Sunday, December 26, 2021

Media: "The inside story of backstabbing, feuds and intrigue at the Daily Mail"

From Prospect Magazine, December 9:

Jane Martinson investigates why Geordie Grieg was sacked—and why Boris Johnson will be mightily relieved

Since this article went to press, one of the main characters in the story, Martin Clarke, has announced that he is quitting his post as editor of MailOnline. In a statement on 3rd December, Clarke said he was leaving “to pursue new challenges” but will “remain available to the company until the end of 2022.”

When Jonathan Harmsworth, fourth Viscount Rothermere and hereditary newspaper proprietor, called Geordie Greig to his sixth-floor office  in mid-November, a month before the company’s planned 125th birthday party, few people knew what was coming, least of all the editor of the Daily Mail. After a meeting described as “brusque,” the man who had turned the Mail into Britain’s bestselling title, and won three newspaper of the year awards during his three years in charge, was ousted. 

When Rothermere announced the defenestration in an email to staff at 5.35pm the next day, the shock was audible. Greig—a favourite among many, from the lowliest trainee to the proprietor’s wife—had been appointed as the Mail’s third editor in 47 years in 2018. And now he had days to clear his desk. One seasoned Mail staffer called the decision “uncharacteristically brutal,” while another said the reaction as journalists opened his lordship’s email was “lots of people whispering ‘Fuck!’—nobody seems to have known.” 

Yet Paul Dacre, Greig’s predecessor, was almost certainly on the inside track. On the day Greig was sacked, Dacre was not only seen in Northcliffe House, the South Kensington base of the Mail, but later “grinning from ear to ear” at a book launch for Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft. According to one source, he was overheard saying: “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” It was unclear if he meant Rothermere or a higher deity.

There was more mystery to come. Just weeks before, Dacre had reportedly vacated his office along with a largely honorific role chairing the  Mail’s parent company, and had apparently lost his chauffeur. Some saw this as clearing potential conflicts of interest in the path of his (doomed, as it turned out) bid to become the next chair of media regulator Ofcom. Greig’s departure left Dacre’s protégés fully in the ascendent—Mail on Sunday editor Ted Verity became the new head of a seven-day print operation and MailOnline’s Martin Clarke was effectively put in charge of the digital future. Then another marmalade-dropping email arrived: Dacre was to be reinstated as editor-in-chief of DMG Media, advising not only Rothermere but the two editors on the challenges ahead. 

Just two working days after Greig left the building for the final time, Dacre, who is now 73 and who infamously has his emails printed out, was to be found in his office taking calls into the evening. 

In hindsight, there had been signs: not only Dacre’s jolly presence in the building but the fact Clarke’s right-hand man at MailOnline, Rich Caccappolo, had been appointed chief executive of the publishing company on the day that Greig was called into Rothermere’s office. 

Few inside the building, perhaps mindful of the expected job cuts, would comment publicly. But privately, many expressed confusion. One insider said: “You need a degree in Kremlinology to work out what’s going on.” Another messaged to say: “The newsroom mood is at an all-time low. Everyone feels last three years were just a wonderful dream and now it’s cold morning… No one understands.”

With most media companies, a reshuffle at the top would be the bread-and-butter stuff of trade magazines and nothing more. The Mail is different. For a sign of its influence, look no further than the shockwaves in Downing Street when Greig’s front page on 4th November boomed: “SHAMELESS MPs SINK BACK INTO SLEAZE.”  That same day two other Tory papers, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express, put a positive spin on the Owen Paterson story and splashed on vaccines for NHS staff and Christmas respectively. Within hours of the Mail hitting the streets, Johnson knew his bid to back the disgraced Paterson was scuppered. 

So the news that Greig had been unceremoniously dumped will not have displeased a struggling prime minister. The so-called legacy press still has the power to set the political mood—and none, in recent years, more so than the dominant mid-market title that strained every sinew to shove Brexit over the line.  

But Mail underlings could be forgiven their confusion over the sudden decapitation of a popular editor. It had been widely reported that Rothermere and his wife, Claudia, had been increasingly unhappy with the stridency of late Dacre. The appointment of the socially smoother Greig—a centrist Remainer—seemed to signal a wish for the Mail to play a less pungent role in British political life.

Why the change of heart? With most publicly listed companies, the boss would have to offer up some public comments, but Rothermere—who is in the middle of trying to take DMG into private ownership—maintains a de haut en bas disinclination to explain himself. If we exclude Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia, Rothermere is the last in a tradition of press barons who wield power through print....


Prospect did have to add a correction after publication:

Correction: This essay originally stated that Geordie Greig and Martin Clarke went shooting on the Duke of Northumberland’s estate. While they did go shooting with the Duke of Northumberland, it was not on his land. The piece has been amended accordingly.