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6 December 2021

What the hell is going on with the Daily Mail group?

In a saga that has more dramatic plot twists than a Game of Thrones season finale, Paul Dacre is back – and Martin Clarke is leaving the MailOnline.

Traditionally, the Daily Mail reports on drama rather than creating it – but in the past month it has had more dramatic plot twists than a Game of Thrones season finale.

The recap goes something a little like this: things started in November when Paul Dacre, who had edited the Mail for 26 years, stood down as chairman and titular editor-in-chief to focus on his second application to become chair of Ofcom.

In a shock move shortly afterwards, Dacre’s successor as Mail editor – and long-time rival – Geordie Greig was ousted as editor of the Daily Mail after just three years in the post. Greig departed unceremoniously less than a week after the announcement was made.

Dacre’s friend and ally Ted Verity, who had been his deputy and who became editor of the Mail on Sunday after Greig (who’d held that role before his 2018 promotion – keeping up?) moved to the daily paper, is now in charge of both the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday – ending a longstanding simmering feud between the titlemates.

[See also: What’s behind Geordie Greig’s ousting as “Daily Mail” editor?]

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The next twist came in the form of Dacre withdrawing from consideration as Ofcom chair, citing an exciting new opportunity in the private sector… which turned out to be, it seems, his old job, as editor-in-chief of the group’s papers – with, as before, him having no role in day-to-day editing.

And then, late last week, as if that hadn’t all been twisty enough, there was a departure far more dramatic than Greig’s. Martin Clarke, the powerhouse behind the behemoth that MailOnline has become, announced his exit from the company.

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MailOnline is one of the biggest news sites in the world, and has in many ways defined how mid-market papers work online – with a much-imitated format of churning out hundreds of stories a day, focusing on celebrity, and loading articles with numerous pictures. Such is the fame of the site’s distinctive feature that “sidebar of shame” has entered the general lexicon.

So what exactly is going on? The honest answer is that very few people – including within Mail HQ Northcliffe House itself – seem to know for sure. But there are significant clues to be gleaned from a careful reading of Clarke’s departure statement.

The first thing to note is Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere stresses that he “had to reluctantly accept Martin’s resignation” – which makes clear that Clarke’s exit (unlike Greig’s) was Clarke’s decision, rather than the Mail’s, and that (again, unlike Greig) the owner was at least somewhat sad about it.

There are other contrasts: Clarke will be working until February 2022 rather than departing immediately. A curious bit of extra phrasing is there too, as Clarke notes he will be “available to the company until the end of 2022”.

One possibility here is the company and Clarke agreed some form of consulting agreement – but another is that Clarke has a non-compete built into his contract that runs for 12 months, meaning he is at least somewhat tied to the Mail until it expires, and the parties have not (yet, at least) negotiated a compromise out of it.

Reporting in several outlets had suggested Rupert Murdoch had been scouting whether Clarke might be poachable – especially since the Mail made an attempt to secure Piers Morgan, undoubtedly driving up his price to News UK.

It is, of course, possible that this succeeded – Clarke is reported to have wanted a shareholding in whatever venture he dedicated himself to next, something the privately owned Mail group tends to be reluctant to hand over. Murdoch’s slimmed-down News Corp is still publicly traded, and so might have more to offer on that front.

Clarke may also wish to launch his own start-up and have a much, much higher stake in the company – for which he would surely do well attracting financial backers. It would be worrying for the Mail to see the architect of its own website launching a rival, even if he couldn’t get it going until 2023.

The question for the Mail – and for Rothermere in particular – is whether he messed up and could have kept Clarke. MailOnline has long run independently of its print counterparts, and there have been years-long power struggles as each side tried to exert influence over the other.

Dacre’s supposed final departure was a chance for that to happen, for either Verity or Clarke to become the undisputed editor-in-chief of the group – and then Rothermere seemed to attempt to split the difference and keep a balance of power. Did he do that because Clarke’s departure was already guaranteed – or did this drive it?

Either way, there are question marks for the MailOnline’s future. It is not going to change or decline overnight, because it’s a well-oiled machine. But it’s tough at the top, and tougher to stay at the top – especially with a power vacuum and no obvious sense of direction.

The drama at Northcliffe House might not be over yet.

[See also: A stich-up too far? Why Paul Dacre won’t be leading Ofcom after all]

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