It was a bad error. But we're all here to cause a stir

'The Mirror' operates in a tradition of sensationalism, and that's as it should be, says Mike Molloy. Piers Morgan just went too far
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The Independent Online

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde's wonderful comment on the death of Little Nell, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the firing of Piers Morgan.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde's wonderful comment on the death of Little Nell, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the firing of Piers Morgan.

As Morgan is about as resilient as the nose cone of a Saturn rocket I'm pretty sure I can predict his smooth re-entry into the world of showbusiness without much damage being done to his income or boundless ego.

I'm not so confident about the immediate prospects of the Daily Mirror, though. I suspect the politicians will be merciful, now that Morgan has gone, but the other pop papers will put the hob-nailed boot in for some time. The red-top market has always been a rough old trade.

There will also be a great deal of simulated hand-wringing among those chattering-class commentators who hate the Mirror and who will now seize this opportunity to lecture on its glorious past while lamenting the sorry state of a once great institution of the British press. All humbug, of course.

Don't get me wrong. The error in publishing the pictures was pretty dreadful, but it wasn't the first catastrophic mistake the Mirror ever made. During the Second World War, Churchill threatened to close the paper over a brilliant cartoon it printed by Philip Zec showing a lone merchant seaman clinging to a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean. The caption, supplied by Cassandra, read: "The price of petrol has been increased by one penny - official."

Cecil King, as the Mirror's chairman in the 1960s, made his own suicidal mistake by calling on Harold Wilson to resign. He was summoned to Downing Street and was made to eat a largish slice of humble pie in order to ensure the paper could continue publication.

Later, Silvester Bolam, editor from 1948-1953, printed a stirring manifesto on the Mirror's front page stating: "The Mirror is a sensational newspaper. We make no apology for that. We believe in the sensational presentation of news and views, especially important news and views, as a necessary and valuable public service in these days of mass readership and democratic responsibility. We shall go on being sensational to the best of our ability ...

"Sensationalism doesn't mean the distorting of truth. It means the vivid and dramatic presentation of events so as to give them a forceful impact on the mind of the reader. It means big headlines, vigorous writing, simplification into familiar everyday language, And the wide use of illustration by cartoon and photograph ...

"Sensational treatment is the answer, whatever the sober and "superior" readers of some other journals may prefer ...

"No doubt we make mistakes, but at least we are alive."

Great stuff, and a philosophy I vigorously embraced in my 10 years as editor of the Mirror. Unfortunately for Bolam, he did make a mistake, printing evidence that was prejudicial to the trial of John George Haigh, the acid-bath murderer. Bolam was subsequently banged up in Brixton jail for three months for contempt of court.

Hugh Cudlipp, the man who taught me most of what I know about editing, is undoubtedly the one individual most responsible for shaping the paper in what is now regarded as the post-war "golden age" of the Daily Mirror.

The sagacity and political judgement which he exercised in that time are now hailed as the benchmark for those who aspire to "responsible popular journalism". But Cudlipp would have deplored that narrow view of his talents. He was a popular journalist to his fingertips, operating in a time when the establishment and the Royal Family were treated by most of the British press with kid gloves and a degree of obsequiousness that would have choked even Lord Fawsley.

Cudlipp's headline on the Princess Margaret business, when she was dithering about whether or not to marry Peter Townsend, was:


Tame stuff by today's standards but, at the time, it was as shocking as a loud fart made in the Royal presence.

Cudlipp's genius was that he knew just how far to step over the line, and he didn't rely only on his personal judgement. He surrounded himself with counsellors whom he trusted.

Morgan's downfall was as much engineered by management cost-cutting as by his own misjudgement. In the past the Mirror always had an editorial director who could slam on the brakes if the car was heading for the precipice. That fail-safe figure has long gone and another salary has been saved.

In the cut-throat competition of recent years, popular editors have had to dream up the stunts and drive their staffs to take risks. That brings too much pressure on one man. To my mind it's a miracle they aren't all in jail.

Mike Molloy was editor of the 'Daily Mirror', 1974-1984