It was clear as soon as Paul Dacre came into Court 73 that someone had lit the blue touch paper attached to the editor of the Daily Mail and quickly retired out of harm’s way.
To see the boogie man’s boogie man in broad daylight once in a week is a rare event but to see him twice was enough to keep the audience in their seats, as the Leveson inquiry meandered through it’s 40th day on Fleet Street’s malpractices. There had already been some entertainment during the day as Heather Mills-no-longer-McCartney told how the press turned on her post-Macca, and Max Clifford revealed that Simon Cowell and other famous faces pay him £250,000 a year — first to get them into the papers then to keep them out.
But for the aficionados who had been lucky enough to be present on Monday it was Dacre: the Sequel which got them back early from the pubs which help lubricate the wheels of justice on a daily basis. Those who were there on Monday heard Dacre reveal that the Mail‘s world view is not his alone but honed by independent thinkers like Simon Heffer and Amanda Platell. He demurred at the suggestion from one of the inquiry advocates (whose particulars will no doubt have been taken down) that the Mail played to the “fears and prejudices” of its readers; preferring the word “anxieties” — but that was when he was still in what his staff would call a good mood.
All that changed when the name Hugh Grant was mentioned.
Grant, it now appears, has taken the place in the Mail lexicon that used to be occupied in previous decades by Arthur Scargill and Red Robbo. Indeed, he even seems to have supplanted more recent heroes like John Prescott and Bob Crow — a rare achievement for someone whose road to revolution started with Four Weddings and a Funeral.
But Hugh has done something successfully that the rest never managed by getting right up the nose of the editor-in-chief of the newspaper group that wants to be closer to the squeezed middle than even Ed Miliband. Dacre’s nose is not a place you would want to be. You could see that yesterday as it led his face, still ruddy red from his foreign holidays, glowering into the courtroom.
After 20 years running the Mail, Dacre is not as used to democratic debate as others might be. Indeed, his morning conference is described by attendees as the Vagina Monologues because of his use of certain colourful words to enhance his world view.
But he did his best to keep his temper under check as he tried but failed to submit to questioning from barrister David Shelbourne. Instead he launched into answers to questions he had not been asked, as he took his temper out on a pen he had obviously been given to strangle. His demeanour was not helped by the suave Shelbourne, clearly as keen on Dacre as he was on him.
But back to Grant whose name emerged from between the Mail man’s teeth as if drawn by a dentist. The nub of the matter is a claim by the actor on day one of the Leveson inquiry that one of the Mail newspapers Dacre runs may have hacked phone messages between him and friends and used them to run stories.
This led Dacre — who heard the allegation on another of his bête noires, the BBC — to fall into a Monologue moment and accuse Grant of a “mendacious smear,” thereby suggesting, as Corporal Jones said, that they really don’t like it up ’em.
What followed yesterday was one of those courtroom comedy moments when barristers on both sides got up and down, Lord Justice Leveson tried to keep the peace and his temper, and the man with his finger on the nation’s fears snorted loud enough to bring traffic to a stop on the Strand. Would Mr Dacre now care to withdraw the “mendacious” charge, said Shelbourne, as he managed to get a word in during one of his rare pauses. No chance, said the editor-in-chief, unless “the poster boy” for the Hacked Off campaign withdrew all allegations of hackery against the group “that I love”.
The day had begun with a live link to nighttime Australia where a man with a red and white punk haircut had tried to explain the mysteries of the freelance photo business to “sir,” as he described Lord Leveson.
This brought to an end “module one” of the inquiry which seemed to mean something to a courtroom full of people for whom tabloid newspapers were a mystery a month ago and now must be beyond their understanding. A few more people picked up their cheques from Rupert Murdoch for crimes committed by the News of the World and others joined the queue. The hacking, blagging and bribing cases haven’t even hit court yet.
As Dacre packed up his temper to take it back to the office for the night conference, Lord Leveson said he might have him back again. Book early, this one will run and run.
Previously posted in The New Statesman