With that perceptive but strangely innocent eye which has served him so well as a columnist, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne recently expressed shock and astonishment that an editor of the London Evening Standard had turned down the editorship of the Times in favour of succeeding Sir David English at the Daily Mail. As a boy, wrote Sir Perry, he had wanted to be editor of the Times more than anything in the world. So when Mr Paul Dacre picked Rothermere’s Daily Mail in preference to Rupert Murdoch’s Times, Worsthorne’s first reaction was that it was like choosing to be King of Ruritania instead of King of England.
But Sir Perry has built his career on telling us that the country is going to the dogs. So after mature consideration, he began to feel that Mr Dacre’s choice wasn’t just a response to the decline of the Times as an inevitable reflection of our national decline. What was the point of editing the Thunderer when Britain’s voice in the world had diminished to a squeak? And why bother with a supposed ‘opinion-forming newspaper’ when the Daily Mail and the other tabloids had exercised more influence over the result of the general election than the Times? Perhaps, mused Sir Perry, a serious journalist really should do what Mr Dacre had done, and perhaps the Times should be run by a dilettante such as himself.
It was lovely stuff, such as fans of Sir Peregrine have enjoyed reading in the Sunday Telegraph for years. And it contained, as it almost always does, a strong grain of sense beneath the deliberate self-parody. He is right that something must be seriously wrong when a senior British journalist can prefer to edit the Mail rather than the Times. (Indeed, he might have added that matters are even worse when his own editor-in-chief, Max Hastings, rejects the same offer by declaring that nothing would induce him to go to ‘that brothel’.) But we can’t dismiss these events simply as the consequence of national decline. Something must be gravely wrong with the Times itself when its proprietor has to hawk the editorship of his flagship publication up and down Fleet Street, and still finds no takers. If I were that proprietor, I would be asking myself whether that something might possibly be me.
Certainly the dashing Mr Hastings would have made a splendid editor of the Times. But even he would be a rather different editor from the robustly moralistic William Haley, the rather prissy William Rees-Mogg, or the crusading Charles Douglas-Home. Paul Dacre, on the other hand, isn’t just ‘rather different’ from these three. He is entirely different, belonging to a category of journalism quite distinct from theirs. Not only is it tabloid in the sense of being aimed at a mass readership: it is overtly propagandist in the sense that its purpose (apart from making money) is to do down the Labour Party.
I have no idea whether Simon Jenkins, the Time’s highly civilised editor, whose resignation precipitated the offer to Mr Dacre, really did intend to quit after two or three years, as he says he did. Nor do I know whether his departure was as amicable as he and his employers claim. But it is a fact that he followed a Dacre-style tough-guy editor, Charles Wilson, who learned his trade on the news desk of the Daily Mail and left Murdoch’s News International to join Cap’n Bob as editor of Sporting Life. Mr Wilson has now re-surfaced as a senior panjandrum of the former Maxwell group, where he presumably had at least a small part in deciding whether the Sunday People should publish the latest ministerial sex-scandal – a far cry from the editorial chair of the Times.