Newspapers: Achtung! Monty's coming

Journalists at two German papers are up in arms at the purchase of their titles by David Montogomery's consortium. But the man himself tells Saeed Shah that he's not really the hatchet-man of Fleet Street legend
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avid Montgomery, depicted last week by alarmed German journalists at the newspaper he bought as an "Anglo Saxon locust", feels misunderstood and put upon.

"Monty" insists he is not the ferocious job-cutter and scourge of journalism that he is invariably portrayed as. He contends that he is actually a benign ruler and that it has been a recurring theme of his career that wherever he has run media businesses - the Mirror, The Independent (then part of Mirror Group) and Belfast's News Letter) he has saved jobs. The same will be true, he promises, at the Berliner Zeitung and Berliner Kurier titles.

The double purchase - received with horror by local reporters, readers and politicians - was the first instance of a foreign investor group (Montgomery heads a consortium of financial players) buying a German daily paper. When the details of the upcoming £100m deal leaked out, the Germans, who had never heard of Montgomery before, promptly Googled him. They discovered that he was one of the most vilified figures on Fleet Street. The editor of Berliner Zeitung, Uwe Vorkötter, pleaded in an editorial for its owners, not to sell to Montgomery.

The Germans had read that Montgomery was famous for sacking journalists - lots of journalists - and that editors who worked under him (and were axed by him), from Andrew Marr to Richard Stott, have pilloried his seven-year reign as chief executive at the Mirror Group. Stott, an ex-Mirror editor, has described the period as "one of the worst bloodbaths in Fleet Street history".

But perhaps nothing can top the German reaction. On Tuesday last week, the very morning when Montgomery walked into the offices of the German papers as the new proprietor, the Berliner Kurier, a tabloid, had printed an upside-down picture of him on its front page. He was shown next to a locust, with the headline "The Man Who Eats Newspapers". How did Montgomery feel about that? "I'm not taken aback by this sort of thing," he says. "I've seen rather a lot of it in the UK over several decades. Much of it was a regurgitation of newspaper cuttings produced by people who had some sort of axe to grind, either the opposition organisations of the time or some disgruntled people who perhaps have not succeeded as they might have wished.

"I've never responded to this sort of negative tittle-tattle because I think my record, if examined scientifically, does suggest that there are several newspapers around today that wouldn't have been around if I hadn't been able to work with certain teams." These newspapers, he argues, include the Daily Mirror and The Independent. And, he notes with satisfaction, the News Letter has reversed a large circulation-drop in the past year.

It is undeniable that the Mirror Group that he took over in 1992 was in a desperate state, with the late Robert Maxwell having plundered its pension fund. "The company was a few hours from bankruptcy; it had a £400m pension deficit. The team that went in did get the business turned around, did repay the pension fund. The main source of irritation seems to be that the casual workforce tradition was removed from the company at that stage." Montgomery was convinced that the Mirror Group was hopelessly over-staffed and, in one of his most controversial moves, he fired 100 "casuals".

"The benefits that were brought at the Mirror, which grew incidentally from £250m [stock market value] to £1.6bn when my team were there, I think speaks for itself. If you revisit that accurately, you'll see that it protected jobs, and protected titles, and then built out pretty well through acquisition." His critics, however, point out that he may have restored the Mirror Group's finances but morale was shot to pieces. By the end, some say, he commanded little internal support, and was seen only as a cost-cutter. Even City investors lost faith, and he was ousted in 1999, just before the company merged with the regional publisher Trinity. Montgomery believes that he receives such a vicious press because he was once one of their own, a sub-editor and later editor (of the News of the World and the defunct Today).

"I think the personality thing probably surrounds me more than most because I was a journalist, I was an editor. That puts the spotlight on you, whereas if I was a finance manager, it wouldn't be quite so interesting. In the end, I've got too much to think about and too many challenges to be too concerned about historic and rather imprecise comment. I'm very happy for people to look at the record and make their own judgement," he says.

"I'm very fond of newspapers and want to see them evolve and prosper. I enjoy that challenging work." It is not only the Mirror that dogs Monty's reputation. Controversy has followed him around. When, for instance, Montgomery, a Bangor-born Ulster Protestant, led a financial group that bought the Belfast News Letter last year, he penned a leader, imploring readers to "put the pride back in Protestant". It caused an uproar for being "divisive" and "simplistic".

