Paul Dacre isn't the 'dark lord', he's everyone's arsehole uncle, and Martin Clarke's 'genius'? It's moral bankruptcy
Martin Clarke standing down is attributed to Dacre's genius plan. The reality is boring and business-related. Only rubes think these bullies are special.
When it was announced on Friday (3 December) that Martin Clarke, the chief architect of MailOnline, is stepping down and will leave next year, the word that most begged for analysis in Lord Rothermere’s tribute to him was “genius”. In the fairground mirror world of British media morality, bullies, bastards and tyrants often earn that superlative, Rothermere said of Clarke:
… he is without doubt one of the greatest editors of his generation; and, I am eternally grateful to him for all his immense hard work and genius over the years.
The ‘genius’ of Clarke is the ‘genius’ of the “sidebar of shame” (or as he calls it, “the right rail of genius” — there’s that word again), the endless stack of stories on the right hand side of the MailOnline homepage.
It is the ‘genius’ of stealing stories whenever it fancies, lifting images from wherever it likes, ripping off Twitter threads and Facebook posts, and staring with an unblinking letching Sauron’s eye at every famous woman in the world, waiting for the younger ones to hit adulthood so it can assess their ‘curves’ and the extent to which they are ‘flaunting’ them.
MailOnline’s ‘genius’ was to weaponise hate-scrolling before Facebook conceived of the newsfeed and Twitter existed at all. In a 2012 New Yorker profile of Dacre and the Mail, Clarke made a striking cameo appearance, boasting about his instincts:
I didn’t look at many websites for design ideas. The site breaks all so-called ‘usability rules’. It’s user-friendly for normal people, not internet fanatics.
Clarke was described in a Guardian profile from 2001, as possessing “the man-management skills of a galley-master on a Greek trireme" and that’s the true root of his ‘genius’. Like Dacre, he rules a newsroom with fear and anger, and he always has other people to push failures on while taking credit for the ‘successes’ (used here to mean the thorough projection of the Mail’s cruellest instincts).
The description of Clarke’s time at the Scotsman — where he was hired as editor by the bastard billionaire Barclay brothers in 1997 — contained in Adrian Addison’s Mail Men: The Unauthorised Story of the Daily Mail gives a good sense of his management philosophy:
Clarke began to earn a reputation on the Scotsman as a truly brutal old-school ‘Fleet Street’ editor after senior writers and sub-editors found themselves “being showered with expletives”. The Scotsman’s picture editor quit after being ordered to get better pictures from his “fuckin’ monkeys”; Clarke thought its investigation unit was a “crock of shit” and disbanded it…
A hack quoted by The Guardian in 1998, said Clarke was “a total bastard, a maniac who seemed to enjoy making our lives hell.” Another added: “The stories were always ‘mince’ or ‘shit’ and a typical conference might end, ‘You are all fucking cretins and this is all crap.’”
… [have] been at full throttle, arriving at 5 am, "ranting" about the smallest thing - listings, the code word in the puzzle page, fine details of layout- and dominating the newsroom…
… with yet another battered hack explaining:
We're suffering from Stockholm syndrome here. He's so focused, he can force people to do things they don't want to, the least of them being working a 12-hour day.
The ‘genius’ of Clarke is that he never over-estimates what human beings are interested in or how much you can abuse people desperate to make a living in the media. MailOnline is the crying laughing emoji as a news outlet. It specialises in jealousy, spite, cruelty and surprise, with a dose of cuteness to leaven the bleakness, and the most pathetic of all creatures are always the current occupants of the Mail’s newsrooms.
In an interview with Esquire, Clarke explained the power of animal stories…
The animals that do best are monkeys, dogs, and cats, in roughly that order.
… and in The New Yorker profile he browsed the MailOnline homepage with the writer, explaining his thinking as he went:
“That broke on the wires,” he said, of a story about the former British politician Edwina Currie. There was a piece about a cooking-show contestant who had been accused of reinflating a collapsed chili-and-pineapple soufflé. “I think, to be honest, I saw that in the Daily Express,” Clarke said.
“This one, somebody saw on the telly last night,” he said, of a grotesque but irresistible story about a man who had been left, after a car accident, with half a head.
Clarke knows that people will pretend to be horrified by a ‘half a head’ story but in the false privacy of their browser window they’ll click immediately. Clarke’s ‘genius’ is to make the world actively worse and get paid handsomely for the privilege. It is to be treated by hacks across the spectrum as “a genius at what he does” without stopping to really ask if “what he does” should exist at all.
