15 June 2018

Paul Dacre: the last of the big beasts?

As Paul Dacre gets ready to step down as editor of the Daily Mail, Max Jewell, Senior Account Executive, looks at the changing role of the modern editor.

Paul Dacre cut a formidable figure in his editor's chair. Under his leadership, the Daily Mail - bold in editorial tone, penetrating in its investigatory powers and terrifyingly persistent in its commitment to chosen campaigns - became the behemoth of Fleet Street. The thoughts of 'Middle England', spoken with Dacre's voice, came to reverberate around the corridors of power, earning the respect and fear of Prime Ministers in equal measure.

The paper has been the savage stalking horse of modern politics for some time, with Dacre firmly in the saddle. Prime Ministers of every hue have had little choice to but to ingratiate themselves with the paper's editor and some, in the case of Gordon Brown, whose upbringing as the son of a Pastor captured Dacre's respect, had greater success than others.

The paper's power peaked, perhaps, during the EU referendum campaign, helping deliver, according to many commentators, a victory for the leave campaign. That the Daily Mail not only reflect its readers' opinions, but helped mobilise them, is evidenced by David Cameron prevailing on the paper's proprietor Lord Rothermere to have the Eurosceptic editor sacked in early 2016.

But after 26 years in the role, Dacre is set to hand the reigns to Geordie Greig, the current editor of the Mail on Sunday. This has raised a few eyebrows for, if nothing else, the two men were united by a burning dislike of the other, or so the rumour mill would have it. Greig's Mail on Sunday not only took a different position in the EU referendum, but, as one industry commentator has claimed, took great pleasure in rubbishing its sister title's scoops.

Can we expect Greig's appointment to herald a shift in the Daily Mail's editorial tone? For all the speculation, likely not. Greig may have supported Remain, but his readership does not. As every editor knows, it is dangerous to fiddle with a paper's line: to mount a challenge to the Daily Mail, the Daily Express elected to back Tony Blair in 1997 and was duly punished by its right-leaning readership with dwindling circulation. During his reign, Dacre had his finger on the pulse of 'Middle England' and Greig will want to ensure he takes regular, accurate readings, too. Greig is the man, after all, who, when taking over the Evening Standard in 2009, ran an advertising campaign apologising for the newspaper falling out-of-touch with Londoners' concerns.

Greig took pains to apologise precisely because a newspaper echoes, prods and mobilises its readers opinions, but does not create them. And with print circulation continuing to fall, Greig has no choice but to ingratiate himself with his readership: older, C2DE Brexiteers, according to Newsworks.

And in the debate about the role of the modern editor, this last point is instructive. Big beasts, of which Dacre was the biggest, are a rarer species now than they once were. Proprietors have always exerted influence over their editors - Max Hastings during his tenure as leader of the Telegraph was vetoed in his choice of political editor by owner Conrad Black - but this influence has grown in recent years, largely due to financial pressures. At the same paper in 2014, for example, it was reported that experienced journalists and editors were being replaced by search engine optimisers and a Head of Interactive Journalism for whom 'previous newsroom experience [was] not needed'.

The editors of Le Monde and the New York Times found out how their roles had evolved when they were forced out following a staff revolt.

Perhaps nowhere is the changed role of the modern editor better demonstrated than in the local press. As Simon O'Neill, who left the Oxford Mail after editing daily titles for seventeen years, said: "Internally, we have become accountable to more people. We are accountable to digital, to analytics and commercially. Performance is no longer tracked by half-year figures, it is tracked hourly. Editors are no longer gods. But perhaps that is no bad thing."

Caught between the twin pressures of budgetary constraints and the need to appeal to a safe constituency, the modern editor is flying with clipped wings. Greig may be elevated to the editor's chair, but he will present a decidedly different figure to his predecessor.