In 2005, The Observer dubbed Geordie Greig “Britain’s best-connected man”. Then, as editor of society magazine Tatler, it was a useful tag to have.
Now, as editor of The Mail on Sunday, it may be less welcome. Renowned for being one of the UK’s fiercest newspapers, Greig says he is determined to retain its “mischief, fearlessness [and] groundbreaking reporting”.
Can he do this while retaining friendships and contacts? He thinks so: “You use every connection you can to try and bring in the best things for the paper. Everyone’s contacts book is a useful tool to bring in stories. From the junior reporter to the editor, everyone should use them.”
And Greig, in his first interview since taking over at the MoS, insists that having important, powerful contacts doesn’t damage his ability to hold people to account. “News has a way of being a brute force which overrides connections and friendships – it is a tidal wave which generally no one can stop. I’m sure there are inevitably stories that when written people get cross.
“That’s what newspapers do. It is shining lights on the doings of powerful people. Powerful people don’t often like lights being shone at them. But it’s a necessary requirement for a free and democratic country to have a press which is unfettered.”
As an example, Greig highlights his relationship with Hugh Grant, one of the first people he met when starting at Oxford University. Earlier this year the MoS got in touch with the actor to ask him about the birth of his second child, something Grant had not been keen to publicise.
“It was one of those things which was pretty testing at the time. Imagine you ring up someone you’ve known for ages and say, listen, I’m going to do a story about [this],” Greig says. “But, actually, as long as you’re straight, it’s fine.”
The pair also have their political differences. While Grant fronts Hacked Off, Greig strongly opposes its stance. (To add to this mini-drama, Grant has also previously accused the pre-Greig Mail on Sunday of phone-hacking – and Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre later said Grant had been spreading “mendacious smears”.)
The MoS, like other newspapers, will be keeping a particularly close eye on press regulation ahead of the next general election. It’s “incredibly important”, says Greig.
On the subject of party allegiance, the editor gives a politician’s answer.
“The Mail on Sunday has backed a variety of politicians in the past and we are very keen to have a government which makes our economy better. Which feeds the economy’s need for growth, for employment, and feeds the central concerns of our readers.”
He adds: “[We’re] always watching to see what happens. There’s two years to go, anything could happen. There could be – could be – a change of leader from both parties.”
Which brings us on to Boris Johnson. Greig describes himself as an “admirer” of Johnson, but says he’s never been too close to him personally (they’ve never been to each other’s houses) – and he was not at Eton or Oxford with he or David Cameron. So can Boris topple his old Bullingdon Club companion’s Tory leadership? “Never underestimate any Johnson,” says Greig.
‘Any’, because Greig is also a fan of the Mayor of London’s sister, Rachel Johnson. He brought her in as a columnist to the MoS last year, and now describes her as the “best female columnist in Britain”.
She is one of a raft of senior appointments from The Sunday Times, along with Gordon Thomson, editor of new supplement magazine Event, and Tristan Davies, Greig’s number three.
Greig has certainly not been afraid to make changes since taking over in April 2012. Earlier this year, as a number of high-profile departures were confirmed, a well-placed source told Press Gazette: “It feels like they are clearing the decks for some reason. These are senior and highly-paid execs.”
The exit of Peter Wright as MoS editor after 14 years came as a surprise to many and taking up the position was not a straightforward decision for Greig, then London Evening Standard editor, to make.
He says: “I was very, very happy where I was. I have a tremendously close relationship with the Lebedevs [and] I’m still a director of the Standard, still a director of The Independent.”
(Asked if he sees this as an odd set-up, Greig says: “No one seems to see a problem with it. If ever they did, I would take that on board.”)
He reveals that his predecessor Wright has been very “supportive” to him, taking him out for lunch in his first week, but plays down his role in choosing him as a successor.
Instead, he says the decision came down to both proprietor Lord Rothermere and editor-in-chief Dacre. Outside of Northcliffe House, Greig has been described as a “Rothermere appointee”, but he reveals his association with Dacre runs deeper than many people know. It was Dacre, as news editor of the Daily Mail 30 years ago, who gave Greig his “big break” by giving him shifts while he was still working as a local crime reporter in Deptford.
On Dacre as editor-in-chief, Greig says: “Paul could not have been more supportive – he’s been brilliant. He has, as he said he would, left me alone to edit the paper. We see each other and talk occasionally – he’s been supportive. If ever I’ve wanted advice, he’s full of wise words. But he’s also very aware that he was going to leave me alone to run the ship.”
Describing him as “completely hands off”, Greig adds: “We might go six weeks without speaking, we might speak sometimes twice in a fortnight. But he’s just down the corridor. If I need him, I know where he is. If he needs me, he knows where I am. He completely leaves me to run the paper. He’s never asked what’s going in the paper, he’s never really commented on what is in the paper.”
Dacre has been editor of the daily title since 1992 and, at the age of 64, questions are inevitably being asked about when he might step down. Greig, though, bats away the suggestion that he might be in pole position to take over from Dacre when the time comes, saying he is only thinking about his newspaper.
Could the Mail titles follow the likes of the Telegraph and Independent by transferring to seven-day operations? “There are no plans for The Mail on Sunday to be anything other than an independent. It’s what it sells on, it’s what it’s readers like.”
Clearly Greig is immensely proud of the MoS and can reel off a list of reasons to be pleased with what he’s achieved so far. He was, for instance, “thrilled” to win the London Press Club’s Sunday newspaper of the year award last month (a “very nice birthday present” just over a year on from his appointment).
On more practical terms, Greig claims the title now has its biggest share of the Sunday market (27 per cent) in its 31-year history. It remains the second most read Sunday title, after The Sun Sunday, and it is the second best performing, after the Sunday Mirror, in terms of retaining readership year on year (down 5.7 per cent in April’s ABC figures).
This means, Greig points out, the gap between the MoS and Sun Sunday is diminishing. In terms of reach, he claims MoS stories are read by 7m people owing to the size of the Mail Online. He also highlights the fact it outsells all four Sunday broadsheets combined.
Although the MoS is a tabloid, and Greig wants to catch The Sun Sunday, he more often refers to the broadsheets when talking about rivalry. Greig, who is believed to be the first Old Etonian tabloid editor, says he wants it to be the “heartbeat” of Britain on Sundays and appeal to readers from all backgrounds.
To many, the clash of high-mindedness and popular appeal is at the heart of the paper’s appeal.
As Greig puts it, the MoS’s success is down to being “hard with news, light in its approach, easy to read and taken very seriously”.
“It’s intelligent populism and intelligent, popular reporting.”