Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)

25 MARCH 2004


  Q120 Mr Prentice: No. Spell them out.

  Mr Dacre: Well, they are friends, very close friends. If I believe what I read in other newspapers he said he went to a party—

  Q121 Mr Prentice: Oh, he went to a party? Goodness me!

  Mr Dacre: —in Marrakech and I think there are other—it is well known. They are good friends.

  Q122 Mr Prentice: So if you came to one of my parties, you would count yourself as one of my friends?

  Mr Dacre: I would have thought so, yes. The possibility of that happening is very remote but—

  Q123 Chairman: On both sides, I imagine!

  Mr Dacre: Do you not want to explore the point I am just trying to make to you, which is a much bigger point—

  Q124 Mr Prentice: We will get on to the bigger points; I am just concerned about the story in the paper today and you have told us that your readers—

  Mr Dacre: Well—

  Q125 Mr Prentice: Can I ask the question?

  Mr Dacre: I am more than happy to assure you and more than happy to answer to my readers that Mr Howell James is a good friend of Mr Mandelson's.

  Q126 Mr Prentice: He is a good friend because he went to a party in Marrakech?

  Mr Dacre: A birthday party.

  Q127 Mr Prentice: A birthday party, and that is it? Okay. Would it surprise you to learn that the appointment of the new communications chief was overseen by the Civil Service Commissioners? Would that shock you?

  Mr Dacre: I do not know that. I do not have a response to that but I am trying to say to you I thought, I had hoped, that if this post was going to be filled it would be filled by someone coming from the Civil Service, trained in the ethos of civil service impartiality, rather than a professional spin meister like Howell James. I have nothing against him; I hear he is very able, but he is a professional spin doctor and I thought the whole remit of this Committee was to make recommendations preventing the word "spin" becoming more and more pejorative, and I do not think this is going to do that.

  Chairman: Your headline is not going to do it, is it?

  Q128 Mr Prentice: It is a pity the story did not say at some point that this appointment was overseen by the Civil Service Commissioners who are guardians of propriety. There is no mention of that.

  Mr Dacre: The civil servant has not exactly been a guardian of propriety over the appointment of press officers in the ministries over the last seven years, has he?

  Mr Prentice: Yes.

  Q129 Chairman: So the process that guarantees the integrity of these appointments you just simply do not accept?

  Mr Dacre: I will be very honest with you, Chairman, I do not know enough about this process—let's not try to score points off each other. I am trying to make constructive points—

  Q130 Chairman: It is not scoring points. We have had huge arguments in recent years, and this Committee has been involved in them, trying to get more integrity into the public appointments process. We think we have it. We have all kinds of checks and balances, independent elements, Civil Service Commissioners involved in these senior appointments—yet all that is in place and we get an appointment that has been through that process, yet it affects not a jot the way in which it is reported to the general public. It is a spin story. Why did we bother?

  Mr Dacre: All I can say is you must be too close to it if you cannot see the points I am making. Here is a man deeply involved with friendships in No. 10; your Committee seems to be wanting someone who is going to recommend that someone from the Civil Service background came in to try and restore credibility to Whitehall and the government's press operations, and what do you do? You seem to be telling me it is okay and hunky dory for a professional spin doctor to be that person and not someone from the Civil Service. I am astounded.

  Q131 Chairman: Bringing this back just before I hand over to Phillis, Phillis, as it were, hears this argument that we are having now and hears it endlessly about all these kinds of issues and says, "If this vicious circle is to be broken and the current relationship between politicians and the media is to change, one of the parties needs to take a lead." Well, you might say the government did take a lead in accepting our recommendation to set up an independent review that sought to separate out the political bits of communication from the official Civil Service bits. I notice by the way that this was not something that the Daily Mail reported. Despite its interest in spin over the years it did not report the fact that this had happened and there was an attempt to clean up the machine. But what I want to ask you is do you see yourself as a participant in this debate at all, trying to address a problem where we have both journalists and politicians held in equally low esteem?

  Mr Dacre: Of course.

  Q132 Chairman: So you want to be an active contributor to this debate?

  Mr Dacre: Of course.

  Q133 Chairman: What do you think you can bring to it?

  Mr Dacre: I can bring to it a clear commitment that we study your objections to our role in the tripartite relationship with the press, the politicians and the public; we will listen to them and analyse them. What I am trying to say to you is that it is a chicken and egg situation. Politicians have always had a hostile press. John Major had a much more hostile press than your government has had, and most, or much, of that hostility came from the Daily Mail. Margaret Thatcher had a terrifyingly hostile relationship with the press; the press will always be hostile, that is its job. I think your government, through the Campbell approach, put that hostility on a different footing. I think after a while the media industry came to believe that it was disseminating untruths and misrepresenting the truth as a matter of course and trying to manipulate the media with the double and treble announcement initiatives and smears of individuals who did not support their views and gifting of stories to friendly papers, and I think that put the relationship of newspapers and the government on a different footing and things did become unhealthily cynical and unhealthily poisonous. My hope is that we can all stand back and learn from that, and now that the major perpetrator of that philosophy has been removed we can restore a greater trust. Casting back in the early years of the Blair administration the Daily Mail had a pretty good relationship with the government. We saw a succession of scandals, a succession of cynical attempts to manipulate news, and that relationship deteriorated. It was not all one-sided. Mr Campbell was not a man who engaged in constructive conversation with our political team, so there are lessons to be learned from both sides.

  Q134 Chairman: As I say, we have had our own engagement with all of that. You are saying, are you, that you are now going to do better?

  Mr Dacre: I am going to say that I have listened to your recommendations and analysed them, and if we believe that government press officers start telling the truth again, that will be reflected in the Daily Mail.

  Q135 Chairman: So finally from me, when I read the Press Complaints Commission code and it tells me in glorious language that there must always be this distinction between fact and opinion, there must not be distortions in the reporting, inaccuracies need to be corrected and all of that, I do not recognise it in the Daily Mail or in large chunks of the British press. Are you going to do better on all of this?

  Mr Dacre: There is a different Committee in this building, Mr Kaufmann's Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which endorsed the work of the PCC. If you feel that, complain to the PCC. Offer examples. Let the PCC, which has a majority of lay members, investigate. I have told you, the Daily Mail's news reporting I think is accurate. Our comment comes from a conservative position.

  Q136 Chairman: I am not asking you about the PCC, I am asking you about the principles that the PCC declares you are standing by. You say you adhere to those principles now, do you?

  Mr Dacre: I do, yes, and I would suggest if you do not think we are send in examples to the PCC.

  Q137 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Just coming back on something, you quite famously said that this government is slightly corrupt. Do you believe it is still slightly corrupt?

  Mr Dacre: I believe there were very unfortunate examples of corruption that if they had occurred in a Tory regime would have been the end of civilization as we have known it, from Ecclestone to the Hindujas to Mittal to Robertson—those are examples or corruption, yes.

  Q138 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Do you think that corruption is continuing and, as an editor of a national daily newspaper, are you going to continue to hound corruption at all levels?

  Mr Dacre: I do not know whether corruption is continuing. If it is as a newspaper, yes, we will certainly investigate and expose it. I suggest to you that it was not parliamentary regulators that exposed Ecclestone or any of those other things; it was massive pressure from the media that resulted in it and massive denials in the early days from the press machine of the government.

  Q139 Mr Liddell-Grainger: The reason I ask is do you see yourself, and you say you are not, as an Opposition?

  Mr Dacre: The Daily Mail?

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