The Mail leopard has changed its spots on Brexit. Shame if you’re a woman though... | Catherine Bennett

The new editor still has much work to do in his detox of Paul Dacre’s ex-domain

‘Support for Brexit is in the DNA of both the Daily Mail and, more pertinently, its readers,” writes the paper’s outgoing Paul Dacre. “Any move to reverse this would be editorial and commercial suicide” – 13 June 2018.

“What possible good can Tory Brexiteers hope to serve,” asks the Daily Mail, now edited by Geordie Greig, “at this hugely sensitive moment in the talks, by wielding their daggers against her [Theresa May]?” Chequers, it adds, “is the only blueprint for Brexit on the table” – 13 September 2018.

That would be the same Chequers blueprint that was described, under Dacre’s editorship, as “May’s dementia tax revisited” and “under fire from all sides”.

Although some adjustment of tone or allegiances seemed likely, following Greig’s appointment, the prediction was for a more gradual process, one more respectful, superficially, at least, to the myth of Dacreish genius. Remainers, reduced to parsing the Daily Mail’s internal appointments for glimmers of nation-saving hope, were urged to manage expectations. In the event, Greig’s arrival was brought forward and we can only hope Dacre has learned, from stories such as Amanda Platell’s “Can the Duchess of Cambridge cope with Meghan mania?”, how to rise above that ultimate humiliation: the arrival of a popular moderniser, who unblushingly uses words such as “positive”, “friend” and “tolerance”.

Within 10 days, Greig’s serial, sometimes comically glaring departures from the old, Dacre norms amounted, according to one industry analyst, to a “screaming handbrake turn”. Peter Wilby, in the New Statesman, noted a reduction in rage. Labour’s Emily Thornberry felt safe enough to approve a story with the tweet “not a sneering word in sight!!!” Physical testimonies of enlightenment reportedly include Greig’s clearing of Dacre’s panelled, Scoop-style lair and installation of work by Gilbert and George and Lucian Freud. For reasons that Daily Mail readers will presumably discover, famous artists, as well as writers, have long been drawn to the company of Greig, previously editor of the Tatler, Standard and Mail on Sunday.

Among regular readers, there is, to judge by the comments, some natural consternation. On Greig’s first day, his exclusive had the archbishop of Canterbury proposing wealth taxes. Excuse them? Where was the word “meddling”? Until last week, it was deep in the DNA of the Daily Mail always to rebuke, with this prefix, any bishop urging an effortfully Christian way of life (aka “drivelling soft-Left advice”). A reader (not Dacre) offers: “Another champagne socialist talking out of their rear end.”

It’s possible that Welby’s tax plan, along with other signifiers pleasing to what Dacre may still call “organs of bien pensant opinion”, has been over-interpreted by desperate Remainers. The new Mail’s coverage of Boris Johnson’s collateral damage, Carrie Symonds, has featured a wholly traditional combination of tutting and lasciviousness. Greig’s may be only a short period of ostentatious detoxification; just long enough for his proprietors and friends, the Rothermeres, to start living down Dacre’s “enemies of the people”, and to reassure his own, prodigious number of distinguished friends, that this is no longer the same paper that produced “Never mind Brexit, who won legs-it?”.

Paul Dacre
‘Suppose that Paul Dacre, the embodiment of the great man theory of newspaper editing, is mistaken.’ Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Suppose, however, that Dacre, the embodiment of the great man theory of newspaper editing, is mistaken and that the Mail, which can still do great reporting, could prosper minus his trademark rage, xenophobia, misogyny and judge-hating; along with regular monsterings for its enemies, administered pour encourager les autres.

It could be grounds for hope that Greig has, in contrast to the reputedly friendless Dacre, made it his life’s work to become close (to the point, to judge by his numerous tributes, of proximity to their deathbeds) to many heroes to the bien pensants, including the late Lucian Freud, the late Seamus Heaney, the late Ed Victor, the late Tom Wolfe and the late publisher, Matthew Evans. On his last day at the Mail on Sunday, Greig had to hasten to the late VS Naipaul’s deathbed, where he read aloud Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar, a service he seems sure – for any older friends worried about his increased editorial commitments – to continue to make available.

However Brexit ends, we can’t know whether Dacre’s Mail, yelling about lies and elites on the eve of the referendum, generated or reported bad feeling, nor whether a Greig Mail has any moderating potential. Even a coming drop in circulation – inevitable, given existing warnings, an industry in decline – wouldn’t prove that middle England abominates luvvies to the point that Dacre, thinking himself its soul, always believed.

A more important metric, for the Mail’s proprietors, might be the speed with which it tempts back some of the advertisers, including Lego and Center Parcs, needlessly sacrificed to Dacre’s obsessions, or sees a decline in the number of times its brand is mentioned, as it increasingly was under Dacre, in connection with Hitler. As in: “previously Hitler-supporting rag”.

But maybe those best placed to measure the democratic impact of a detoxed Mail are the political favourites whom Dacre ushered, via a co-operative BBC, on to the national stage. How must it feel for Boris Johnson, formerly a blond prince destined to restore his country’s lost glory, to be unceremoniously redefined as a raddled sleazebag, with a photograph to prove it. “Rough night Boris?” The paper is saddened to note that he drives in this reduced condition “an old Toyota Previa”. And to add, in a leading article, that while others worked on Brexit, Johnson “found time to cavort with a woman half his age”.

But the Mail has also, in its allegedly more sentient iteration, chosen to objectify this woman, just as it does the legions of victims on Mail Online, its dedicated, snuff’n’perving website. If there should happen to be any great minds still out there, wondering what to say to Geordie on their deathbeds, they could do a lot worse than mention it.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist


Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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