“Men are so simple and so obedient to present necessities, that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.” — Niccolò Machiavelli
Three men have led the country to the Brexit cliff edge. Two of them — Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage — are in the mould of the public school rogue which certain kinds of English people find strangely alluring. The required style is a cross between the dandy and the cad — jovial, casual, clubbable, with insincere hints at self-deprecation, the aim of which is to linger in the memory as a “card”.
The third man could not be more different. He is almost unknown to the wider public, except as a name: Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail for over a quarter of a century, and according to recent media reports, the next chairman of Ofcom, the broadcasting and telecoms regulator.
To me, he is far from unknown. When I was at school, I thought of him as my best friend. Recalling him now, some half a century later, my mind flies back to the summer of 1966. It was the middle of the night, around 4.00 am, somewhere in central France. I was just 18 years old, an inexperienced driver behind the wheel of a rented Land Rover when the nearside front tyre burst. I still vividly remember the lurch, the squishy feel of the steering as I lost control. The vehicle veered sharply across the road as I gingerly braked and, after a few anxious seconds, brought it to a halt on the grass verge by the opposite carriageway. It was pure luck that it happened in the dead of night. There were no other cars in sight. Dozing around me in the passenger seat and the back were the three school friends accompanying me on that trip to the south of France. One was Gerry Michelle, a cheerful, ruddy-faced fellow with crewcut red hair; one I cannot call to mind; the last was Paul Dacre.
Although never a public figure, Paul rose to become the dominant editor of the most influential newspaper in the land. More recently, by playing incessantly on fears of immigration and mistrust of the EU, he was the man who did perhaps more than anyone else to bring about Brexit. Farage and Johnson have had their periods in the limelight, but Dacre helped create the conditions for their ascendancy. He is no longer editor of the Daily Mail but continues as editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, the Mail’s publisher. In the summer of 2018, when it was announced he would step down from the Mail editorship after 26 years in charge, he was credited by Alan Rusbridger in the Guardian with “a long and remarkable career”, in a piece whose strap-line called him a “Fleet Street titan”. Paul Dacre was an unusually enduring and influential editor.
Nothing he did in his career has greatly surprised me, and that includes his raging support for Brexit. Perhaps his most lurid contribution to that debate was the Mail’s “Enemies of the people” headline of November, 2016. This referred to the three judges who sat on what became known as the Gina Miller case, and who ruled that before the government could give notice of withdrawal from the EU, it would first have to pass an act of parliament to ratify that intention. The response of Dacre’s newspaper was intemperate, hectoring and skirted the borders of the extreme.
As a fellow-pupil of Paul’s, and this may sound odd, but I was convinced he’d become a newspaper editor. That’s not because I was especially perceptive or far-sighted, but because he was obsessed with middle-market journalism — it was his main topic of conversation, often his only one. Listening to him, it was clear he had the knack of converting the small change of existence into mildly-intriguing journalistic pabulum. And then there was his personality: I doubted whether there could be another teenager in Britain both so expert in journalistic lore and with so ferocious a character. At the time I also had ambitions to become a journalist and this was probably my main point of connection with Paul. But after editing the student newspaper at Cambridge, I went on to become a documentary producer-director, first at the BBC and later as an independent producer.
Paul was never going to be side-tracked. His father, Peter, was a Sunday Express features writer who specialised in show-business profiles. He was a quiet man, who exuded a perceptible air of regret. I recall him from the single occasion I was invited for supper at the Dacre home in Arnos Grove, North London. The district is the epitome of 1930s North London suburbia, a development of white-stucco, semi-detached villas laid out in tidy rows.
That evening long ago, his father sported a blue pullover which emphasised his slightly convex shape. I see him now with an uneasy, melancholic smile playing on his face, as he watched his five large, boisterous sons joshing each other around the dinner-table. Paul was the oldest, the leader of the pack. At six foot three, with his awkward, convulsive energy and rancorous take on the world, he was always a hard man to ignore.
The most distinctive feature of Paul’s way of thinking was that it was almost entirely binary. It was him against “them”. I have never known anyone else who was so constantly aggrieved, or anyone less capable of appreciating the complexities of existence and the grey areas of any question. During our schooldays he saw himself as a bit of a “leftie”, a Labour man, but it was plain he had no real interest in political ideas or allegiances. His loyalty was to a certain view of journalism and beyond that, to himself.
