The story most papers missed: Dacre calls for statutory backstop

Talk about missing the story. The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, The Guardian, even Newsnight all failed to lead with the genuinely newsworthy aspect of Wednesday’s Leveson Inquiry seminars.

The Sun highlighted Paul Dacre and Kelvin MacKenzie’s attacks on David Cameron – for setting up the Inquiry in the first place. The Daily Mail slavishly reported its own editor’s remarks – though failed to mention his most jaw-dropping proposals.  The Guardian lapped up Kelvin MacKenzie’s entertaining, deliberately distracting, attacks on ‘arse-licking’ politicians. Even Newsnight fell for the easy headline about newspapers fighting back. Only The Times(£) and the Financial Times saw the significance of Paul Dacre’s comments.

Before coming to what the editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers actually said, it’s worth giving his speech some context.

Paul Dacre has been editor of the Daily Mail for 19 years. He is the chairman of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee – the group that writes the journalism code for news organisations. He is also a member of the Press Board of Finance, which funds the system of self-regulation and appoints the chair of the Press Complaints Commission. He used to be a member of the Press Complaints Commission but stepped down in 2008. His colleague Peter Wright, the editor of the Mail on Sunday, sits on the Commission. Dacre is central, therefore, to the existing system of press self-regulation.

He is also a very powerful figure in the press, arguably the most powerful figure in the press now that Murdoch has been partly emasculated by the phone hacking scandal. Even before July, Dacre was able to boast about his political influence. In 2008 he told the Society of Editors that he had successfully convinced Gordon Brown to step in and prevent the introduction of greater penalties for breaches of Section 55 of the Data Protection Act. Penalties which, if strengthened, would have given the Information Commissioner’s office more power to pursue illegal methods of personal information gathering.

Dacre rarely speaks in public. When he does he tends to be pretty explicit about his views. Views that shape the editorial approach of his 2.1 million circulation newspaper. In the same speech in 2008, for example, he argued that popular newspapers had to be allowed to intrude on people’s private lives or they would not sell enough copies to survive. This argument is still being made, and was put forward by Louise Mensch MP on Newsnight on Wednesday night.

So what did he actually say at the Leveson seminar? Apart from the predictable flotsam and jetsam about corrupt politicians, Hampstead liberals, and comparisons with Zimbabwe, Dacre made two astonishing proposals: that Parliament pass a law compelling newspapers to participate in self-regulation, and that an Ombudsman be appointed with the power to impose fines for serious offences.

“[W]hile I abhor statutory controls,” Dacre said, “there’s one area where Parliament can help the press. Some way must be found to compel all newspaper owners to fund and participate in self-regulation”.

“An Ombudsman,” he continued later in his speech, “… could have the power to investigate, possibly with specialists co-opted onto his panel, potential press industry scandals. The Ombudsman could also have the power to summon journalists and editors to give evidence, to name offenders and, if necessary – in the cases of the most extreme malfeasance – to impose fines”.

Pinch yourself. Read those words again. This is the editor-in-chief of the Mail titles arguing for some statutory backstop for press self-regulation, and for some kind of oversight of the system by an ombudsman. This is from an editor who has previously written of ‘axe-grinding politicians and a supporting army of quangocrats’ who ‘have wakeful nights dreaming up new and more ingenious ways to constrain the media’.

It should be said that these proposals seemed strangely at odds with other comments made in his speech. For example, he said it would be “disastrous for a commission to impose fines”, and yet he proposed that an ombudsman could impose fines. It is not clear why it would be disastrous for a commission but not for the ombudsman.

Nor is it clear how, in Dacre’s model, how Parliament could compel newspapers to be part of a system that they did not want to be a part of. If the press feels compelled to be a member of the regulatory system, Eve Salomon said in the presentation before Dacre’s, it will rebel. The regulator, Salomon said, ‘would be slaughtered’ if membership were made compulsory.

But despite the contradictions and omissions in Dacre’s speech there should be no doubt that this was a major change. A seismic shift in some of the press’ attitude to regulation. The Mail has come out in favour of statutory backstops for press self-regulation. For the first time in its 115 year history.

That is newsworthy. It’s a shame much of the press missed it.