls, if you pursue worldly success. You can succeed but, oh boy, you will suffer for it.”

The Mail’s punishing hours, requiring news and features executives to stay at the office until late into the evening (not uncommon in national newspapers), and its largely unsympathetic attitude to part-time employment make it an unfriendly environment for working mothers. When Dacre took over at the Mail, he immediately appointed a female deputy, which, said another woman who then had a senior role in the group, “was quite a statement”. But the paper now has few women in its most senior positions, other than the editor of Femail (though sometimes even that post is occupied by a man), and few staff have young children.

Yet in some respects, the Mail, even though it does not recognise the National Union of Journalists, is a good employer. Unlike the Mirror, it is not under a company ruled by accountants who single-mindedly seek “efficiencies”. Unlike the Times and the Sun, it does not have a proprietor who touts his papers’ support to the highest bidder. Unlike the Guardian and Independent, it is not beset by financial problems. The pro­prietor, Viscount (Jonathan) Rothermere, whose great-grandfather Harold Harms­worth founded the paper with his brother Alfred in 1896, allows his editors wide freedom, as did his father, Vere Rothermere, who appointed Dacre. The Mail, alone among national newspapers, has had no significant rounds of editorial redundancies in recent years and its staffing levels (it employs about 400 journalists) are comparable to what they were a decade ago.

Dacre’s paper is his sole domain; MailOnline is run separately (though Dacre, as editor-in-chief, has oversight) and although the website carries all daily and Sunday paper stories, much of its content is self-generated and the editorial flavour is distinct. Dacre demands, and mostly gets, a generous budget, paying high salaries for established editorial staff and columnists and high fees for freelance contributors. Journalists are driven hard but, at senior levels in particular, they rarely leave, not least because Dacre is as loyal to them as they mostly are to him. Outright sackings are rare and nearly always accompanied by large payoffs.

Those who do leave often reach the top elsewhere. The current editors of both Telegraph papers – Tony Gallagher at the daily and Ian MacGregor at the Sunday – are former Mail executives.

****

Despite more than two decades at the helm, Dacre shows few signs of slowing down. After heart trouble some years ago – which caused an absence of several months from the office – his holidays, which he usually takes in the British Virgin Islands, have become slightly longer and more frequent. But he still routinely puts in 14-hour days.

Nevertheless, speculation about his future has grown among journalists on the Mail and other papers. At the end of November, Dacre sold his last remaining shares in the Daily Mail and General Trust, the Mail’s parent company, for £347,564; he disposed of the majority in 2012. His latest contract, signed on his 65th birthday, is for one year only. Geordie Greig, the 53-year-old editor of the Mail on Sunday, is widely regarded as the most likely successor, though Martin Clarke, the abrasive publisher of the phenomenally successful MailOnline, now the most visited newspaper website in the world, is also tipped and Jon Steafel, Dacre’s deputy, is favoured by most staff. The surprising announcement in November that Richard Kay, the paper’s diarist and a long-standing friend of Dacre’s, is to leave his position looks like another straw in the wind, particularly given that his almost certain replacement is Sebastian Shakespeare, previously the diary editor at the London Evening Standard, where Greig was editor before he moved to the Mail on Sunday.

Fleet Street rumour has it that Kay is being moved because he upset friends of Lady Rothermere, the proprietor’s wife, and that she is also behind the abrupt departure of the columnist Melanie Phillips, apparently on the grounds that her style – particularly during a June appearance on BBC1’s Question Time – is too shrill. Lady Rothermere, it is said, is desperately keen to oust Dacre in favour of Greig. Senior Mail sources pooh-pooh such tales, but they stop short of outright denials that Dacre is nearing the end of his days on the paper.

Newspapers, particularly those with strong traditions and consistent ownership (and the Mail can claim these more than any other Fleet Street paper), usually survive their editors. But can the Mail as we know and hate it survive Dacre’s departure? Over the two decades of his tenure, the paper has seemed to defy time and gravity. He has no truck with the fashionable and transitory and he acts, in effect, as a one-man focus group. “The question asked about a story at the Mail,” says a former editorial executive, “is not ‘Will it interest the readers?’ but ‘Will it interest the editor?’.”

