Media: After the Mirror, a window of opportunity: Just over a year ago Richard Stott was sacked from the Mirror. Now at Today, he has landed the title Editor of the Year. He told Maggie Brown how he gave the paper direction

A bright and breezy Monday morning on the fifth floor of a Wapping tower block, and Today newspaper is cracking ahead with its editorial conference in a business-like manner.

The list of stories presented by its news editor, Fiona Wyton, is compact but the tone is serious: here is a paper striving to be radical, popular, and not sleazy.

Honda's decision to end its partnership with Rover is listed third in importance (and merits most discussion), after Torvill and Dean's bid for gold and the vote on the homosexual age of consent.

A small inner group of four (all ex-Daily Mirror) then moves on to discuss leading articles, written by Alastair Campbell, assistant editor, political columnist and Labour sympathiser.

Smart and able, he is clearly the golden boy of the paper's editor, Richard Stott: he puts his feet up on the editor's desk, knocks over his anglepoise lamp and lets Stott put it right for himself.

Stott swiftly singles out Honda's decision to end its partnership with Rover as the correct subject for its main leader, at least for the first editions: 'What a sorry tale, this will mean cuts in Rover jobs in the end, there will be a huge outcry here, but it won't matter in Germany.'

The one bit of tabloid fun, as they search for an amusing one-sentence third leader (a Today trademark) comes from a Royal Bank of Scotland decision to give transvestites a second photo-card. 'Do you get pounds 50 out on each one?' asks Stott. 'Or pounds 25, because it is Scotland?'

Stott is in ebullient mood. Last Friday, exactly one year after joining Today, he was named as Editor of the Year in the annual What the Papers Say awards in a televised lunch at the Savoy Hotel.

The judges acknowledged that 1993 was the year the eight-year-old tabloid had finally 'found its voice', after its surprisingly poor launch by Eddy Shah and a lengthy settling-down period in the late Eighties when it seemed that Murdoch's golden touch had failed him. 'The problem with Today was that nobody could say what it stood for. All newspapers need passion, character, belief,' says Stott.

The award was an especially sweet moment for Stott, an example of how to get even. He was summoned to Claridges on a grey Sunday morning in November 1992 to be sacked as editor of the Daily Mirror by its newly installed chief executive, David Montgomery, himself a former editor of Today.

Stott's dismissal, shortly after Montgomery had pledged that the editors would remain in place, heralded the start of a controversial clear-out at Mirror Group Newspapers, which seriously rattled the Labour Party but pleased the City - the share price soared.

Within a month of Stott's ousting, News International's then chairman, Andrew Knight, opened discussions about his taking over the Today editorship. In January 1993 Stott flew to New York for a two-hour meeting with Murdoch, to finalise the deal. After eight years of working with Robert Maxwell, he switched sides.

Stott, now 50, with 10 years of editing the Mirror (twice) and the People to his name, says it was obvious what needed to be done to Today and that Murdoch had already arrived at the same conclusion. The youngest and greenest of the tabloids had to be something other than right of centre, to contrast with the Sun and Daily Mail, 'otherwise you're crunched in a concrete sandwich', says Stott.

'Under its former editor, David Montgomery, it didn't know whether it was green or yuppie - and the two are not the same thing - and whether to go for the latest trendy thing.' But he concedes that Martin Dunn did an excellent job in pulling the paper into shape before his arrival.

Murdoch and Stott agreed that the paper needed a radical character. Stott sketches in the changes he promised to deliver: Today was to be 'aggressive, iconoclastic, more news-oriented than it was, sharper defined, and anti-government, with very strong columnists, to make a mainstream newspaper out of a fringe newspaper'.

This recipe seems surprisingly similar to the mix he created at the Mirror. In fact, he was able to attract many of its disaffected staff, headed by Anne Robinson, the sparky columnist who presents Points of View on BBC 1. You could see Today as the Daily Mirror in exile, except that the Mirror remains a Labour paper, while Today came out for the Conservatives at the last general election. So will Murdoch really let Today support Labour when it comes to the crunch?

Stott says, 'Wait and see', but insists he has no prior agreement with Murdoch about what line will emerge. He explains that Today is not a Labour supporter since 'our view is that Labour still has to prove itself, has still got to communicate with the man in the saloon bar'.

On this day he is clearly irritated by an article in the Guardian, which says that he airbrushed his friendship with Robert Maxwell out of existence once it became clear what a crook he was: 'I wouldn't have said I was particularly friendly with him. It is not in my nature to be close to the proprietor. If none of the pension scandal had happened, he would have been seen as a successful proprietor. When you find out months later what happened, you change your views.'

He was responsible for pushing coverage of Maxwell glorification stories out of the news pages as far as possible, and says he would send Joe Haines, a trusted Maxwell confidant, to deal with him. 'If Maxwell wanted a loony leader which we couldn't run, I'd get Joe to talk him out of it. I would not have run the Maxwell biography (the official version, written by Joe Haines, was designed to compete with Tom Bower's) but that was a fait accompli.'

As for Today's content, Stott seems to keep a sharp grip on what makes people read. Tina Weaver, a staffer, is tipped to be named reporter of the year in Friday's UK Press Gazette national press awards for her coverage of the Michael Jackson story. The potential scandal was spotted early by Today, which sent her out to Hollywood and went on to break the story that one of Jackson's chief accusers would be paid off.

The paper is currently taking a tough line on the banks following the story that a customer was allegedly hounded to death over pounds 72. 'They spend millions on their image, but they're largely a bunch of spivs out for a quick buck,' snorts Stott.

There have been recent exclusives alleging drug dealing in the toilets at McDonalds, and testimonies of what it is like trying to manage one of the burger branches. But did the paper need to run a series of features about how a high-class London hooker earned pounds 5,000 a week, largely from Arab customers, courting the charge that it glorified prostitution? 'It's a jolly interesting story. Why be so politically correct? Newspapers are there to tell people what is going on in an interesting and accurate way,' says Stott.

He says there is no such thing as a tabloid news agenda, just good, readable stories, pertinent to people's lives: 'Stories about the Royal Family have peaked, interest in the Royal Family will reduce.'

Stott produces a magnum of champagne to share with his staff to celebrate the award. Just at that moment Rupert Murdoch phones from the Far East, where satellite television is absorbing his attention. He offers his congratulations. But Stott, who knows all the pitfalls of being a national newspaper editor, must recall that an earlier Murdoch editor, Harold Evans of the Times, won the same award - and was fired within a month.

THE STORY OF 'TODAY'

MARCH 1986: launched by Eddy Shah as the first full-colour national daily newspaper, edited by Brian MacArthur. Initial circulation of 500,000 soon declines.

JUNE 1986: 'Tiny' Rowland, of Lonrho, takes majority shareholding for pounds 24m.

DECEMBER 1986: MacArthur leaves, replaced by Dennis Hackett.

JUNE 1987: circulation down to 300,000. Rupert Murdoch buys for pounds 38m. David Montgomery, from the News of the World, becomes editor and managing director. Circulation begins to climb as Montgomery targets the paper at yuppies and environmentalists.

1990: circulation reaches 600,000, then falls back.

MARCH 1991: with sales down to 500,000, Montgomery decides on a relaunch modelled on Hello] magazine. It fails, partly because of technical difficulties as production is moved to Wapping. Murdoch replaces Montgomery with Martin Dunn. Circulation continues to decline for a while, then picks up.

FEBRUARY 1993: Richard Stott becomes editor with circulation at 510,000.

FEBRUARY 1994: circulation 580,000. Stott is named Editor of the Year by Granada TV's What the Papers Say.

(Photograph omitted)

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