Geordie Greig’s Hugh Cudlipp Lecture in full: Hard Facts, Hard Truths

 (Geordie Greig)
(Geordie Greig)

Thank you to the London Press Club and the Cudlipp directors for your invitation to speak and the generous introduction.

While I have been fortunate enough to be the editor of five national publications: Tatler, the London Evening Standard, The Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mail and now The Independent, may I first confess to a degree of impostor syndrome.

It’s been a fantastic journey so far – a lot of ups, one or two downs, some successes and some mistakes, naturally.

In that time, I think I have learnt a lot about this great industry. What it has got right. And what not so right.

But while I’ve spent most of my career as an editor, I began it as a reporter – and that’s how I still see myself.

So how did I get here, and how have my views been formed along the way?

We all have to start somewhere. For Hugh Cudlipp, it was the Penarth News in south Wales and the Blackpool Evening Chronicle; for me it was the South-East London and Kentish Mercury in Deptford, where I was knocked into shape – almost literally – as a cub reporter.

Kelvin Mackenzie’s first paper, too, as it happens.

“Do you effing not know how to spell or write?” thundered one particularly terrifying subeditor with Mackenzian menace.

“Snowflake” then was a term only for a piece of falling ice. One of my most vivid memories is sneaking into an illegal drinking club in Camberwell, the then manor of Charlie Richardson and his “Torture Gang”.

I was there to try to interview Richardson after his release from 20-plus years behind bars – with Fleet Street’s finest in pursuit.

“You ear-wigging?” I was asked by a man with cauliflower ears and an iron-hard sarf London accent.

I twigged I was being politely asked to leave – right NOW. Later I learnt that more than 200 years of jail time had been clocked up by his fellow drinkers in that room.

Under orders not to return to the office unless I got a story, I left a message. And so that’s how I found myself in a Soho Italian restaurant with Richardson and Mad Frankie Fraser – with Frankie asking if I knew what a codicil was – as he was going to leave me... his pliers.

As you can see, this filled in one or two gaps left by the education I had received at a well-known school. One day chasing gangsters, the next reporting on prize hamsters at a church fete. It was like Scoop via The Godfather, crossed with Only Fools and Horses.

Like a lot of journalists then, I would be at my local paper 9am-6pm before getting the train up west for a night shift, 7pm to 2am on Fleet Street, desperate for a break into the big league.

Mine was the graveyard shift on the Daily Mail.

I was lucky enough to try my hand at being a foreign correspondent, not always successfully. I got stuck for three months in war-torn Haiti, spending a brief spell behind bars after being held up by gun-toting teenage militia.

I spent days and nights on countless doorsteps living in fear of being beaten to the story, as often as not by someone from my own newsroom.

Two reporters would be put on the same story to provide what was euphemistically called “competitive edge”. Translation: “Stitch the other one up and you might get the staff job we were going to offer them.”

It could be intimidating. But it was also inspiring. In those days, it was edited by the great David English, who turned the Mail into one of the most brilliant, successful newspapers of all time.

Next stop was Eddy Shah’s Sunday Today, where my news editor was one Alistair Campbell – whose definition of a good story was “one that gets Labour elected”.

And then it was on to The Sunday Times under Andrew Neil, a remarkable editor, whose definition of a good story was that it must be “significant”.

That could mean anything from a nugget of a nib to a government-toppling splash. He was permanently in pursuit of “uncomfortable truths”. Taking on MI6. The royals. Israel over its nuclear plans – or the egregious imprisonment of a whistleblower.

There, I was lucky enough to try my hand at being a foreign correspondent, not always successfully. I got stuck for three months in war-torn Haiti, spending a brief spell behind bars after being held up by gun-toting teenage militia.

In five years working in the US, I covered the riots in curfew-hit LA; headed to Whitewater to report on Clinton’s dodgy financial affairs – and his even dodgier personal affairs.

In Britain: the Tottenham riots, Diana’s funeral, doorstepping Samuel Beckett on his 80th birthday.

Low point: sent by The Sunday Times to pick up dog shit in a primary school play yard – in Hull... to test if it was toxic.

It was.

