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The journalism of fact

For Geordie Greig, Fleet Street’s increasingly strident and partisan tone flies counter to the prevailing need. Now, more than ever, society needs fact-based and trustworthy journalism. Ray Snoddy meets him.

By Ray Snoddy

The journalism of fact
Geordie Greig: “I go by the old saying, the more opinions you have, the less you see.”

In the careers of many significant journalists, an early choice is made, a road chosen which turns out to have been crucial.

It is certainly so with Geordie Greig, editor-in-chief of The Independent and former editor of the Evening Standard, The Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail.

When at Oxford, Greig told his father he was going to apply to newspapers for a job. His father, Sir Carron Greig, a successful businessman, asked whether he had thought of joining a bank.

To keep his father happy, Geordie agreed to try for both.

He wrote to 100 local newspapers and was offered a job by only one – the South East London and Kentish Mercury in Deptford.

True to his word, he also joined the banking “milk round” when banks tour leading universities looking for recruits.

He was offered a job by the Chicago-based Continental Illinois Bank, then one of the largest banks in the world.

The newspaper was offering £2,000 a year – the bank £15,000.

“I said there is no choice and my father said, ‘no there isn’t’, expecting me to go to the bank. But for me, ‘no choice’ meant I had to go to Deptford,” says Greig.

So it was that the old Etonian spent more than two years as a junior reporter in one of the UK’s most deprived areas.

“On the junior rung of news organisations, money is not the incentive and money is not the reward,” notes Greig who talks now of a speed course in seeing poverty at its most stark.

There was the usual round of magistrates’ courts and inquests but he also took two local gangsters, who just happened to be Charlie Richardson and Mad Frankie Fraser, to lunch in a Soho brasserie.

By way of thanks, Charlie promised to leave the young journalist his pair of pliers in his will. The pliers never arrived.

Eton Chronicle

There had already been clear hints that Greig would never have chosen banking ahead of journalism.

While at school, he had started writing to famous people, particularly writers and artists.

He went to meet John Osborne, David Hockney, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and John Piper and wrote about them for his school publication, the Eton Chronicle.

His profile on the Eton website now is accompanied by a copy of his interview with John Piper.

Now, when he talks to schools, he suggests that when they want to get to see anyone, just ask for seven minutes of their time.

“It’s very difficult to turn down a request for seven minutes,” he advises.

Looking at his career, there is no question that Geordie Greig has served his time across many newspapers and magazines including the Daily Mail, The Independent and The Sunday Times where he was US correspondent and then arts editor before becoming editor of Tatler in 1999.

Although, since then, he has always been an editor, Greig still sees himself as a reporter.

“I always define myself as a reporter asking questions and the satisfaction of getting answers, trying to right injustices or getting things changed,” he explains.

Throughout, Greig has maintained an optimistic, even idealistic vision of journalism, sometimes despite everything.

“I think journalism should be a power for the good. It is key that it is seen as an absolute pillar of democracy,” explains Greig who notes that after coups, it is TV stations and newspapers that are curtailed or destroyed.

The Mail titles

While editor of the Daily Mail, Geordie started a charity called Mail Force, which within three weeks, raised money for around 3 million pieces of protective clothing during the Covid pandemic and delivered them to the NHS frontline.

His six-year editorship of The Mail on Sunday was particularly interesting and included bringing the Sunday out in favour of ‘Remain’ when the Daily Mail was a rabid supporter of leaving the European Union.

“Some people told me it (the ‘Remain’ decision) was suicidal, others that it was madness. To me, it was completely instinctive, and I would still fight for ‘Remain’ if I had my time again,” says Greig.

His proprietor Lord Rothermere asked what line he was going to take in the referendum and said it was fine when the Mail on Sunday editor replied, “Remain”.

There were only 160 complaints from readers and Greig says he is glad to have been “on the right side of history”, although he now accepts, “there was a vote, we lost and I have to accept that and make the best of what has happened.”

Despite the ‘Remain’ decision, Greig not only survived but became editor of the Daily Mail and for three years presided over a paper that demonstrated more liberal values than was traditional while removing what some saw as unnecessary traces of nastiness.

Was the Daily Mail under his editorship more civilised and more prepared to take on issues such as the behaviour of then prime minister, Boris Johnson?