His paper is suffused with a nostalgia for a lost Britain. The formula is unique and it will probably be impossible for a successor to reproduce it with anything like Dacre’s manic energy and conviction. Greig, an urbane and sociable Old Etonian and former Tatler editor who is descended from a long line of royal courtiers, would be a very different editor.

“If Dacre goes, it will be the end of the Daily Mail,” says a former columnist. “Dacre is a great man, in so far as journalism can produce great men. I know the left will be cheering when he goes but, believe me, the rich and famous will cheer more.”

Peter Wilby is a former editor of both the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman

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.

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The price of a life

In 2014, Islamic State fighters murdered thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped many others, mostly women and children. Their desperate relatives are now trying to buy them back.

1. Taken

On the morning of 3 August 2014, a 58-year-old chef known as Abu Majed faced the most agonising decision of his life. Earlier that summer, Islamic State (IS) fighters had overrun vast areas of northern Iraq. Now, they were closing in on the villages and towns that surround Mount Sinjar, a jagged ridge of rock that rises abruptly from the flatlands and extends for tens of kilometres towards the Syrian border. Abu Majed’s village, Khanasur, had few defences and would fall to the militants. How should he protect his family?

A popular, humorous man, Abu Majed learned to cook in Baghdad in the 1970s before returning to Khanasur to open his gazino, an outdoor restaurant where young people liked to gather for grilled meat, beer and whisky among trees strung with fairy lights. He had five children and was fiercely proud of all of them. They were at the top of their classes at school and his two eldest wanted to study medicine. To Abu Majed – who, like almost everyone else in Khanasur, had descended from a long line of subsistence farmers – these ambitions were remarkable.

Abu Majed’s restaurant had been a haven during many turbulent years in Iraq. He kept it open through the repressive reign of Saddam Hussein and during the violence that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the threat now posed by the jihadists was greater than anything that had come before – especially because the villagers of Khanasur are Yazidis, an isolated and marginalised religious minority that has lived for centuries in north-west Iraq.

Having heard reports of the jihadists’ brutality elsewhere, Abu Majed was certain that IS’s main target would be the Yazidi men. The best option was for his family to split. After sending his wife and four youngest children – then aged between eight and 15 – to shelter with another family in the village, he walked with his eldest son towards Mount Sinjar. Abu Majed was still on the ascent when his phone rang. On the screen, he saw his daughter’s number. “They’ve captured us,” she whispered.

Abu Majed decided to turn back to try to rescue them, accepting that it would probably be a suicide mission. When he and his son arrived the following day in Khanasur, it was deserted. Devastated and distraught, they returned to Mount Sinjar, joining tens of thousands of fellow Yazidis stranded on the summit with no food, clean water or protection from the fierce sun.

They were trapped. The mountain was surrounded by IS fighters who had rampaged through the nearby villages, slaughtering thousands of Yazidis and taking thousands more hostage. Sometimes they gave people the choice between converting to Islam and death; some converted and were murdered anyway.

A few days into the siege, Iraqi and then American, British and Australian military aircraft began dropping food parcels and water on to the mountain. Often they unloaded from a great height to avoid coming under fire from IS militants and the bottles would burst on impact, water seeping into the yellow dust. When the helicopters could fly low enough, dozens of people struggled to climb aboard so that they could be airlifted to safety – but few made it off the mountain that way. Abu Majed and his son saw old people and infants succumb to starvation. “People were saying, ‘We wish we would die here. Maybe they [IS] could just strike us with chemical weapons.’”

On 7 August, four days after Abu Majed fled to Mount Sinjar, the US launched an aerial campaign to break the siege. At the same time, Syrian Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forced a way through IS lines and opened up a humanitarian corridor a week later. On 14 August, a ragged column of people walked down the mountain and across the sun-bleached landscape into Syria. At great risk, Abu Majed and his son slipped back into Khanasur to salvage a few precious family photographs. Then they walked for 14 hours to the Syrian border. There, they hitched a lift in another family’s car to reach Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

In March, I met Abu Majed in Dohuk, a city of 350,000 people in the fertile mountains of western Kurdistan, where an uneasy peace prevails. At checkpoints evenly spaced along the city’s main tributaries, grim-faced soldiers scrutinise passing drivers with unsettling diligence. There is a feeling of claustrophobia: the memory of IS’s advance is still so recent and the front lines are close.