In his entertaining history of the paper, Mail Men, Adrian Addison devotes a good deal of space to Dacre, but he gives a somewhat misleading account of his beginnings. He quotes a contemporary at University College School, north London, where Paul and I studied for our O- and A-levels, who said that Paul’s later career path was surprising: “What made him stand out was his flair for sports and games, particularly rugby.” Addison quotes Michael Sadgrove, later the Very Reverend Dean of Durham, as saying, “I would not have foreseen that he would one day be the editor of a national newspaper.”
I didn’t know Michael at school but equally, it’s clear he hardly knew Paul. Addison also interviewed some of Dacre’s early newspaper colleagues, a number of whom didn’t rate him as a reporter. He quotes Simon Winchester who was running the Mail’s New York bureau when Paul was hired from the Daily Express: “I got on perfectly well with Dacre,” Winchester recalled. “I was astonished to find he was appointed the Mail’s editor a decade later or whatever it was, because he never struck me as anything out of the ordinary. He was a rather mild-mannered, perfectly pleasant guy. Unremarkable. He’s become transformed into something I just don’t recognise; talk about the rise of the mediocre personality.”
What is more surprising here, to me at least, is that Winchester had no idea who Paul was. The same goes for a number of other journalists quoted by Addison who ran into the future editor in his early days. It’s likely Paul tried to conceal his nature and some of his attitudes, given their often intense, vituperative quality. Starting out, he no doubt wanted to come over as pleasant and useful, but you really had to be quite myopic not to realise who he actually was. He is not a particularly engaging individual. I recall him as clumsy, staccato and volatile. He may well have been an indifferent reporter, as some of Addison’s informants suggest, but middle-market journalism is a craft and a business far more than an art, and he was a dedicated apprentice of the trade.
Looking back later, I saw that what he really wanted was power. For an average student with narrow horizons, a stranger to curiosity and nuance, journalism was a way to get hold of it. The will to power has no content: it fixes more readily on what is useful rather than what is valuable. Yet its devotees need, above all, to be thoroughly convinced of their own peculiar virtue. What else could justify their methods? Paul’s approach to his chosen profession was more a matter of instinct than ideas, but what he possessed in abundance was a faith in his destiny and an unshakeable determination to achieve his ends.
After the Brexit referendum, I read that Dacre loathed David Cameron and had done all he could to undermine his schemes, including his feckless fiddling with the unexploded bomb of EU membership. The animosity between the two was inevitable. The old Etonian with his privileged carelessness, his effortless talent and shallow charm would have infuriated Paul. By contrast, when Theresa May became Prime Minister shortly after the referendum in the summer of 2016, she apparently invited just one newspaper editor for a private dinner at Number Ten — Dacre. The scene offers a macabre image of the destiny that shapes our ends: two individuals with moderate intellects, obdurate convictions, limited empathy and almost no spirit of inquiry divvying up the spoils of their blinkered, fervent ascents to position and power.
In politics, disasters stem mainly from false premises. When the Mail published its “Enemies of the people” front-page splash, it was echoing an idea that Theresa May had also adopted over Brexit: the idea that the EU referendum represented the “Will of the People”. While Brexit has provided us with several classic instances of radical incomprehension, few have been more influential than this group of words. We are still suffering under its influence. It needs to be repeated that there is no such thing as “the People”. There are simply people. And because the idea of “the People” is a mythical construct, then it cannot have a “will”. People have many different wills and their opinions change over time. Representative democracy seeks to provide mechanisms that reflect the abundance of opinion and its transience. Once you consecrate the result of a single plebiscite as a reflection of the “will of the people”, and treat it as if it is indefinitely sacrosanct, you have moved a long way away from the delicate web of arrangements that sustain a mature democracy into the foothills of something much darker.
My mind returns here to my childhood friend. No one can deny that Dacre was for decades a skilful tabloid editor with an eye for a story and an instinct for his readers’ interests and attitudes. The problem lay not with his journalistic abilities but with how he used the power he wielded. Occasionally he took up liberal causes — the campaign to convict the murderers of Stephen Lawrence is one well-known example. Over the decades there were a handful others. But the dominant agenda of the Mail under Dacre involved fostering simplistic prejudices against new trends in society, most prominently against immigration and the European Union.
