So the party of family values has chosen as leader a man of whom to say he has the morals of an alley cat would be to libel the feline species. Thus the Tories, with two women PMs to their credit, have achieved another historic first: scuppering the belief — argued by the Daily Mail in my 26 years as editor — that politicians with scandalous private lives cannot hold high office. I make no comment on this, or about the 31-year-old minx who is the current Boris Johnson bedwarmer, but ask you instead to spare a thought for Petronella’s abortion, Helen’s love child, Marina’s humiliation and her four children’s agony. On which note, a confession: I myself have had several emotional dalliances with our hero, including a lachrymose lunch (his tears not mine) with Boris bewailing that the Mail was destroying his marriage, while confiding that, anyway, monogamy is just a bourgeois convention. In fact the Mail, a family newspaper, never broke stories about his extracurricular activities, but I plead guilty to laying waste forests to intellectualise their psycho/socio-implications. The problem for us Brexiteers is there is another side to the man, with whom I have also enjoyed enthrallingly intimate dinners when he spoke with extraordinary passion, lucidity and optimism about Britain’s future outside the EU. For months now, my advice to his phalanx of minders has been to padlock his zipper and to keep her in the background. Not that he’ll take a blind bit of notice. Like many journalists, he is an outsider who doesn’t give a damn what people think.
Research reveals that 77 per cent of millennials say they never pay for news. Having played a key role in launching the free Metro and free Mail Online, I bear a heavy responsibility for that lethal bacillus — the belief that journalism costs nothing. It doesn’t. Journalism is expensive and to argue otherwise is fake news of the most insidious kind. But then the British media generally is in a dreadful state: Sky, a great British success story, now owned by the Americans; ITV’s shares on the floor amid rumours of a foreign merger; the ubiquitous Johnston Press bankrupt; the cadavers of the once mighty Mirror and Express being asset-stripped; Murdoch’s News UK setting aside around half a billion pounds for damages to phone-hacking victims; the Guardian, with its shrill feminism and hard-left juvenilia, dependent on charity; the Standard (what sublime hypocrisy is its editor George Osborne’s support for Boris) being investigated for its financial links to a Saudi regime that murders journalists; and the BBC, staffed by kids, run by an OAP, obsessed by filling every vacant post with women and dwarfed by the streaming giants. Modesty prevents me from dwelling on one group that still flourishes. The Mail — which never hacked phones — is still highly profitable while Mail Online, the world’s biggest newspaper website, is, after years of heroic support by Jonathan Harmsworth, now making solid money from advertising.
An email reaches me from the Foreign Office wallah behind the global conference on media freedom — which, heaven help us, appointed preeningly self-righteous Mrs George Clooney roving ambassador for press freedom — who signs himself Alastair King-Smith (pronouns: he/him). No wonder the Eurocrats ran rings round our civil servants.
Jailbird Conrad Black’s joyful evisceration in The Spectator of his ex-editor Max Hastings’s demolition of his ex-reporter Boris Johnson brings back memories of the megalomaniac monster offering me the Telegraph editorship in his palatial Kensington drawing room, every inch filled with Napoleonic memorabilia. I turned him down but, according to Black, when Rupert Murdoch launched his price war, Hastings, ‘an unconditional euro-integrationalist’, scurried out of the Telegraph’s backdoor and self-demoted to the dwarfish Evening Standard. Subsequently Max worked for me for many years, and an effortlessly brilliant writer he was. Under the headline ‘Sorry, I Was Wrong’, one of Max’s finest opinion pieces was a devastating critique of the EU, which, he confessed, he could no longer support. When voters agreed with him in a referendum (which he had called for) Max once again volte-faced and, craving the approbation of the establishment, which never quite took him to its bosom, scuttled off to the Remainer Times. I begrudge him none of this and only slightly regret the Rothermere millions that I poured down his very receptive gullet. Where Conrad is right is that Max is an egregious snob — something we journalists, who exist to puncture pomposity — should never be.
To the question have I any regrets over Brexit, I point to the appointment, in a Franco-German stitch-up, of a new Commission President after leaders met (in secret) to choose someone no one had heard of, who, with no opposition candidate, managed to secure a majority of only nine in a (secret) EU parliament ballot. And we criticise the Chinese Politburo! Which brings me back to the alley cat and the Mail’s private/public morality dilemma. What if Boris pulls off Brexit — something the referendum morally obliged our ruling class to deliver? What if he has the courage to argue that there is a moral case for low taxation and a small state? Or that it is immoral to strip our armed forces of the means to defend us while wasting billions in foreign aid to genocidal tyrants? Would I then, like Max, have been proved wrong all those years? Gentle reader, please don’t hold your breath. As for the Minx, mark my words: there will be tears before midnight.
Paul Dacre is chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers.