Under the editorship of Paul Dacre (1992 to 2018), the Daily Mail relentlessly targeted civil servants, local authorities, the EU, benefit “scroungers”, left-wing state school teachers, “eco-warriors”, recreational drug users and the BBC. Above all, the paper excoriated what its editor called “the liberalocracy”, the metropolitan liberals who, Dacre argued, dominated the public realm.
So Dacre has baggage. That makes him unsuitable for the role of Ofcom chairman, for which Boris Johnson proposes him. Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, should command confidence inside and outside the industry. Its chairman should not come to the job with an agenda but with an open mind. He or she should be capable of cool, rational judgement. Dacre was a formidable crusader, sometimes for causes of which even Guardian readers would approve: against internet porn, lead in petrol, plastic bags. He is a passionate and emotional man. But those are not qualities suitable for regulating what is now perhaps Britain’s most important industry.
Despite his strong right-wing views, Dacre always kept his distance from politicians. Unlike some editors, he wouldn’t drop everything to take ministers’ calls. He declined invitations to sit on committees, except when Gordon Brown, with whom he formed an oddly close relationship, asked him to inquire into the rules under which Whitehall records stayed secret for 30 years. I am surprised and disappointed that he is willing to consider the Ofcom role.
Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph and Spectator editor who is proposed for the BBC chairmanship, is a different matter. Unlike Dacre, Moore, an old Etonian, is comfortable with being an insider. He chaired the Tory think tank Policy Exchange for six years to 2011, became Margaret Thatcher’s authorised biographer, and serves as a trustee for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which challenges orthodox thinking on climate change. Because he is better connected in Tory circles, and has a charm that Dacre lacks, he would be a more dangerous appointment.
The BBC hasn’t helped itself by allowing Andrew Neil to drift off to the planned new channel GB News. It should have showered its most gifted right-wing presenter with money and prime airtime, not least because, though a Brexiteer and supporter of free markets, he is, if anything, to the left on the cultural issues that preoccupy Dacre and Moore. Better, at a time like this, to have him pissing from inside your tent.
Unlike either Dacre or Moore, the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who has died aged 92, lacked firm opinions on most subjects. Because his campaigns invariably put the rich and powerful in the dock – it is impossible to imagine him devoting significant space to exposing benefit “cheats” – he was thought to favour the liberal left. But nobody was sure how he voted. A member of his political staff recalled being shown Evans’s draft of a pre-election leader. “Very good, Harry,” the hack said. “But the final sentence doesn’t follow. It says ‘vote Conservative’. It should be ‘vote Labour’.” Evans instantly amended it, muttering “good point”.
What’s their game?
The Tories’ aim in elevating Dacre and Moore is to change what we regard as the centre ground. Sensitive treatment of ethnic minorities, care for the environment, decent living standards for the unemployed and their families, better working conditions, compassion towards refugees – all this stuff, many Tories believe, belongs to the extreme Marxist left. The BBC cannot be regarded as neutral when it treats such values as given.
Don’t expect a fight from the BBC hierarchy. Another British institution, the monarchy, has already rolled over. When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex urged Americans to cast their votes and to “reject hate speech [and] misinformation”, palace aides reportedly said they had failed “to uphold the values of the Queen”. So – have I got this right? – the head of the Church of England now regards opposition to hatred and lies and support for democracy as politically biased.
What hope for the BBC?
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union