Ten years ago, Alastair Campbell deliberately set himself on a collision course with the British press. When he'd finished, the BBC was missing a director-general. And a chairman. The Today programme had lost an editor. The entire organisation was forced to undergo constitutional change. Oh yes, and a man was dead. Say what you like about Mad Bad Al, he has a habit of coming out on top in these things.
But then so does Paul Dacre. Five years ago this month, the Daily Mail editor went after the BBC too. When the dust had settled on that, Radio 2 was missing a controller, the BBC's most high-profile presenter had been sacked, Russell Brand had pissed off to America, and – surely worst of all, we were told – the “public's trust in the Beeb was shaken”.
These men have both single-handedly eviscerated a multi-billion pound national institution. So to see Campbell taking on the Mail on Tuesday's Newsnight – a gloves-off, red-in-tooth-and-claw scrap that wasn't as much about the issues at hand as the Mail's right to exist – was to see an unstoppable force heading towards an immovable object at thrillingly high velocity.
There now seems to be a genuine sense of event about Red Ed vs the Mail, a whiff of something momentous taking place on the national hysteria circuit. Since Saturday – when the newspaper published its profile of Ed Miliband's deceased father, Ralph, in which it was claimed that he was a rabid and dangerous Marxist who "hated Britain" – everything has started to fall into place. As the public continues to roar its disapproval from the side lines, even Cameron, Hague and Clegg – not to mention Lord Heseltine and other Thatcher-era cabinet ministers – have lined up to condemn the bluest red-top of them all. And yet still the 'paper continues to churn out more personal memoirs of people who were trapped in Stalin's Russia as "evidence" for its hypothesis that Ralph Miliband = bad. These events feel not like an endgame so much as the first stirrings of a torturously drawn-out media saga with dire consequences for those on the wrong side of the hype.
Dacre may yet wish he'd picked his battles more carefully. On Monday, all of this could still have been smoothed out in a phonecall, as it also could have been in the editorial meeting later when it was decided to run Ed's right-of-reply piece, but to surround it with another four pages of slurs about his dead dad's "evil legacy". On Monday, the story was Ed being mad about his dad but now, the story is the story, and stories like this one have a habit of running and running, because they aren't tied down to things actually happening. Stories that concern facts come and go. If a man was stabbed yesterday, it's unlikely he will be stabbed again today, and anyway, everyone has basically the same opinon on that one – it's wrong and it's sad. But stories that concern matters of manners and values – not to mention the press's favourite subject: the press – can very easily break out into firestorms.
As the Mail understood only too well during the Brand-Ross furore, if you want to keep pulling in the readers, you focus on the reaction. "People are angry". "More people are angry". "A petition has reached parliament" and so on. At the other end, the saga inevitably gets fed by the press's favourite game: the supposed need for an unreserved apology. Journalists calling out to whichever bastard is caught up in the shitstorm as they attempt to enter their home: “Will you apologise, Mr X? Don't you think people deserve to hear your apology?” If they apologise with any kind of qualification, you simply say it isn't enough and return to the tussle for the moral highground. Couple this with a clammy, bleeding-heart focus on "the victims", and sometimes, when news is thin, there's enough of a cyclonic effect there to uproot actual people from their real jobs.
So here are the pressing questions of the day: Will Mr Dacre apologise? And will he apologise unreservedly? Don't you think people deserve to hear your apology, Mr Dacre? People are angry. More people are angry. A petition will soon reach Parliament... After all, like Andrew Sachs, Ed Miliband doesn't deserve to have these sorts of distasteful comments made about a very dear member of his own family. In Ed’s case, that family member also happens to be deceased, providing the jokers at the Mail's subs' desk with the ammo they needed for that tasteless pun: the words “grave socialist” beneath a picture of Ralph Miliband's grave. Honestly, if someone dialled up the answerphone of a pensionable actor and sang the article down the line to them, it would be no one's idea of "a joke", would it? Heads would have to roll. At the very top. Possibly the very, very top.
Mr Dacre, will you be resigning?
No one, apart from maybe Alastair Campbell, understands these rules better than Dacre. So no one right now is praying harder for a news-cycle diversion like, say, another chemical attack in Syria, than Dacre. By rights, even now he should just back down, admit an error, take the hit. “Leave it Paul – he's not worth it.” But as Campbell suggested, this hyper-secretive Fleet Street enigma is a proud man, and his pride is now on the line. As it stands, it doesn't look like he'll be bowing to public opinion any time soon.
