May I start with an apology to the hosts of a dinner I was speaking at last night (9 February), which I left slightly ahead of schedule, in order to get to an interview on Newsnight. Apologies especially to those fellow Daily Mail haters (aka all civilised members of society) who said they were rushing home to catch my debate with a defender of the Daily Mail over the news that Wikipedia editors no longer view Paul Dacre's rancid rag as a reliable source.
No sooner was I en route than a message came through from Newsnight that they were dropping the item because they couldn't find anyone to come on to argue the other side. They had former Observer editor Roger Alton lined up, but for whatever reason he had decided against it. As for the Mail, perhaps remembering this encounter with Dacre's former deputy on the same programme, they also decided they didn't want to put anyone up.
Dacre has many faults. Cowardice and a refusal to engage in debate, while expecting everyone to respond to whatever fanciful allegations he wishes to make against them, are high up a very long list.
On the issue we were meant to be discussing (and let's park the fact that the BBC didn't dare just empty chair the Mail's coward-in-chief), when one looks at the guidelines that cover Wikipedia sourcing, why on earth should anyone consider the Mail to be a credible source? As a general rule, Wikipedia seeks to use "reliable, third-party, published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy". Well, the Mail is certainly a third-party published source, but for the rest of it...
Wikipedia also use a variety of criteria to evaluate reliability. For example, one signal that a news organisation engages in fact-checking and has a reputation for accuracy is the publication of corrections. Enough said about the paper that regularly tops the list of complaints about mistakes (err.... lies, err... alternative facts) and has a pathological dislike of admitting wrongdoing and, when forced to do so, buries apologies where few shall see them.
The elevation of Donald Trump to President, and the role of the Russian government and largely Eastern European media entrepreneurs in the US elections, has seen 'fake news' enter the language and provoke a lively debate about the nature of journalism in the US. But with papers like the Mail so central to our media culture, and papers like the Express aping them in many ways in recent times, we have been dealing with the 'fake news' phenomenon for some time.
Dacre cannot take all the credit, but must definitely take some, for the remarkable findings of a King's College/Ipsos-Mori survey of UK opinion. It revealed the extent of public ignorance about some of the key issues facing the country before the last election, and which are regularly and inaccurately covered in his rag.
- Teenage pregnancies: the public thought fifteen percent of young girls get pregnant. In fact, it is 0.6 percent.
- Violent crime: more than half thought it was rising when the opposite was the case.
- Welfare: around a third of people said the government spent more on Jobseeker's Allowance than on pensions. In fact, pensions accounted for fifteen times as much as JSA.
- Welfare fraud: the public estimated that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently. In fact it was 70 pence.
- Religion and race: we think a quarter of the UK population is Muslim. (It's 5%.) We think 34% call themselves 'Christian.' (59%.) We think 31 percent of the population are immigrants. (13%). We think 30 percent are black or Asian (11%).
One of his latest obsessions (among the lies being pumped out on a near daily basis) is overseas aid – it accounts for less than 1% of government spending, yet a quarter of British people believe it is one of the top three items of public expenditure, ahead of schools and pensions.
The Daily Mail represents the worst of British values
Last night, I was heading to the studio well stocked with examples of their lies about human rights, Muslims, vaccines, climate change, and of course cancer – which, as someone tweeted yesterday, is almost certainly caused by spending too much time on Wikipedia.
Of course on Europe, the Mail and the other leading members of the Brexit Lie Machine have fed their readers a diet of lies over the years. Here, with the referendum now behind us, they can have their cake and eat it; for example, taking the mickey out of a woman who raised the famous 'bent banana' issue on Question Time as the reason for her LEAVE vote, the same reporter having been one of the journalists responsible for spreading the lie in the first place.