But with his “Enemies of the People” headline, the Mail had struck a worrying note — a sinister one, even. Democracy is, above all, a society governed by law. The officials who interpret the law cannot be regarded as “fair game”. They have a high responsibility to observe legal principle and, in discharging it, they are entitled to the protection of society and particularly of its governing representatives and leaders of opinion.
Dacre not only exposed officers of the law to popular reprisals but, still more gravely, undermined public confidence in the judiciary by suggesting that the judges were following their own political opinions rather than applying the law in the light of an unbiased assessment of the facts. On the front-page, each judge, beneath his picture in full judicial regalia, was given a derisive caption in case readers failed to realise just how very untrustworthy these people were. Lord Justice Sales was identified with the phrase “Worked with Tony Blair”; Lord Chief Justice Thomas became “The Europhile”; meanwhile Sir Terence Etherton was labelled “The fencer”. In the article, he was described as “the first openly-gay judge to be made a Lord Justice of Appeal”.
The Mail’s implication was clear: people who worked with Tony Blair, or who were Europhiles, or who took part in upper-class pastimes like fencing or were “openly-gay” must be elitists, remainers and so, in the classic guilt by association argument, they must be, “enemies of the people”. Here, the newspaper went significantly further than the government itself, for the legal submissions presented by the government did not make such an allegation. They did not apply for the judges to recuse themselves on the ground of bias, actual or apparent, as they might have, had the Mail’s implication been correct. Similarly, when the government lost in the High Court, it did not assert, in its grounds of appeal, that the High Court judges had been biased.
In fact, the government conceded that the court had, not just the power but also the duty to adjudicate Gina Miller’s claims, once they had been brought before them. The case had nothing to do with whether Brexit was a good or bad thing. The sole question was whether the power to notify the UK’s intention to leave the EU rested with the government or parliament. If you relied on the Mail, you would have learned none of this. Instead, over the main headline, you would have read a strapline: “Fury over ‘out of touch’ judges who defied 17.4m Brexit voters and could trigger constitutional crisis”. This invocation of popular “fury”, for which there was no evidence other than quotes from a few diehard Brexiteer MPs, seemed to reflect the fury seething in Dacre’s mind more than anywhere else.
In November 2018, after 26 years in charge, Dacre stepped down from the editorship of the Mail to become a richly-rewarded, chief editorial panjandrum. Later that month, the Guardian reported on a speech he’d given to the Society of Editors, in which, according to the paper, he’d argued that the decision to run the front page “helped push the issue of judicial involvement in politics on to the national agenda.” The Guardian also reported that Dacre “claimed that his critics missed the fact that the headline was a reference to a play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.”
This plea in mitigation was desperately unconvincing: the front-page splash with its incendiary headline wasn’t a judicious attempt at promoting an issue of public concern but an exercise in rabble-rousing invective. As far as Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is concerned, the title is ironic, referring to the play’s hero who utters an inconvenient truth and is unjustly condemned for it by public opinion and the powers-that-be. Dacre’s suggestion that he was paying tribute to the Norwegian playwright was transparently absurd but, if Ibsen really was the editor’s inspiration, he had badly misunderstood the playwright’s point. For Ibsen, following your conscience and risking censure as “an enemy of the people”, is an act of courage, worthy of high praise. Dacre’s role in the drama would have been among the cowardly local dignitaries who condemn the hero, Dr Stockmann, for revealing the truth about a local scandal.
More obviously, the Mail headline drew on a well-established, international tradition of political vilification in the service of overbearing regimes and movements. Having spent decades sheltering behind the freedom of the press as a licence to menace those who did not fit into an often narrow and intolerant agenda, Dacre was grasping at straws. In his speech, he admitted the front page could have been phrased better, adding: “But what the hell, the point needed to be made.”
Dacre is, of course, not a man for apologies. When it came to his assault on the judiciary, it wasn’t surprising he had carried on as he’d done for decades, blowing on the embers of resentment in the hope of starting a fire.
