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A Tabloid ‘Game of Thrones’ in London Could Tilt U.K. Politics


LONDON — Geordie Greig was always an odd fit as the editor of The Daily Mail, Britain’s biggest tabloid. Educated at Eton and Oxford; a former editor of the society magazine Tatler; and a friend of the writer V.S. Naipaul and the painter Lucian Freud, Mr. Greig is a suave, aristocratic fellow once described by The Observer as “Britain’s best-connected man.” He also opposed Brexit.

When Mr. Greig was abruptly ousted last week in an internal power struggle, it caught both him and London’s media class off guard, setting off a round of lip-smacking gossip worthy of a tabloid headline. But in some ways, it merely signified a return to form for a right-leaning, middlebrow paper that staunchly supports the Conservative Party and led the charge for Brexit over the past two decades.

What makes the upheaval at The Mail reverberate beyond the insular world of Fleet Street is the central role it plays in British politics and society. More so than any other British newspaper, The Mail is the voice of what sociologists call Middle England, a broad section of middle-class readers, predominantly white and socially conservative, most of whom live outside London and generally favor Brexit.

Keeping the affections of these voters is critical for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his party. So, Mr. Greig’s dismissal — and his replacement by an editor, Ted Verity, who is viewed as less likely to run critical coverage of the government — is sure to be welcomed at 10 Downing Street, even if, by most accounts, that is not why The Mail’s owner, Jonathan Harmsworth, made the change.

“Geordie Greig was, personally, a Remainer and didn’t see politics through that one lens,” said Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the left-leaning Guardian. “His Mail had recently been sharply critical of Boris Johnson and his government, causing some alarm in the current government and its ranks of MPs.”

For Mr. Johnson, a former journalist who once worked for the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph and edited The Spectator, a less confrontational Mail would be one less headache at a time when his poll ratings have eroded in the glare of a lingering corruption scandal involving Conservative members of Parliament.

It could also give Mr. Johnson a muscular ally if he decides in coming weeks to rip up the trade arrangements for Northern Ireland. That decision could prompt a trade war with the European Union, one that would rekindle the anti-Brussels passions that long fueled The Mail and helped set the stage for Britain’s 2016 vote to break away.

“It’s an unknowable question whether Brexit could have been won without The Mail,” said Mr. Rusbridger, whose latest book, “News and How to Use It,” explores journalism in the age of Brexit and Donald J. Trump.

With a handful of exceptions, Britain’s newspapers still firmly tilt to the right. But after nearly two years in which the coronavirus pandemic replaced Brexit as the country’s abiding preoccupation — a crisis that at times seemed to overwhelm the government — Mr. Johnson has not been able to count on an easy ride from the news media. The Mail under Mr. Greig was especially unforgiving about the perceived “sleaze” factor in government.

The paper aggressively covered the lucrative side jobs taken by Conservative lawmakers. It broke the story of a Conservative Party donor who picked up a 58,000 pound ($77,000) bill for the redecorating of Mr. Johnson’s Downing Street apartment by his wife, Carrie Johnson. (The prime minister later reimbursed the cost of what The Mail, perhaps inevitably, nicknamed “Wallpapergate.”)

“There are certain things that really get to a Daily Mail reader, and one is fat cats and people feathering their own nests,” said Julian Petley, a journalism professor at Brunel University in London. “The Mail is right wing, but very populist.”

It can also be crusading: In the 1990s, the paper went after a flawed police investigation of the racially motivated killing of a Black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, at a London bus stop. It also campaigned, with some success, to curb the use of plastic bags in Britain.

When Mr. Johnson’s aides excluded some journalists from a briefing about the European Union in 2020, The Mail’s reporter joined competitors from other papers in walking out in protest. In an editorial comment that aptly summarized its tough-love approach, The Mail said: “This paper is an avid supporter of all he is trying to achieve. But we cannot be an uncritical friend.”

For all of its strengths, The Mail still gleefully traffics in tabloid fodder. Meghan, Prince Harry’s wife, won a privacy ruling against the Sunday paper for publishing a personal letter she sent her father, Thomas Markle. Its lawyers are appealing.

The Mail’s internal politics are at least as rough-and-tumble as its coverage of national politics — and Mr. Greig, 60, is a battle-scarred veteran of both. Before taking the top job at The Daily Mail in 2018, he was editor of The Mail on Sunday, which often seemed at war with its sister paper. While Mr. Greig inveighed against Brexit, The Daily Mail was a full-throated champion, under Paul Dacre, its longtime editor and an ardent Brexiteer.

“I was surprised at Geordie Greig being made editor, for his Remain views but also his aristocratic educational background,” said Meera Selva, the deputy director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford.

Mr. Greig’s views, however, did not disqualify him with Mr. Harmsworth, 53, who is better known as the Fourth Viscount Rothermere. Executives at the company said Lord Rothermere, whose great-grandfather co-founded The Daily Mail in 1896, wanted Mr. Greig to “detoxify the brand” after years in which banging the drum for Brexit had hurt its reputation with readers and advertisers.

In June 2020, less than two years after Mr. Greig took over, The Mail surpassed Rupert Murdoch’s Sun as Britain’s largest daily, with a circulation of just under one million. But politics poisoned his relationship with Mr. Dacre, who stayed on as editor in chief of the parent company. He publicly criticized his successor for what he described as diluting The Mail’s pro-Brexit DNA.

Mr. Greig declined to discuss his departure, beyond saying that he looked forward to using the skills learned from “my years at The Mail, which I first joined in 1983 as its most junior reporter on the graveyard shift.” In a statement, Lord Rothermere gave no reason for the shake-up. He praised Mr. Greig as a “hugely successful editor” and said Mr. Verity was a “Mail journalist to his core.”

In the end, people inside the company said, Mr. Greig was less a victim of politics than of a power struggle in a changing media empire. Mr. Verity, whose Mail on Sunday was notably softer on Mr. Johnson than The Daily Mail, is an ally of Martin Clarke, who runs Mail Online, the company’s popular, fast-growing website.

Both are close to Mr. Dacre, who suffered a setback of his own last week when he withdrew his name from contention to lead Britain’s communications regulator, Ofcom, despite support from the Johnson government. In a letter to The Times of London, Mr. Dacre said the Civil Service had targeted him because of his right-of-center views, calling it his “infelicitous dalliance with the Blob.”

Lord Rothermere, for his part, is preparing to take the family empire, Daily Mail and General Trust, private. As part of that transition, analysts said, he plans to integrate the daily and Sunday papers, which struggled during the pandemic, and bring Mail Online, which is managed separately, closer to the fold.

“There’s a ‘Game of Thrones’ drama taking place,” said Douglas McCabe, the chief executive of Enders Analysis, a media research firm in London. “But the key story behind it is this profound strategic rethinking of the company.”

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