Paul Dacre — now back as Editor-in-Chief of the Mail titles — was also hailed as a “genius” when he stepped down as Editor of The Daily Mail after 26 years of delivering his famous double cuntings1 and performative abuse during daily conferences which were stuffed with more cunts than the average estate agent’s office and known as “the vagina monologues”.
When Dacre appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2004, Sue Lawley asked him how he thought Daily Mail staff would describe him, he replied: “He’s a hard bastard, but he leads from the front.” When she pressed him further about his management style — as much as she could without mentioning all those cuntings — Dacre said, without a drop of apology, “Shouting creates energy, energy creates great headlines.”
Former Observer editor Roger Alton wrote to The Guardian to defend Dacre after Polly Toynbee wrote a column celebrating his leaving (Paul Dacre, Daily Mail poisoner-in-chief, is quitting. Good riddance, 7 Jun 2018). While it may have been more than slightly influenced by Alton’s residual anger about Toynbee criticisms of him during his Observer stint, it’s a perfect example of the morally empty defences of the Mail that are common in the journalism industry:
Could I correct a couple of points in Polly Toynbee’s extraordinarily mendacious article about the Daily Mail. As someone who has knocked around a few newsrooms, let me assure you that there is less “racism, homophobia and philistinism” – to quote Toynbee – at the Daily Mail than at many of the other places I have known. Paul Dacre is a very great man and a newspaperman of genius who has done as much to improve the quality of life in Britain as anybody I can think of. One of my great regrets about his departure is that the scoundrels, rogues and thieves who stalk this pleasant land will soon have a much freer ride than before. They will not be sad that he is going. Ms Toynbee refers to the 1950s: a pleasant decade in my memory, not least because no one had to listen to Polly Toynbee talking nonsense.
Putting aside Alton’s nostalgia for the 1950s — always a major red flag — his claim that there is “less racism, homphobia and philistinism at the Daily Mail than many of the other places [he has] known” merely suggests he spent his time in a lot of sewers and speaks to the general quality of the British media.
To judge Alton’s claim that Dacre is “a very great man and a newspaperman of genius who has done as much to improve quality of life in Britain as anybody,” consider that Alton had The Observer back the Iraq War. In his later incarnation as an executive editor at The Times, he defended his new paymasters and ranted at the public via Channel 4 News, castigating…
… the, sort of, comfortable mothers of Mumsnet, sitting down to their Fairtrade tea now and organic shortbread biscuits, I hope are very pleased with the Twitter campaign that they organised, getting at the advertisers saying, “Don’t advertise in the News of the World”. They have done, in a sense, as much as anybody to close this paper and put more than 200 reporters, photographers, editors, young people just starting their career… the yummy mummies have done as much as anybody to put them out of work and I hope they’re feeling pleased with themselves.
On Sky News — then still owned by Rupert Murdoch — Alton thundered that he was “proud to be part of an organisation that [included] The News of the World in it” and chuntered that “Winston Churchill worked for The News of the World”. With phone hacking legal cases still ongoing, his claim that “one or two people” had done something wrong is particularly laughable.
On the day Dacre’s departure from the editor’s chair was announced, Sunday Times politics fanfiction writer, Tim Shipman, himself a former member of the Mail’s political staff under Dacre, tweeted:
Thing is people, when he got it right, Paul Dacre was a bloody genius. And he got it right more often than most of you would like.
What’s incredible there is that Shipman managed to tap that out with his head entirely inserted in Dacre’s colon. Similarly sloppy sentiments came from LBC bridge troll Nick ‘Austin Allegro’ Ferrari who called Dacre “a true icon” and Piers Morgan who said, “Whether you love or hate it (I love it), the Mail is a superbly produced, ferocious cage-rattler.”
That idea — that The Daily Mail is a “brilliant editorial product” — is one you’ll hear talked about by hacks. It’s like arms industry executives saying, “You’ve got to admit mustard gas really does what it says on the tin,” or “okay, those bombs did vaporise a village full of innocents but look at the size of that crater!”
One aspect of the overheated praise for the Mail’s combination of lies, distortion, plagiarism, scaremongering, victim-blaming, monster-creating, misogyny, and moral cant is that it raises Clarke and Dacre up as uniquely talented, Machiavellian beasts rather than the sort of banal, credit-stealing, bullies you can find in any large organisation but which British journalism really excels in producing.
