Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 89-99)

25 MARCH 2004


  Q89 Chairman: Good morning, everybody. Welcome to our witness this morning, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. Would you introduce your colleagues, please?

  Mr Dacre: Robin Esser, the executive managing editor, and Eddy Young, one of our senior lawyers.

  Q90 Chairman: As you will know, the purpose of this session is that this committee has a longstanding interest in issues of accountability in government and has taken various initiatives over the years on that. It has also been concerned with the integrity of government communications and it recommended in the wake of the Jo Moore business, which I am sure you will remember, that there should be a radical external review of government communications which is called the Phillis review, and it is arising out of that and the issues identified that we are taking some evidence and that is why we have asked you here. We are delighted you are able to come. Would you like to make an opening statement, or for us to kick off with our questions?

  Mr Dacre: I am very happy just to answer your questions.

  Q91 Chairman: Thank you. Can I take us back to the report that this Committee issued which called for the establishment of a review of government communications in the wake of the Jo Moore affair, a report that we called "These Unfortunate Events", just to the final paragraph which says: "We offer one final comment. The issue of spin has dogged the life of this government. There is a terrible predictability about the fact that the events discussed here arose in the area of news management and involved a special adviser employed for this purpose. Yet this is part of a wider picture in which sections of the media engage in systematic spin and news management of their own. The result of this mutual spinning war is immensely damaging to public life and to trust in the political process. The remedy is a simple one: Government should play it straight, and the media should play it fair". Is that an analysis that you would share and a proposition that you would subscribe to?

  Mr Dacre: Not totally, no. I think you have to set this thing in an overall context. The Daily Mail is a conservative newspaper; it is one of 10 national newspapers in a country of immense diversification of news; we are very lucky in that sense. The Daily Mail has always been conservative and readers who buy it and whom it represents are obviously of a conservative mindset. It is the job of a national newspaper to be hostile and aggressive in an atmosphere where politicians often misrepresent things. I just need to clear my mind—I am sorry, you have caught me slightly off balance. Originally when the Labour government came into power, the Daily Mail was not unsympathetic to the government. We then saw systematic evidence of a spin machine that misrepresented truth, that manipulated the media, and in those years were very successful in doing that, but the more they did that the more arose a suspicion in newspapers that they were being used by the Labour spin machine and its apotheosis was the very sad day of the Jo Moore affair, so if the Daily Mail as a right wing newspaper overreacted to that, was in turn cynical about the government's press manipulation, you have to place it very firmly in that context.

  Q92 Chairman: So rather in the way that Alastair Campbell now goes around saying, "We could have done things better and differently," you are saying, "We could have done things better and differently"?

  Mr Dacre: I think the press has lessons to learn and I think Alastair Campbell's departure has drained quite a lot of the poison from the No.10 media operation. It might be helpful if I just read something out to you, if I may: "As for the cancer of spin, I think we are in remission but it has been very damaging. I am amazed that Alastair Campbell tours the nation, spitting bile at journalists and journalism generally without in any way being able to comprehend that if anyone poisoned this well, it was him. In any political environment in the modern world, you will have professionals trying to put across the best of the government in office and, indeed, the Opposition but I think that basic premise was distorted in the first Labour term in government in such a way that deep and mutual suspicion flourished in a way that would be almost impossible ever to eradicate. It is too late for this government. Nobody fully believes anything they say any more and I think that is a major catastrophe for our form of democracy. Nothing was pristine under the Tories or previous Labour governments but, by and large, they knew just how far they could go without lying directly or as frequently. The thing we have to remember about the Labour media machine is that they do not put out stories that are stories in the real sense; they put out propaganda. I think it will take a  PM and his team in the future of unimpeachable and demonstrable integrity to restore credibility". Now the significance of that statement I have just read out, although I agree with every word of it—although it is slightly apocalyptic in its tone, comes from Trevor Kavanagh, the political editor of The Sun in an interview with the United Kingdom Press Gazette, the Bible of the journalist trade in February of this year, and the significance is that the Daily Mail is an unashamedly conservative newspaper; The Sun is a Labour supporting paper. So it is not just my view; it is right across the spectrum.

  Q93 Chairman: No. We were getting worried about your source, but we are relieved to discover it! That is all very interesting but you have a licence daily to engage in systematic propaganda, do you not?

  Mr Dacre: No. You have a four year office in which you are in power. I am judged every day.

  Q94 Chairman: We get elected.

  Mr Dacre: And people do not have to buy my paper and on a rainy day pay 40p for it.

  Q95 Chairman: This is not equivalence, is it?

  Mr Dacre: I think you have four years in office; I am in office for a day at a time and if the Daily Mail is unfair to politicians, you should trust its readers. Its readers are your voters and if the Mail is seen to be unfair, they will not buy it.

  Q96 Chairman: Do you think it is unfair?

  Mr Dacre: The Daily Mail?

  Q97 Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Dacre: No. I think it is aggressive, more searching than some papers; I think it has a viewpoint; by and large its news is accurate and, if you have complaints about it, you can resort to the courts or the PCC, both of whom we have a pretty good record with.

  Q98 Chairman: This comes directly out of the Phillis analysis when he talks about the breakdown of trust. You do not think a newspaper that tells people every day that public life in this country is a cesspit of—

  Mr Dacre: If I may say so, those are your words not mine.

  Q99 Chairman: No. They are the words of your parliamentary sketchwriter, who uses them regularly, but you use them regularly in your editorials too.

  Mr Dacre: I do not think I have ever used them.

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