IN NOVEMBER, PAUL Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, will step down after more than quarter of a century in the role. In November, he will leave his position and become the chairman of Associated Newspapers, which is owned by DMGT, and its editor-in-chief. It’s the end of an era. Lord Rothermere, chairman of DMGT, paid tribute to Dacre’s “brilliant stewardship” of the paper. He called him “the greatest Fleet Street editor of his generation.” Dacre returned the compliment. He said Lord Rothermere had given him “the freedom to edit without interference and the backing to assemble Fleet Street’s greatest team of journalists.”
Yet Paul Dacre, despite being a household name, is a mysterious figure. Rumours abound. Only rarely has he spoken out, usually to take aim at an aspect of modern Britain that he deems “authoritarian”. Twitter is awash with claims, some believable and some laughable, of the things Dacre has allegedly done during his tenure, from causing Brexit to turning his paper into an “immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting” machine. But no one can deny Paul Dacre’s brilliance. Peter Oborne, the Mail’s former political columnist, said the way Dacre determined what should be in each edition of his paper was “a daily performance of genius.” Nick Davies, in his book Flat Earth News, said Dacre’s Mail was “brilliant and corrupt … the professional foul of contemporary Fleet Street.” Charles Burgess, a former features editor, called Dacre “the most consummate newspaperman I’ve ever met.”
But as Dacre steps down, the question turns to legacy. How powerful was he? Did he respond to the hopes, fears and interests of the public or did he force feelings upon them? Did he involve himself in the national conversation, steer it, or start it? How much should he be credited or blamed (depending on your view) for Brexit? Hacked Off, the group campaigning for greater restrictions on the press, have already said that Paul Dacre’s “true legacy” is “the ethical problems of the industry and the public’s loss of trust in newspapers”. There’s no doubt he helped to shape middle-class conservatism beyond London, and few would disagree that he made newspapers in Britain more influential.
But the truth is that we won’t know what Dacre’s legacy is for some time. It could be decades before we see what a United Kingdom without his influence looks like. He has been a fixture of national life for more than three decades. With Dacre at the helm, the Mail’s circulation has increased by almost a million, the Saturday’s Mail has become Britain’s biggest-selling paper, and, under Martin Clarke, Mail Online has become the No. 1 English-language newspaper website in the world. Tim Shipman, the political editor of the Sunday Times and a former Mail journalist, said: “There isn’t a prime minister over the last 30 years who hasn’t been looking over their shoulder wondering what Paul Dacre thought of them.” When such a powerful editor steps down, things change. And though I don’t know the how, I do know this: when that editor is Paul Dacre, that change is palpable.