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Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, praised by Lord Rothermere as ‘the greatest Fleet Street editor of his generation’. Photograph: REUTERS

Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre is finally unseated – but the damage is done

Press baron Lord Rothermere swayed the Brexit outcome by failing to move the editor

No one will ever be able to accuse Lord Rothermere of acting too hastily. His decision to put the Daily Mail’s warhorse of an editor, Paul Dacre, out to grass has been an extraordinary example of procrastination. He should have handed the job to Geordie Greig five years ago, when he was just a year into his editorship of the Mail on Sunday and champing at the bit.

If the Europhile Rothermere had not dithered, it is possible to imagine there would have been a different outcome in the EU referendum. Greig, a passionate Remainer, a Tory with a streak of liberalism and imbued with an establishment ethos, would never have campaigned for Brexit, and certainly not with Dacre’s fanaticism.

We may never know why Rothermere, aka Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, the fourth viscount in his line, waited so long. What we do know is that his vacillation allowed Dacre too great a licence, for far too long, to pursue a relentless reactionary agenda of chauvinism, xenophobia, misogyny and racism, not to mention the bullying of several people in public life along with his own staff.

Yet Rothermere had the gall to mark Dacre’s belated kick upstairs to a non-job as the passing of “the greatest Fleet Street editor of his generation”. Admittedly, there was a measure of corporate hyperbole but surely, m’lord, your tongue was in your cheek.

Let’s get the “greatness” in perspective. Dacre has always produced a technically admirable, popular newspaper. If not always first with the news, its reporting has been more than proficient. Its choice of features is smart, if rather predictable, and the quality of its feature writing first rate. Attention to detail is evident on every page.

It’s important, however, to acknowledge that Dacre has been blessed with unparalleled editorial resources. At his disposal has been the largest journalistic staff in national newspapers and a budget that makes rival editors’ eyes water. He has been able to open a chequebook to buy any story. Space has been unlimited. On some days, the Mail has more editorial pages than the Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mirror put together.

Journalistic professionalism, inaugurated under his predecessor, David English, is an essential component. It has given credence to the controversial content.

Much has been made by those who praise Dacre’s achievement in articulating the concerns of that mythical construct “middle England”. According to a former Mail marketing director, these “middle Englanders” are a mixture of wealthy executives, affluent retirees and secure families who live in settled suburbia. Maybe.

Of far greater importance is whether Dacre’s Mail represents their opinions, or provokes them. What is often missed in a simplistic analysis of the relationship between popular newspapers and their audiences, is the way in which deep-seated prejudices are reinforced rather than challenged.

Dacre’s brand of conservatism, as promulgated day after day, has not only sought to buttress the outlook of largely comfortable, white, middle-class, small ‘c’ conservatives, but to play on their fears that their way of life is under persistent threat by forces they cannot control. Democracy has let them down. By contrast, the Mail is their only true friend. In acting for them, the Mail has created, and also sustained, a siege mentality.

In so doing, while claiming to hold power to account, it has tended to undermine its very foundation by demeaning both politicians and politics itself. Indeed, there is the central contradiction at the heart of the Mail agenda under Dacre: it decries the very institutions it affects to support.

Modernity, in its myriad forms, is viewed as a menace. Why can’t everything stay as it was in, say, the 1950s? Why do we need to have immigrants? Why should women work? Why aren’t the judges proper Conservatives as they were in times of yore? What point is there to the meddlesome European Union?

Dacre is the epitome of a grumpy old man, with the added advantage of having a platform to proselytise his Blimpish views to a vast audience.

Vast? With barely 1.3m daily sales and a likely readership of not much more than 4 million, it might appear as though the Mail has only a marginal hold on the attention of a population exceeding 65 million. But its influence stretches way beyond that. Of far greater significance is the status the Mail enjoys with opinion formers including, crucially, broadcasting outlets. It benefits from a media narcissism which allows it to set the daily political and social agenda. There is a disproportionate reaction on a daily basis to what it says. It has gained the kind of kudos that puts former Fleet Street agenda setters, the Sun and Daily Mirror, in the shade.

At this point, some of you might be tempted to point to the Mail’s greatest claim to editorial fame: its fight for justice on behalf of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. It cannot be denied that it was an exceptional piece of journalism that had far-reaching implications.

Critics have raised any number of cavils, not least that Dacre acted after realising he had known Stephen’s father. Until that point, the paper had covered the story in its usual negative fashion, viewing complaints about police inaction through the prism of its law-and-order stance.

It is crass to view that single campaign as adequate compensation for the 26 years in which Dacre has shamelessly played to, and fortified, the worst aspects of an intolerant and isolationist fraction of the British population.

This bigotry culminated in pro-Brexit hysteria. At times, such as the front-page attacks on judges and Gina Miller, Dacre appeared to have lost all reason. How, one was given to saying, can Rothermere live with this stuff? Why is he keeping him in the chair?

Now it is all too late. Greig will certainly pursue a less strident line, but the damage has been done. Dacre, the grand old Duke of York, marched his army up to the top of the Brexit hill, and they are still there, firing Mail-manufactured missiles at the so-called Remoaners.

Greig cannot march them down again. He cannot turn back the clock. Although Brexit will be seen as Dacre’s legacy, see it instead as Rothermere’s.

The last of Britain’s press barons has let his country down.

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