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Colin Myler: Sex, drugs and responsibilities

Colin Myler landed the top job at Britain's biggest-selling tabloid a year ago – just after the paper was shamed for royal phone tapping. In his first interview he tells Ian Burrell how he has changed the paper and unveils his glossy new magazine

To reach the office of the editor of the News of the World, you pass along a winding tunnel wallpapered with the lurid, sensational and often unforgettable front pages that have defined the 165-year history of Britain's biggest-selling newspaper.

"Call Girl in Commons" was one dream splash. "Minister Bedded Judge's Wife and Daughters", was the memorable summation of the bedroom stamina of Alan Clark MP. "Sir Ralph Goosed Maggie at No 10", was an observation on the political ambitions of the former chairman of Burton's. "Frank Bough: I Took Drugs with Vice Girls", was the unmasking of a revered BBC icon. "Chief of Defence in Sex and Security Scandal", signalled the confessions of the outrageous Lady Buck.

Drugs, vice and famous people have become known as the essential ingredients for selling a newspaper that began life in 1843, offering "All the Intelligence of the Week" for three pence, a scandal sheet promising "The Novelty of Nations and the Wonder of the World".

The newspaper's methods have helped secure an unrivalled sale of 3.2 million – more than the combined circulations of four of its biggest rivals – but have also attracted fierce criticism, most notably over its bugging of the Royal Family and treatment of such members of the sporting aristocracy as Sven-Goran Eriksson and David Beckham.

When Colin Myler took up his position as News of the World editor a year ago this week, the newspaper was reeling over the jailing for four months of its royal editor, Clive Goodman, who had been convicted of intercepting phone messages sent to Prince William. That scandal prompted the resignation of Myler's predecessor in the editor's seat, Andy Coulson.

To avert a crisis, Myler, 55, was dispatched to London from Manhattan, where he had been executive editor of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. His soft Widnes accent has now lost the hint of American twang with which he returned, and it is with vehemence that he defends the practices of his staff, denying that Goodman's activities represented a wider culture.

"Did newspapers and journalists sail close to the wind? Probably, yes. Is subterfuge something newspapers should engage in? Absolutely, if it's in the public interest it's what we are partly there to do. We root out the bad guys, we root out bad practice, we root out injustice. Is someone trying to tell me that's not what we are here to do?"

But one of the first things he did as editor was invite Tim Toulmin, director of the Press Complaints Commission, into the newsroom to speak to journalists. "It was directed at making sure that every News of the World staff member understood the PCC code and took accountability for their own actions. They had to understand that when they went on a doorstep they had to take responsibility."

He has warned his team to maintain quality control on an old NoW Sunday ritual: the jilted lover breathlessly revealing the bedroom secrets of a famous partner. "I said to [staff], 'Look, if you're going to do kiss and tells, let's have international kiss and tells, premiership kiss and tells. [Not] some Coca-Cola player who no one has ever heard of... or the vicar who has run off with the church choir organist."

In his year in charge he has tried to widen the content of news pages. "The News of the World was a good newspaper before I arrived [but] what I felt was that it had to be broader," he says. "We didn't have enough variety, it was too samey." So the paper under Myler has "more consumer stories and more political stories that I would regard as not just politics with a capital P, but stuff that affects all of us", such as reports on government spending on breast cancer screening.

Last November, he gave a speech to the Society of Editors which was interpreted as a pledge to cut the number of the paper's famed exposés of celebrity misbehaviour. Myler denies he promised to cut such stories, merely that he wanted his star investigative reporter Mazher "The Fake Sheikh" Mahmood to do more than sex and drugs stings. This does not seem to square with that week's splash, Mahmood's report on drugs dealing by the father of Liverpool footballer Jermaine Pennant.

But the editor is in awe of the courage of his reporter. "This was Mazher at his best. The danger that he put himself into by getting into that crack den was not to be underestimated. Maz has been with the paper for 17 years and he's one of the most experienced news journalists you could ever meet. As a result of his investigations, 220 people have been put in jail. This guy is an absolute professional."

Since Myler has been in charge, the News of the World has lost a sizeable slice of its circulation – its December sale was down by approximately 200,000 on the same time last year. He has an explanation. "We've come out of the DVD market. In the year before last, 2006, I think we did 40 million discs in a year, which is incredible. We've gone from 40 million discs to zero." He accepts that The Mail on Sunday has championed the opposite strategy but questions the commitment of the readers such promotions attract. "They had a brilliant Prince promotion and put on 700,000 – but [the readers] came off the following week. Where is the loyalty?"

