Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre doesn’t speak out publicly much, so when he does – like at the Society of Editors Conference in 2008 – he’s worth paying attention to.
In his annual report as chairman of the Editor’s Code Committee, this passage, in which he responds to criticism of the press from MPs and others, stands out:
“The sadness is that much of this criticism simply misses the point, for it is an ineluctable truth that many provincial newspapers and some nationals are now in a near-terminal economic condition.
“If our critics spent as much zeal trying to help reverse this tragic situation and work out how good journalism – which is, by its nature, expensive – is going to survive financially in an internet age, then democracy and the public’s right to know would be much better served.”
In other words if your house on fire, there are more pressing issues at hand than sorting out the leaky washer under the sink.
The extensive Commons media committee inquiry into Press Standards, Privacy and Libel which reported earlier this year, spent little time dealing with the big existential questions facing journalism, and so democracy and society.
To be fair, the even more wide-ranging House of Lords Select Committee inquiry into media ownership did tackle the big questions.
Unfortunately, its 2008 report struck an unrealistically optimistic note – based as it was largely on the evidence of editors who are not paid the wages they are to publicly denigrate their own titles.
Thus we had Simon Kelner of The Independent saying: ‘My belief is that newspapers still do have a future role to play in a modern democracy”. His title came within a whisker of closing earlier this year.
We had Richard Wallace from the Daily Mirror saying: ‘There is a great press tradition in this country which we can maintain not only off-line, as they call it in newspapers, but on-line.” Mirror Group Newspapers will have 200 fewer journalists holding those in power to account when the current round of cost-cutting is completed.
And we had The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger saying: ‘I am not too gloomy about the future. A lot of it is out of our hands and, as an editor, all you can do is to make sure that the digital version of your product is as good, if not better than your print version so that it is ready for whatever technological or economic changes await round the corner.” Over the last year he has had to dispense with the services of one in ten of his editorial staff.
The Lords report concluded: “Although newspapers, both national and regional, have declined they have not died and even with the expansion of the new media, we do not believe that they are in such imminent danger.”
We should be grateful to Dacre for being an editor who, on occasion, is willing to tell it like it is and remind us that the danger is, indeed, imminent for many.