Dacre is a man who, it is alleged, cannot pronounce Beyoncé properly and thought the correct way to say caesarian was “caesar ian” but wasn’t corrected because people couldn’t be bothered to deal with the tantrums and cuntings that would be provoked. He’s the man who, when told in a news conference that female fighter pilots would be deployed in Libya, is said to have asked, “Won’t their tits get in the way of the steering?”2
A 2014 New Statesman profile of Dacre by Peter Wilby (Paul Dacre: The man who hates liberal Britain, 2 January 2014) finds him raging his way around the news room, issuing “the strangely anomalous command to a senior colleague, ‘Don’t resist me, darling” and quotes a former sub-editor saying:
He never thinks of logistics and he has no idea of what’s an unreasonable request.
In the same piece, the former Mail political columnist Peter Oborne — then still plying his trade within the mainstream at The Daily Telegraph, says:
[Dacre] articulates the dreams, fears and hopes of socially insecure members of the surburban middle class. It’s a daily performance of genius.
There’s that “genius” word again. Years and years of this good/bad press have led people to conclude that whatever happens within DMGT is a product of the incredible ‘genius’ of Dacre, that he puppets Lord Rothermere rather than having served as the boss’ most effective bruiser and henchman for many years.
That’s why so much of the Kremlinology around the departure of Geordie Greig as Mail editor, the ascent of Ted Verity to the role, and now the news that Clarke is on the way out has been so abysmal.
The whole game is more fun for hacks and especially media reporters if changes within the Mail and associated titles are the result of huge clashes. They need Clarke and Dacre to be big beasts — monsters stomping over cities — rather than aggressive dogs pissing all over the papers.
The Guardian’s report on Clarke’s forthcoming departure included a paragraph that seemed like a defence of its previous analysis suggesting the MailOnline boss had triumphed in a power struggle when Greig left:
News of his departure shocked staff at MailOnline, who only two weeks ago assumed that Clarke had emerged as one of the victors in an internal power struggle. The last month has seen the promotion of Clarke’s right-hand-man, Richard Caccappolo, to the position of chief executive of the wider media business, the departure of Daily Mail editor Geordie Greig, and the return of former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in an advisory role.
CityAm called it a “shock move” and The Daily Telegraph, which had pushed the same ‘Clarke wins power struggle’ line when Greig relinquished the Mail editor’s chair, framed the news as part of “the ongoing reshuffle”.
Press Gazette’s story contained a line that was much closer to the truth of the matter (“However, Clarke had already indicated his plan to leave to Lord Rothermere earlier this year.”) which is that Clarke’s move was not a product of the latest upheaval. Rather, with Rothermere attempting to take the company private and set to consolidate the print and online sides of the Mail which have operated almost entirely separately until now, Clarke doesn’t want to be tied to a mess, has other ideas he wants to work on — the mind boggles — and is likely to still receive financial backing from Rothermere.
Lionel Barber, the former FT editor, who you might imagine would be sharper about the internal politics of newspaper publishers tweeted:
Paul Dacre has staged the greatest comeback since Lazarus, not only installing his guy as editor of the Daily Mail but also extending his writ into digital to the point where the autonomous and highly successful Martin Clarke walked #GameofThrones
A less hyperbolic analysis would be: Dacre slunk back to the only place that will tolerate and venerate him in the way he has become accustomed.
Verity has The Daily Mail editorship because he is in the same mould as Dacre but also because he’ll wield the axe in a way Greig wouldn’t. Similarly, Dacre is back at DMGT after his failed attempt to become Ofcom chair because Lord Rothermere values his advice — I know, I know — and not because he planned it all. His petulant letter to The Times made how much he really wanted the Ofcom job clear, especially his “I didn’t fancy her anyway” tone.
Martin can often be found skulking outside the Derry Street entrance, wearing his trademark blue jersey, and chain-smoking," a source said.
If you talked to him straight he'd be OK but if you skirted around or used any jargon he'd throw you to the fire, he'd be shouting 'tell me what the f--- you mean'," another staff member added.
“He is a total livewire and works 14 hour days. I went to the pub with him once and he finished a pint of Guinness in two gulps and a fag in two puffs."
What most people would dismiss as the behaviour of a prick is raised up to the status of a “legend” and a “genius” in the dysfunctional world of hackery.
The idea that great work might be produced by people who aren’t obliged to distort, lie and plagiarise, and whose boss doesn’t believe, as Clarke has been quoted as saying, that “you’ve got to shout at the bastards or they won’t respect you” is unthinkable.
Clarke and Dacre aren’t the godfathers and never have been. They are brutes employed by Rothermere so he doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. Do pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Rothermere is every bit as malign as Rupert Murdoch; he just outsources more.
The term used by staff when his rage resulted in them being called a “cunt” twice in a single sentence.
All of these anecdotes were originally shared in editions of the excellent Popbitch, but I have also heard them or versions of them directly from current or former Mail staff.