And then one day Conde Nast chief Nicholas Coleridge phoned and said: “Geordie, I have a mad idea.”

I said: “What is it?”

He said: “I’d like you to be Editor of Tatler.”

I replied: “You’re right, Nicholas, it is mad. The answer is yes.”

It was a long way from Camberwell and Deptford – but my life as an editor had started.

Well, tonight it is a privilege to give this lecture in honour of Hugh Cudlipp.

As his biographer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, said: “Cudlipp believed journalism could be ‘decent, popular, sensational and uplifting’.” All at the same time.

Today, never has truth and letting the facts tell the story been more important. We are seeing news diluted and distorted and derailed by social media, and also in some instances by other parts of the media.

Hard facts, hard truths.

But there is soft power, too.

In a majestic obituary in 1998 in The Independent, his great friend and fellow journalist John Beaven told us Cudlipp’s mission was to expand the knowledge, freedom and welfare of ordinary people.

Cudlipp’s mantra: “An immense power for good lies in a newspaper’s grasp.”

I was very proud when the Dispossessed Fund I set up at the Standard to help those in need actually won the Cudlipp Prize. It shone a light on people whose lives had fallen between the cracks;15 years on it has raised more than £50m.

As editor of the Daily Mail, I put together the charity Mailforce during Covid, which raised enough money to buy 43 million pieces of PPE for the NHS front line.

We flew a plane to and from China, lorries from Turkey.

We raised money to buy thousands of computers for poor children disenfranchised by an educational apartheid as schools moved online.

There is, of course, a time to be ruthless in the editor’s chair – there is nothing better than nailing a villain, breaking a showbusiness or royal scoop, revealing a scandal, forcing a political resignation.

We planted 1,000 orchards in 1,000 schools.

We also funded a Covid memorial at St Paul’s, the first architectural monument to be added to the cathedral since Christopher Wren built it.

At The Independent, we’ve funded beds for almost 1,000 children who had none.

We’ve campaigned relentlessly – and successfully – to reverse the government’s disgraceful attempt to deport to Rwanda a hero Afghan pilot who had fought alongside British forces in the war against the Taliban.

There have also been shocking exposés on malpractice and neglect in hospitals, some of which have led to public inquiries.

There is, of course, a time to be ruthless in the editor’s chair – there is nothing better than nailing a villain, breaking a showbusiness or royal scoop, revealing a scandal, forcing a political resignation. I have done my share of that.

But there is a time to think beyond that and show a bit of compassion. And you know what? Shock, horror – readers like it.

They are right to expect us to maintain high standards and values.

Last year, research by King’s College London found that UK journalism had one of the lowest levels of trust among 24 countries, at just 13 per cent. Of that, only 5 per cent of Gen Z said they have much confidence in the press.

According to a Reuters Institute report, between 2015 and 2023, trust in UK news fell from 51 per cent to 33 per cent.

Professor Sir John Curtice said earlier this month “trust and confidence in British politics has never been worse”.

I supported the Remain campaign vigorously – but we reported both sides of the argument – and we certainly did not vilify those campaigning on the other side.

I was struck by one of the central findings of Sir John’s report for the National Centre for Social Research. He said disillusionment over Brexit among Leave voters was one of the main reasons for the collapse in trust.

Which leads me to this question as we are almost certainly about to see a Labour government win power: Did parts of the Tory press in Britain exacerbate the problems of the Tory party by losing perspective and being too partisan?

There is a long tradition in British newspapers of taking a political stance, supporting one party or another. This is perfectly reasonable.

But it is never reasonable to bury sleaze and incompetence.

Right from the start of my seven years as editor of the MoS and three years at the Mail, I had an excellent relationship with the proprietor, Lord Rothermere, who generously gave me full sway and full support.

When the EU referendum was called in 2016 – when I was editor of The Mail on Sunday – he asked me what position I intended to take. I told him I was in favour of staying in the EU. Lord Rothermere’s reply was short: “OK.”

I supported the Remain campaign vigorously – but we reported both sides of the argument – and we certainly did not vilify those campaigning on the other side.

