Paul Dacre may be out but don’t expect a revolution at the Mail

New editor Geordie Greig may have a personally softer stance on Brexit but hard opinions from columnists will still dominate.  

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Geordie Greig, the newly appointed editor of the Daily Mail in place of Paul Dacre, who has occupied the chair for 26 years, is a very different character from his predecessor. Dacre is gruff, awkward in his body language, shy and prickly. He is never seen at parties and rarely dines or lunches with the powerful or fashionable. His editorship was characterised by unrelenting abuse of the liberal, metropolitan elite, particularly over its opposition to Brexit. Greig, by contrast, is an urbane, sociable Old Etonian who spent 12 years at the Sunday Times as arts correspondent and later literary editor, edited the society magazine Tatler for ten years, boasts generations of royal courtiers among his family, and glides easily across the London social scene. Most important, he is a Remainer and the Mail on Sunday, which he has edited since 2012, is a Remain-supporting newspaper.

Optimists expect Greig to end the daily paper’s support for Brexit and “detoxify” it in other respects. I am not so sure. One cannot imagine Greig denouncing judges as “enemies of the people”, as Dacre did when they ruled that Theresa May couldn’t trigger Brexit without parliamentary approval, or describing peers as “saboteurs”. Under Greig, the Mail’s editorials may incline towards a softish Brexit. But Richard Littlejohn, Dominic Lawson, Stephen Glover, Quentin Letts and other columnists have spoken with one voice on Brexit from the start. Unless they are to perform a collective U-turn or be sacked en masse, hard Brexit opinions will still dominate.

Greig never entirely excluded Brexiteers from the Sunday paper as Dacre excluded Remainers from the daily. On many other political issues, the Mail on Sunday has been no more liberal than the Daily Mail, sometimes less so. It is particularly scathing about foreign aid spending and runs frequent articles claiming that global warming is “a con”. Last year, it published a two-and-a-half-page feature headlined “How world leaders were duped over global warming” that Ipso, the newspapers’ self-appointed watchdog, found to be inaccurate and misleading. The Mail that we know and don’t love may be with us for a while yet.

Orders from the bridge

Though Dacre, when he hands over in the autumn, becomes chairman and editor-in-chief of the Mail papers’ publisher, Associated Newspapers, Greig will not be accountable to him. Instead, the new editor will report directly to Lord Rothermere, chairman of the parent company, the Daily Mail and General Trust, in which Rothermere holds 18 per cent of the shares but all the voting rights.

His lordship clearly intends to protect Greig from his bitter rival – Dacre’s Mail rarely missed an opportunity to cast doubt on the veracity of an “exclusive” in its Sunday sister – and it’s hard to see how Dacre can exercise much, if any, influence in future. But what if, under Greig’s editorship, readers desert the Mail in large numbers? Watch out for Ted Verity, appointed Greig’s successor on the Mail on Sunday. Currently Dacre’s deputy at the Daily Mail, he has been with the company for nearly 30 years and once edited the daily’s Femail section. Last year’s notorious Mail front page, which headlined “Legs-it” over a picture of May meeting Nicola Sturgeon, was published on his watch. If the Mail flounders, a rescue party headed by Verity with Dacre shouting orders from the bridge is just possible.

Visceral hatred

In 2015-16, according to the National Readership Survey, the Daily Mail had more readers in the 15-34 age bracket than the Times and Guardian combined – 414,000 against 396,000. The figures for 2016-17 show a startling reversal: the Mail’s readership among under-35s is down to 296,000 while the total for the Remain-supporting Times and Guardian is up to 432,000. A university lecturer told me the other day that, since the Brexit vote, students talk about the Daily Mail with the kind of visceral hatred that, during the hacking scandal, was reserved for the Sun. These are nothing more than scraps of evidence but they may help explain why Rothermere was keen to remove the paper entirely from Dacre’s influence

 

Setting the agenda

When newspaper circulations are falling steadily – the Daily Mail’s, now 1.3 million, has almost halved in 15 years – why do politicians care so much about their editors and particularly about Dacre? The answer is that, despite the many alternative sources of news, the papers still set the agenda and shape debate. They determine the subjects for TV and radio current affairs discussions and for the bloggers and tweeters of the internet, even those who purport to despise “the mainstream media”. Most important, they are still read by ministers, MPs and party political activists and they provide emotional support and reassurance. For the Brexiteers, the raucous backing of Dacre’s Mail plays the same role as the roar of the fans does for footballers. Dacre, despite the PM’s ambiguous position on Brexit, also provides May with her most loyal support.

Food for thought

The Gay Hussar, a restaurant in London’s Soho once the favourite of prominent Labour figures such as Michael Foot, Roy Hattersley and Tom Driberg, closes this month. There’s a petition to save it and it escaped threats to its future in 2013. But this time, I think, it’s curtains. I shall not shed tears. I never warmed to the Gay Hussar, with its heavy Hungarian food, its fusty atmosphere, and its overwhelmingly masculine and frequently inebriated clientele. I often endured it because many left-wing friends refused to go anywhere else, except an even worse restaurant further east. One once said to me that “people overestimate the importance of good food in a restaurant”. Only an English lefty could say such a thing.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?