Another day passes: the author of the article, Geoffrey Levy, is dragged out to defend it. Biographer Michael Newman writes at length about how his words were twisted and everyone who ever knew the old Engels-loving bean gets vox popped by teams of hacks. Suddenly, Dacre's got a contagion on his hands; the story has moved beyond its base and is threatening to become a dreaded "national debate". Only this time, it won't be the usual one about the BBC. This time, we may be about to have one about the Mail, and as the Mail themselves have shown us in the past, these things don't have a habit of ending well. Over the coming days, Campbell will be joined by others who scent that same opportunity to blow the case against Dacre, his 'paper, his Sidebar of Shame, his troll columnists and everything else people tend to resent about the Mail wide open.
Opening up that debate was clearly Campbell's intent as he remorselessly ground down Dacre's Newsnight representative, the Mail's deputy editor Jon Steafel. He had a line he kept repeating: “The Mail is the worst of British values masquerading as the best.” Campbell knows about lines and soundbytes. He knows that he can move stories forward. And he also knows that, so far, no one has been able to open up the floor about the Mail's more questionable tactics for precisely the same reason that no one gave a damn about phone-hacking at first: it's all a bit too theoretical. Everyone loves pork sausages, but no one wants to hear about the cleaver slitting the jugular. So it took the Milly Dowler moment to turn the procedural and abstract into sentimental tabloid fodder.
The irony is that the very fact on which the Mail is basing its own case – that Miliband is a public figure, and therefore it is legitimate to laser in on his family history – is the same thing that will keep the broadsheets adding more fuel to this fire. This isn't just about fat-shaming Christine Keeler, or whatever Jan Moir wrote that one time. This is about an A-list politician. That's always news. That will keep even the Today programme coming back for more.
Now, the same saccharine sentimentality the Mail has historically used to hammer so many others is being turned against them. Even David Cameron spoke not in abstractions about press responsibility, but in very human terms about his own dead dad, and about what it means to honour a dead dad's legacy. Nick Clegg has already brought himself into this phantom alliance, and interestingly, yesterday, Sky News' political editor Adam Boulton suggested that all senior politicians, even the Tories, secretly loathe the Mail and their tactics. At the outset of the Leveson Inquiry, it took a while for the Establishment types to warm up to the idea that they had a rare free shot to knee Murdoch in the balls. They may now have arrived at a point where all three parties can channel public anger into clipping the Mail's wings permanently.
If so, far more than any bulldozering of the BBC, it could transform Britain's internal monologue. Like the apologists for Communism who circulated around nasty hardcore Marxist Ralph Miliband in the 1950s, people would be forced to admit that yes, Stalin's cheery model farms full of happy peasants were actually fake. If night after night the news is letting daylight in upon the Mail's particular brand of black magic, then Mythical Middle England may yet be forced to admit: Yes, you're right. The cognitive dissonance may get too much and the dam may break, and then, perhaps, not even the most genteel Tory boy from the shires will be able to handle the rag in the shop without an unhappy grimace forming upon his face. Yes, this newspaper certainly claimed to espouse the best of British values, they will say to themselves – self-reliance, hard work, family. But looking at this, and this, and this, and that thing on page 19 about Steve Wright's eating habits, they were, it must be said, probably the worst of British values.
It's still on the cards. As of yesterday, Ed Miliband's office claims it has received "10,000 emails of support". Not yet the 42,000 who phoned the Beeb to moan about Sachsgate. But in the ballpark. A newsworthy number.
A golden rule of journalism is that scandal can always be ridden out, but hypocrisy is the bit that's generally fatal. You can see the headline now: “He Said He Was A Defender Of The Values Of Hard-Pressed Ordinary Families, So Why Has Obese Embittered Millionaire Paul Dacre Never Actually Met Any Of Them At His Luxury Buckinghamshire Estate”?
And then, like the politicians who are normally at the sharp end of his stings, Dacre himself may be faced with the same dilemma: cut off the head of a junior officer today, or risk having his own head skewered onto a spike in a few weeks' time? Either way, the enemies the Mail has spent years making seem to scent blood.
Image by Victoria Sin.