In Nick Davies’s classic book on the UK’s newspaper culture Flat Earth News, the final chapter is dedicated to the Daily Mail’s newsroom practices. While recognising the editor Paul Dacre’s instinctive ability to respond to his readers, Davies spells out the implications for a newspaper dedicated to advancing white, middle-class, middle age and middle Britain values.
He illustrates his point with the story of one reporter who was told to drive 300 miles to cover the murder of a woman and her two children. Halfway into the journey, this reporter receives an urgent phone call from the newsdesk, instructing him to come back immediately. Why? Because the family is black.
Many other stories have surfaced over the years that demonstrate Dacre’s relentless pursuit of a monochrome vision of Britain which was described – by one former reporter in Adrian Addison’s history of the Mail – as “a formula: we lived in a very clean and clear, black and white ‘1950s’ idyllic world”.
It was a world in which Britain was to be “saved” from Brussels, where Brexit was a national triumph, and where those who opposed it were personally vilified as either “Enemies of the People” (judges) or “Traitors” (Remain-voting Conservative MPs).
It was therefore perhaps not surprising that his departure from the editor’s chair that he had held for 26 years – and the characteristic brand of journalistic vitriol that he represented – was loudly celebrated by anti-Brexiteers such as Alastair Campbell and James O’Brien.
Dacre’s departure, a few months before his 70th birthday, was less surprising than the announcement of his successor just 24 hours later. While many were expecting one of Fleet Street’s most coveted prizes to go either to deputy editor Gerard Greaves or Mail Online editor Martin Clarke – both of whom would have represented a continuation of the Dacre legacy – the baton was passed to current Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig. He is widely seen as a polar opposite of Dacre: convivial, approachable, cosmopolitan – and an ardent Remainer.
Greig’s appointment, after six years editing the Mail on Sunday, raises two fascinating questions: what kind of statement is being made by the Mail’s owner, the fourth Viscount Rothermere? And what are the implications for a paper which for decades has not only defined “Middle England” but set both policy and news agendas?
Rothermere’s choice is both about brand values and economics. Greig represents a clean break from a toxic journalistic culture in which angry tub-thumping and personal vindictiveness have frequently been elevated above accuracy and fairness. In his history of the paper, Addison quotes several examples of deliberate character assassinations (all the more frequent over the last two years in light of Dacre’s obsession with “Remoaners”), which regular columnists have been obliged to carry out. Nor are such instructions handed out with any subtlety: Dacre’s newsroom style is legendary – and one former Mail reporter told Addison how: “an atmosphere of insecurity, bitchiness and fear permeates the entire building. It’s a hideous, joyless place to work.”
Such a toxic workplace and journalistic environment was almost certainly becoming unsustainable – and no doubt distinctly uncomfortable for the owner. Though Rothermere has been famously hands-off compared to, say, other newspaper proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch or the Barclay Brothers, there are only so many times that an owner can shrug off all responsibility when challenged about the sheer spiteful malevolence of a publication he owns.
On the economic side, the Mail has suffered along with all other titles from an inexorable slide in sales, losing a million from its daily circulation figures in the past ten years (from 2.3m to 1.3m). With more emphasis on keeping advertisers happy, we should also credit the Stop Funding Hate campaign for raising awareness among advertisers of the homophobic, racist and misogynistic content being associated with the group’s brands. That will also have been noticed by Rothermere’s bean counters at the Daily Mail and General Trust.
Will there be a sudden transformation in editorial values? Anyone expecting a spectacular 180-degree turn on Brexit will be disappointed, not least because the core Mail readership still hates Brussels and is viscerally committed to “taking back control”. But we can certainly hope for fewer tendentious and hate-fuelled headlines, a greater tolerance of opposing views, and maybe even a return to basic journalistic values of accuracy and curiosity.
Greig’s MoS has managed successfully to combine unstinting support for the Conservative Party with a softer approach to many social issues such as gay marriage and assisted dying – as well as measured opposition to Brexit. Perhaps more importantly, Greig appears to have ruled the editorial roost with charm and good humour rather than fear and loathing. The Mail’s journalists – barring the few who were jockeying to out-brutalise Dacre – will be mightily relieved.
But Greig’s appointment might be more significant than simply taking over from an influential but deeply unloved national newspaper editor. Perhaps this changing of the guard heralds one of those periodic shifts in Britain’s political culture. “Middle England” is not the homogeneous, wrinkled and hideously white demographic that is usually portrayed. Just as Ireland’s vote to reform abortion laws demonstrated unexpectedly strong support from pensioners and rural communities, so the nature of middle England conservatism may be evolving: less angry, less mired in the past, less intolerant of different communities, less insular, less Dacre’s little Englander. There will still be some, of course – but perhaps they will be less indulged by the Mail’s easy bigotry of the last 20 years.
There will certainly be no revolution at the Mail. But with any luck Geordie Greig will have the courage and personality to turn a newspaper that has become a byword for distortion and malice into one that embraces the true values of decent, robust and challenging journalism. If so, Britain will be a better place.