Abu Majed is short and bald, with a wide moustache and a narrow, drawn face. He cried several times as he told me his story when we met in an empty café, and each time he would stare down at his untouched tea until the tears stopped. Then he would quietly apologise. He lives alone in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the nearby town of Shariya and cooks for a battalion of Yazidi soldiers. The work is unpaid but it is a distraction from his sense of loss and loneliness. His eldest son, who fled with him to Mount Sinjar, is a boarder at a pharmacy college. The rest of his family are hostages.

Abu Majed last heard from his wife and three youngest children in October 2015, when they borrowed a smuggled phone from a fellow hostage for a few minutes – just long enough to tell him they were still alive and in Tal Afar, an IS-controlled city in north-west Iraq. He had not heard anything from his eldest daughter, Majida, since March 2015. Then, a few weeks before we met, he received a telephone call from a people smuggler.

 

2. The Yazidis

The United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 Yazidis were murdered in August 2014 and between 5,000 and 7,000 were taken hostage. In the months that followed, news began to spread – through hushed phone calls from hostages and the testimony of escapees – of IS’s systematic violence against its Yazidi prisoners. The men and older boys were separated from their relatives and usually killed. Women and children were kept in cramped and filthy conditions, in prisons and old school buildings, where they were deprived of food and water and forced to convert to Islam. Unmarried or younger women and girls were sold into sexual or domestic slavery or given as gifts to fighters. Boys, some as young as eight, were sent to training camps to become jihadists. This January, the UN estimated that 3,500 Yazidis were still in IS captivity.

The IS fighters who brutalise Yazidi boys in training camps or rape and humiliate female slaves have a brutal sense of religious righteousness. A pamphlet released by the group in 2014 instructs that: “It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of as long as that doesn’t cause [the Muslim community] any harm or damage.” It specifies that it is “permissible” to have “intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty”. Should a woman attempt to escape, she should be punished in a manner that “deters others from escaping”.

In March, the US joined the European Parliament in ruling that IS’s crimes against Yazidis constituted genocide. The Yazidis use the word ferman to refer to the atrocity (it is an Ottoman term meaning “royal decree”) and say that throughout their almost 7,000-year history, they have survived scores of attempts to wipe out their people. In 2007, they were the victims of the second most deadly terrorist attack in modern history – after 9/11 – when Sunni militants killed more than 500 people in simultaneous bomb attacks on two Yazidi villages near Sinjar. They describe the events of
August 2014 as the 73rd ferman.

There are perhaps half a million Yazidis, most of whom live in Iraq, though there are smaller communities in Armenia, Georgia, Germany, Russia and Syria. They have historically remained cut off from the rest of society. This is partly because of long-standing discrimination. Under Saddam Hussein, the Yazidis of Sinjar were banned from teaching their own language – Kurmanji, or Northern Kurdish – and in the 1970s, they were displaced from their ancestral farmlands and homes on the mountain and forced into “collective villages”. (Abu Majed’s village of Khanasur is one such settlement.)

Their isolation is also partly through choice. You can only become a Yazidi by birth and Yazidis cannot marry non-believers, or even outside their own caste or sect. They are discouraged from sharing their religious beliefs, which are largely transmitted orally, with outsiders.

One morning, I visited Lalish, the holiest site in the Yazidi religion, to which all followers must make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The shrines are built on a hillside, about 30 kilometres south-east of Dohuk. Visitors and pilgrims take off their shoes in the car park, because every stone in Lalish is sacred. There were a few families and young men with selfie sticks but before the ferman Lalish would have been much busier on a fine spring day. The grey stone shrines, with distinctive conical rooftops, are dedicated to Sheikh Adi and his companions. Sheikh Adi was an 11th-century prophet – or, perhaps, a god – who organised Yazidi society into castes: the laymen, called the murids, and their assigned spiritual guides, known as the sheikhs and pirs.

