“Saboteurs endangering our nation,” bellowed the Daily Mail in a typical headline last month, suggesting that the leopard certainly hadn’t changed its spots. Observers of the press, including myself, who had predicted that Paul Dacre’s retirement as editor would usher in a less abrasive and confrontational style under a new boss, seemed destined for disappointment.
But all was not quite what it seemed. The “saboteurs” in the headline were not judges, academics, soft Brexiteers or other members of Dacre’s detested “liberal elite”. This time, the “posturing rebels” and “backstabbing plotters” were Tory MPs on the right of the party who were endangering the prime minister’s calculations for an orderly, negotiated withdrawal from the EU.
Squarely in the cross-hairs of this carefully constructed editorial were the likes of Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith, previously the poster boys of Dacre’s raucously hard Brexit editorial line.
Any suggestion that the Mail’s new editor, Geordie Greig, might be turning his paper away from Brexit or, heaven help us, towards the centre, is well wide of the mark. That particular editorial also warned of letting “an unreconstructed Marxist into No. 10, with all the ruinous consequences that would wreak on the nation” – and others in a similar vein have followed.
But over the past few days, during a momentous week of Conservative infighting, accusations of betrayal and swirling rumours of imminent votes of no-confidence, the Mail has demonstrated again that Greig is taking the paper well away from the furious tub-thumping extremism embraced by Dacre.
The day after Theresa May took her cabinet through the 585-page withdrawal agreement, the Mail trumpeted its support for the PM with a defiant picture of her alongside the headline “I stand to fight” – which just a few weeks ago would almost certainly have been a cri de coeur from Johnson or David Davies. And, on the day after a spate of resignations, as her whole administration teetered on the brink of a Brexit collapse, the Mail aimed its fury at the hardliners with the headline “Have They Lost The Plot?”, comparing May’s “calmness and composure” with “the shrill baying of the peacocking saboteurs”.
While this resounding shift in position has engrossed the media-watching classes, two obvious questions arise. How has this shift in the paper’s editorial position gone down with its readers? And what difference might it make to circulation and readership?
Some light on readership reactions is cast by the (unmoderated) comments below the online version of every Daily Mail article. Judging by reactions to the November 16 editorial which eviscerated those “peacocking saboteurs”, many of its traditional readers clearly believe that the Mail has fallen victim to a revolutionary plot.
Thus, one Midlands reader wondered whether someone was “paying the Mail to write this treacherous garbage” (treachery was a common theme), while another questioned whether it had been taken over by Guardian lefties. But plenty of others were happy to follow the editorial line of support for a gutsy PM who has “clearly got a bit of backbone about her” and was showing “true leadership and courage” in the midst of party disunity.
Change of heart?
Since the Mail has so often been quoted as the true barometer of middle England – part of the Conservative Leave heartland – does its change of tone reflect a growing impatience in the shires with the Brexit hardliners?
Former Sun editor David Yelland tweeted that “Brexit lunatics like Rees-Mogg and Boris have lost middle England”, pointing not only to the transformation in Daily Mail headlines but to those in the Daily Express, too. He even suggested that both papers “might yet back a People’s Vote”.
That is unlikely, but begs the wider question of whether editorial changes in the two midmarket and traditionally ultra-Tory newspapers are being driven from the bottom by its readers or from the top by changes of ownership and editor. The Express (and its red-top sister, the Daily Star) were bought by the Mirror Group (owners of the left-leaning Mirror papers) from the vocal UKIP supporter Richard Desmond. Its new editor, Gary Jones, who transferred across from the Sunday Mirror, has also toned down the paper’s raucous denunciation of immigrants, asylum seekers, and anyone remotely pro EU. Indeed, he even told a Home Affairs select committee back in April that he found some of the newspaper’s previous front pages “downright offensive”.
As to the second question – whether these changes will impact circulation and readership – we will have to wait a few months to pass judgement. All circulations are in decline, and readership is increasingly driven by online surfing. In that respect, MailOnline has not been rebooted, and continues to carry its “sidebar of shame” with its undiluted focus on cellulite, bikini shots and C-list celebrities cavorting on sun-drenched beaches – the kind of clickbait which keeps the Mail near the top of the world’s online readership figures.
Whether or not circulation figures change, it is now clear that the vindictive and viscerally anti-EU Daily Mail of the Dacre era has been superseded by a rather more thoughtful version under Geordie Greig. It may no longer represent Mr and Mrs Outraged from Middle Wallop who hanker after village greens, cream teas and warm beer – but it may be a more reliable weather vane of a less homogenous Middle England which is prepared to contemplate the idea of Brexit compromise.