Lord Rothermere: What next for the most powerful man in UK news media?

What next for Lord Rothermere - the most powerful person in British news media

Jonathan Harmsworth (Lord Rothermere)

If there is one media group to watch this year it is Daily Mail and General Trust, which becomes a private company next week when it is de-listed from the London Stock Exchange.

Lord Rothermere, Jonathan Harmsworth, 54, is paying £1.6bn for the 63% of the company he does not already own.

As he takes full control of DMGT he will also quietly become arguably the most powerful person in British news media.

He will control the UK’s top-selling daily and Sunday newspapers, its biggest circulation free daily (Metro), and the i and New Scientist to boot.

By Press Gazette’s reckoning he owns around 39% of the UK national newspapers sold every week in the UK, up from 29% in 2010. This compares with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp on 27.5%, down from around 30% a decade earlier.

DMGT distributes more than 2m daily print newspapers a day and nearly 800,000 on a Sunday.

In terms of national news websites, Rothermere is the third biggest player with 10% of UK traffic versus Reach on 17.6% and the BBC on 38%, according to Press Gazette analysis.

The Mail reaches 25.6m people a month and Metro 20m in the UK, according to Pamco (another industry data source).

And according to Press Gazette's monthly ranking, Mail Online is the sixth most popular English language news website in the world. It attracted 307.5m visits in November. It is the fourth biggest if you exclude aggregators MSN.com and Google News.

Little is known about Rothermere other than his reputation for letting editors edit. Some years ago, I saw him speak at an industry event and he came across as fairly shy as he read his brief remarks out from a script.

The Daily Mail's vociferous campaign in favour of Brexit under then-editor Paul Dacre was reputedly at odds with Rothermere's own views. In February 2016, then-prime minister David Cameron reportedly privately urged Rothermere to sack Dacre to give him a better chance of keeping the UK inside the EU in that year's referendum.

Rothermere has not denied the story. When it surfaced in 2017 a spokesperson said: "Over the years, Lord Rothermere has been leant on by more than one prime minister to remove Associated Newspapers’ editors but, as he told Lord Justice Leveson on oath, he does not interfere with the editorial policies of his papers."

Perhaps he has learned the lesson of history. His great grandfather's dalliance with fascism in the 1930s led to some shameful coverage in the Daily Mail which the title has struggled to live down ever since.

Only Rothermere can know what he plans to do next. But it seems a fair bet that, like many wealthy people, he is motivated by money and may well surmise that his estimated £1bn fortune (Sunday Times Rich List) is not as big as it should be.

Musical chairs at the top of the Mail

So what of the men (and it is all men) who run his media empire day to day?

Paul Dacre is the mid-market tabloid genius of our age and edited the Daily Mail for 26 years until 2018. He was then kicked upstairs into the non-job of editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers (albeit with a secretary and chauffeur).

His replacement as editor, Geordie Greig, made no secret of his mission to "detoxify" the Daily Mail – a brand which had become detested by a large swathe of the UK population for its campaigning role to help secure Britain's exit from the European Union.

In an interview with the FT in 2019, Greig claimed advertisers had come back to the paper in their droves following Dacre's exit. This prompted Dacre to fire off an extraordinary letter in reply to the same paper publicly suggesting Greig was telling porkies:

"Admirable chap he may be, but Geordie Greig, in his Lunch With The FT, is as economic with the actualité [news] as your paper is in reporting matters Brexit. He claims 265 advertisers came back to the Mail in his year as editor. In fact, far more than that number left during the same period.”

Opponents of Greig would say the paper lost its edge while he was in charge, supporters would say it became less nasty.

But while Greig and Dacre loathed each other, Dacre has remained close to his former Daily Mail colleague - Mail on Sunday editor Ted Verity.

Dacre had been expected to stay on in the ceremonial job of editor in chief for six months or so. In fact, he stayed for three years only finally resigning last November.

Press Gazette understands his final departure was purely so that he could have a clear run at the job of Ofcom chair.

