Phil Hall: Operating from the top of the PR tree

As Andy Coulson contemplates his future, another ex-editor of the 'News of the World' tells Ian Burrell why he's happier operating from the top of the PR tree
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The Independent Online

Phil Hall, one of the most successful editors of the News of the World before he reinvented himself as a practitioner of public relations, has recently set up shop in a London side-street that is particularly associated in the public mind with plotting, scheming and treachery.

The Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 was named after this narrow thoroughfare, behind Edgware Road, where a group of radicals, one of them a butcher, hatched a plan to gatecrash a Grosvenor Square dinner party and murder the entire British cabinet. Two ministers were to be decapitated and their heads impaled on Westminster Bridge.

In a less brutal and, of course, strictly legal way, the targeting of ministers, taking them to pieces and exposing them to public humiliation, is at the top of the agenda for any Sunday tabloid editor on any given week. Indeed, that's pretty much what Hall did to David Mellor when he was news editor at The People, twice catching the defence minister with his pants down, and forcing him to resign.

Yet in so many ways Hall, 52, would not want to be associated with intrigue and skullduggery. He wants to be known as the PR who plays it straight, the journalist who never got sued. Indeed, when he was dislodged from the editor's chair at the News of the World in 2000 after five years in the post, commentators suggested that the owner, Rupert Murdoch, had come to the conclusion that Hall was too soft and decided that he didn't want any more of Mr Nice Guy.

In the week that Murdoch just lost another NoW editor, Hall offers a lesson in life after the top job that might be of interest to Andy Coulson. Installed in his new HQ, Hall is carving out a PR empire. Having started the business 18 months ago with one part-time employee, he now has a staff of 10 and a portfolio of clients, both corporate and celebrity. Rarely out of the eye of the media storm, he is trying to improve the images of the under-siege Heather Mills McCartney, relegation-threatened West Ham United, and a range of businesses dedicated to such things as making fashionable maternity wear and turning back the ageing process. If he gets it right he might even give Cato Street a good name.

He set up Phil Hall Associates in 2005 after leaving Trinity Mirror, which had put him in charge of its magazine division and then got cold feet. "It became quite clear that they had changed their minds and didn't want to take the risk because their business was shrinking. A magazine division would have been a gamble. I asked them if it was going to happen and, in the end, the answer was 'no'."

So he quit print journalism altogether. Fatefully, his first PR client was Mills McCartney, then apparently happily married to the former Beatle and merely looking for opportunities to promote her charity. "I thought 'great'. She had a nice peaceful life at that time," Hall says. "Within seven days I'd made her a very large sum from a magazine deal and I was off and running."

On the day he registered the company, the phone rang again, with an oil speculator on the other end of the line. The caller, who was attempting to negotiate a deal in South America, was trying to arrange some much-needed crisis management PR for the president of Ecuador. Hall was soon heading for the airport. "We were flying over Colombia when the pilot announced: 'We can't land in Ecuador, the president has just been overthrown.' We ended up in a drug-infested hotel in Colombia with weird people offering us all sorts of powders. I thought: 'My God, I'd thought I'd left the News of the World.'"

By the time he reached the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, he was being asked to represent the new president, being made to bow before the flag in a vast room decorated with pictures of the country's recent past leaders. "Some had only lasted a month." By the time he left the country he had done £8,500 of work but had not been paid. By a bizarre coincidence, Heather Mills had been to a school with the son of the oil speculator and, when she heard of the matter, she marched off and collected the outstanding debt. "Typical her, she sees a wrong and wants to right it. That's so Heather," says Hall of his client.

It's not the Mills that we often read about in our papers, despite Hall's efforts. She is unfairly maligned, he says, just as a PR should say of a much-maligned client. It was actually Sir Paul who inadvertently persuaded him to advise his wife during the long-running break-up. "Paul McCartney rang me up and said: 'I hear you're going to be looking after Heather's PR. I'm not very happy about that'. I thought, 'hold on a minute, what are you talking about?' I though it was wrong for this man to try and stop Heather being advised when she was clearly going to face an absolute onslaught from the press.

"The Heather situation is so, so difficult. Her life has been an utter misery in the last year as a result of this. People have said, 'Are you winning the PR battle?' but we don't see it as a battle. They say it's Paul McCartney's team versus Heather Mills's team, but it's just not like that."

According to the battlefield scenario, Hall is squared up against Macca's PR, Stuart Bell, of the Outside Organisation. Hall is friendly with the Outside boss Alan Edwards, who he describes as "very good, very straight".

But he is less complimentary about the reporters revelling in the acrimony of the break-up. "I just think it's naivety. There are people who I've spoke to laughing down the phone. They think it's absolutely hilarious that she has been driven out of her home by a paparazzi photographer. They see it almost as a movie rather than real life, but there's a woman here with a daughter and no protection at all. It's an impossible situation."

There are reporters, he says, who deliberately make stories up. "You learn very quickly that there's only so much you can do. There are four or five people in particular who just make it up and don't care about what they write. One of them... his stuff is unbelievable, so inaccurate it's just incredible. He's going to get found out one day."

Cynics might think that this a strange revelation for a tabloid veteran. But Hall is proud of his journalistic record. "I didn't have a libel writ in my entire career, and everything I did was from a standpoint of being accurate and properly corroborated."

This former tabloid editor speaks in a soft, reassuring voice that seems suited to PR. There is none of the brashness of Piers or the foghorn of Kelvin. He's quite good at his own PR too, though few would deny that he has a pretty good story to tell. Starting out on local papers in Essex, his first break came with the tip that the footballer Mark Wright had punched his manager, Lawrie McMenemy, into the dressing room bath. Hall tracked down Wright, who promised him an interview if he could beat him at snooker ("Thank God he was utterly useless"). The piece cost Wright his England place but he and Hall (who landed a staff job on The People) remained friends because the quotes were accurate.

Then, when Piers Morgan was appointed editor of the News of the World in 1993, at the age of 28, he surprised colleagues by appointing Hall, a member of the features desk, as his number two. The reason was that Hall had always been decent to a journalist called Matt Oliver, who was a freelance contributor to The People, and who was Morgan's grandfather. "He said: 'Anyone my grandfather trusts I can trust. I got 15 leaps up the ladder."

Two years later Hall became editor as Morgan left for the Daily Mirror. He remained in the job for five years, a year longer than the recently-departed Coulson, breaking stories about the "drug shame" of the England rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio and signing up the mother of octuplets Mandy Allwood. Largely thanks to the investigative ace Mazher Mahmood, the paper also put a lot of crooks in jail.

"I can't say it was ever a joy, because you felt the world was watching you constantly, and every newspaper had to be fantastic," says Hall of his editorship. "But there was a brilliance in the journalists there and you really felt that every week you were capable of getting stories that would go round the world."

Despite reports when he left that said Murdoch had decided to bring in someone more willing to go out on a limb (namely Rebekah Wade, now the editor of The Sun), Hall says his relationship with the ultimate boss was one of the best things about the job.

"Every time you were in trouble he was the first person on the phone being 100 per cent supportive all the time. As a company there's no red tape. Les Hinton [the News International chairman] is a journalist and knows the business inside out. Rupert's a former editor. You get straight to the top and you get a quick decision. It's what makes newspapers function. You don't have to discuss it by committee."

After Hall left he had his first taste of PR. He worked with the publicist Max Clifford, who asked him to advise Mohamed Al Fayed shortly after the death of Fayed's son Dodi in the Paris crash. Hall joined Hello! magazine as the editor-in-chief, helping it to overhaul OK!'s circulation lead, and overseeing a string of global celebrity scoops.

In newspapers, magazines or PR, Hall claims that a single philosophy has underpinned his working methods, and it is one that five of the Cato Street conspirators might have mulled over before they were hung.

"There's no point in turning people over or double-dealing, there really isn't. It just comes back to haunt you."