Daily Mail editor criticises lawyers and defends press self-regulation

April 24, 2009 at 2:10 pm Leave a comment

dailymail
by Alasdair Glennie

Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre yesterday hit out at his critics and lambasted libel laws and the legal profession when he appeared before the Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel.

In a sometimes combative exchange with MPs, he championed press freedoms and defended self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Mr Dacre chairs the PCC code committee.

He said newspapers should be free to publish scandal and to intrude into people’s privacy when in the public interest.

Mr Dacre told MP’s he was “very surprised at the soft time” they gave Max Mosley when he appeared before the committee last month.

Labour MP Rosemary McKenna bristled at the suggestion that he was being treated any differently to the Formula 1 boss, who had attacked newspapers and the PCC in particular.

Mr Mosley won a privacy action against the News of the World after the paper alleged he was involved in a Nazi orgy. Mr Dacre said Mosely’s subsequent campaign to clean up the press was “an almost surreal inversion of the moral values of normal civilised society.”

He said: “For Mr Mosley to crusade against the media is a bit like the Yorkshire Ripper campaigning against men who batter women.”

Committee chairman John Whittingdale MP caused some confusion with the suggestion that the Daily Mail had broken the Mosley story.

He said: “The courts did rule that what you did, or at least what your newspaper did, was in breach of the law.”

“My newspaper?” replied a surprised Mr Dacre, who later insisted that the Daily Mail would not have published the story even if it had fallen into his lap.

“We are a family newspaper,” he said, “but I defend the right of the News of the World to publish it.”

Mr Dacre also responded to Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, who told the committee on Tuesday that the Daily Mail was characterised by “ruthless aggression and spite”.

Mr Dacre said: “Nick Davies is a brilliant reporter. I paid him very well to appear in the Mail in the past. But he’s one of those papers [sic] who sees conspiracy in everything.

“Like many people who write mainly for The Guardian he believes that only they have the right to claim the moral high ground.

“His book doesn’t do himself or our industry justice. Parts of it are a mish-mash of innuendo, gossip, smear and half-truths masquerading as truth, the very thing he accuses newspapers of indulging in.

“It was written without affording the basic journalistic courtesy of checking his allegations with the newspapers concerned.”

Mr Dacre said the Daily Mail was a compassionate paper that fought hard to represent its readers’ interests and anxieties.

He accepted that journalistic standards were declining in some areas of the media, but said the Daily Mail’s spending on journalism remained as high as ever, despite the recession.

Mr Dacre withheld his strongest criticisms for lawyers and judges involved in libel and privacy actions.

He reiterated criticisms he has made in the past about Mr Justice Eady. He said: “Judge Eady is clearly a brilliant judge. But what mystifies many editors is why one judge is seen conducting and presiding over almost all the very controversial privacy cases.

“There is a feeling, you need to know, amongst many newspaper editors that Judge Eady has an animus against the popular press.”

Mr Dacre also attacked “rapacious and greedy” law firms who take advantage of Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs) to impose “obscene” costs on newspapers who lose libel cases.

He pointed to the “chilling effect” this could have on some newspapers who may be unwilling to risk bankruptcy by fighting libel actions.

Mr Dacre said that the London was the “libel capital of the world”, adding that this was “a matter of shame to the British legal system and to the British judiciary”.

He said that, in combination with the Human Rights Act, CFA’s “present a lethal weapon in crushing press freedom.”

He said the legal profession should “clean up its act” and proposed that legal fees be capped, that the doubling of success fees be banned along with after-the-event insurance and that hourly rates be reduced.

Mr Dacre also said that people who could not afford legal action against newspapers should be encouraged to use the PCC, which is free.

Questioned as to whether his position on the board of the PCC undermined its credibility, he said: “Perhaps it ill beholds MPs to ask journalists about self-regulation. At least we have lay members on our commission. You have none on your regulatory body.”

Mr Dacre said he would oppose any attempt to introduce a statutory privacy law, adding that all news involves some breach of privacy.

He said that judges were not well placed to decide which stories were justified in the public interest. Mr Dacre said: “What interests the public is by and large in the public interest.”

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