If Paul Dacre was listening to the “mouthpiece of the metropolitan elite” BBC on Thursday morning he might have heard Polly Tonybee lay into this “bully in chief” who has “poisoned British politics”. Would there be a more fitting leaving present for the outgoing Daily Mail editor than to have these words framed, preferably in the olde English typeface of its masthead? This is precisely the legacy that Dacre sought to create in his nearly three decades at the helm of the Mail. As he once commented on Desert Island Discs, his choice of castaway luxury would be a copy of the Guardian in order to fill him with the rage-induced energy to get off the island.
By living to goad the liberal class and everything they stand for, Dacre ensured that his nefarious influence became a something more than just a myth in itself, often being sensationalised beyond the realm of the plausible by the bubbles of Westminster and Soho. Number 10 lived in fear of his ire and for the broadcast media the Mail editorial stands for the voice of home-owning, Brexit-voting Middle Britain.
Leaving the EU may well have been the paper’s last hurrah. In other senses the news setting powers of the Northcliffe ogre have showed signs of wear. The Mail was hardly alone in being taken aback by the better than expected support for Labour at the 2017 election. Yet by throwing its lot so forcefully behind Theresa May and her efforts to “Crush the Saboteurs” the net effect of its support appeared to be negligible. The Mail’s 14 pages of attack on the day of the election even got a mention in Corbyn’s conference speech later that year: next time, Mr Dacre, make it 28.
Added to an erosion in circulation, it may seem that Dacre has chosen an opportune moment to leave, seemingly on his own terms. The task now at Northcliffe House will be to work out what aspects of Dacre are worth preserved- and which ones are best consigned to pulp. Despite his much lauded political influence it is not immediately obvious that Dacre’s brand of fulminating anti-modernity is what maintains the Mail’s peer-beating sales. With over half of its readership female and employing some of the best and most experienced feature writers, editors and lifestyle commentators in British journalism it is a mistake to assume that Dacre’s political imprint is the secret of the paper’s success. Classic Dacre headlines combined imperative calls -“We must”, “Crush” “Let us”- with arcane phraseology like “Who Will Speak for England?” By the end it is not obvious that the editor was speaking like anyone born after 1940. He may have stood for family values and loathed the profaning of tradition yet under his stewardship he spawned an Online gossip mill that glories in the worst of celeb culture (while his own use of language would make a sailor blush).
Dacre understood little Britain like no other.But the appointment of the smart Geordie Greig –metropolitan, pro-EU- suggests that for the Rothermeres this demographic isn’t big enough to support growth. Yet like most other titles the Mail has yet to crack what this future will be. Insiders suggest Dacre always hated the MailOnline (and it hates him). The incoming editor will surely want to take more ownership of the brand’s digital offer if it is continue to remain relevant in the coming decades.
Ultimately, as a Chinese premier once quipped of the impact of the French revolution, what the impact of Dacrexit will be on the many-headed hyrda that is the Mail brand is too soon to tell. The man himself will still be hovering in the wings in his new executive role. His stepping aside has rightly been marked as the end of an era; but I would caution Guardianistas to put that warm prosecco back in the fridge. The era may not have finally ended him- and, should the brand go into nose drive, like the murdered soap star he might yet make an unlikely return.