by Brian Cathcart
The New Yorker’s recent long profile of the Daily Mail contained a passing reference to something that may be worthy of a little more attention than it has received.
Noting that the editor of the Mail on Sunday, Peter Wright, had stepped down, writer Lauren Collins observed: “His replacement, Geordie Greig, is a Rothermere appointee rather than a Dacre loyalist, which has led speculators within the British media to suggest that the Rothermeres have had him installed as a potential successor to Dacre, who is sixty-three.”
It may mean nothing much, or it might just be a straw in the wind, a little hint of things to come.
Roy Greenslade in the Guardian also seemed to think the choice was made by the proprietor, writing: “My hunch is that this is the first major appointment by the ultimate Daily Mail & General Trust boss, Viscount Rothermere…”
And here is Stephen Glover reporting the opinions of unnamed others in his Independent column: “Some see the hand of Viscount Rothermere, chairman of the Mail group, and even of his wife, Claudia, in the appointment. Mr Greig is certainly their friend. It is suggested they want a less strident daily newspaper, and believe he is the man to deliver it.”
The fourth viscount has hitherto made a public virtue of not interfering with his papers, and normally you might expect Dacre, as editor-in-chief of Associated, to have at least a 50 per cent involvement in the appointment of an editor in the company. So has Rothermere made a really big move here? Was this an assertion of proprietorial over editorial power, and if so what could it mean?
Only a fool would call the end of the Dacre era on such evidence. The man who made the Mail into the most powerful newspaper in Britain is surely still in a position to choose the time of his own departure, and that might not be for years.
Yet the story is still intriguing. All previous rumour suggested that Dacre was already grooming a couple of other possible successors inside the Associated organisation. And so important is he to the industry and to the national debate (from Samantha Brick to Stephen Lawrence, from gay marriage to punishing rioters) that even the hint of a change in his relationship with his boss is surely worthy of the kind of attention given to the fortunes of leading Cabinet ministers.
The Mail on Sunday job is obviously a testbed for possible future editors of the daily, and in some respects you have to say that Greig is a curious choice for that role. He is, after all, the man who on taking over as editor of the London Evening Standard in 2009 ran a billboard campaign saying sorry for the general nastiness of the paper under the previous regime.
“The Evening Standard had lost touch with Londoners,” he said in an interview at the time. “It was negative, doom-laden, narrow, predictable, unsurprising. It wasn’t reflecting the optimism of the greatest city in the world.”
The style he was criticising owed more to Dacre than anyone else. It was Dacre as editor who had set the tone of the Standard years earlier, and it was he who oversaw the paper as editor-in-chief right up to its sale in 2009. It is hard to imagine that he was happy being apologised for in public.
Perhaps they have kissed and made up. If they haven’t, then Greig’s appointment by Rothermere could almost be seen as a provocative move.
The timing is also potentially significant. The present climate, with the Leveson inquiry shining such an unforgiving light on the culture of the press, is not a happy one for any editor or proprietor. Dacre has been the principal and at times seemingly the only significant defender of the industry, but it looks like the public mood, which he has always had an uncanny gift for understanding, is not following his lead this time.
As Rothermere contemplates the future of his papers he could be forgiven for wondering whether the Dacre recipe, which has served him so triumphantly well at the Mail for 20 years, is still the right one. The paper has that knack for reading its readers’ minds, it is presentationally brilliant – almost any story looks better on its pages than on those of its rivals – and it invests remorselessly in journalism in a way no one else can match.
But Dacre’s Mail is also often nasty and hectoring (it’s a curious thing, but the Sun and the Mirror tend to be more warm-hearted). If Britain, watching Leveson unfold, is coming around to the idea that it would rather its journalism was less cruel and intrusive, then the Mail might be better with a new tone.
What kind of paper might Greig produce? Here is Glover again, in the Independent: “It is likely he will make the Sunday title less right-wing, slightly more upmarket and somewhat better mannered.” It could be just what Rothermere wants in the post-Leveson Mail.
Curiously, when Sir David English stepped down as editor of the Mail 20 years ago, the circumstances were similar in some ways. English also bestrode the press landscape like a Colossus and he had also been in charge for 20 years. The country had also just witnessed a spasm of public revulsion about journalistic methods – leading to the Calcutt inquiry. Then as now a new editor might have been seen as one way of showing the public that the post-inquiry Mail would be different.
Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University and tweets at @BrianCathcart