A man who likes to live dangerously

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The Independent Online

Horrocks, 47, whose paper appeared to be in breach of a court injunction barring information leading to the identification of the 18-year-old killers, was still privately fuming over defeat in another injunction controversy over publication of the paper's snatched photographs of the Siamese twin Gracie Attard, who was separated from her sister in Manchester.

An MEN photographer took the pictures in the St Mary's Hospital car park as the child left with her parents and Horrocks had published them in 85,000 copies of the paper before the News of the World and The Mail on Sunday successfully secured an injunction banning publication in the MEN while leaving both clear to publish their own pictures, secured for £350,000.

The Bulger story is a cause for considerably greater concern. Some sources say Horrocks did not see the offending article – published on the MEN website (which currently has no editor) and in a single-column front-page story in Friday's penultimate edition, upgraded to a splash for the final edition.

But it is possible that he would not have removed it if he had. Horrocks is a former MEN crime reporter and news editor with a reputation for picking out such flaws but this one was certainly not obvious. Horrocks would need to be comfortably abreast of northern England's youth justice system to have picked out the error in the story, written from Westminster by the journalist Ian Craig, which had potential to reveal the whereabouts of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables before their release.

It is also possible that the paper may have been under the misapprehension that the 18-year-olds were being released immediately and the details were therefore safe – though the circumstances were probably rather more elementary than that. "It just didn't appear to be a problem," said one staff member yesterday. "Horrocks would never step out of line legally."

In his five years as editor, though, Horrocks has been willing to draw some lines of his own where his old crime beat and the perceived interests of Mancunians are concerned. Eighteen months ago, the crime reporter he has appointed as news editor, Steve Panter, found himself arrested and questioned for nearly three hours after naming a person he claimed was a suspect in the 1996 IRA bombing of Manchester. Panter's arrest was condemned by Horrocks. "This was a story the public were not going to hear," he said.

It was one of many crime exclusives Horrocks and Panter have shared an appetite for, including Bulger stories in which they have demonstrated a marked reluctance to treat Thompson and Venables with kid gloves. In the months leading to the boys' release, the paper has revealed their visits to a shopping arcade and to football matches and has also published an interview with a youth who claimed to have served time with one of them.

It is the kind of abrasive journalism that was to be expected when Horrocks, against many local expectations, was appointed by the Scott Trust when it parted company with the long-standing editor Mike Unger.

Horrocks inherited a paper haemorrhaging sales and discounting heavily – yet his prinicipal qualification was a career in the local-paper university of death knocks, courtrooms and Manchester scandal, which began – at the age of 16 – with the freelance agency his father Joe Horrocks ran in Bury, 10 miles north of the city, and took him to the MEN in 1975.

Horrocks' innovations as editor have been bold in a tough time for sales. He has redesigned the masthead, and moved his sports pages, clearing the back page for television listings. The paper has also continued to spend heavily on marketing.

But stories are what Horrocks knows best and as an editor he has faced knocks before: Manchester United refused to deal with his paper for several months after an article about their team manager Sir Alex Ferguson caused offence three years ago; and relations with the Greater Manchester police have been challenging after the IRA story.

"He can be feisty at times," said fellow editor Alison Hastings, of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. "He will fight his corner if he he feels he is in the right."