At the risk of offending my extremely hospitable hosts in Skopje (capital of Republic on Macedonia or The Former Yuglosav Republic of Macedonia, depending which side of the long and bitter name dispute you’re on)’ I wish I had been in London last night. Because Newsnight asked me to go on to discuss Paul Dacre’s self-serving, sanctimonious, hypocritical, dishonest speech to the Leveson Inquiry.
Skopje is not a bad place from which to survey the usually low profile Dacre and his low, rather damaged view of everything in the world apart from his papers. This is a place where you can meet journalists who have been arrested without cause. You can meet editors of newspapers which have been shut down by the government. You can meet TV reporters who have suffered the same fate. And as I said in a TV interview last night, I would rather have our media for all its lies, nastiness, bias and negativity than a media like that.
So for Dacre to bleat on about a threat to the freedom of the press from an inquiry into its standards, ethics and values … These people who call for inquiries into every other aspect of our public life based on a fraction of the media wrongdoing exposed in recent years. indeed, I would argue the freedom of the press has already been threatened by the narrowness of ownership, the debasing of culture, and a decline in standards for which he and less than a handful of others have been responsible.
I only have a few minutes before I have to be on my feet speaking at a conference, so I will leave detailed analysis of his offerings until another day. Like him, I have also been asked to make a contribution to the Leveson Inquiry, which I submitted this week, and I have also volunteered to give oral evidence if they think it appropriate.
I assume Dacre will be called too. It is one thing to stand at a bully-pulpit and to try the same intimidation methods on a judge and panel as he uses every day on his staff. It is quite another to be forensically examined by a judge who will hopefully see the attempted undermining of the make-up of his panel for what it is. Jonathan Caplan QC indeed – to argue that because none of Dacre’s poodles are on the panel, nobody understands the press.
We have to hope that Dacre will be asked about the invented stories which turn out not to be true. I know of some victims of such stories who are volunteering to the Inquiry their experiences. I would encourage others to do so. All those made up stories on the back of made up quotes. All those question mark innuendo headlines to which the answer is invariably No. We have to hope he will be asked to explain, in detail, how he squares his statement to a Lords committee that he never published a story based on illegally obtained information with the fact that his papers were Number 1 and Number 4 in the Information Commissioner’s report, What Price Privacy, on the illegal trade in private information. It will be interesting to see if they have kept all the invoices. We have to hope he will be pressed on why he believes that, alome among all other parts of our national life, the press can regulate itself.
I have always worried that the focus on phone-hacking, important though this criminality is, would narrow the scope and significance of the inquiry. Now that Dacre has put his head above the parapet, I am more confident the real issues here – the culture of debasement and denigration, a collapse in standards of accuracy and fairness, a failed system of regulation and media ownership – will also be firmly on the agenda.
Could it be that Dacre has unwittingly performed something of a public service, without realising it?
Ps, it was touching to see him stand up for the BBC, an organisation his papers, Murdoch’s and Desmond’s attack for their own political and commercial reasons (another issue for the inquiry) day in day out. His support for the BBC during our dispute with them in 2003 was entirely driven by the fact that in the many loathings and hatreds which consume him and drive his papers’ agenda, the Blair government, TB and I came a lot higher than the BBC.
I have very few hatreds in my heart. Life is too short. But Dacre gets close. Yesterday he showed once more why. But for all that he will have gone back to his office to the congratulatory growls of his terrified execs, I think yesterday was a turning point in the Dacre journey, and not in the way he thinks.