As Tory politicians squabble for party leadership, a higher power in Derry Street sits in judgement upon them

Theresa May. Picture: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

When David Cameron steps down as Prime Minister he may ruefully reflect that his future was in the hands of one whose power is far less fleeting than mere politicians.

He has seen Prime Ministers and governments come and go and sits in judgement upon them.

He helps bring governments down and dispenses justice with a flourish of his hand upon a set of proofs.

That supreme being is Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.

He commands a print readership across the month (according to the National Readership Survey) of more than 10m.

And he rarely picks fights that he does not win.

Whether it be banning plastic bags, saving the Freedom of Information Act, securing justice for Stephen Lawrence or victory in a general election – the Daily Mail puts all its editorial might behind its successful campaigns.

So when the Mail campaigned vigorously for Brexit, devoting 19 out of 28 front pages to pro Leave stories in the last month before the vote, the outcome should perhaps not have come as such a surprise.

mailleave

It was of course helped by support from the Sun, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express. And there is no hard evidence yet to suggest that newspaper coverage had any influence at all on how people cast their vote on 23 June.

This said, Press Gazette analysis shows that the unequivocal support of Leave from its Fleet Street backers swamped the less emphatic coverage given by the Remain-favouring titles.

The political influence of Dacre is made clear by the email from Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine to her politician husband Michael Gove which found its way into the public domain last week.

Urging him to secure “specific assurances” from Boris Johnson before agreeing to back him the Tory leadership election, she said: “Crucially, the membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will Dacre/Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris Gove ticket.”

One well placed source told me Dacre’s fury about seeing his name publicly used like this helped explain the paper’s unusual decision to give its backing to Theresa May for Conservative leader on Friday, at the start of the contest.

Daily Mail Theresa May for PM front page

Dacre, 67, has been editor of the Daily Mail since 1992 and appears to operate with the kind of autonomy that prime ministers can only dream about.

The controlling shareholder of Mail parent company DMGT, Lord Rothermere, does not make political comments in public. But one would guess that he is not over the moon about the fact that around £200m has been wiped off the value of his company since 23 June.

Daily Mail journalists themselves are by no means all devoted Brexiteers, judging by some of their comments on Twitter. But you would not have now known it to read the paper in the last month before the vote.

The paper slanted its editorial coverage towards covering one side of the debate. Though it should be noted that, the Daily Mail’s record on accuracy (in terms of upheld complaints to IPSO and published corrections) has been excellent during its Brexit coverage.

Dacre’s management style is, by all accounts, the opposite of whatever a collegiate or consensus-based approach looks like. Having seen him speak a couple of times, you can hear his voice resonate when reading the Mail’s leader columns and headlines: railing against hypocrisy and standing up for British decency.

Paul Dacre

As the journalistic genius of our age, I don’t dispute that Dacre is worth his £2m-a-year salary (around twenty times that of the PM).

My only criticism is that his insistence on operating in the shadows makes him guilty of the hypocrisy he would detest in others.

If a newspaper sees its job as to report the news without fear or favour, then perhaps it can just let its journalism do the talking.

But when a newspaper strongly favours one side of an argument, with profound consequences for the whole country (and indeed the world) – doesn’t it have a duty to provide the sort of transparency it would expect of others exercising public power?

Dacre almost never gives interviews. I’ve given up asking. The last one I can find was to the British Journalism Review in 2002. Back then he said his editorial formula was “having a belief in what you write and the strength to eschew fashionable opinion and write for your readership”.

One question I might ask him, if I ever got the chance to, is how many of those readers he gets to meet in a life spent either closeted away in his office at Derry Street in West London or else on his estates in Scotland and East Sussex.

I would also ask how his top-down management approach allows his strongly-held opinions to be tested.

Last year he told Newsworks what he thinks makes a good editor: “An instinct to know when to be bold and when to be careful. Any fool can be either. It’s getting the balance right that’s difficult.”

Over the coming weeks we will find out whether he was on the right side of that balance on Brexit.

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