In a courtyard, I met Sheikh Hussein, whose family has looked after Lalish for generations. He has a thick beard and was wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh knotted into a turban and a baggy khaki jacket with matching Kurdish pantaloon trousers. He chain-smoked slim cigarettes. He told me that he believed the ferman was a punishment from God, because Yazidis had grown distant from him. “What happened to Yazidis was because people don’t remember God, but now people remember God,” he said.

The Yazidi God, Melek Taus, takes the form of a peacock. Parallels between Melek Taus and Azazel, or Lucifer – the angel who, according to Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, rebelled against God – have contributed to the belief that Yazidis are devil-
worshippers, a slur that has been used throughout history to justify their persecution. Yazidis do not worship the devil, although unlike Christians, Muslims or Jews, they do not believe that God is purely good. If God is omnipotent, they argue, surely he could defeat the devil? The Yazidi God can be angry and cruel.

 

3. The smugglers

When the chef Abu Majed was contacted by the people smuggler, he was initially suspicious. The smuggler was an Arab Muslim from the town of Sinjar, to the south of the mountain, and IS’s massacres have deepened many Yazidis’ mistrust of their Muslim neighbours. Yet his ethnicity and religion were advantageous: the smuggler could move across IS territory without attracting too much attention and could speak to jihadists in their own language, Arabic.

The smuggler told Abu Majed that his eldest daughter was being forced to work as a nurse in a hospital in Raqqa, the IS stronghold in Syria. He offered details that seemed to fit with the little information Abu Majed had gleaned from speaking to former hostages. The smuggler said that for $18,000 he could buy his daughter from IS and bring her home. Abu Majed has decided to trust him. He has no money but told me that when he receives confirmation from the smuggler that the deal with IS has been agreed, he will start “begging” for funds from his relatives, friends, NGOs – anyone who could help him.

With few other options, despairing Yazidis have resorted to dangerous and expensive ways of rescuing their loved ones from IS captivity. Some, such as Abu Majed, try to scrape together tens of thousands of dollars to pay middlemen – many of them Arab Muslims – who promise to buy slaves from IS fighters in order to liberate them. 

Others have placed their faith in another class of hostage smuggler – often fellow Yazidis – who say that they have devised elaborate schemes for rescuing slaves and sneaking them out of the jihadists’ territory. Their networks extend deep into IS-controlled Iraq and Syria but the operations are planned in Iraqi Kurdistan, where tens of thousands of Yazidis are sheltering in sprawling camps.

Sinjar district is nominally part of Iraq but many Kurds believe that it should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish regional government (KRG) has sought to extend its influence over the area. In November 2014, the KRG set up its “Office of Kidnapped Affairs” in Dohuk to maintain records of missing people, to ensure that survivors receive assistance and to organise hostage rescues. One afternoon, I arrived at the pink villa where the office is based to meet its director, Hussein al-Qaidi, a Yazidi former NGO worker and meat trader.

Al-Qaidi told me that 2,426 Yazidi hostages have been liberated since August 2014, including 1,204 children and 895 women. He said that more than 1,000 of them had been rescued directly by the office, which runs a network of people smugglers able to work within IS territory. A few Yazidis had escaped without help and in the remainder of cases hostages’ families had independently paid a smuggler to bring their relatives home. In these instances, the Office of Kidnapped Affairs refunds the money.

Al-Qaidi would not detail how rescue missions are conducted, saying that this would threaten future operations. Most of the families I spoke to believed that they were making payments to IS to free their loved ones but al-Qaidi insisted that his office never deals with IS operatives directly. “If you believe this money strengthens Da’esh, it’s not true. It does not go to Da’esh fighters,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Al-Qaidi said that the Yazidi hostage crisis had created a perverse trade and a group of “war businessmen” who were pushing up the price of smuggling missions. The KRG is the office’s sole funder and its finances are in a desperate state because of the low oil price, the cost of the war against IS and monetary disputes with the Iraqi government. KRG officials and front-line Kurdish fighters – the peshmerga, or “those who face death” – have not been paid for months. Three families I spoke to, who are internally displaced and yet had somehow raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay smugglers, said that they were still waiting for refunds from the office. The smugglers told me that, for months, no government repayments had been made.