“I think that’s correct. Fleet Street has become more partisan and opinionated than ever. I go by the old saying, the more opinions you have, the less you see,” says Greig.

“When I was at The Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail, I wanted to uphold their longstanding right-of-centre politics but being guided by what you see and that did not transfer into a blind tribal allegiance which you see in many newspapers now,” he adds.

“His” Daily Mail, Geordie says, revealed “the shameful goings on in Downing Street during the pandemic” when Johnson made reckless remarks like ‘let the bodies pile high’.

“My Daily Mail” campaigned relentlessly to expose the Wallpapergate scandal and called for the resignation of Dominic Cummings over his trip to Barnard Castle.

Some senior executives in other parts of the DMGT empire saw it all as tantamount to treason, Greig says.

In November 2021, Greig was called to a very brief meeting with an apparently uncomfortable Lord Rothermere and he was out.

The former Daily Mail editor says he retains a good relationship with Lord Rothermere and declines to discuss the precise details of how he came to be sacked although he has made it clear he does not blame Johnson.

He notes however that he has not spoken to Paul Dacre, who subsequently returned to the Daily Mail as editor-in-chief, since Dacre wrote to the Financial Times in 2019 accusing Greig of “being economical with the truth” when he claimed his “softer” approach had brought back advertisers.

“For me, there is a god of news and no-one escapes the power of the god of news and if you try, it comes back and fells you,” says Greig who notes that since his departure, the Daily Mail has pursued a very different course.

The paper supported Johnson and when he left, called for Truss to succeed him and “when she brought the country to its knees”, gave Johnson and his friend Nadine Dorries columns in what Greig believes is an attempt to engineer a Johnson comeback. He argues such political events have not only damaged the Conservatives but those who supported them.

The Independent

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that Geordie Greig was delighted to be approached by John Paton who chairs The Independent and offered the editorship of the online-only publication.

“The Independent is an incredible place. It is independent. It is the most successful, biggest, quality digital news brand in the UK, bigger than The Times, bigger than The Telegraph or The Guardian,” says Greig.

The publication is profitable “in single digit millions” and claims that last year, it had 2 billion views on its website and 100 million unique users internationally.

At the end of his first year in charge, registrations have grown by 30 per cent to 5.7 million.

After redundancies in 2022, staff numbers are growing again and The Independent has nearly 200 journalists – 130 in London, 42 in the US and 20 in India.

Greig talks of “five pillars of invention and growth” for The Independent.

There will be growth in television including feature-length documentaries and an expansion of reader revenues and ecommerce where, according to Greig, £100m in goods are being bought each year via recommendations in The Independent.

The plan includes expanding in the US where The Independent says it already has a digital presence as large as that of the Los Angeles Times.

Louise Thomas, number two at Mail Online has just been hired to be US editor.

Greig also sees AI as a huge positive which will, he believes, “unlock four times the productivity of human beings”, freeing journalists to concentrate on scoops, analysis and high-end content. All content will always be signed off by humans, he emphasises.

The Independent has been profitable since it went digital-only six years ago and Greig believes that all newspapers will have to go digital-only eventually.

“It’s everything from the price of paper to the closing of newsagents. I know no-one under 40 who buys a newspaper,” says Greig who is 60 and has had a “great romance with newspapers”.

It sounds as if Greig, who, for example, thinks the government’s Rwanda policy is “inhumane, unworkable and politically nonsensical”, has found a media organisation that best fits his instincts.

“I’m loving it, I really am and I feel liberated and I’m learning,” says Greig who insists that the guarantees of editorial independence have been honoured throughout despite the company having two controversial shareholders in the shape of Evgeny Lebedev and Saudi Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel.

“I am very happy to be on a politically independent, progressive newspaper,” adds Greig.

As someone who used to be a One Nation Tory, has he personally moved to the Left?

“Anyone who moves from the Daily Mail to The Independent, there’s quite a lot of clues in that,” Greig replies.

Overall, he could hardly be more optimistic about the future of both The Independent and what he calls “the journalism of fact”.

“It is going to be increasingly, hugely important that there is authentic, credible, journalism. We are very lucky at The Independent that we monetise quality and trust and that is an honourable and tremendous thing to do,” says a Geordie Greig now increasingly happy in his own skin.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.