“Ah, the competition is here,” says the editor of the Evening Standard ushering me into his office, all smiles, warm handshake, sit-on-my-sofa. I hadn’t thought of London’s thrice-daily paper and The Big Issue in quite that light, but considering how the streets throng these days with people hawking papers, free or otherwise, he may have a point.
“We’re all competitors,” he laughs, “and while we’re extremely happy to be on the street opposite some competitors like The Big Issue, there are others we wish we weren’t.”
Geordie Greig, 48 and father of twin daughters, has spent nearly 30 years as a journalist; cutting his teeth in Deptford, serving time on national tabloids and broadsheets, five years a US correspondent in New York, and finally 10 years as editor of Tatler. But his new role in charge of the Standard, he says, “is the most exhilarating job you can have.”
“The tempo of the paper, that’s the most incredible thing. You can see your paper come out during the day before your very eyes and you can see events change – and be changed by – the paper.”
The cool, calm office three floors above Kensington High Street in Northcliffe House is far literally and metaphorically from the offices of the South East London & Kentish Mercury where he began.
Greig, Eton and Oxford educated, had on one hand forged connections with high movers while at school. Personable, softly-spoken but persistent, he wrote to leading lights of the arts including Lucian Freud, Damien Hockney, Ted Hughes and, er, Poly Styrene from punk band X-Ray Spex.
“Poly Styrene embarrassed me terribly. I had 200 boys who’d paid 50p to see her speak and she didn’t show up – twice. You can’t rely on a punk, as I found out the hard way,” he laughs.
He has kept this up throughout his life, meeting Ted Hughes only after 25 years of exchanging letters, and going on to publish the then poet laureate’s last poems in the Sunday Times.
It is an somewhat unreal feat, especially in these times where men of letters are rare. “It’s about recognising those with whom you do have a connection and keeping it going,” Greig says. “I wrote to Lucien Freud for years, and when we met we liked each other. He’s one of the best conversationalists I’ve ever met, with memories going back 50 years – meeting Picasso, hanging out with Francis Bacon.”
This, on the other hand, is a world away from Greig’s experiences as a reporter in south London: crime stake-outs, a week in the Falklands after the war in 1982 and notorious gang land bosses.
Greig recalls: “I had lunch with Charlie Richardson and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser once, a lunch that it soon became clear I would be paying for. Frankie said to me: ‘Geord – can I call you Geord?’ I told him, ‘You can call me what you like, Frankie.’ He said he’d mentioned me in a codicil, an addition to his will. ‘I’ve left you my pliers,’ Frankie said.”
He adds: “Actually I got a call from a reporter on the Standard at the time when Charlie was released from prison who said, you know, help us out here, because you might want shifts on the Standard one day.”
Coming full circle from occasional shifts to the editor’s chair, Greig takes the helm at a difficult time not just for the Standard, but for newspapers in general. Magazines and newspapers are folding, and around 2,000 journalists have lost their jobs in Britain in barely a year as circulation and advertising rates plunge. In London, the Standard is caught in a damaging circulation war with the London Paper, London Lite, and Metro freesheets.
Greig was tipped for the job when his friend, former KGB officer, diplomat and billionaire Russian Alexander Lebedev, bought the Standard in February. But their first act took many by surprise – posters around London proclaimed ‘Sorry’; for losing touch, for being negative, for taking you for granted.
What were you apologising for? Was this about shrugging off the shackles of previous owners, the Daily Mail and General Trust?
“For every perception that was damaging to us we wanted to say to readers, look again, it’s not real,” Greig says. “We talked to many Evening Standard readers and there was a sense that they all wanted a paper more celebratory, more supportive, more listening, and more broad-based in its political approach to London.”
Under former editor Veronica Wadley and editor-in-chief Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail the Standard had adopted a somewhat doom-laden Mail-esque style, and its aggressive line towards Ken Livingston during the Mayoral election campaign in 2008 polarised readers.
“It is no reflection on the great qualities of every journalist here,” he qualifies, “but like being in a relationship, if you want to make things better you have to apologise for things that aren’t perfect. It was that candour which we needed to demonstrate.
“Also,” he says, more practically, “we had to face up to the fact that the Standard had been losing circulation in last five years, and that if we reengaged with readers that had stopped buying it we could reverse that.”
Latest circulation figures report the decline has been stemmed, for now at least. The idea of filling a paper with ‘good news’ has been mooted before, but the twitching hard noses of journalists – and readers – simply find shock-horror more appealing. Does Greig see it as a local paper that should contain more local London news?
“London is like a separate country, and we are that country’s paper. By definition we are London’s local paper, but by instinct and by influence and by significance we are a cosmopolitan, world-class paper,” he argues.
The paper seems very nationally or internationally focused, despite a full-time City Hall reporter covering Mayor Boris Johnson. If readers hoped the paper it would tackle issues in Town Halls across the 32 London boroughs as their respective local newspapers struggle to stay afloat, the paper has yet to demonstrate it.
Can journalism survive the death of newspapers? Will the Standard be around in 10 years? “Yes.” In 20 years? “For at least 20 years,” Greig says, looking momentarily less sure of himself, “Even if it’s an electronic version. Look, we’ve gone from pigeon to post, from fax to emails to Twitter – soon it will soon be brainwaves. Sending messages hasn’t gone out of fashion.”
But Greig’s pedigree as a newsman, his intellectual leanings, recognition of the need for wit and humour and ability to weather the storm should not be underestimated – former boss Andrew Neill said Greig “belonged” in newspapers, not magazines.
“I feel very lucky to be in what is one of the great jobs in journalism,” Greig admits. “Maybe I am lucky. I hadn’t intended to become a journalist, and I don’t think of my letter writing as purposeful pursuit. I’m just interested in people that have done something interesting, something that alters the world.”
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]