When I asked al-Qaidi what he would do if his office could no longer afford rescues, he said that he had a “plan B”, which he could not divulge. He did say, however, that his office was about to make a big announcement. He was working on a rescue mission to save 19 Yazidi hostages and if I called the next day, he might tell me more.
The following afternoon, I visited a Yazidi couple who have become a crucial part of the smuggling chain and sometimes work as volunteers for al-Qaidi’s office. They live in an apartment in an upmarket gated complex in Dohuk. Khaleel al-Dakhi, 38, is a former lawyer, tall and slim with a cool, confident demeanour.

Moments after we met, he held up his smartphone to display the photograph of a beautiful young woman wearing a tight, red T-shirt, with long, fair hair that she had flicked over one shoulder. He waited for a moment, seemingly enjoying my confusion. Then he told me that she was a Yazidi sex slave who had been put on sale for $11,000.

The photo was sent to al-Dakhi by a Yazidi friend who was posing online as an IS fighter in order to buy and liberate hostages. The friend had obtained a password for an internet chat room through which Yazidi slaves are traded. He forwards information on to al-Dakhi, who keeps a record of where women are being held and by whom.

Al-Dakhi and his wife, Ameena Saeed Hasan, are from the same village as Abu Majed but were already living in Dohuk when IS invaded Khanasur. Hasan had worked as an MP in Iraq’s national parliament until just weeks before the Sinjar crisis. In late 2014, her phone rang incessantly as IS hostages called her to plead for help. At first, she focused on gathering information on where hostages were being kept and how they were being treated, which she passed on to the Iraqi government. Then, she realised, “The government didn’t do anything.”

Using Hasan’s political connections and al-Dakhi’s business ones, they were able to mobilise a network of sympathetic Arab Muslims living in IS-controlled parts of Iraq to help them carry out rescues. They, too, were reluctant to discuss their techniques in detail but said in general hostage smuggling works like this: first, the hostage will provide Hasan or al-Dakhi with precise details of their location and their captor’s routines; then, the couple will co-ordinate with their smuggling network to locate a nearby safe house to which the hostage can flee and from where a smuggler can collect them. The hostage will often be passed between several different smugglers, chosen for their ability to blend into the community, and kept in a number of safe houses until they can travel to the IS border. Al-Dakhi liaises with the peshmerga on the front-line checkpoints so that the escapees are allowed into Kurdistan.

He often drives to the border, or even into the militants’ territory, despite the danger. When the women first see him, they sometimes rip off their headscarves, or kneel to kiss the ground, or break into a run. “They’ve been through all these terrible situations. They have suffered so much and in those moments they can’t believe they’ve made it,” al-Dakhi told me.

He is adamant that no money goes to IS. “We don’t buy hostages, we steal them,” he said. He estimates that he and his wife have rescued over 100 women and children, but they say that it is becoming ever harder to carry out a successful mission. IS has split up many groups of hostages. Increasingly the women are on their own and do not have access to a phone. Smugglers are demanding higher payments because of the rising danger. Six smugglers in al-Dakhi’s network have been killed. On one occasion, an IS fighter pretended on the phone to be a young Yazidi boy and then murdered the smuggler sent to rescue him. Another time, a smuggler was killed by a militant who disguised himself as a female hostage by wearing a black niqab.

 

4. Freedom

I contacted the Office of Kidnapped Affairs several times to ask if the rescue of the 19 Yazidis had been successful and each time was asked to call back. Then, I chanced upon the man who brought the hostages home: Abdallah Sherim, a 41-year-old Yazidi who felt compelled to help with rescues after 56 members of his extended family were kidnapped. I met him near Dohuk, in his brightly painted house on a small hill that overlooks Khanke IDP camp, where rows of blue-and-white tarpaulin tents are pitched close together in the churned-up roadside mud.

