Daily Mail – can the new editor keep Brexiters and remainers happy? | Jane Martinson

Paul Dacre’s successor Geordie Greig finds himself on a tightrope

Geordie Greig’s start as the new editor of Daily Mail – the first since Paul Dacre took over 26 years ago – has attracted heightened expectations. In a lengthy article this summer, the Atlantic called him the “man who might change Britain”, while the former prime minister John Major said the staunch remainer had “the power and the potential to change the political discourse of our country”, and the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis said that the slight and softly spoken Greig’s appointment marked nothing short of “a revolution in the British media … very likely we will now stop Brexit”.

There is possibly no greater testament to the suspected power of Dacre and his rabidly pro-Brexit Daily Mail than that his successor is thought able to single-handedly reverse EU withdrawal. The question of whether one (albeit very powerful) man can really influence a vote has been running for a while. The already vehemently anti-EU Dacre was appointed in 1992 – the same year the Sun claimed it had “won” the general election.

Debate still rages over that claim, as it will over the exact influence of one paper selling 1.2m copies a day over an electorate of about 47 million. What is hard to argue with is that the Mail’s sustained attacks on EU institutions and leaders in the run-up to June 2016 and, after the referendum, labelling elected politicians “traitors” for their beliefs and high court judges “enemies of the people”, marked a new high (or low) watermark for the ability of the press to flex its non-democratic muscles.

But what can Greig, friend to the proprietor’s wife and as calm in the office as his predecessor was combustible, do? His first week came amid more of a revolution in the world of media and politics than anyone can remember. How can the Mail be so powerful when Facebook, Twitter et al hoover up everyone’s attention? Yet according to those who know him, Greig is going to make subtle changes aimed at detoxifying the Mail brand, not least for a proprietor uncomfortable with that relentless talk of Brexit betrayal.

When Greig was first made editor of the Evening Standard, he launched a controversial ad campaign saying “sorry” for what he considered the mistakes of his predecessor, who had been criticised for her partisan attacks on the mayor of London. He will take a far more softly, softly approach to the new job, despite the fact that there are just six months left before Britain leaves the EU.

Although he is being heralded as some sort of inky messiah by liberals and remainers, 66% of Daily Mail readers supported Brexit, according to the British Election Study. Greig, who reports directly to the proprietor, Viscount Rothermere, will not want to jettison their support, or the sort of accolades the paper won under Dacre. One insider used the phrase “evolution not revolution”.

His first moves have been largely symbolic, ripping out Dacre’s panelling and chintz office and bringing in his own soft furnishings.

In contrast to a man who left after 26 years with a note stuck to the office pinboard, Greig’s first day was marked by a rousing address to staff which garnered a round of applause. The tone of this speech, leaked to the Guardian, gives a good indication of the direction of travel. The Mail would be a “friend of the people”. Failing to even mention the B word, he nonetheless said that these readers were also “intensely patriotic and believe fervently in our country” before going on to mention Scotland and Ireland Was that a coded reference from a union-loving Conservative about the Brexit threat?

The mild-mannered Greig, who is “by nature liberal, fiscally conservative”, tends to keep his cards closer to his chest nowadays. The leaders he published as editor of the Mail on Sunday were balanced but largely pro-remain. Alan Rusbridger, the former Guardian editor, said “a lot of them could have come from the Guardian”.

Last Thursday, Greig’s first leader as Daily Mail editor focused on the big story of the day – the two Russians accused over the novichok nerve agent attack. Nothing remarkable there, even if the line about a “corrupt and brutal gangster state, run by a despotic thug” could have been referring to somewhere other than Putin’s Russia. It ended by giving the prime minister “this newspaper’s emphatic support”.

There were fledgling signs of a more moderate approach on the news pages. Adonis remarked: “Not a single anti-EU or anti-immigrant story.” By day two, however, the Mail had devoted a full page to a Brussels official at the centre of a sleaze inquiry, Martin Selmayr, and added the comment: “Arrogant, unaccountable and remote, Selmayr embodies much of what is wrong with the EU, and why so many Britons voted to leave.”

It is early days, of course. Greig has to walk a tightrope between those who have found the Mail’s treatment of immigrants, liberals and judges abhorrent, and those many loyal readers who don’t.

His appointment comes amid signs that, even among Brexit voters, doubts over the wisdom of leaving without a plan have increased. If public opinion has shifted, as a recent YouGov poll suggests, Greig is perhaps the man to capitalise on it.

He has, so far, only brought three seasoned journalists with him from the Sunday sister title: his deputy, Tobyn Andreae, political editor, Simon Walters, and business editor, Ruth Sunderland.

Today Mail watchers looked to see how Ted Verity, the Dacre protege who replaced Greig at the Mail on Sunday, would react in this first week of the new regime. His paper suggests a far greater liking for Brexiteer Boris despite a personal life that would not sit happily with the Dacre vision of Middle England. It splashed with Johnson’s “suicide vest” article, which its leader described as “bold, uncompromising, patriotic and adventurous”. Verity, however, now reports to Greig. Dacre has a large office on the sixth floor as chairman but few direct reports.

Perhaps ironically, one of the prized possessions Greig will be transporting from his Sunday office is a colourful Gilbert & George artwork with “Geordies are black and white” in large type. In Adrian Addison’s history of the Mail there was a telling line in which a former reporter talked of the paper’s formula of understanding what people, particularly those living in Middle England, thought: “We lived in a very clean and clear, black and white ‘1950s’ idyllic world.”

It may be the sort of postmodern touch that would send his predecessor into a frenzy, but the new editor’s taste in art suggests he knows that, in today’s world, very little is black and white. That alone is bound to make a difference to the Mail’s impact on British politics.

A body of truth …

Away for the August bank holiday, I was a few days late to Bodyguard, the hit BBC1 Sunday night drama. By the time I got back, it was all over my WhatsApp feed. My teenage daughter asked to watch it. The success of the series, starring Keeley Hawes and Richard Madden, has prompted a slew of articles – is it relief from the dreary Brexit nightmare, or the sex and especially the King of the North naked? It is those things, but also a triumph for anyone wanting to see powerful, sometimes conniving and morally ambiguous women on screen. The writer, Jed Mercurio, has a talent for it, but perhaps if more than 14% of primetime TV dramas were written by women we might get to see a few more.

• This article was amended on 13 September 2018 to correct the figure cited for the UK’s 2017 electorate.

Contributor

Jane Martinson

The GuardianTramp

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