"I think it [the leader] was entirely misunderstood. People would like to present me as a bowler-hatted Orangeman." He points out that he's never been in the Unionist Party, that he's got friends in Northern Ireland "across the political spectrum". He is also president of the Integrated Education Fund, which sets up schools to educate Protestants and Catholics together.

"My record, again, is somewhat different to the presentation that I am subjected to. I don't want to rise to defending against criticism that clearly has no basis in fact." Montgomery stresses that he will not be a full-time executive at the German titles that he has acquired, and will leave that to the current management of Berliner Zeitung, a serious left-wing paper that sells 180,000 a day and the Kurier, which has a daily circulation of 130,000.

After finalising the German deal, Montgomery was able to address the staff. He told them that he would be putting money into the papers and would not interfere editorially. But he stopped well short of ruling out redundancies. "I don't think there is a newspaper publisher in the Western world who would give a commitment that there won't be any job-cuts. This business is a mature one, with characteristics of slow decline and fierce competition from new media," he says.

His pitch to the 400 Berlin staffers - which he had to give in his softly-spoken Ulster English, and have translated (he points out, though, that he got a German O-level) - was that he will grow the papers and use them to expand in Germany, promoting the Berlin employees to spearhead that campaign.

In his speech to staff, Montgomery told them: "Very often I have been responsible for managing newspapers in an environment of intense competitive pressure. In my career as an executive publisher I distinguished between situations where it was necessary to restructure organisations and situations where it was essential to go for growth. We are investing here for the latter."

In an interview Montgomery then gave to the Berliner Zeitung, he said: "I'm not threatening you. I hope that I will be able to prove that to you." The German newspaper market is highly fragmented, with titles regionally based and lying in the hands of some 300 different owners, many of which are family-run businesses. It is understood that Montgomery is already in talks about further deals to buy more German papers, though he won't comment on that.

"I think newspapers in Germany, and elsewhere, are going to have to huddle together to get maximum efficiency and the benefits of scale to be ever-more creative and to evolve their products so they can compete effectively with new media," he says.

And what of the UK? Does he not still want to pull off a big deal here? He has, after all, tried unsuccessfully in recent years to buy The Daily Telegraph, the Express and Glasgow's Herald title, as well as the ITV Digital licences when it went bust. He is no longer keen, he says, citing the high price that media assets command in the UK, as well as the more developed nature of the market.

"We would monitor everything in the UK. But don't forget, it is largely consolidated in terms of regional publishing. And broadcasting is dominated by the BBC. The market is artificially small because of that large portion of broadcasting that the BBC controls. It makes opportunities fairly thin on the ground in the UK. Most of our live projects are in Europe at the moment." But does he not hanker after the Mirror, which is regularly rumoured to be on the block? "The Mirror - as far as I know - is not available and, secondly, it has some of its own challenges. It's something we don't give too much thought to, at the moment," he says.

By no means everybody who has worked under Montgomery is a die-hard opponent. Pat McArt, a Catholic and a socialist who is the editor of the Derry Journal, which was bought by the Mirror Group under Montgomery, says he found Monty to be "affable", with a dry sense of humour (which in itself will be a revelation to Montgomery's detractors, who paint him as a colourless, unsmiling, despot).

"We'd heard all the stories about David Montgomery but I found him to be totally fair, totally honest and totally decent," McArt says. "The reality does not match the controversy." And Montgomery has managed now to win the benefit of the doubt from his new German employees. Vorkötter (who is still in his job) has written a new editorial, where he tells readers that he remains "sceptical" but liked the promises that Montgomery gave.

"Something has changed," Vorkötter wrote. "His [Montgomery's] statements read very differently from what we and you would have expected from financial investors interested in short-term profits and short-term profits only - more restrained, more responsible... you can be assured that we will hold Montgomery and his partners to these promises."

The cv

1970 Graduate trainee in Mirror Group

1982-1984 Assistant editor, Sunday People

1980-1982, Chief sub-editor, The Sun

1985-1987 Editor, News of the World

1987-1991 Managing director and editor of Today

1992 Chief executive of Mirror Group

1995 Oversees launch of Mirror's Group's Live TV venture.

1999 Ousted from Mirror Group after shareholder revolt.

2000 forms Mecom media investment company

2004 Fails in bid to buy The Daily Telegraph