Sherim used to work as a trader between Sinjar and Aleppo in Syria. When his terrified relatives began to call him from captivity, he contacted his former business associates, who helped him find Syrians he could trust to assist him in carrying out rescue missions. He claimed to have liberated more than 200 Yazidis, including 24 members of his family. He showed me photographs of two nephews he had smuggled home a year earlier. They had since been resettled in Germany and had sent him snaps in their new football kit.

As we spoke, one of his sons turned up the volume on the TV. It was showing Nuce Ezidixan, a Yazidi news hour that is broadcast daily. Just as I was about to ask him to turn the volume down, I saw on the screen al-Qaidi from the kidnapping office – and then Sherim. They were posing next to the 19 liberated hostages: five women and 14 children. Al-Qaidi did not mention on the television, as Sherim later did, that nine of the smugglers involved in the mission had been captured. Nor did he mention the $6,500 per person the rescue had cost, money the families had raised themselves.

One of the 19 hostages rescued by Sherim’s network and then paraded on Yazidi TV was the 25-year-old Jehan (she asked that I did not use her full name). She is tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep, hoarse voice, and was wearing a long, flowery dress and a threadbare brown headscarf. Her hands were tattooed with the words ya allah – “O, God” – over and over. Her name ran up her right forearm in crude Roman capitals and on that hand was also written, el-hurriya, in Arabic script: “freedom”. All the female hostages had inked that same word on to one another’s hands but when her friend had tattooed her arm, six or seven months earlier, Jehan could not imagine what it would feel like to be free.

I spoke to her in the Rwanga IDP camp in western Kurdistan, where she was staying with the uncle who had paid $6,500 for her release. The camp houses as many as 15,500 people in white prefabricated cabins. It was dusk and groups of women squatted outside their front doors, preparing piles of foraged leaves to cook with oil and serve with rice or bread for dinner.

Jehan’s family rose stiffly from the floor when I arrived. Three sides of their single-room cabin were lined with faded mattresses and a neat pile of blankets occupied one corner. It was becoming chilly and we huddled close to a small kerosene stove. Jehan said that since her release, three days earlier, she had been unable to sleep. She could not stop worrying about her four siblings and her mother, who were still missing and believed to be in IS hands.

They were from Kocho, a village that IS did not attack until 15 August 2014, a day after the siege on Mount Sinjar was broken. When the jihadists stormed Kocho, the men were separated from the women and then shot. The UN estimates that up to 700 men and boys were murdered that day. Jehan was taken with other women, girls and infants by bus to the city of Mosul, 150 kilometres away, where she was later sold into “marriage” to an 18-year-old Libyan fighter with ambitions to become a suicide bomber. They lived together in Raqqa for six or seven months. He forced her to say Islamic prayers and made her promise to teach them to her family. In his will, he granted her freedom. According to IS’s religious leaders, if a fighter liberates his slave, he is guaranteed a
place in heaven.

When her “husband” blew himself up on a suicide mission in Syria in mid-2015, Jehan was free to move wherever she wished within IS territory. Perhaps she could even have planned an escape but she did not know then if she had any family to go home to. Instead, she stayed with an aunt who was kept as a slave in the city of Tal Afar. She moved several times and spent her final months in IS hands living in a guest house in Raqqa. It was populated by would-be jihadi brides who had joined the extremist group from all over the world: the UK, the US, France, New Zealand, Turkey and Pakistan. The women could browse paper files resembling CVs, which listed fighters’ interests and achievements alongside their photographs, to find a husband. She says that her role in the guest house was simply to study the Quran.

Towards the end of 2015, international air strikes on Raqqa intensified, causing terror in the guest house. In February, the five Yazidi women staying there persuaded IS militants to transfer them, together with their 14 children, to a small village. There they were less closely monitored by the jihadists and one hostage succeeded in calling her husband. In turn, the husband called Sherim, the rescue co-ordinator in Dohuk, who engineered an escape plan.

