On Monday he told the chairman, who suggested the editor would rather deal with his evidence in one go than return: “That’s the understatement of the year, your Honour”.
Like other editors appearing before the inquiry, Mr Dacre defended his papers from several allegations of wrongdoing. He categorically denied speculation that Hugh Grant’s phone had been hacked by the Mail on Sunday, said journalists had used the services of private investigator Steve Whittamore because of a “hazy understanding” of the Data Protection Act and claimed he would “die in a ditch to defend any of my columnists’ rights to say what they wish” in relation to the controversial article about the death of singer Stephen Gately written by Jan Moir.
He told Robert Jay QC, inquiry counsel: “You have painted a very bleak picture of the Daily Mail by highlighting what are rather rare things…We produce hundreds and hundreds of stories every month, thousands if not millions of stories on the Mail Online and Daily Mail every year. Most of those go down very well with our readers and provoke no complaints from the people concerned.”
Nevertheless, time ran out during Monday’s hearing and David Sherborne, counsel to the core participant victims, was allowed extra time on Thursday afternoon to further question Mr Dacre over the “mendacious smears” statement issued against Hugh Grant by Associated Newspapers, and further evidence submitted by the actor and former partner Jemima Khan.
The request by Jonathan Caplan QC, representing the newspaper group, that the editor not return was rebuffed by Lord Justice Leveson who insisted the issue needed to be addressed in the “interests of fairness”.
Mr Dacre returned to the inquiry on Thursday afternoon and was asked by Mr Sherborne how the Mail on Sunday had sourced a 2007 story claiming a “plummy-voiced” female film executive had left a series of voicemail messages on Mr Grant’s phone. Mr Grant told the inquiry in November he would “love to hear what the Daily Mail’s or the Sunday Mail’s explanation for that article is, what the source was, if it wasn’t phone hacking“.
Mr Dacre replied: “I can be as confident as any editor, having made extensive enquiries into his newspaper’s practices and held an inquiry, that phone hacking was not practised by the Daily Mail or the Mail on Sunday.”
He added: “I’m not going to speak for other newspapers. I will speak for Associated Newspapers and I’ve told this Inquiry, I cannot be any more unequivocal, that all my enquiries and all the evidence I’ve received, and having spoken to the editor of my group: our group did not hack phones, and I rather resent your continued insinuations that we did.”
As the hearing came to an end, Mr Sherborne asked one final question: “Will you now withdraw your allegation of mendacious smears?”
He referred to the statement released by Associated Newspapers following Mr Grant’s evidence to the inquiry in November 2011. It stated: “The Mail on Sunday utterly refutes Hugh Grant’s claim that they got any story as a result of phone hacking. In fact, in the case of the story Mr Grant refers to, the information came from a freelance journalist who had been told by a source who was regularly speaking to Jemima Khan.”
The editor said the witness statement from Jemima Khan rebutting this claim was irrelevant, as Associated Newspapers had apologised in open court and paid undisclosed damages to Mr Grant after admitting the article was inaccurate.
Mr Dacre told Mr Sherborne: “I already explained that Mr Grant shared with this Inquiry his speculation, because he was asked to do so by Mr Jay … I’ve said what I will do. I’m very happy to withdraw it if Mr Grant withdraws his – not allegations, not suggestions, but his repeated statements about the Daily Mail.”
He said that statement was a reaction to evidence given by Mr Grant, who “as a very sophisticated communicator…knew the damage [his speculation over hacking] would cause“. He told the inquiry he had heard a news bulletin on a BBC radio station claiming Mr Grant had “accused” the paper of hacking, which he put down to “modern journalistic shorthand”. “I cannot tell you how damaging that was to our group,” he said. “We agreed that we’d tried to be reasonable, we tried to explain to him that this was not true and that we needed to fight fire with fire on this.”
Despite his Fleet Street status – Mr Dacre is also the chairman of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee – the editor is a reluctant spokesman. He told the House of Commons public administration select committee in 2004:
“My experience over 30 years in Fleet Street is the more editors think they are public figures and the more they become speaking heads on TV chat shows the more their newspapers decline and they do not last very long in their jobs. That is my experience. My job is to edit my newspaper, to have a relationship with my readers, to reflect my readers’ views and to defend their interest. It is not to offer myself up to you or television or radio interviewers. I am not an authority on anything. I am a newspaper editor.”
There have been notable exceptions: the 2007 Hugh Cudlipp lecture during which he accused the BBC of “cultural Marxism”, a speech to the Society of Editors in 2008 that lambasted Mr Justice Eady and Max Mosley for threatening freedom of expression and an appearance at a Leveson seminar last year addressing the future of press regulation.
Dacre told Lord Justice Leveson that he had demonstrated a commitment to the Inquiry with his lengthy evidence and one can imagine the chairman approving of his mantra from 2009: “The press lives by disclosure. And so, as an industry, we can’t complain when caught in the headlights of public scrutiny. Nor do we. It is healthy, and we welcome it.”