Most people, if asked, would struggle to name a single national newspaper editor. But despite dwindling print sales, these journalists play a huge role in British public life and have powerful sway.
Foremost among their number – at least until this week – is Geordie Greig, who was yesterday (17 November) ousted as editor of the Daily Mail after just three years at its helm. His predecessor, Paul Dacre, ran the paper for 26 years.
Naturally, Greig’s sudden departure has set media tongues wagging, both inside and outside the Mail’s Northcliffe House headquarters – not least because of who has been named successor.
But before we come on to that, it’s worth taking a step back. Greig was very unlike his predecessor as editor, and bore little resemblance to a typical Daily Mail reader: he was Eton-educated, backed Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and was an alumnus of Tatler magazine.
As editor of the Mail on Sunday, he notoriously clashed with Dacre, with ongoing skirmishes reflected in contradictory articles and even front pages run by the daily and Sunday editions.
Back then, Dacre appeared to have the upper hand as the longstanding veteran and overall editor-in-chief. But in part through good relations with Lady Rothermere, the wife of the paper’s proprietor Lord Rothermere, Greig eventually succeeded in having Dacre pushed aside in 2018.
Perhaps as a consolation to Dacre, though, his close ally Ted Verity took the Mail on Sunday editorship vacated by Greig – meaning the daily and Sunday papers have continued sparring over the last three years, having swapped ends of the pitch.
Very little public explanation was given for Greig’s abrupt departure this week. But he can certainly claim some editorial victories: the Daily Mail became the UK’s largest newspaper under his tenure, albeit because the Sun’s circulation fell faster than the Mail’s. And the newspaper’s Mail Force campaign to deliver PPE during the pandemic garnered support from readers.
Under Greig, the Mail could also claim to at least occasionally hold the government’s feet to the fire. It correctly judged the mood of its readers over Dominic Cummings’s lockdown-breaking antics, and has battered the government in recent weeks over the Owen Paterson debacle and subsequent lobbying and second job scandals.
Left-leaning and liberal readers of publications such as this one may have found themselves occasionally – to their surprise – liking what they saw in the Mail. Perhaps that was part of the problem.
Rumours among Mail staff suggested the Rothermeres were not fond of the editorial direction the paper had taken in the last year or so, and had been looking for a good moment to make a change. What had complicated matters was the Mail’s ongoing legal battles with Meghan Markle over the Mail on Sunday‘s publication of a letter that she sent to her father.
Markle won a summary judgment in the case, but the paper has an ongoing appeal. One concern appears to have been that any change in editorial leadership might have looked like a result of that case, which could have spooked shareholders and advertisers.
Perhaps ironically, some more positive recent developments in the case from the Mail’s perspective – most notably a concession from Markle that she had, in fact, authorised aides to brief the authors of a recent biography of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – might have made it possible for Greig to be ousted without it appearing like a panicked response to the legal troubles.
The shift also serves as something of a last laugh for Paul Dacre, as it is his longstanding ally Ted Verity who takes over from Greig – suggesting the new direction for the Mail is a return to the former editor’s trademark style.
There are also rumours the shift may bring an end to the years-long conflict between the daily and Sunday papers by facilitating a shift to a seven-day operation, with at least some journalists working across both papers, under one editor. Such moves have become common across the newspaper industry more widely, so it would hardly be without precedence.
All the same, the Mail has managed to prove that newspapers, not just broadcast empires, are still capable of producing Succession-style drama – and that there can be just as much going on behind the headlines as in them.