The Mail on Sunday’s sister paper, the Daily Mail, shall we say... took a different view of Brexit. No one could question that. But its coverage of contentious slogans on red buses? Claims that it would solve all our immigration problems? Pillorying those who disagreed with them? That can be questioned.

I should add I was not the first Mail editor to adopt a pro-EU line. David English was a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, but as a proud Europhile, he disagreed with her over Europe. He made it clear to her and the readers the nature of his patriotic pro-European stance.

While at the Mail, I supported the Conservative Party, but I was not an uncritical friend. If I believed they were acting wrongly, I said so. If my journalists uncovered a Conservative scandal, I ran it.

Long before the so called Partygate scandal, we were the first to shine a laser light on the other highly inappropriate goings on in Downing Street under Boris Johnson.

I would point out I was equally forthright when Theresa May made mistakes as prime minister, such as the weekend after she launched her ill-fated 2017 election manifesto.

At The Mail on Sunday we commissioned a poll to find out how the public had reacted to the parties’ manifestos. When the results came in we had a shock.

In 2020, before the Partygate scandal broke, we denounced Johnson’s No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings for breaking lockdown rules – and Johnson’s attempt to defend him.

May’s huge lead over Corbyn’s Labour had been slashed. According to the poll, there was one clear reason – a public backlash to the controversial policy on social care she had unveiled in her manifesto.

At the time, the term for May’s social care package – dementia tax – had barely been coined. Our splash headline was “Dementia Tax Backlash Hits May”.

One of her Downing Street advisers complained bitterly, saying it was brutal.

Brutal or not, the poll turned out to be right. The dementia tax – or rather May’s clumsy handling of it – was one of the principal reasons she only just clung on to power in 2017.

After moving to the daily, I supported Johnson in the 2019 election, but when it became clear that aspects of his personal and political conduct were incompatible with the standards the public expects from its leaders, and that the same applied to some other members of his inner circle, I took the same approach as I would – and have – to any administration. I reported it.

In 2020, before the Partygate scandal broke, we denounced Johnson’s No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings for breaking lockdown rules – and Johnson’s attempt to defend him.

Our front page headline ran: “What Planet Are They On?”

We led the way in exposing the notorious “Wallpapergate” scandal – and the inappropriate influence of Johnson’s wife or what some inside No 10 saw as simply meddling.

We led the way in reporting the appalling – and tragic – lobbying scandal surrounding Johnson’s friend and ally, ex-cabinet minister Owen Paterson. Specifically, Johnson’s disgraceful attempt to use it to neuter the whole system for tackling political sleaze – and protect his cronies.

At that time, November 2021, I ran a prominent article stating “Sleaze Is Back”. It was backed up by a poll which said the Conservatives were seen as the sleaziest government in 40 years.

A week after that, a cabinet minister said to a trusted friend of mine: “The Tory sleaze article was the last straw. We could not have any more of that.”

Two weeks later I was sacked.

Of course, it could all have been a coincidence.

Eight months later, Johnson resigned as PM. Even his powerful friends in the media couldn’t save him.

The change in the paper’s approach to politics after I left was noted by media observer Amol Rajan in an article for the BBC in September 2022.

Rajan wrote: “Under Geordie Greig’s editorship, the Mail was fiercely independent of prime minister Johnson, often giving him hell.”

The moment my tenure ended, Johnson could be forgiven for thinking he’d gone to heaven. The paper downplayed the scandals that eventually forced him to resign. You might say they wallpapered over them.

And after Johnson, who did the Mail – and the Telegraph and the Daily Express – campaign for to succeed him and restore the Conservatives’ reputation? Liz Truss.

Millions of ordinary people weren’t dreaming when the economy crashed, interest and mortgage rates shot up and pension funds plunged.

Not everyone agreed. I leaned towards the view of Matthew Parris, who said in The Times – before Truss became prime minister – she was “a planet-sized mass of over-confidence and ambition teetering upon a pinhead of a political brain”.

Her calamitous budget was greeted by her supporters in the commentariat as a triumph, with one enthusing it was “the best budget I have ever heard a chancellor deliver”. “I had to pinch myself I wasn’t dreaming,” he wrote.

The Daily Mail front page: “At Last A True Tory Budget”.

