LONDON — Just past the entrance to the airy headquarters of The Daily Mail, Britain’s pugnacious and politically powerful publication, stands a sculpture of three small spheres with wings. The title is hidden away on a small plaque: “Bullets of Information.”
Few papers in the run-up to the Brexit referendum weaponized the tabloid tools of rumor, innuendo and invective like The Mail, whose lurid, factually murky warnings of immigrant violence and European Union evils helped tip the Leave campaign over the finish line. The paper’s pro-Brexit agitating is often Exhibit A in liberal Londoners’ worries over the effect of “fake news” on the outcome of that 2016 vote.
So it was a little strange this month to find The Mail praising Prime Minister Theresa May’s “tireless struggle to secure an orderly departure” from Europe, even as hard-line Brexiteers objected to her compromise approach. Or to read an editorial warning that exiting the E.U. without a negotiated plan — a so-called hard Brexit — could prove “catastrophic.”
In October, the paper labeled some pro-Brexit members of Parliament “saboteurs” for their refusal to consider Mrs. May’s compromise — possibly confusing Mail readers, who a mere 18 months earlier received a front page declaring the anti-Brexit forces “saboteurs.”
The shift, head-spinning by London tabloid standards, came courtesy of The Mail’s new editor, Geordie Greig, who succeeded Paul Dacre last summer. Mr. Dacre, in the job for 26 years, was a snarling Fleet Street character deeply attuned to the grievances and resentments of ‘Middle England,” the working-man-at-the-pub viewpoint that The Mail has long purported to represent.
ImageGeordie Greig, who took over The Daily Mail last summer, with his wife, Kathryn, in 2016.CreditDavid M. Benett/Getty Images
Mr. Greig is no Middle Englander. An Eton and Oxford graduate from a family that runs in royal circles — his grandfather was, for a time, a close confidant of King George VI — he edited the society magazine Tatler for nearly a decade. Inheriting Mr. Dacre’s wood-toned office, he raised the low ceiling and installed artworks by old friends like David Hockney and Lucian Freud. (The Hockney consists of iPhones, embedded in a mirror, that display the artist’s latest digital doodles.)
Mr. Greig had opposed Brexit from the start. At The Mail on Sunday, a corporate cousin of The Daily Mail that he began editing in 2012, he published editorials that urged readers to stick with the E.U. When he accepted Mr. Dacre’s role, some London friends were taken aback. Can a man-about-town journalist, friends with the likes of the author V. S. Naipaul and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, keep his reputation at the center of Brexit tabloid muck?
With barely a month to go before the March 29 Brexit deadline, British journalists and politicians — not to mention the general public — are still struggling to understand what exactly could transpire when, or if, the break from Europe occurs.
The uncertainty has trickled down to the tabloids, which remain potent players in the Brexit debate and unabashed in using their pages to further an editorial view — more akin to cable news in the United States, where pundits hash out talking points and the political class pays heed.
Some papers have shown introspection, with the editor of the pro-Brexit Daily Express admitting to a parliamentary committee that his paper’s coverage had left him “very uncomfortable” and “created an Islamophobic sentiment.” Others are unchanged: On Wednesday, after the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said he was prepared to support a second referendum, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun blasted out the headline “BETRAYAL.”
The Mail’s enduring influence here makes its evolution all the more striking. “What’s happened to The Daily Mail under Geordie could have long-lasting, even historic consequences,” said David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun. “Here is the beloved daily newspaper of Middle England, the prime hard Brexit cheerleader suddenly arguing for a common-sense compromise.”
ImageA Brexit demonstration in London on Tuesday. “What’s happened to The Daily Mail under Geordie could have long-lasting, even historic consequences,” said David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun.CreditAlexander Coggin for The New York Times
Mr. Greig is reluctant to speak about his editorship, and he declined to comment for this article. But the attitude that generated notorious Mail headlines like “Enemies of the People” — a Dacre-era front page denouncing three obscure British judges, complete with names and head shots — has started to fade.
Whether Mr. Greig’s changes are a betrayal or a betterment — or make good business sense — is a matter of lively debate. With about 1.2 million daily print subscribers, The Mail remains a predominant force in British culture and the halls of Westminster. (The Mail’s website is also among the most popular news sites in the world, though British politics make up a fraction of its celebrity-heavy content.)