It is hard to sue over the many Eurolies told down the years – you can't defame a banana – but lies they are, all told by the vastly wealthy Dacre who rips off EU subsidies for his enormous Highland estate. Human beings have had more luck in taking on this least reliable of third-party published sources. Just to take a few examples:
- Mr Dacre's rag (albeit covered by libel insurance so let's not feel any sympathy) had to pay £125,000 to TV psychic Sally Morgan after falsely accusing her of using a hidden earpiece to scam a theatre audience;
- £65,000 to consultant Andrew Miller in a case where the judge criticised the paper for calling no witnesses, instead relying on 'highly selective extracts' from documents amounting to 'multiple hearsay' for your defence;
- more than £100,000 to two Britam Defence directors accused of selling chemical weapons to rebels fighting Assad;
- £40,000 to actress Diana Rigg – and this one really showed up Dacre's repulsiveness – Ms Rigg agreed to the interview with the Mail to raise awareness of the Children With Aids Charity, of which she is a patron. They turned it into a piece portraying her as a lonely, embittered woman who held British men in contempt;
- £30,000 to Dr Austen Ivereigh after accusing him of being a hypocrite (yes, Dacre!!) over abortion;
- £47,500 to Tamil refugee Parameswaran Subramanyam, who went on a 23-day hunger strike in Parliament Square, over false allegations that he secretly sustained himself with hamburgers;
- £100,000 to Elton John after they reported that he issued a bizarre and absurd edict to guests – ordering them not to approach him – "thereby acting like old-fashioned royalty or some tinpot dictator and exhibiting self-important, arrogant and rude behaviour bordering on paranoia" at his annual charity ball;
- $40,000 to Kate Winslet;
- £75,000 to Anne Diamond's ex husband;
- £100,000 to Alan Sugar...
Oh, God, I could be here all night with this.
Putting Paul Dacre as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission was like putting Harold Shipman in charge of the ethics committee of the British Medical Association
Carole Caplin, George Clooney, Keira Knightley, JK Rowling, Mark Lester, Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, the former Dean of RAF College Cranwell, Professor Joel Hayward, after the Mail on Sunday branded him 'The Ayatollah of the RAF', suggesting that Hayward, a Muslim, had criticised NATO air strikes in Libya, had claimed that Nazi gas chambers were British propaganda and compared Churchill to Muhammad. Not true; James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, Sharon Stone, Rowan Atkinson...
His paper has regularly topped the table for the most successful complaints upheld against it, under the various so-called self-regulating media bodies, in which Dacre has often had a leading role, not least as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission editors' code committee. This was, as Tony Blair forbade me from saying at the time, like putting Harold Shipman in charge of the ethics committee of the British Medical Association.
While he explodes in synthetic rage if you dare to put the words Mail and phone-hacking in the same breath, it is worth noting that The Mail topped another league table – by a mile – when the Information Commissioner published a list of newspapers who hired private detectives engaged in illegal activity, with 958 transactions involving 58 journalists. The Mail on Sunday was runner-up.
So this is the paper that both British Airways and Virgin thrust at their passengers as they board planes; the paper that defines itself as the heart of middle England, when in truth it represents the worst of British values, not the best.
It would seem that David Beckham and Gary Lineker have been in their sights this week. But there really is something comical about them trying to make out Lineker has been avoiding tax – and I felt his denials carried a lot more credibility than the piece making the allegations – given the paper is owned by a tax-dodging non dom.
The principal sin of these two former footballers, it would seem to me, is being successful, popular and having certain values that go against the narrow-minded, hate-filled that appear to have become ever more extreme inside poor old Dacre's ailing heart, if the paper is anything to go by.
I will close with a short extract from Dacre's own Wikipedia entry. According to Cristina Odone in The Observer, Dacre has a reputation towards underlings of "verbal abuse [and] a drill sergeant's delight in public humiliation" which also includes verbal abuse. According to Nick Davies, in his book Flat Earth News, his staff call his morning editorial meetings the "Vagina Monologues" because of his habit of calling everybody a "c***".
Everybody, that is, who doesn't conform to those arrow-minded, hate-filled views... sorry Gary, sorry Becks, sorry most foreigners, most women, most public servants, most gays, most immigrants, most successful people who want to make the world a better place... but that includes you.
Alastair Campbell is a British strategist and writer, best known for his work as Director of Communications and Strategy for Prime Minister Tony Blair between 1994 and 2003. He is the author of 12 books, the latest of which is Outside Inside, his diaries from 2003-2005. He is Ambassador for mental health campaign Time to Change.