After 26 years, and just a few months before his 70th birthday, Paul Dacre has officially signed off as editor of the Daily Mail.
While he’ll remain editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, which owns the Mail and the Mail On Sunday, his resignation marks the end of an era during which the paper has sparked fierce controversies, campaigned for justice, continuously enthralled its readers – and maddened its critics.
His editorship began in the summer of 1992, shortly after he turned down Rupert Murdoch’s offer of the same role at The Times. With Dacre at the helm, the Mail soon became known for identifying issues that enrage, leading petitions and calls for justice and, as was the case ahead of the 2015 EU Referendum, pushing voters towards the polling stations.
The Mail’s Brexit coverage, both pre- and post-referendum, is an ongoing reminder of its power to speak to the public – or “Middle England”, as Dacre describes his core group of readers.
“Who will speak for England?” the front page asked, before the UK went to the polls in 2016, praising with “Take a bow, Britain!” when the result came through.
In a sure sign of Dacre’s power, it was later claimed that then-Prime Minister, remain supporter David Cameron, had tried to lobby the paper’s owner into ousting Dacre as editor (he declined to comment at the time).
In the three years since the result, the Mail has continued to rail against anyone it sees as standing in the way of Brexit to account, infamously labelling three respected High Court judges “enemies of the people” when they ruled government would need parliament’s consent to leave the EU.
Under Dacre, campaigns have always had a place in the Mail’s pages and haven’t always directly involved politics. In 1997, he produced one of the most memorable front pages in British media history, printing pictures of five suspects in the Stephen Lawrence case alongside one word: MURDERERS.
“The Mail accuses these men of killing,” the subheading read. “If we are wrong, let them sue us.”
The Mail tirelessly followed every development and when two of the people were convicted for the murder 15 years later, it reminded everyone of its role, declaring: “We were proved right about two of them.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Dacre keeps a low public profile – his biggest flirtation with celebrity came in 2004, with an appearance on Desert Island Discs – and despite his success in print media, he’s never tried a Piers Morgan-esque crossover into television, or penned a book about his career.
When he does speak out though, Dacre doesn’t hold back. In 2002, he granted a rare interview with the editor of the British Journalism Review, whose article explained that when Dacre called to make “clarifications” after their meeting, he “wielded the cudgel with even more vigour” rather than trying to tone down his statements, as most interviewees do.
Ten years later, a profile in The New Yorker gave a rare, first-hand insight into how Dacre runs his newsroom, describing the editor’s office as being covered in “white wood-panelling”, with a “gilt-framed seascape” behind the desk. The article described Dacre’s news meetings, revealing that his penchant for the c-word meant editors called the gatherings “Vagina Monologues”.
“My guiding principle is to produce the best journalism possible every day and to connect with and give voice to as many readers as possible,” he said. “There is a passion in the Mail that isn’t in other papers.”
By sticking to this mantra, the Mail has weathered the decline of print media and circulation figures currently stand at just over 1.3 million, making it the UK’s third most-read paper (beaten only by the Sun and the free paper, the Metro).
Just months before the New Yorker’s piece went to print, Dacre had also faced the Leveson Inquiry, making three appearances to give evidence on phone hacking.
Much of the editor’s questioning focused on a battle over a series of articles on Hugh Grant, and the actor’s concerns over how information on his private life was obtained.
The Mail On Sunday – a separate entity – had paid out damages to Grant in 2007 and when giving evidence, Dacre accused the actor of being “obsessed with trying to drag the Daily Mail into another newspaper’s scandal” and consistently denying phone hacking.
His testimonies were polarising but insightful, with the Guardian writing that his October 2011 delivery at the inquiry was “a constructive speech”.
In his book, The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, Kevin Marsh was less diplomatic and described one of Dacre’s appearances as “a chilling insight into a warped mindset”.
Throughout the whole inquiry, Dacre was a staunch defender of the free press, a move which, yet again, won readers’ praise and scrutiny from critics.
So what’s next for the paper, and the man himself? Mail On Sunday editor Geordie Greig will take over at the helm, as Dacre has said his goodbyes with a memo pinned to a noticeboard.
Praising his staff and as self-assured as ever, he wrote: “Many things (mostly risibly and contemptibly inaccurate) are written about the Mail.
“But what no-one can deny is that this floor houses Britain’s finest team of professional journalists who, over the decades, have produced much magnificent journalism.”
The best line though, was his first, as Dacre reminded staff of his new role as head of the organisation.
“There was never going to be an easy way to say goodbye and thank you,” he wrote. “Particularly as I’m not leaving.”