Time collapses as I skim back over the decades to our youth. For that holiday in France, we had hired the car in Dover. It was a hefty machine which the driver had to double de-clutch when changing up or down. On a limited budget, our plan was to bomb down to the south of France without stopping to sleep, to camp near the sea for as long as possible, then put the hammer down to return before the rental deadline expired on the car, in the process squeezing in the most “fun” available for our cash outlay.
Of the four of us, only two had driving licences, Gerry and me. I took the first stint and had been hammering down France’s narrow, crowded ‘N’ roads (Routes Nationales) for some eight hours until the puncture in the small hours. We surveyed the damage — a flat to the nearside front tyre. We set about changing the tyre but the jack on board was a flimsy instrument, completely incapable of raising a heavy vehicle, especially one canted over at an angle on a grass verge.
There was only one thing for it: to flag down a passing vehicle, hitch into the nearest village and wake up a garagiste. As I was the only one among us who could speak French, I was deputed. I’d been studying the language at school for five years and, from the age of 14 on, been sent by my parents on annual holidays to Francophone countries. My father was convinced that civilised people should be able to speak French, although as it happened he himself couldn’t. He was a Jewish refugee from Austria, a native German-speaker with excellent English but no French. My mother, also a Jewish refugee, but in her case from the Netherlands, spoke four languages fluently, including French. From both I had absorbed the idea that speaking foreign languages was a normal, useful and relatively pleasurable activity.
We waited on that deserted stretch of road for quite a while before a car appeared. I stepped out and waved it down. Explaining our situation to the driver, I was directed to the back seat. The car moved on and, after some ten or fifteen minutes of silence, came to a village where the driver dropped me off. Silence. Not a creature stirred. France has many lovely villages but in those days the ones on the arterial roads were bleak — a row of houses on either side of the main drag. I walked down the road and eventually came to the garage. Knocked on the door. Knocked again. A face peered from the first floor window: ‘Qui est-ce? Qu’est-que s’est-il passé?’
I explained. The man was as good as gold. He brought round his breakdown lorry, and drove us back out to our Land Rover where my friends were waiting. Pulling out a professional, heavy-duty jack, he changed the tyre in a trice. We gave him some cash and continued on our way. Gerry drove, I slept. Some time on the following day we found a camp-site outside Antibes where we based ourselves for the duration. By the mid-1960s, summer resorts in the south of France were already jammed, tacky and charmless.
The only clear image I retain from that holiday is of Paul pacing, seething, somehow disconcerted by our situation. Perhaps it was the sheer pointlessness of holidays in themselves that got to him, or perhaps it was the alien surroundings and his monolingual imprisonment that did it. But there he was. Pacing. Back and forth.
After we left school the following summer, Paul and I went our separate ways. He went to Leeds University where he studied English. I stayed on at school for a further term to take the Cambridge entrance exams of those days. After a nine-month gap year, I went up to Trinity Hall, graduating in English and later, a second degree, in Economics. I met Paul just once more in the years after we left school. By then, he was living in the Hampstead Garden Suburb where I had grown up. He was already married. I remember very exactly the house where he was living, quite near St Jude’s Church on the suburb’s central square. We had a chat over coffee in his living room. His wife appeared but did not stay to talk. In her reserve, she reminded me a little of Paul’s mother on the evening when I visited his childhood home in Arnos Grove.
Paul and I never met again. There was no overt reason for this, just the natural divergence of incompatible souls. As I thought about him afterwards, I couldn’t really understand what had drawn me to him. I came from a family that took politics extremely seriously. My parents met in London during the war. Beforehand, each had escaped from their homes in Europe by a combination of luck and judgement. Their immediate families had survived, but most of their wider families — aunts, uncles, cousins — had been killed during the Holocaust. By our count our family probably lost some fifty souls in all. My father had been a successful playwright in Vienna before the war — a dramaturg of the city’s well-known Volkstheater — and virtually every evening at home over supper we discussed politics, literature, history. My friendship with Paul was, looking back, an oddity but I was attracted, perhaps, by the charisma of his certitude. I cannot deny that, looking back, the teenage version of myself that was impressed by him fills me with a little puzzlement and dismay.
Occasionally, I heard what he was doing. When I was about thirty, and making documentaries at the BBC, I had lunch with a Mail journalist. I remember asking her: “Why isn’t Paul editor yet?” This was in the final years of David English’s editorship when Paul was news editor. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “He soon will be.”
