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?
Mr Dacre: in Marrakech
and I think there are otherit is well known. They are good
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
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,
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 processlet's
not try to score points off each other. I am trying to make constructive
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 appointmentsyet
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
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
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,
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 Robertsonthose
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?