On 3 February, the News of the World will make its own big play with the launch of Fabulous, a glossy magazine with high production values. Myler compares the magazine to celebrity title Closer. "It's a huge investment by the company and totally different from anything the News of the World or almost any mass market tabloid has done," he says. "When you are printing 3.8 million papers every week, that's a large chunk of change. It's significant millions, double figures."

Myler does not hide his dissatisfaction with the previous offering. "In truth I think the magazine we were producing was very poor. I didn't think it was relevant to our women readers and I think it had completely lost touch with the market," he says.

Fabulous will be based on the "pillars" of fashion, beauty, accessories, celebrity and real life. "Nobody has produced a magazine on the scale that we are doing, and of this quality – and it's free. The market research from potential readers has shown one fact loud and clear – they said, not knowing it would be coming free with the News of the World, that they would have been prepared to pay between 70p and £1 for it as a standalone."

The Fabulous editor, Mandy Appleyard, was recruited from Emap and is an old colleague of Jane Johnson, Myler's deputy and the former editor of Closer. The supplement will have a staff of 23, mostly experienced magazine journalists, with Johnson as editorial director.

Myler persuaded Johnson, a former Sunday Mirror executive editor and fellow Lancastrian, to return to papers. "I believe she gives the paper a dimension that it was lacking. I was sitting in a room with 13 men and when you consider that out of 8.5m readers a week half of them are women you could [see] why the News of the World is regarded as laddish, blokeish and a bit chauvinistic." Colin Myler sticks by his friends; he also brought in trusted columnist Carole Malone to replace Ulrika Jonsson.

As well as all those women readers, the paper's demographic is 38 per cent ABC1. That figure, along with the glossy pages, has brought classier advertising to Fabulous. "We have obtained a level of advertisers that we otherwise couldn't have hoped to have got. People like M&S, P&G, L'Oréal are already booked. They would not have come near our previous magazine."

Though Colin Myler is an old-school press man he has a grasp on the business of newspapers and is convinced of the role of the internet in their financial futures. Mahmood filmed his drugs sting and the ensuing clip, edited from within the News of the World, has been viewed more than 100,000 times on the paper's website. Chris Tate's film of "death-fake canoeist John Darwin's secret 'tunnel of love'" also did good business online. Myler thinks the NoW's reporting style will give it access to exclusive video content that will attract the type of young consumers who rarely purchase papers, particularly after a website overhaul that will allow it to use more film.

The editor "knew the first couple of months [of his editorship] were going to be difficult" as he fought through the aftermath of the Goodman affair. But he has been through troubled times before. During his 18 months as editor of the Daily Mirror (before Trinity Mirror brought in Piers Morgan and moved Myler upstairs), he was criticised for publishing pictures of Diana, Princess of Wales, taken without her knowledge when she worked out in the gym.

Then, when he was editing the Sunday Mirror in 2001, he published a story that caused the collapse of a trial against then Leeds United footballers Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate. The paper was fined £75,000 for contempt and Myler resigned. He doesn't seem completely over it. "The truth about the Leeds football trial was that I had gone through three or four lawyers because I didn't believe that story was usable," he says, going on to describe how he sat with a lawyer on the day before publication, explaining how the story would be displayed. "I showed him the layout, told him what the headline was going to be. I said, are you sure about this? He said, yes, you can't prejudice the jury while they're out after the direction of the judge. So it was published and the rest is history."

He resigned "because editors have to take the final responsibility" but he thinks he was inadequately supported by senior management at Trinity Mirror. "The people who were running Trinity Mirror did not have the breadth of experience that I think would have been helpful. Others with far more experience of running national newspapers would have probably dealt with it in a different way," he says, adding that counsel had suggested that the paper had a strong case for challenging the judge's decision.

Myler is popular in the industry and, on resigning, won extraordinary support from old colleagues at News International. The Sun ran a leader commending him as a "man of integrity". Les Hinton, Rupert Murdoch's lieutenant and a fellow reporter of Myler's on The Sun in the Seventies, invited him to work on the New York Post, where for five years he developed his understanding of News Corp's way while participating in the battle with the New York Daily News.

Hinton put Myler forward for the News of the World editorship. Such long-standing relationships have served Myler well. When editor of the Daily Mirror his old friend Stuart Higgins was his opposite number on The Sun. "I said to him, your name will never appear in the Mirror and I hope my name never appears in The Sun," says Myler. "I think it's the way you conduct yourself. There's a way of being competitive and there's a way of staying friends. You can even get a call from people you have turned over in the paper and they say, 'That could have been a hell of a lot worse.'"

The editor of Britain's most famous scandal sheet pauses. "But then there's a lot of other calls that don't go that way at all."