Millions of ordinary people weren’t dreaming when the economy crashed, interest and mortgage rates shot up and pension funds plunged.

Homeowners, people who had worked and saved hard for their retirement – the very people Conservative newspapers claim to stand for – thrown to the wolves.

Not enemies of the people exactly, but perhaps enemies of accurate, prescient journalism?

When Truss stood for leader, the right-wing papers collectively said: “If the Conservative Party doesn’t unite behind Truss, oblivion beckons.”

The Conservative Party did unite behind her – and now appears to be facing oblivion.

But let me take you back. In 1997, the then Lord Rothermere astonished everyone when he announced he was backing Labour. Even though his Daily Mail supported John Major’s broken Tories to the end.

In a rhetorical flourish, he compared the Conservative Party to “a magnificent salmon – spent and ruined”.

The magnificent salmon that the Conservative Party has been at key times in Britain’s modern history appears once more spent and ruined.

I should add that I have benefited from the current Lord Rothermere. He was generous, gracious and always allows his editors to edit as they deem fit.

It is also always his prerogative, just as a football club owner has over a football manager, to remove them. I will always be grateful to him for 10 fantastic years at the Mail.

I am privileged to have another editorship and proud to be at the digital-only Independent. It has a history of great integrity and authority, adapting and surviving and thriving.

Incidentally, it has only ever been profitable since being the first publication to go digital-only.

I am the first digital-only editor to give a Cudlipp lecture. I thank you for asking me and for embracing the future.

I am proud that The Independent gets a 100 per cent trust rating from Newsguard as a proven source of authority. Just two other papers in the world get such credit.

Connecting with the readers is not all that different from politicians aligning with voters. You have to listen and follow your instinct. If you go against what you see and sense, your news compass goes haywire. Editors need caution and audacity and always to listen, learn and lead.

AI will be the biggest game-changer since the Industrial Revolution.

We all also need new ways of thinking, new highways and open minds.

Joining The Independent has made me look afresh at the ways news is authored, curated and projected.

I have always believed there is in essence a god of news who is merciless if you stray from facts and truths. It catches up and exposes. Truth outs. This keeps us all honest.

What is different is that reaction to digital news is known instantly and is measurable. Print deadlines now seem like a barrier as digital liberates and is a highway where innovation and digital deftness are constantly changing.

AI will be the biggest game-changer since the Industrial Revolution. It’s been a bit like entering an Apple store – full of geniuses – young, deft and clever. An incredible team with a digital machine, revolutionary and evolutionary.

Every morning, I speak first thing to our audience team in India, where we have an office with 20 staff. They monitor global interest. The Delhi team hand over to London, who then hand on to New York and then LA; 24/7 we are a global brand with unstoppable ambition.

We combine quality – news, judgment and great writing – with eyeballs, gauging what readers want to know.

We monetarise quality digital journalism as a global publisher.

The Indy has always been ahead of the curve. Its poster fronts. Its going digital-first and digital only. Its vast traffic reach. Its embracing of video and TV and e-commerce.

The best thing about it is what it is: independent. Its classic ad slogan – “It is. Are you?” – still resonates today. The aim remains the same –independence of thought and coverage without fear or favour.

We are proud to be judged on what we write and not what people think we might write.

Let me give a recent example. We at The Independent are a small outfit and so are forced to compete against papers with far bigger editorial staffs with our bare wits. Remember The Guardian has 1,000-plus editorial staff. We are barely 200.

The other day, we were inadvertently helped by a rival newspaper which sent an email letter to subscribers in which the paper had an interview with the leading pollster. We spotted that John Curtice had said the Tories’ Achilles’ heel was the terrible record of Johnson and Truss. Clearly a good story. Except there was no story – the paper had not written it up.

So we did, quickly, and had it up and running as our splash before anyone had published a story on this. We scooped a rival on their own scoop!

But what happened next was even more telling for two reasons.

First, the paper did eventually report the interview. However, it skated over the Johnson and Truss angle. When your political agenda means you bury your own scoops, something is wrong.

Second, it showed that an alert agile online-only newspaper, free of the deadweight of dogma, can beat others at their own game.

