Paul Dacre’s all for freedom of expression – except when he’s a character in your play | Tim Walker

The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday have been banging on a lot lately about freedom of expression. An editorial declared it to be a “dark day” when the newspaper group lost its legal battle with Meghan Markle. She’d sued them for publishing extracts from a private letter she’d sent to her estranged father de ella.

I’ve got to know the Mail’s legal department quite well over the past few months – though its client’s commitment to freedom of expression hasn’t been quite so clear in my case. The Mail’s lawyers appear to be fixed with my play Bloody Difficult Women and have been bombarding the Riverside Studios theater in west London and my producers with emails and letters. Paul Dacre, the Mail’s editor in chief, appears in it as a character, and the lawyers said Dacre would very much like to see a copy of the script to check it for factual accuracy. These repeated requests have all been declined.

The play focuses on the court case my old friend Gina Miller won against Theresa May’s government over the issue of parliamentary sovereignty. Dacre is an unavoidable part of that story: the “Enemies of the people” headline her ran on his paper’s front page, alongside photographs of the high court judges who found in Miller’s favor de ella, caused uproar. There were a great many – not least in the legal profession – who took the view it was the lowest point in the whole acrimonious Brexit saga.

Apart from Dacre and Miller, Bloody Difficult Women features two other real-life characters, in Theresa May and Alan Miller, Gina’s husband. The Mail’s legal team suggested I had given May and the Millers sight of the script. For the avoidance of doubt, none of them have requested – or been granted – that privilege. Quite frankly, I found it hard enough writing a play without four of its leading characters leaning over my shoulder seeing if they come out of it well. Though the lawyers said their client had no wish to restrict my or the theatre’s artistic freedom of expression, the prospect of a character as threatening as Dacre going through every word of the script is, of course, more than a wee bit inhibiting.

May’s office, while courteous and interested when I told them about the play, raised no objections. Even the title – a nod to Ken Clarke’s famous off-mic description of the former prime minister – left them unperturbed. With Gina, I wanted to check the basic time table of events leading up to the case and beyond, but that was it. She gamely tweeted that she would be watching it through her fingers.

Still, I can understand, given there has been press speculation that Dacre is the “villain of the piece” (and that I don’t share his views about Brexit), that he might have special concerns. Every day, however, a great many people no doubt have special concerns about what his newspapers are going to write about them, but they are seldom, if ever, granted sight of the stories ahead of publication.

Long before the EU referendum and the start of that almighty national row, I’d worked for Dacre as a feature writer, and, latterly, deputy to the late diarist Nigel Dempster, for almost a decade. Our relationship was respectful, but not close. He was and is, as I make clear in the play, a strident character. The last of the all-powerful – one might say imperial – editors.

The letters from his legal department have made for a few dark days for me, too, but I’ve had the play painstakingly fact-checked. From the outset, I strained to be fair to all its characters and kept in mind Chekhov’s rule that plays shouldn’t be about good or bad people, only people.

All I want now is for the show to go on. The plan had originally been to open last June, but that was put back to November on account of the pandemic and so its launch next month will, I’m confident, be third time lucky. It is a play that seems to be acquiring over time a certain radical chic.

All journalists can, of course, be thin-skinned and I am no exception. I recall, when I was working for Dacre, being upset when I’d read that Norma Major, the former prime minister’s wife, had said a biography I’d written of her had been “99% inaccurate”. I asked Dacre if anything could be done and he wearily intoned that if I was going to dish it out, I’d have to learn to take it too.

I await the reviews for Bloody Difficult Women in the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday with trepidation, but I’ve no intention of asking to “fact check” them ahead of publication.

  • Tim Walker is a journalist and author. His latest book of his, Star Turns, is an anthology of interviews. Bloody Difficult Women begins its run at the Riverside Studios in west London on 24 FebruarY

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