THERE is a rumour circulating – or is it a practical joke? – that Paul Dacre is close to becoming Chairman of the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom, writes Professor of Media Law Paul Wragg.
If, as widely anticipated, Ofcom is appointed as the UK’s official online harms regulator, it will be Dacre’s task to oversee its implementation.
In short, he will be tasked with ensuring the government’s position on this, outlined in its white paper, is realised, such that, amongst other things, cyberbullying and mis/disinformation capable of destabilising democratic institutions is tackled effectively.
This is the same Paul Dacre who, as Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail, from 1992 to 2018, instigated an incredibly profitable period of the newspaper’s history. Whilst most newspapers struggled financially in the dot-com era, his newspaper thrived.
This is the same Paul Dacre whose greatest impact on the paper was “to let it seem mired in the things it hates, as if society’s worst excesses were mostly an outgrowth of its own paranoid imagination.”
The Paul Dacre who created a “bubbling quagmire of prejudice posing as news, of opinion dressed as fact, and contempt posing as contempt for that portion of the world’s population that doesn’t live in Cheam.”
Quite why the government thinks Dacre suitable is baffling. This is, after all, the man for whom question marks abound over whether the Daily Mail was also involved, like the News of the World, in systematic, illegal phone-hacking on an industrial scale, and, if so, whether Dacre had knowledge of it or not.
And, if Dacre genuinely had no such knowledge further questions would arise as to how this could possibly be, so given his fearsome reputation? And, if he did not know what was going on under his watch, how can he possibly be a suitable candidate for overseeing OFCOM?
Dacre, of course, denies the existence of any such activity. Indeed, he threatened to sue Byline Investigates for suggesting otherwise, although he later quietly dropped the matter when it became apparent Byline would stand by the veracity of their story.
Nevertheless, Dacre adamantly denies any such wrongdoing. Indeed, there is no greater testament to his sincerity than the fact of the oath he gave at the Leveson Inquiry, for he did so knowing that any later finding of perjury would result in serious personal consequences, including the prospect of incarceration. Given those consequences, it must be assumed that Dacre gave the full and honest truth.
Admittedly, it is not simply these outstanding questions that makes Dacre an undesirable choice of chair. It is, instead, the sheer hypocrisy of giving a man driven to please privileged white seniors the task of regulating the bilious outpouring of hate that his newspaper worked hard to produce.
How can this man oversee a policy striving to address flagrant invasions of privacy when his newspaper has sent a photographer to lurk outside an A&E department?
How can this man be appointed to tackle serious online bullying when he himself is famed for his aggression? As award-winning investigative journalist Nick Davies related in his book Flat Earth News: ‘He would stalk through the newsroom – its ten to eight in the evening, the paper is ready to go, and he’s shouting “What the fuck is this, you cunt, there’s not a fucking brain in this office” – tearing up pages. Everyone shrinks to the size of a dwarf when he does that, trying to get out of the way.’
How can this man address the destabilisation of our democratic institutions given the gross distortions his newspaper has perpetrated about everything from immigration, Islam, or transphobia, for example?
How can this man tackle the rampant increase in misogyny and the sort of appalling abuse that, for example, female MPs receive, when he himself is known to have malformed views of women as subservient beings undeserving of careers or otherwise titillating creatures whose dress must comply with his strict rules on femininity before they can be published?
How can he do so when he himself is said to have bullied the May government into dropping part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry (the part that would have scrutinised reams of evidence concerning the culture of phone hacking in other major titles)?
How can he do so when his newspaper misrepresented Leveson’s recommendation for tougher regulation so successfully that the most flagrant interferences of rights – interferences that literally ruin lives – continue unabated?
These breaches do not merely affect the lives of the rich and famous – it is real people that are being affected: regular, decent people who lack the financial muscle to defend their rights.
To appoint this man – this sad, loathsome man – as chairman of Ofcom would be an insult not only to countless victims left in his wake, but to democracy itself.
* Professor Paul Wragg is a Professor of Media Law at the University of Leeds. He has written extensively about Press freedom, regulation, privacy and defamation, co-hosts the Media Law Podcast, and sits on the code committee of IMPRESS, the UK’s only officially-recognised Press regulator.