I am glad to sayThe Independent has achieved some other notable self-made journalistic scoops, scalps and campaign successes since I joined.

The first came barely a month after I took the editor’s chair. The paper had been working on the story for over six months, so the credit goes to it rather than me.

But it speaks to the journalistic values of perseverance, courage and thoroughness.

You will recall the former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi was sacked by Rishi Sunak (29 January 2023) after the government’s ethics adviser found him guilty of a “serious breach of the ministerial code” over a £5m tax settlement with HMRC, including a £1m penalty for a “careless error”.

The story was broken by The Independent in 2022. Zahawi’s response was to publicly accuse us of trying to “smear” him, claiming the allegations were groundless. A smear in itself.

 (The Independent)
(The Independent)

As recently as last month, Zahawi tried to brush this off, saying he had “made a mistake” in the way he responded to our story.

That, I suggest, is being “economical with the truth”.

I have a copy of the message he sent to our reporter when we first put the allegations to him.

Zahawi threatened to sue us if we published, stating “100 per cent I will take legal action”.

We went ahead and published – and all the allegations were proven to be true.

We had another notable coup when we were first to break the news in 2023 that the government was about to scrap the Manchester leg of the HS2 railway.

Our rivals spent weeks trying to catch up as ministers squirmed whenever asked about our story.

A month later, the decision to scrap the Northern section was confirmed.

We spent five months campaigning on behalf of a brave Afghan pilot who had fled the Taliban to claim asylum in Britain after fighting alongside our forces – and who was facing deportation and in all likelihood death if he was sent back to his native country.

We were told ministers were digging their heels in and would do nothing to help. We then went to the White House, who offered to give him sanctuary. When we announced this, the government did a dramatic reverse-ferret. Suddenly, they were prepared to consider his case.

Few other sections of the media took any interest in this long and solitary campaign – always a lonely feeling for an editor.

 (The Independent)
(The Independent)

I was told by more than one cabinet minister: “I would give up on this – it’s going nowhere and you will have to drop it and look a fool.”

But we didn’t drop it. It was an honour to back a man who’d risked his life for this country. We eventually helped him to get a life here – and I can reveal he now has a job with a well-known British company here.

How we put out news matters as much as the news itself.

We make waves. We broke the story that Rishi Sunak’s wife had a non-dom tax status. Our story reached almost record views.

We are provocative, progressive, as well as profitable, always pivoting towards the future.

This year we added BuzzFeed and HuffPost UK to our media stable. Our reach is now the biggest in all generations owning Gen Z and the millennial audience.

We are a massive global brand, with 80m unique monthly users. We had 11 billion – I repeat billion – views on The Independent last year.

The Independent is bigger than The Times, The Guardian and the Telegraph. We recently overtook the LA Times to be the number seven brand in the US.

We are far more than the sum of our previous existence as a print product.

We also have Independent TV: 100m video views a month. We today concentrate on five pillars: US growth, independent TV expansion, reader revenue diversification, e-commerce and AI.

But it comes back to values as well as reach. For all the Indy’s digital and commercial innovation, at its core is its journalistic ethos.

Its approach to news.

Its rejection of divisive one-sided politics and “you’re with us or against us” culture wars.

Its appeal to left, right and centre.

Its belief in never taking the readers’ view for granted.

The duty of its editor is a commitment to reporting and reporters.

So, as we are now on the cusp of a Labour government, I pledge we will also hold them to account.

We note their ominous silence on tax and spending plans. We will keep a close watch on their promises to deliver economic growth and reduce NHS waiting lists. Journalism must never allow itself to blindsided.

We are living in tumultuous times – both at home and abroad.

We are days away from an election where it seems likely that the political map will be ripped up and redrawn.

The prospect of a Labour government with a big majority; a battered and broken Conservative Party facing not just defeat but a fight for survival in the face of the rise of a new right-wing political force, the Reform UK Party.

I passionately believe the role of the media is more important than ever.

We all know where to go for conspiracy theories and fake news. We have to do the opposite.

We must be forensic, not fawning; encourage discourse, not distortion; be thoughtful, not overwrought; be critical, not hysterical.

We must talk truth to power.

And the emphasis must be on hard facts, hard truths.