One day at noon, an Arab woman knocked on the door of the house – as they had been told by Sherim to expect – and drove the 19 hostages to the village of Tal Hamis. They spent a week hiding there, before a sheep farmer collected them and took them to his tent, where they stayed for one night. Another Arab smuggler walked them towards the town of Kobane, which has been under Syrian Kurdish control since January 2015, following a fierce four-month battle with IS. The smuggler instructed the women and children  to follow his footsteps exactly to avoid stepping on landmines.

In Kobane, a Kurdish smuggler met them and drove them to a Yazidi shrine in Sinjar, almost 500 kilometres away. There they met Sherim, who accompanied them for the final drive to Dohuk.  Jehan has since been questioned by Kurdish government agents and received medical check-ups but no other support, she says.

Hussein, the uncle who paid for her release, was one of the hundreds of men from Kocho rounded up for execution. He was shot three times, once in the back and twice in the leg and then lay, still as a corpse, among the dead bodies of his friends and neighbours until he could escape. He has been living in Rwanga for over a year and he is heavily in debt. Before he paid for Jehan’s release, he had already spent $20,000 buying back his wife. One of Jehan’s sisters recently managed to call him: she is being held as a slave in the Iraqi city of Fallujah but no one can afford the cost of her release. Another of Jehan’s uncles, named Salem, told me that he had spent $70,000 to buy back his relatives. The family raised the money by borrowing from displaced families in Rwanga and now some of their debtors are asking when they will be paid back. “We’re dead with our eyes open,” Salem said.

On a stormy morning, I travelled from Dohuk to Sinjar. Beyond the main checkpoint out of Kurdistan, there were few cars. We followed a potholed road that runs along the Syrian border. We passed Arab and Yazidi villages flattened in the fight against IS, grey houses whose concrete roofs had sometimes shattered into great, heavy plates and other times had curved and distorted to resemble folds of cloth. The driver listened to a new Yazidi radio station that played prayers, traditional love songs and poetry. “This time, it was a real ferman,” the voice on the radio said, speaking over the militaristic music. “The volcano of hunger came to our mountain . . .” The IS front line has now been pushed back to the south of Mount Sinjar. As they departed, IS left behind booby traps to kill or maim the first Yazidis to return to their abandoned homes or search for their relatives’ remains.

Some Yazidis feel that they can never go back  to their former houses, in villages of ghosts. Many have left for Europe, some illegally and others through special programmes: Germany has resettled around 1,000 Yazidis. Many people in IDP camps told me that they could never feel safe in Iraq again, each repeating the same story. They said that hours before IS invaded, the peshmerga stationed in the area, who were affiliated with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, repeatedly promised that civilians would be protected and told them not to leave their homes. But the peshmerga unexpectedly retreated, taking their weapons with them. Before the Yazidis were attacked, they were betrayed. And long before that final betrayal, they were neglected and sidelined by Iraq’s Muslim majority.

There are other Yazidis who say they will never leave their homes, their shrines and the mountain that protected them during the darkest days of the ferman. The mayor of Snune, the largest town north of the mountain, told me that of the 23,000 families that lived in Sinjar Province in 2014, around 5,000 have come back. They have little to return to: few areas have running water, or electricity, or functioning schools and health clinics. Most are surviving on food handouts from NGOs, Iraq’s government or Kurdish fighters from Turkey.

Finally we reached Khanasur, the home village of the chef Abu Majed. Other than the checkpoint, guarded by two teenage female Yazidi fighters, the once bustling main street was empty. The shops, beauty salons and cafés were boarded up, the shutters spray-painted with the names of peshmerga battalions from Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria. At the edge of the village, beyond an abandoned football pitch, we found Abu Majed’s restaurant. The rain had stopped and the cloud had lifted to reveal the long, rugged form of Mount Sinjar.

By peering over the high concrete wall, I could see the roof of the simple bungalow in which Abu Majed and his wife and five children once lived, as well as the tops of the trees in the restaurant garden, which were still strung with unlit fairy lights. A goatherd approached from the nearby scrubland, shaking her head. “Poor Abu Majed,” she said.

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad