A Tabloid Changes Course—and Could Change Britain

The Daily Mail tabloid encouraged a vote for Brexit. Will a new, pro-Europe editor make readers change their minds—or unsubscribe?

A photograph of Geordie Greig layered on top of the Daily Mail logo.
Alastair Grant / AP / Daily Mail / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

LONDON — The man is so connected that he can boast of ringing up Hugh Grant (a chum from Oxford), or lunching with London villains known for extracting obedience with pliers. A 57-year-old journalist, Geordie Greig is a slight fellow, his reddish coloring hinting at Scottish ancestry, eyebrows arching quizzically, thin lips with a propensity to hang apart, exposing bulldog lower teeth. He is also a man who might change Britain.

This is a strange time in the United Kingdom, as Brexit hurtles closer without anyone yet knowing what leaving the European Union will mean. It’s also a curious time for the press, as circulation plummets, those frail pages leafed by increasingly frail and few hands. Yet one print publication, the Daily Mail, still commands vast power, its thunderous front-page headlines all but causing the paintings to tremble at 10 Downing Street. And this is where Greig comes in, for he is about to take control at the inky institution, perhaps editing this country’s political chaos in the process.

According to the Mail worldview of recent years, dignified British ways are under attack, mauled by vain liberal cosmopolitans, crafty foreigners, and fashionable bunkum. Here’s a selection of items from a recent edition: banks are ripping off bereaved families; knife-wielding muggers are on the rampage; global elites held a secret meeting; Romanians are stealing fish from honest local anglers; an op-ed headlined “TYRANNY OF THE MINORITIES.” As the ads hint, readership skews older, with pages hawking cruises, retirement apartments, gardening equipment, stair lifts, treatment for varicose veins, hearing tests.

A parody Mail headline generator concocts pearls such as “Could Gays Burgle Britain’s Swans?” or “Will Political Correctness Give Middle Britain Cancer?” But fewer people snicker at the Mail than attend to it. The midmarket tabloid has set the political agenda in Britain, its influence akin to that which Fox News exerts on Washington politicos. The Mail’s power comes partly from the millions who read it each week, most crucially those desirable older voters in the provinces. Another part of its power springs from cold fear: for a public figure to be “monstered”—meaning picked on and picked apart—by the Mail means humiliation, perhaps the end of a career. When the newspaper has pushed a cause, politicians have rushed to address it, causing the matter to ricochet through the media, spreading Mail-originated issues across the TV, radio, and other print publications. These have then become talking points at pubs and cafés and workplaces, infiltrating the debate more deeply and subtly than can be measured.

Never was the Mail as influential as when advocating Brexit. Before the 2016 referendum, a litany of experts insisted that British membership in the EU was hugely advantageous, whereas breaking from 27 neighboring countries meant paying dearly for the pleasure of becoming weaker. Yet the Mail persisted, and its side won.

Two years later, the fractious government of Prime Minister Theresa May is still struggling in its divorce talks. The EU intends to offer Britain a worse deal than it currently enjoys, lest other nations are tempted to quit. However, the Britons who voted “Leave” were assured a better future outside the bloc. So May is trapped. And the right-wing press here—led by the Mail—has given no quarter, demanding that the exit should bloody well hurry up, with dark pronouncements that “the will of the people” must be obeyed. When May dared propose a moderate form of Brexit, two key cabinet members—Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, plus the minister for leaving the EU, David Davis—resigned.

Few in this country, I’d wager, clearly understand what is happening in the current negotiations, leaving most in a puddle of perplexity, fatigue, impatience, dread. Some grumble, “Why can’t we get on with it, and just leave the blasted EU!” Others refuse to believe it’s really happening: “We’ll figure something out,” they say.

But departure nears (this coming March 29 is the formal date), and May is only now, finally, revealing her preferred terms. So far, she has survived the tumult in her cabinet. But a deal with the EU is far from settled; many more wobbles await.

Greig, as the next editor of the Mail, assumes a vital role here. Unlike the newspaper’s current pro-Brexit boss, Greig wanted Britain to vote “Remain.” Many who still yearn for the country to stay in the EU responded with relief upon hearing of his appointment; a few even said Brexit wouldn’t happen now.

The break from Europe will remake this country, so it is the obsessive political concern here. Yet an editorial change at the Mail could have consequences beyond Brexit, marking a generational change and a cultural one too. The raging old beasts of Fleet Street have long found relevance by shouldering their way into politics, jostling those with power and agitating those without—a process that links an organ’s importance to its potential for damage. The question is how much sway the print media can clutch onto as words and readers migrate from slow-turning paper to ever-tapping flatscreens.

Newspapers have a long history of badgering and ridiculing British politicians, and sometimes even holding them to account. Back in 1931, Stanley Baldwin, who was three times the prime minister, famously reviled a couple of newspaper barons as seeking “power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

The U.K. newspaper business differs considerably from that in America, partly for the simple facts of geography. The British Isles cover little territory and share a single time zone, which has allowed the press to address the entire nation at once. A plethora of competitive papers emerged in the 19th century, leading to parallel traditions: one of clarity and courage, another of titillation and cynicism.

A further difference from U.S. news is that broadcasters here, most famously the BBC, have a mandate to represent all citizens, meaning they take pains to appear politically balanced. By contrast, the print press found profit in tribalism. Long has it been possible to glimpse a stranger’s newspaper and immediately deduce her class and politics.

To understand the particular power of the Mail, one must first understand its longstanding editor, Paul Dacre. A tall but stooped 69-year-old, Dacre is often described as surprisingly shy. It’s a surprise because Dacre is, by reputation, a foul-mouthed autocrat. The editor, who declined to be interviewed for this article, once said in a radio interview, “If I shout occasionally, it’s because I care so much.” According to the investigative magazine Private Eye among other sources, news meetings at the Mail are nicknamed “the vagina monologues” for Dacre’s habit of berating underlings as “c*nts.”

To those who wonder if such a place might be better named the Daily Male, Dacre’s defenders point out that the newspaper enjoys huge readership among women (it’s the only U.K. title with more female readers than male), and the staff is careful to edit with a female audience in mind. During a rare interview in 2004, Dacre singled out a special woman in his own life. “No man can become a success unless he has a wife to pick him up when he’s down, to put up with his shouting when he’s tired, and to encourage him in the dark moments,” he told Desert Island Discs, a classic BBC radio show where notables reminisce while selecting favorite songs. His included Bing Crosby, Wagner, and Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

“A politically correct consensus dominates so much in British life,” Dacre lamented. “It says that Britain is a shameful nation with a shameful history, and a culture and a people who are inherently racist, sexist and anti-European. It says the nuclear family is outmoded, and that in justice and education, liberal progressive values must prevail. Well, the fact is that most Britons don’t believe this; they simply don’t. We represent the views of those readers.” (Just how progressive Britons are is a matter of debate. One study suggests that people here consider themselves more conservative than they truly are, given the policies they prefer. Liberals who deplore Dacre would say his publication contributes to such a disconnect, while his supporters contend that he has been the voice of a silent majority.)

Dacre himself grew up in north London suburbia, his father a journalist who had lifted himself from a tough childhood in Yorkshire to specialize in showbiz news. At an early age, the younger Dacre longed to reign over a newsroom. At the University of Leeds, he edited the college paper, and is remembered for adding “Leeds Lovelies,” photos of attractive women on campus. After graduating, he joined the Daily Express in 1971, then the second-biggest national daily. By the late ’70s—a time of dismal economic strife in Britain—Dacre was a New York correspondent, and judged American capitalist ideals to be the answer for his country’s ailments. Moving to the right, he also decided that the ’60s had rubbished far too much of traditional culture.

When Dacre became editor of the Mail in 1992, it was not the dominant paper. That year, after the Conservative Party unexpectedly won the general election, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun had a Page One splash, bragging, “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT.” But during Dacre’s 26 years leading the Mail, it was not The Sun that rose.

In this period, the right-wing press in Britain thrived on contempt for the EU, portraying the Brussels bureaucracy as a warren of conniving foreign twits. Even liberal politicians worried what Dacre thought. A former senior Labour politician, Andrew Adonis, who was part of the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, recently told the BBC: “Too often what the Daily Mail would think and what Paul Dacre would personally think about issues influenced ministerial thinking. … Brexit is in many ways his great memorial.”

Anti-EU rhetoric intensified before the referendum, with fright stories about out-of-control immigration through open European borders, and depictions of prominent “Remain” supporters as hoity-toity dupes. A day before the referendum, the Mail’s front-page headline stated: “Lies. Greedy elites. Or a great future outside a broken, dying Europe. … If you believe in Britain vote Leave.”

After “Leave” won by 52 percent to 48, the Mail kept up the pressure. When high-court judges ruled that the government required the consent of Parliament to formally initiate Brexit, the Mail filled Page One with large photos of the three justices in wigs and robes above the headline “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE.”

Soon, the writer of that article had a new job: prime minister’s spokesman.

Amid all this, Geordie Greig was editing a newspaper of his own. Indeed, he was in the very same building, working at the Mail on Sunday. Readers unaware that a different staff produced the Sunday edition must have puzzled over the Mail’s seemingly schizoid position, barking anti-EU indignation six days a week, only to reverse itself on the sabbath: LEAVE! LEAVE! LEAVE! LEAVE! LEAVE! LEAVE! … no, actually, stay.

If Dacre is known as gauche and domineering, Greig is the velvet charmer, bewitching boardrooms and befriending culture stars whom the older man would likely sneer at. Politically, Greig is the kind of modernizing Conservative associated with the previous prime minister, David Cameron, who drastically cut public spending but approved of gay marriage.

Greig isn’t giving interviews before he takes over at the Mail. But such a sociable man leaves a trail of anecdotes. His earliest entry into the cultural life of Britain began as a boy, when Greig wrote letters to great painters, authors, punk rockers. A few responded, and his networking had begun. That said, connections preceded his birth, for his father was once Gentleman Usher to the Queen, while his grandfather was a close friend of King George VI, playing doubles with the future monarch at Wimbledon.

After attending Eton and taking an English degree at Oxford in 1981, Geordie Greig entertained two job prospects: one from a Chicago bank at a salary of $74,000 in today’s money, and another for the equivalent of $12,000 as a trainee reporter for the South-East London and Kentish Mercury, a weekly in the gritty neighborhood of Deptford. He opted for Grub Street, as British hacks call the lowly life of a journalist. “There were so many murders, we couldn’t put them in the paper,” he once said. After consorting with thugs at illegal bars, he’d travel across London for another drinking appointment: tea with his sister and Princess Diana.

While still at the Mercury, Greig took evening shifts at the Mail. Its news editor? Paul Dacre, who reportedly told the cub reporter that he lacked “the Daily Mail sparkle.” But eventually, Greig was made a staffer, before moving to the Sunday Times, where he spent 12 years as, variously, a general reporter, arts writer, New York correspondent, and literary editor. A mere two months into Greig’s New York posting, the Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neil, visited the city, and found that a dinner party awaited. “Everyone was there. Henry Kissinger, the latest supermodel, Ed Koch,” Neil told the Observer in 2005. “I was never entirely sure if he was my New York correspondent or my social secretary.”

In 1999, Greig became an editor in his own right, taking over the high-society magazine Tatler, fraternizing with Tom Wolfe or Lucien Freud or Madonna. His social connections even permitted him to engineer the sale of a leading London newspaper, the Evening Standard, to a Russian oligarch’s son—there he ended up as editor-in-chief, before moving in 2012 to his current job at the Mail on Sunday.

“What you’re seeing here is a socially adroit fixer coming in, who knows how the world works, can put people together, knows a hell of a lot of people,” said a longtime journalist who has had many dealings with Greig and Dacre over the years, and who agreed to speak openly only on condition of anonymity. “If you think of Paul Dacre as a great big bludgeon, Geordie is a much more sly figure.”

As for the future Mail, Dacre issued a warning. “Support for Brexit is in the DNA of both the Daily Mail and, more pertinently, its readers,” he wrote recently in The Spectator, the conservative magazine of politics and culture. “Any move to reverse this would be editorial and commercial suicide.”

Nobody expects the Mail to flip its politics overnight. Imagine if Fox News abruptly approved of Democrats, or The New York Times began applauding Trump. A fraction of their audiences would revise their opinions; most would just find another source.

“People read what they believe in the newspapers rather than believe what they read,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Even if news outlets rarely change one’s political identity, they are influential when cueing audiences on what positions to take regarding new issues, especially if these don’t cleave along party lines. Brexit was precisely such a case. But the bruising referndum left behind two new group identities: Brexiteer and Remainer. That divide has shifted little. According to a recent YouGov poll, more people now consider the Brexit result a mistake than support it—yet a majority still thinks Britain should go ahead with departure.

Some Remainers, including many who were too young to cast ballots last time, argue that the voters of 2016 couldn’t have known what they’d end up with, so Britain should hold a fresh referendum on whatever the government negotiates. Tens of thousands marched through central London on June 23, the anniversary of the vote, demanding a second chance. Meanwhile, ardent Brexiteers insist they’d willingly crash out of the EU without a deal on trade and the like, just to escape the hated Brussels orbit.

In the nine months left till departure, a becalmed Mail could have considerable effect, if only by granting coverage to those asking if Brexit will really bring the resplendent future its advocates promised. Such coverage would give cover to those in Parliament who are petrified both of Brexit and of being seen to oppose it. After the exit deadline in March, a moderate Mail could try to nudge the Brexit tribes toward consensus rather than picking at the scabs. After all, Brexit isn’t an event that comes and goes on March 29. Its consequences, costs, and fallout will endure for decades.

But will print? To history, the newspapers’ role in causing Brexit might look like the late spasm of a dying medium. Under Dacre, Mail print circulation did grow until 2003, hitting around 2.5 million copies daily—after which it has kept falling, along with circulation in the rest of the industry. It’s at roughly 1.3 million a day now. (By point of reference, the Guardian is down to 140,000.)

But, of course, the future is digital. MailOnline has sometimes been counted as the most-read newspaper site in the world. Yet it is run separately from the print edition, and is not known for strident campaigns but for what wags call “the sidebar of shame,” a seemingly infinite column of clickbait, featuring half-dressed celebrities with “ample cleavage” or “tiny denim shorts” or “completely TOPLESS.”

MailOnline recently started to turn a profit, but still earns far less than the newspaper. Mail print stories are also published on the website. But they have far less impact in that context, flung among thousands of eye-catching pieces rather than blared on a printed front page that the chattering classes in London scrutinize daily for clues about the rest of Britain. Someday unifying the print and digital operations seems inevitable. But would that future Mail focus on chest-thumping politics or chest-baring Kardashians? (Shortly after the Greig appointment last month, another intriguing change was announced: Fox News digital editor, Noah Kotch, was hired as the new editor-in-chief of MailOnline, based in New York and with ambitions to expand further in the United States.)

In Britain, meanwhile, Greig will take over the Daily Mail sometime before Dacre’s 70th birthday this November. In the long term, Dacre’s departure “will lead into a different kind of national discourse,” said Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster. “There will be a toned-down sense of conservatism which will be less angry, less rabid, less divisive, and perhaps more constructive.”

Still, in these bitterly partisan times—when “fake news” is a slur rather than a statement of fact, when “most-read” is often a way of saying “most-emotive,” and when earnest editors earn their gray hairs by worrying about virality—the question is whether “less rabid, less divisive” is a formula that can command much power.