Paul Dacre is back. Lord Rothermere has appointed him editor-in-chief of DMG Media with oversight of the Mail titles, Metro and the i. He has made Dacre’s protégé, Ted Verity, editor of the Daily Mail as well as editor of the Mail on Sunday in a new seven-day operation. Verity replaces Geordie Grieg, who was Mail editor for three years and never a Dacre ally. At the age of 73, Paul Dacre appears more powerful than ever – and even more hostile to those who do not share his reactionary view of the world.
In a sulphurous letter to the Times on 19 November, Dacre had announced that he would not be reapplying to chair Ofcom, the media watchdog – the remit of which includes the BBC – despite the encouragement of “many senior members of the government” and Boris Johnson’s offer to rerun the selection process for him. Back in May, an independent selection panel had rejected him as “unappointable”.
Dacre did not for a second consider that he might indeed be “unappointable” to such a politically sensitive post. He instead blamed his decision not to reapply on “the Blob” – a populist term first coined by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings and designed to demonise a supposedly left-leaning establishment in such a vague and general way that its members cannot answer back or defend themselves. “Metropolitan elite” is another such term of abuse, one that conveniently dismisses the views and values of anyone who has the temerity to live in London and oppose Brexit, hold a decent job and recoil from the essential rottenness of this Tory government.
I don’t know why the original selection panel rejected Dacre, but I can guess. It would surely have rejected him because, far from being independent and mainstream, he was a confrontational, right-wing, Brexit-supporting crony of the Prime Minister.
It would have rejected him because most decent people disliked the sort of intolerance, vindictiveness and exploitation of fears and prejudice that the Mail so often practised under his editorship – its demonisation of migrants and welfare recipients, its vilification of those who passionately believed that Britain should remain in the European Union, or its description of Supreme Court justices as “enemies of the people”.
It would have rejected Dacre because, for all his protestations that he would “die in a ditch” for the BBC, he has a long record of hostility towards an organisation whose free-to-view website competes with the Mail online, and that he has accused (with scant evidence) of being “in every corpuscle of its corporate body, against the values of conservatism”, of promoting “cultural Marxism”, and of “imposing a monoculture” on the country.
The government’s attempt to put Dacre in charge of Ofcom was, in short, provocative and inflammatory. It would have been like putting a big game hunter in charge of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or appointing Richard Dawkins Archbishop of Canterbury – or, for that matter, making Nadine Dorries culture secretary.
Ofcom may well need a chair who challenges the status quo, and who can take on the tech giants as Dacre would have done, but it would be absurd to suggest that the government could find no strong candidate other than Dacre to do that job.
We all know why Johnson wanted him in the post. It was for the same reason that surely he wanted to install his old Telegraph chum, Charles Moore, as BBC chairman, namely to pursue his government’s vendetta against an institution whose real offence is not its alleged liberal-left bias but its independence. He wanted to neuter another of the democratic checks and balances on his power, just as he has sought to neuter the cabinet, parliament, the civil service, the judiciary and the election commission.
Although the Ofcom interview panel rejected Dacre in May, the government refused to accept its decision. A new, more biddable panel was appointed. Of its three members, two are closely associated with Robbie Gibb, the former Downing Street communications chief who helped found GB News.
The job description was also tweaked to favour a more aggressive applicant. The new chair would have to work “effectively”, not “collegiately”, with his or her fellow board members, and develop a “productive” rather than “positive” relationship with Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s chief executive.
Why, in the end, Dacre did not reapply for the £142,500, three-day-a-week post (with a peerage doubtless to follow) is also a matter for conjecture. Was it because Rothermere offered him the editor-in-chief’s job before he could do so? Or did Rothermere offer him the editor-in-chief’s job because the Prime Minister could no longer back him for the Ofcom post?
Earlier this month Johnson had engaged in a very similar effort to disband parliament’s independent standards committee and replace it with a Tory-controlled one in order to save his errant colleague and fellow Brexiteer, Owen Paterson. That ended disastrously, with Johnson forced to back down by public outrage. With his troubles mounting perhaps the Prime Minister simply could not risk another such blatant stitch-up.
The BBC has been spared Dacre’s regulatory oversight. But it seems unlikely that the Mail will remain what it had become under Geordie Grieg – an increasingly moderate, centre-right newspaper that did not hesitate to criticise this inept and dishonest Conservative government.
Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times.