Paul Dacre, like Lord Northcliffe and his dynasty, is a man of power who pretends to be an outsider. The central argument in his Cudlipp lecture goes like this – the liberal press, and above all the BBC, are the establishment, crushing journalistic pluralism and imposing a ‘mono-culture’on Britain that is the enemy of democratic debate. Unless this stranglehold can be broken, ordinary people will turn their backs on the media and on politics. Only the popular press, with their ‘almost tactile responsiveness to their readers’stands between this disdainful liberal establishment and a revolt of the disenfranchised majority.
Not only is this argument untrue, but it is also in some respects the reverse of the truth. You would never guess it from reading Dacre’s lecture, but the Daily Mail’s readers do not all think about Britain in the same way that he does. Clearly they all like the Daily Mail enough to go on buying it in large numbers, which is a tribute to Dacre and his team. Yet beneath the Mail editor’s tactile awareness of their views, Dacre’s readers turn out to be a pretty diverse bunch.
Politically, you and I – and Paul Dacre – may think of the Mail as a classic Conservative-supporting paper. Yet in the 2005 general election, 22 per cent of the Mail’s readers voted Labour, 14 per cent voted Liberal Democrat and 7 per cent voted for other non-Tory parties. In this respect, therefore, the editor who claims to have a hotline to the national mood turns out to have something of a crossed line instead.
And if he does not speak quite so snugly for around two fifths of his own readers on party allegiance, then we are entitled to be sceptical about some of his other certainties too. This is a risk that all newspapers run, not just the Mail. It is a risk for The Guardian too – only a minority of Guardian readers voted Labour in 2005. But The Guardian’s comment pages give a regular daily voice to a range of voices. Neither Simon Jenkins nor Max Hastings could remotely be classed as lefties – and plenty of my own readers would say I was not one either. But pluralism is not the Mail’s way. The Mail has an agenda and it is extremely effective at pursuing it. Dissenters need not apply. You would have to buy an awful lot of copies of the Mail before you found articles by writers who think like George Monbiot, Polly Toynbee – or even a moderate like me. Dacre extols the virtues of healthy debate, but you won’t find one in the Mail.
Dacre’s lecture is infused with the belief that he speaks for voiceless millions against the bien-pensant tyranny of the liberal establishment. In some respects I actually accept some of his critique of the liberal media mindset. But mindsets are a problem for Dacre too. His belief that he speaks for middle Britain sits very awkwardly with the survey in 2006 which found that only 19 per cent of British people ‘tend to trust’what they read in the written press in this country. Or with a 2004 survey in which a mere nine per cent said they trusted ‘newspapers such as The Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Star”.
I’m not sure whether the Mail falls into that category, but since only 39 per cent of people trust ‘newspapers such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian’either, I think it is fair to say that the Mail is no more believed than the rest of us.
A disturbingly high proportion of Dacre’s lecture rests on a foundation of fantasy. Take his claim that 90 per cent of BBC job ads are placed in The Guardian. Actually, the majority of BBC jobs are solely advertised on the corporation’s own website. In 2006, only 34 per cent of BBC jobs were placed in The Guardian. That puts the BBC not a million miles away from the Daily Mail itself, which advertised 23 per cent of its vacancies in The Guardian last year. Why? It’s not politics but market forces, stupid.
I happen to believe in market forces. Paul Dacre claimed in his lecture that I do not. I’m certainly a critic of the excesses of the free market – including the doctrine of excess profits that has been the ruination of so many fine newspapers in the United States – and I bet Mail readers dislike these excesses too.
I don’t say The Guardian and the BBC don’t occasionally fall into the trap of selectivity or even bias. But the Mail does it so much more often and with such style. Look at his front page headline on Monday: ‘A Generation of Outsiders”, on a report of a new piece of research on Muslim opinion.
You would never guess from that headline or the story that follows that most Muslims in the new survey said they want their children to go to mixed state schools, would prefer to live under British laws, do not admire Al Qaeda and believe they have as much in common with non-Muslims as with other Muslims.
Dacre would doubtless respond that it is the minority who want separate schools and sharia law and who support Al Qaeda who are the real story here. Many other journalists would agree. Indisputably, they are an important part of the story.
But Dacre always puts his finger on the scales. This readiness to twist the facts to suit his own prejudices is the thread that runs through the Mail’s style of journalism and Dacre’s lecture. It is this, far more than the failings of the BBC, that explains why the British public now mistrusts its press to such an unusual degree and with such destructive consequences for our public debates.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist