Ian Burrell: Lesson of the 'Mirror' is... lose your identity, and readers will go too

Media Studies. Plus: New light thrown on Terry case; Press-police relations 'frozen'

On stage at the British Press Awards last Thursday, Lady Cudlipp shed a tear of joy in memory of her husband, Hugh, and the Daily Mirror he ran with such distinction for so long.

She was crying because the paper most close to her family's heart had won the memorial Cudlipp Award for its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. But had Hugh Cudlipp been around to see the paper's latest circulation figures he might have wept in despair.

The following morning, official industry figures revealed that the Mirror's news-trade sales had dropped below 1 million for the first time since it became a great popular paper.

It's hard to credit that the Daily Mirror was once so confident that it carried on its front page the legend "Biggest Daily Sale on Earth" – and then, when it thought that claim too understated, changed it to "Biggest Daily Sale in the Universe". The Mirror chairman of the time, Cecil Harmsworth King, asked Cudlipp, the former editorial director, "But how do you know?"

The boasts were not unreasonable – given the modern Daily Express calls itself "The World's Greatest Newspaper" even now. By 1967, the Mirror was selling 5,282,137 copies a day. In a speech given in 1995 – recorded in Bill Hagerty's history of the paper Read All About It – Cudlipp recalled: "We were all there, on St Crispin's Eve, when the Mirror was about to thrust its way through the five million supersonic barrier.

"No newspaper in the world has lived on in the memories of its editorial creators at all levels more securely and nostalgically than the Daily Mirror in its proud, powerful and halcyon days."

It was indeed a golden era. Like St Crispin's Day, the modern Daily Mirror has lost profile. In many ways, its problems are those being suffered across the newspaper industry – unwanted landmarks are being passed all the time and The Guardian last month dropped under 200,000 for the first time.

The Daily Mirror is part of a popular sector which has been especially vulnerable to the free and instant circulation of online entertainment news. As part of a listed company – Trinity Mirror – the paper must justify its existence without subsidy from other parts of the business. So it sits on the news-stand at 50p, and hopes the public will choose it over the other options: The Sun (40p), the Daily Star (35p) or keep walking (0p).

Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the seven-day Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror operation, will take comfort from the fact that The Sun's annual decline (11.6%) is worse than the Mirror's (7.1%). The Mirror has now outperformed the daily tabloid market for eight consecutive months. And the Sun on Sunday has seen its circulation collapse by 39.7% in the 12 months since it launched into the void left by the News of the World.

But it must be a source of worry that, after all the negativity around The Sun, where 24 journalists are on police bail in relation to Scotland Yard's investigation into the bribing of public officials, the Murdoch paper still outsells the Mirror by more than two to one.

The Mirror is struggling for an identity. "We believe in ordinary people," was the credo it set out in 1956, the year before it introduced Andy Capp, the fag-smoking cartoon-strip character that many readers took as an embodiment of themselves or people they knew.

But nobody likes to think of themselves as ordinary any more. Not in an era when the public promotes its personal achievements on Facebook and competes for followers on Twitter. This is a time when everyday folk dream of emulating Susan Boyle on The X Factor and when advertisers tell mothers they are all-achieving "superheroes" in order to gain access to their purses.

The Mirror has been dragged into doing more and more showbiz stories (reflected in the current strapline "Real news… real entertainment"). But those 1956 values of championing "equal opportunities" and challenging "vested interests" are still reflected in a paper that does far more than its rivals to campaign for a fair society. It no longer has writers with the reputation of Paul Foot or John Pilger but still manages to cover political and social affairs with gravitas in a world obsessed with celebrity.

It can also point to being a multi-platform publisher and attracting more than 1m visitors to its website every day (although the Daily Mail has outperformed the red tops in covering showbiz online).

For now, the Mirror's overall circulation – including foreign sales and bulk distribution - remains above 1m (at 1,037,582). The use of bulks – styled as "premium travel copies" – represents a new culture for the Mirror and the press industry as a whole is once again seeing the value of this form of distribution (The Times has reversed last year's decision to abandon bulk copies).

As well as bolstering sales figures, bulks are a useful way of showcasing the product. For the sake of Lady Cudlipp and for Embley's staff, as they buck the market against the odds, let's hope more "ordinary people" are reminded of why they should buy the Daily Mirror.

New light thrown on Terry case

News of the guilty plea of ex-police officer Alan Tierney, who admitted taking money for supplying The Sun with information about the mother of former England captain John Terry, brought back some memories.

Early in 2009, before the phone-hacking scandal reignited and when News International was more cocksure, The Sun faced down Terry's lawyers when they complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the story had been unfair on an innocent relative (namely "JT" himself).

In an elaborate defence, Wapping set out its case that The Sun's story about Sue Terry's shoplifting was not merely an exercise in mocking her son. No, the fact that Mrs Terry had been stealing from Tesco (an England team sponsor) – and Marks & Spencer (supplier of the match day suits to the Three Lions), and had appeared in her son's lucrative wedding photos, meant the story was "in the public interest".

The PCC agreed and Terry's complaint was thrown out. But the watchdog might have judged the matter differently if it had only known that the tale was the product of an illegal deal with a bent cop.

Press-police relations 'frozen'

The long-term impact of Operation Elveden and the Leveson Inquiry on police-press relations is not just a concern for journalists. In a piece for the Daily Mail, former senior police press officer Tim Morris talks of a "complete freeze" between the two groups.

"Police officers are scared to talk to journalists, for fear of being dragged into a misconduct or leak investigation, journalists are scared to talk to police officers for fear of being arrested," he writes on the blog page of Mail investigative journalist Stephen Wright. Morris, formerly of the Metropolitan Police, recalled the days of "The Tank", a bar inside Scotland Yard where officers and journalists would meet.

On Friday in the Mirror, the former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, John Stalker, pictured, wrote of his anger that the relationship between police and the press had become a "witch hunt". Elveden, he said, "seems to have been extended to any police officer who has spoken to a journalist without press officers' permission".

It is 13 years since the Freedom of Information Act but many reporters complain it is harder than ever to speak to sources. Politicians will be even more wary of confiding in the lobby after the revelations last week of the email trail between Isabel Oakeshott of the Sunday Times and Chris Huhne's former wife Vicky Pryce.

In such circumstances, former chief constables and former police press officers are unlikely allies but welcome ones.

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/@iburrell

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