London (AFP) – A decisive force in the Brexit campaign, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre leaves behind a divisive legacy as his tenure at the helm of the influential tabloid comes to an end after 26 years.
Lord Rothermere, head of the Daily Mail’s parent company, called him “the greatest Fleet Street editor of his generation” and supporters and critics alike called it the “end of an era”.
Under his leadership, the paper became known for its virulent right-wing campaigns against immigration and its anti-EU views, wielding an influence over Britain’s Conservative Party that was reminiscent of a bygone time of all-powerful newspaper barons.
Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the left-wing Daily Mirror newspaper, described Dacre as the “Godfather of Fleet Street” and said that “catastrophic Brexit was his last hurrah”.
Ahead of the 2016 EU membership referendum, then prime minister David Cameron, who supported Britain staying in the bloc, asked Dacre to “cut him some slack” in the campaign, the BBC reported.
After Dacre refused to step down, Cameron asked Lord Rothermere to sack him which made the editor “incandescent” and his resolve to campaign for Brexit “stiffened”, a source told BBC Newsnight.
– ‘Good riddance’ –
While the Daily Mail attracted intense criticism for its deliberate non-politically correct stances, it also had a long record of campaigning on civil rights and environmental issues.
Its fight for justice after the 1993 racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and a badly handed police investigation, culminated in a famous front-page headline.
“Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong let them sue us,” read the front page on February 14, 1997, above pictures of five white men who were suspected of carrying out the crime but had not at that stage been convicted.
Despite a sharp fall in newspaper sales in recent years, the Daily Mail sells 1.28 million copies a day with its mix of politics, celebrity news and opinion aimed at “Middle England” — second only to The Sun which sells 1.49 million copies.
The Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) parent company announced on Wednesday that Dacre would “step back” from day-to-day editorial duties in November and become chairman and editor-in-chief of the Mail’s parent group Associated Newspapers.
Dacre started out at the Daily Express, another right-wing, eurosceptic tabloid, and started working at the Mail in 1980.
After a brief stint between 1991 and 1992 as editor of the London Evening Standard, which was owned by DMGT at the time, Dacre was appointed editor of the Daily Mail.
Despite praise in some circles for his tabloid panache, Dacre’s critics reacted positively to his move.
Alastair Campbell, the outspoken former spin doctor of Tony Blair’s Labour government, called the 69-year-old Dacre the “Obergruppenfuhrer” — a Nazi Party paramilitary rank.
“Malign influence on media culture. Good riddance,” he wrote, pointing out the irony that Dacre was a major recipient of EU farming funds because of his ownership of country houses.
Evan Harris, head of Hacked Off, a campaign for tighter press regulation in the wake of Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, said Dacre’s resignation “will bring no comfort to the victims of the Mail’s many years of unethical and bullying conduct”.
There was some criticism even from Conservative ranks.
Conservative MP Nicholas Soames criticised Dacre for running a front-page headline reading “Enemies of the People” in reference to Supreme Court judges who ruled that the British government needed parliamentary authorisation to trigger Brexit.
Soames said it was “impossible to over estimate Dacre’s poison”.