It is difficult to disentangle the public image of Paul Dacre from the Daily Mail, the newspaper he has run for 26 years and will leave in November.
By most measures, Dacre is one of the most successful editors Fleet Street has ever seen.
In terms of sales, the Daily Mail has proved robust in a declining market, closing the gap with the Sun. In terms of influence, it has become more feared by politicians than Rupert Murdoch’s combined media output, despite the mogul’s ownership of both the Times and the Sun.
As such, Dacre has become both legendary and infamous. His paper has staunchly supported the most right-wing impulses of the Conservative party, regularly deployed dog-whistle racism, showed evident distaste for liberal values, and, more recently, often hysterically backed Brexit. As a result, he is a well-established hate figure for the left.
As Peter Wilby’s 2014 profile described him, Dacre is the “man who hates liberal Britain”. And liberal Britain hates him right back.
So will replacing Dacre with a new editor change the Daily Mail’s relationship with the UK? Lead to a softer, gentler Mail?
In one sense you might expect some sort of change, as there is no carbon copy of Dacre waiting in the wings.
There are two high-profile internal candidates who have been mooted for the role.The Mail on Sunday editor, Geordie Greig, is apparently well-liked by owner Lord Rothermere (and even more so by his wife). Yet as an enthusiastic Remainer he might represent too sharp a shift in leadership.
Then there is Martin Clarke, the publisher of Mail Online, who is effectively a more web-savvy version of Dacre.
Clarke would have an easy time fitting in to Dacre’s shoes in one way – he has an equally fearsome reputation among his staff. And yet Mail Online is a very different beast to the Daily Mail, despite being the place the paper’s stories appear on the web.
Mail Online’s success is built on huge reach, driven far more by celebrity tittle-tattle than saboteur hunts or culture wars. Any journalist failing to make a clear distinction between the two operations will rapidly receive a disgruntled phone call from a senior exec insisting that the two are entirely editorially separate. And would Clarke even want to give up running the most-read English language news site in the world, which boasts more than 175m readers a month? In comparison, the Daily Mail is a very big fish restricted to a small national pond.
And for both men, there is the fact that Dacre will continue on as chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, effectively making him the boss of whoever does take over the editorship. If Dacre retains his competitive grudges against the two, it seems unlikely either will be a shoo-in.
A better fit would be an outside candidate, in the form of Sun editor Tony Gallagher.
A former Telegraph editor, Gallagher has already served at the Mail under Dacre. He is also adept at running the sort of big investigations that, for all its many, many faults, the Mail is incredibly good at. He has also never seemed an especially good fit for the Sun, as someone more concerned with political machinations than celebrity scoops. There has long been speculation former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, who now runs its parent company News UK, was on the lookout for someone more in tune with the glitz that sells copies of the red top.
But while speculation about Dacre’s successor will run rife until he or she is actually announced, I expect their identity will make little difference to the character of the Daily Mail.
That is partly because Dacre has had a long time to leave his imprint on the newspaper. But it’s also because the Mail’s world view has a lot more to do with its readership than its leader.
Many have greeted the news Dacre is standing down with glee at the potential sidelining of malignant influence on the UK. It’s certainly true he liked to swing his weight around in Westminster, and his front pages have doubtless swayed fearful politicans.
But Dacre’s real skill as an editor has been in understanding his audience. He is not some great puppet master beaming thoughts into the minds of pliable Mail readers. If anything, it is the other way round. He has provied incredibly adept at channelling the obsessions and concerns of a section of illiberal middle England on to the pages of the Mail, where politicians and the rest of us can see exactly what they think, however distasteful we may find it.
Whoever replaces him may not be quite as good at doing that. They may attempt to exert their own influence on what form it takes in print. But in the end, the Daily Mail’s unique character comes more from those it speaks to than anything else.
There is one thing that should comfort those hoping Dacre’s departure will diminish the Mail’s sway over the UK: with or without him, it was always in decline. Just as the Mail makes its futile stand against declining circulation, its readers rail against the advancing generations consigning their reactionary views to irrelevance. Whoever takes over won’t change the dynamics of that relationship – the Mail will remain just as angry and reactionary as those who read it, just as long as anyone does.