Much later on, I happened to switch on the radio when Sue Lawley was interviewing Paul on Desert Island Discs. I have never listened to the radio habitually and turning on at that moment was a complete coincidence. I remember Lawley asking him: “What do you do in your spare time?” In the face of this attempt at generating human interest, Paul answered with heavy-handed modesty: “Oh, Sue, I’m really so boring.”
His answer to Lawley’s question was, I thought, quite telling. Adopting false modesty to hint at hidden depths, he inadvertently drew attention to the fact that there are no depths, hidden or otherwise. Leaving aside his reported, if implausible, borrowed identity as a country gentleman, complete with, I understand, a 17,000 acre Scottish estate offering hunting, shooting and fishing, what you see with Paul is what you get.
I have run into a good many prominent individuals in a relatively long career as a documentary producer as well as in the ordinary course of life. I can honestly say that few of them struck me as remarkable. Clinging to the rigging of some system — whether in a media organisation, a financial enterprise or even a creative profession — does not make you remarkable. Most of the genuinely extraordinary individuals I have met have been intrinsically so. The sign of it lay not in the fact they had climbed to the top of some “greasy pole”, as Disraeli had it, but simply in their essential nature, in their human qualities of curiosity, perceptiveness, intelligence, kindness and, perhaps most distinctively of all, courage. As for prominent and influential people, those who are persuaded of their own significance, consumed with their own schemes — they often have an influence out of all proportion to their true capacities.
So it has been with Paul and Brexit. What, after all, would you expect of a man who for fifty years voluntarily chained himself to the railings of power with barely a moment to call his own? Are we to imagine that the big cheese, returning home after his daily twelve to fourteen hour schedule, would then spend sleepless nights studying political theory, philosophy and economics, or reading improving novels? Should we think, for instance, that he has some reasoned arguments, some pertinent facts to support his Brexit fanaticism? Should we believe that he’s actually, seriously thought about it?
If so, there’s little sign of it. The real Paul Dacre is captured in his conduct as editor of the Daily Mail. His blazing conviction about Brexit, like all his certainties, came across as untroubled by complexity, heedless of contrary evidence, defiantly dismissive of measured thought and empathetic concerns. It was all — to quote another of his fairly recent headlines — “Crush the Saboteurs!” (this one, dating from 18 April, 2017, greeted Theresa May’s inept and self-defeating decision to call a general election). To Paul, journalism was most deeply, perhaps, a cry of rage.
Yet the origin of this rage could hardly be the circumstances of his upbringing. University College School was a fee-paying, boys-only, day school in one of London’s most pleasant villages, a stone’s thrown from Hampstead Heath. It had a good educational record, a civilised atmosphere and a tolerant attitude to attainment. If you wanted to do well, the school would help you; if you weren’t very interested, the school wouldn’t bother you too much. It was a liberal establishment founded by the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, in the early nineteenth century and popular with political exiles and refugees.
To me, looking back, Paul’s vivid resentments seem to have been entirely self-generated. But then, if resentment is your thing, then the British scene offers a million occasions for it. Paul used his position to encourage British politicians to moderate their concern for social justice and liberal values, in the process doing much to create the confused, dystopian country which voted in the 2016 referendum, by a narrow margin, for isolation and impoverishment. If that dismal achievement, which millions will, I believe, have cause to regret, helped distinguish him as a “Fleet Street titan”, then perhaps it’s better to be slightly less titanic in case you remind people of the vessel of that name and its lamentable end.
My last glimpse of Paul came when he appeared before the Leveson Inquiry into standards in the press, almost a decade ago. Again, I didn’t plan to watch, but just happened to switch on the television. Out of curiosity, I watched Paul. His expression was a combination of wounded and contemptuous. He looked rather as I imagine Charles I might have done when he was brought before his accusers for trial, gazing around in amazement at those who dared question his divine right to rule. Similarly Paul’s bearing exuded a self-righteous certainty that he was a tribune of the people and no one had the right to question his actions.
Fast forward a decade, and Paul was publishing his “Enemies of the People,” headline, as he urged the country on towards the Brexit disaster. But Dacre’s lack of judgement was hardly exceptional. On the contrary, it was quite typical, not just of him, but of the UK elite in a time of gathering nationalism.