Two weeks after his resignation, Greig was sacked as Daily Mail editor to be replaced by the Mail on Sunday's Verity – a Brexiteer editor from the Dacre school.

Those who have worked with Verity say he is polite and approachable but less clubbable than Greig. During his time at the Mail on Sunday there were fewer speeches from Verity, and he was less likely to be out meeting the great and good for lunch.

While Verity is clearly grounded strongly in the Mail's middle England values, one former colleague said he is also open-minded and more likely to be led by the strength of a story rather than a pre-conceived ideological agenda.

A week after Greig's departure, Dacre was back as editor-in-chief of the Mail titles, having failed to secure the Ofcom job. He is likely to have a far more meaningful role now with Verity in charge of the Mail titles.

David Dillon, a long-serving Mail on Sunday news editor and latterly number two to Verity, was quietly made editor of the Mail on Sunday in December.

But Verity is overall editor of the seven-day operation. The days of editorial confrontation between the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday now appear to be over (the two titles were formerly at odds over their stances on Brexit and much else).

Verity and Dillon are both more grounded in hard news and less clubby than Greig, happier immersed in proofs and news lists than playing the front of house role. But some say they lack Greig's charisma and optimism, qualities that shone through in the papers he edited.

They both politely declined my requests for interviews this week preferring, it would seem, to let their papers do the talking.

What next for Mail Online?

The one question that remains is what next for Mail Online, built from nothing to global publishing powerhouse by its driven and workaholic editor/publisher Martin Clarke.

He stepped down just two weeks after Greig and a week after the return of Dacre (see the timeline at the end of this piece if this is all getting a bit confusing).

My understanding is that Clarke now wants his own train set and fancies a crack at running his own media business rather than making money for someone else.

Connecting the dots on all this requires a certain amount of speculation.

My hunch is that Rothermere eyed a bargain when he bought the UK's most powerful private news organisation.

Up until now, the Daily Mail has run on a budget more in keeping with the heyday of Fleet Street, than today's far more straitened era for print.

The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Mail Online have all been run as entirely separate fiefdoms – even to the point where the Daily Mail launched its own rival Mail+ website which attracted just a dribble of traffic.

Rothermere will see huge opportunities to cut costs and ramp up profitability and so possibly multiply his personal wealth.

The departures of Clarke and Greig, powerful executives used to running their own fiefdoms, clears the way for a more harmonious merger between the three major publishing wings.

The big question is whether Rothermere sees all this as a stepping stone towards handing down a more powerful and profitable media dynasty to his children or cashing out as he edges towards 60 in a few years.

Turmoil at the Mail timeline:

12 July: DMGT confirms Lord Rothermere is planning to take the company private.

28 October: Dacre leaves role as chair and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers (the DMGT division which comprises the Mail titles, Metro and i). Press Gazette understands he left the role to give him a clear run at the Ofcom chairmanship.

17 November: Geordie Greig is removed as Daily Mail editor with Mail on Sunday editor Ted Verity put in charge of both titles.

18 November: DMGT warns a "review of employee numbers" is coming after increases in newsprint, energy and distribution costs.

19 November: Dacre pulls out of the race to become Ofcom chair saying, in a letter to The Times, that "if you are possessed of an independent mind and are unassociated with the liberal/left, you will have more chance of winning the lottery than getting the job".

22 November: Dacre is back at DMG Media (effectively Associated Newspapers by another name) as editor-in-chief. Lord Rothermere says: "Although he will not be involved in day-to-day editing, he will be taking an active role advising me and the editors."

17 December: Although there is no formal announcement (either external or internal as far as Press Gazette understands), DMG Media confirms that David Dillon is now editing the Mail on Sunday.

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Comments

3 thoughts on “What next for Lord Rothermere - the most powerful person in British news media”

  1. In the early 1960s, the Daily Express alone had a 4.5 million circulation. That puts the reach in popular influence of print newspapers into perspective. Doubtful if the aggregate daily sales of national newspapers are near just the Express in the Sixties.

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