Mr. Greig has won praise from Remainers like Alan Rusbridger, the former Guardian editor, who wrote in a recent column that The Mail “has stopped behaving like a punch-drunk old bruiser lurching around in search of a brawl.”
“Instead,” Mr. Rusbridger added, “it feels like it might be ready to be part of a broader, calmer conversation about the future.”
Brexit partisans, though, say The Mail has turned its back on readers.
“Not a softening — a reversal,” Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart News impresario, who has championed right-wing movements across Europe, said when asked about the changes at the paper.
Mr. Greig’s allies, mindful that Mr. Dacre still lurks at The Mail as an executive, take pains to say his changes are merely in tone — that The Mail still supports Brexit, only a more pragmatic, let’s-think-this-through kind of Brexit.
ImageThe old Daily Mail: Under its previous editor, Paul Dacre, the tabloid drew criticism for its strident tone on Brexit.CreditThe Daily Mail
And Mr. Dacre — whose fondness for a certain four-letter word for a female body part led colleagues to refer to his meetings as “the vagina monologues” — has not gone quietly. In a column ahead of his departure, he wrote: “Support for Brexit is in the DNA of both The Daily Mail and, more pertinently, its readers. Any move to reverse this would be editorial and commercial suicide.”
The Mail is still a scold, particularly about the foibles of celebrities and royals, and its retrograde views on sex and romance are mostly unchanged. A Valentine’s Day guide this year urged lonely women to avoid turning off male suitors by shedding “gloomy” titles from bookshelves and ridding their homes of cactuses, which were deemed “unwelcoming.”
Natalie Fenton, chairwoman of the Media Reform Coalition, a British good-journalism group, acknowledged that The Mail “is not your Nigel Farage ‘Brexit or Die’ anymore.” (Mr. Farage, a former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, was an early Brexit backer.)
But Ms. Fenton, a professor at the University of London who studies Britain’s media market, said in an interview that the broader London tabloid scene was not that different, despite concerns over misinformation after Brexit.
“You can still pick up a paper any day of the week and get an anti-immigration story,” she said.
Like others here, Ms. Fenton said her biggest concern was that the Brexit coverage might not help Britons grasp how it would affect their lives.
“There is very little public understanding, and the media has got to take responsibility for that,” she said. “The majority of reporting is conflictual still” — who’s up and who’s down in Parliament, for instance. “It’s not about the real consequences.”
ImageA Brexit protester on Tuesday. The head of a media watchdog group said she worried that tabloid coverage wasn’t helping Britons grasp how Brexit would affect their lives.CreditAlexander Coggin for The New York Times
The Mail has the second-highest circulation of any British paper, trailing only the down-market Sun and far outpacing liberal favorites like The Guardian, whose editorial page is sharply against Brexit.
One sign of the paper’s shift came in mid-February, when a top adviser to Mrs. May was overheard in Brussels suggesting that the prime minister could extend the Brexit deadline. The Daily Express — which has the slogan “We’re Backing Britain” on its front page — ran the story on its front page, declaring, “Secret Brexit Plot Exposed in Hotel Bar.”
The same day’s Mail placed the news on Page 10, with the relatively subdued headline “May’s Brexit Chief in Bar Blunder.” On the cover, instead, was a celebratory piece about the success of the paper’s anti-litter campaign, the Great British Spring Clean.
As the three-year anniversary of the Brexit vote looms, with no clear resolution in sight, it’s also possible that average British readers simply want to think about something else.
Over tea in the dining hall at Portcullis House, the parliamentary office building, Ian Dunt, the editor of Politics.co.uk, lamented that the marathon machinations of Brexit had left readers numb. Compared with President Trump’s tenure, Brexit “is much more boring,” he said, dryly.
And given falling circulation numbers and the mass digital migration of news, Mr. Dunt questioned if the revised tone at The Mail, or any other paper, would do much to change minds.
He may have a point. Around the corner from The Mail’s headquarters on Kensington High Street, a newsstand vendor, a man in late middle age, was asked if he had noticed anything different about the paper’s Brexit coverage.
“Oh, I wouldn’t know,” he replied, with an apologetic smile. “I just do the crossword.”