As the dust settles after the shock announcement that Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is leaving his post after 26 years, it’s time to consider the ramifications of the coup. And that’s exactly what has triggered Dacre’s departure – an overthrow. Forget the corporate claptrap about this being an agreed decision resulting in him willingly accepting the post of chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers. Those who work with him say he is quitting under suffrance and that he is increasingly candid about this. Indeed, it’s now a moot point as to whether he will even go through the humiliation of accepting the non-job he’s been offered, for this would require him to watch in silence as the newspaper he has built since the early 1990s is poked and prodded before undergoing surgery at the hands of his successor, Geordie Greig.
The question is, why is Dacre leaving? Aged nearly 70, it could be argued that he is getting too old for what must be a very demanding commitment, even for a man who takes regular holidays. Yet this isn’t accurate because he remains as active as ever and had certainly intended to stay put beyond his 70th birthday in November. Furthermore, his replacement, nearing his 58th birthday, is not exactly a spring chicken. It’s also been speculated that two and a half decades is quite long enough for anybody to be the boss of a commercial organisation, and that it was time for Dacre to make way for someone else. But when you look at the Mail’s – and Dacre’s – continuing sales success in the worryingly fragile newspaper market, this claim doesn’t hold much water either. So why fix it if it ain’t broke?
I’m told the decision was mainly about Brexit. With negotiations for the UK’s departure from the EU having been (deliberately?) botched by the British Establishment – they are therefore ongoing – the Mail’s pro-EU owner, Lord Rothermere, and his pro-EU wife, Claudia, spotted an opportunity. They wanted someone new to edit the Mail before the UK quits the EU. Someone who would not, unlike Dacre, hold the government to account over the deeply unloved ultra-soft Brexit for which the country is heading.
The chosen candidate, Greig, is, of course, the embodiment of the liberal elite: Eton, Oxford, and a well-known Remainer. He is a BBC-supporting Tory wet, holding the sort of vaguely Left-wing opinions that those born into money can afford. He’s also a friend of the Rothermeres, has links to the Royal Family, and is the editor of the Rothermere-owned Mail on Sunday. He is an Establishment man through and through.
Those who know Greig well insist he is a nice person, even if they will admit that his abilities as the editor of a mid-market tabloid are somewhat lacking. But in my experience he is a suck-up. He has too many friends in high places to be a really good editor – people he would never dream of questioning through his newspaper. And, seemingly, he lusts after making more such friendships. Dacre is clearly aware of this. In fact, in his address at the memorial service for Guardian editor Peter Preston last week he made a couple of remarks which could almost have been directed at Greig personally. In praising the notoriously shy but brilliantly sharp Preston, he noted: ‘An editor who operates without fear or favour can’t really have friends.’ He added: ‘Good editors need to be outsiders because, let’s be honest, most people only befriend journalists to get something into a paper or – more pertinently – keep it out.’ It seems that Dacre believes, as many others do, that journalism, for Greig, has been a vehicle he has used to gain power and popularity. Hard-nosed newspaper journalism, however, is not his vocation. His background as the editor for ten years of the fluffy, glossy magazine Tatler proves this.
By contrast, Dacre’s first love is newspaper journalism. News and features are the things that get him out of bed in the morning. He has many faults, of course, but as an old-fashioned newspaperman he is second to none. He can be relied upon to pursue anyone he thinks deserves scrutiny. A recent example of this relates to his friend from their days at Leeds University, the former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. In the last couple of months any personal history between them has been cast aside as Straw has been thrust under the Mail’s microscope on several occasions over his knowledge, or otherwise, of the UK’s role in ‘extraordinary rendition’. Compare this with Greig’s coverage of the Royals. As his father and grandfather were both (knighted) courtiers, he is well disposed towards the monarchy in a way that does not become a national newspaper editor. The Mail on Sunday used to invest significant amounts of time and money researching and publishing stories about the Royal Family which invariably did not reflect well on the Windsors. That all stopped in 2012 when Greig took over as editor.
When you look at Greig’s track record at the Mail on Sunday, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that he cares too much what other people think of him. You only have to remember his predilection for including in the paper photographs of himself ‘interviewing’ politicians alongside his political editor, Simon Walters, to work out that he has something to prove. His inability to resist featuring his picture and byline in the publication he edits (a surprisingly provincial touch, when you think about it, and one which causes much sniggering behind his back) may be a result of his being a small man with a thin voice desperately in search of fame or the approval of real journalists. Whether this unappealing habit is borne of vanity or insecurity – or both – it is something that Paul Dacre would never do. Indeed, I’m not certain that any other newspaper editor goes in for this sort of stunt either.
So what happens next? Dacre will be gone by September, apparently. To begin with, it’s unlikely much will change. Greig has experience of moving by stealth rather than speed. But, as reality bites, there is already a good deal of fretting by some at the Mail. The prospect of change has alarmed them. Will the news budget, so carefully guarded by Dacre, remain at its present level under Greig? What about expenses which, by contemporary Fleet Street standards, are generous? How likely is it that a columnist such as Richard Littlejohn will want to work for an editor whose views on so many subjects are so different from his own? Is it true that one of the paper’s most admired writers, Quentin Letts, is about to jump ship because of Greig’s promotion? Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, is already pencilled in to move her Mail column to the Mail on Sunday. This perhaps means that Greig’s great friend Rachel Johnson, described by Dacre in the Spectator last month as the woman whose Mail on Sunday column ‘gives banality a bad name’, will swap places with Ms Vine. Johnson represents pretty much everything that Dacre hates in journalism. The mere thought of her setting up camp in the pages of his newspaper must make him shake with rage.
In terms of finances, it is also the case that this change of editors represents a rare chance for the Mail’s bean-counters to have a really good look under the bonnet of the operation. When they do so, they will realise that they can probably spare the company several million pounds a year. Aside from cutting expenses and budgets, the big savings will be made through the amalgamation of the Daily and Sunday titles. No department is off limits, apparently.
Last, but certainly not least, one must think of the Mail’s loyal readers. Dacre has said he’s received ‘countless’ messages from them asking about the future of the paper they love. Specifically, they have apparently expressed concerns about whether the Mail will continue its support for EU withdrawal. ‘My answer to them – and others – is unequivocal,’ he warned in the Spectator last month. ‘Support for Brexit is in the DNA of both the Daily Mail and, more pertinently, its readers. Any move to reverse this would be editorial and commercial suicide.’
He’s right, of course, and this presents Geordie Greig with a significant conundrum which he will presumably spend the summer chewing over. Ultimately, if called on to predict what direction he is going to take, I would say that the Mail under Geordie Greig is eventually going to change for the worse. As Dacre, the last proper newspaper editor of his generation, leaves the stage, the curtain will fall on the era of the truly robust, trenchant and unapologetically critical newspaper. (The Sun still tries, but the phone hacking scandal means that it is scared of its own shadow these days).
For readers who intend to keep buying the Mail, brace yourselves for a kinder, softer, less probing and less interesting newspaper. In appointing Geordie Greig to the top job, I think Lord Rothermere has made the wrong decision. I also think he has made a big mistake. Time will tell.