By Paul Charman.
Dubbed “The golden boy of Kensington High Street” by interviewer Peter York, Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig discussed Trump, the newspaper’s campaign against Foreign Aid abuses – and the day he persuaded the Lebedevs to buy the Evening Standard – in a wide-ranging face-to-face, hosted by the London Press Club and the Media Society.
Introducing the event at London’s Corinthia Hotel, Doug Wills, managing editor of the Evening Standard, recalled how Greig’s first campaign on taking over the paper eight years ago had been ‘The Dispossessed’, which has so far raised more than £16 million to support projects supporting the most challenged in London.
“It was a huge success,” said Wills, chair of the London Press Club, “but had he not made it a success when he came, we could have become the dispossessed as the Evening Standard was at risk of closure.”
On President Trump, Greig said: “He’s great copy. You couldn’t have a more entertaining person to lead the world, to change the world, he’s a complete disruption. He doesn’t seem to know the difference between truth and falsehood, but he has changed markets, changed how every European and Asian country deals with America.”
But he condemned Trump’s war on the media.
“I think it’s appalling what he said about journalism and ‘fake news’ and it’s absolutely shocking that he wants to denigrate reporters, particularly in America from going about their task which writing about what they see is the truth. But the truth is a mighty sword and it will continue.”
Of the Mail on Sunday, he said “the paper carried a message for the middle, right of centre reader…and is now the most read Sunday newspaper in Britain.”
He explained the newspaper’s campaign highlighting “pointless, meaningless and wasteful’ abuses of the UK’s £12b Foreign Aid budget, saying: “The role of a newspaper is to shine a torch where there is darkness. And where there is a waste of tax-payer’s money, we need to expose it. But it doesn’t mean we are against foreign aid, against helping those in need.” He said as a result of the MoS investigation, led by Ian Birrell, the four most senior executives of Britain’s biggest specialist aid contractor quit.
After Eton and Oxford, Greig’s long career in Fleet began as a cub reporter on the South East London and Kentish Mercury. He took evening shifts at the Daily Mail but was told after a month, by the then news editor Paul Dacre, that he lacked “the Daily Mail sparkle”.
His luck changed when he took an anonymous call about Lord Lichfield’s divorce, a story which was later splashed under Nigel Dempster’s byline. Afterwards Greig was rewarded by Dacre with a staff job, despite Dempster initially dismissing the story, saying: “Patrick would have told me!”
Within six months and ever following his father’s motto – “Dull not to” – Greig switched to the newly-launched Sunday Today, Eddie Shah’s ‘qualipop’, where the news editor, Alastair Campbell, proclaimed his definition of news as “a story that gets Labour elected.”
He later moved to the Sunday Times under Andrew Neil, where he spent 12 “amazing years”. Neil’s definition of news was a story “had to have a point, it could be funny or it could topple a government.”
Greig recalled how he realised he no longer wanted to be a general news reporter when he was sent to Hull to gather samples of dog shit, and have them analysed for poison.
But he stayed at the Sunday Times, becoming Arts Correspondent before being sent to America as US Correspondent in New York. He returned after five years to become Literary Editor.
“Every job I have had, I have been a reporter – it’s my shtick,” commissioning John Major to write on cricket, Arthur Miller to write on theatre and commissioned Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney to write poems.
The recipe paid off when Nicholas Coleridge offered him the editorship of The Tatler in 1999. The boss of Conde Nast, who was in the 100-strong audience, has said of him: “He is 50 percent courtier, 50 percent old school hack; Geordie is alert, mischievous, courteous, perfectly mannered, with an eye for the main chance.”
His time at The Tatler equipped Greig for his all later jobs editing the Standard and MoS. “I couldn’t have done these jobs without the experience at Tatler – how things look, how things read,” he said.
It was also where he first met the Lebedevs. “There was a call one day saying there were two people downstairs to see me, a Russian with dark glasses looking like he had a hangover and a blond PR girl. The Russian said nothing but they wanted to have a party – at Althorp , Princess Diana’s old home. They said it was for Michael Goobeechoff and I said –do you mean Mikael Gorbachev! The PR just said ‘Whatever’.” Some wags later called it the ‘Geordie and Gorby Show’.
The contact with Russians meant that when the Lebedev family later expressed an interest “in buying something, not a football club”, Greig suggested the Evening Standard, which was up for sale. He and entrepreneur Justin Byam Shaw effectively masterminded the deal.
“The lucky break” culminated in him becoming the paper’s editor “in what could have been a most disastrous venture as it was losing £30m a year, and was going to close unless we found a solution.
“We did it by changing the distribution model, going free, staff cuts but remaining a quality paper. We also had an advertising campaign in which we apologised to Londoners for not listening.” Within weeks of going free, circulation in central London had nearly trebled, and within three years was in profit.