Paul Dacre, speaking passionately against press regulation in October 2011.
A fortnight ago, I couldn't even picture the man running Britain's second biggest-selling newspaper, The Daily Mail. I knew who Paul Dacre was, and I had (irrationally) grown to dislike him, but beyond that, I didn't know anything about him.
I had absolutely no idea about his life, what he sounded like, or whether his own views coincided with the controversial ones propagated by his middle-market tabloid. He was an enigma. A hidden sort of satanic figure, an imaginary Norman-Tebbit-Spitting Image-like-puppet machinating in the background. Now, a fortnight later, and the devil has been unmasked.
It began with BBC Radio 4 profiling him, as a response to the furore caused by a Daily Mail article written by Geoffrey Levy at the end of last month, provocatively headlined "The Man Who Hated Britain", referring to Ralph Miliband, the late father of Labour Party leader - and Daily Mail bete-noire - Ed. Then, yesterday, Dacre ventured into the dark side himself by writing in The Guardian, his rag's arch-nemesis in the eyes of his mob, sorry, readers. Sound a bit dramatic? It certainly felt surreal.
Throw into that mix a running feud between The Mail and Auntie, the post-Leveson repercussions, the Snowden revelations, and you have the perfect ingredients for a box office blockbuster. And best of all, we still don't know how it'll end yet.
For what it's worth, I'm with Paul Dacre on press regulation. I do believe that along with certain other things, such as: parliamentary privilege, free, fair and secret ballot elections, and an impartial judiciary wedded to the rule of law; a free press, warts and all, is essential to the healthy functioning of a democracy. Dacre is right to point out the disproportionate coverage by the BBC over the Ralph Miliband story, in comparison with the Guardian's revelations of the Edward Snowden documents.
As much as I am Auntie's cheerleader and part-time Guardianista, I would rather live in a country that allowed all views to be aired freely, even ones that disgust me. That does not mean the press can publish whatever they want. Nor should they be limited by a Royal Charter or even self-regulation. The solution lies in the application of existing laws on defamation, contempt and other relevant crimes as and when necessary. Some of the existing laws are already too stringent, particularly those relating to the freedoms of expression and privacy as embedded into English law by the Human Rights Act, via the European Convention. Even so, I would still prefer judges to recalibrate the imbalance on a case-by-case basis, rather than a regulator.
In any democracy worth its salt, there needs to be a clear separation of powers between the legislature, executive, judiciary AND (especially) the press. Many constitutional law textbooks do not include the press as an organ of government, and perhaps rightfully so, as it does not directly partake in the law-making process. However, it is precisely because of that unofficial status, it should be able to remain independent and hold the State to account. The last thing we need is for an official branch of government to interfere with a centuries-old institution, that has done more good than harm. Let those who break the law be held to account by the courts, and let the Great British public decide for themselves who deserves their readership or not.
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