Platell reflects on Mirror images: Michael Leapman talks to a woman who loves tabloid hot seats and hates Blackpool deck chairs

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The Independent Online
IN Amanda Platell's large office on the third floor of the Mirror Group building in Holborn, London, hangs a painting. It portrays a plump, middle-aged man in his shirtsleeves, lounging in a deck chair at the seaside, with a copy of the Mirror draped over an empty chair in front of him. Ms Platell hates it.

'It's one of a series that Robert Maxwell put in when he came here in 1984,' she says. 'It's the image that we're trying to change - the whole thing; cloth cap, Blackpool. There are no women there, no children. You imagine that under the deck chair there are a dozen empty cans of beer.'

At 35, Ms Platell has just joined the board of the Mirror Group as director of promotions. That she now has the weighty responsibility of altering the all-boys-together image of Britain's second-biggest selling tabloid, just eight years after arriving from Australia with a backpack and no job, puzzles some who have worked with her.

She was appointed to the Mirror Group four months ago by its chief executive, David Montgomery, whose eye she had caught when she worked for him as a features executive on Today. He made her group managing editor, which meant she had to oversee the blood-letting after Mr Montgomery and the Mirror's editor, David Banks, took over. Now that phase is over she has been promoted to the boardroom.

'Montgomery decided that she was promising and took her in hand,' says a journalist who worked with them on Today. 'He saw talent there that was not visible to me or anyone else. She's hard-working and efficient - those are her main qualities - but she didn't have any of that instinctive spark that you usually find in successful journalists.'

Managing editors on tabloids are, at least by reputation, gruff, hard-bitten newsmen with a ferocious appetite for firing people and refusing to sign expense claims. Not only does Ms Platell not fit that mould, but her easy, outgoing manner, combined with her glamour, is fuelling a nascent second career as a television personality. She has appeared on Question Time and Have I Got News For You.

What is her explanation for her improbable rise?

'I'm not driven by ambition, but I keep getting offered very interesting jobs. I don't know why - probably because I've been good at the jobs I've been asked to do. I'm a bit of a workaholic. I love my jobs.'

So good was she at her job of getting rid of supernumeraries on the Mirror that the staff invented a name for her technique: her victims were 'Platelled'. She laughed merrily when I told her.

'I hadn't heard that one. It was a very difficult time for me. I don't think anything quite prepares you for what that's going to be like.

'The new management and the editor believed they had a lot of passengers and a lot of people here who weren't pulling their weight. There were also some excellent journalists, but it's a business and you can't keep supporting people who aren't really behind the product. In the Maxwell era you never could get rid of them. Once you were in, you were here until you died. I orchestrated the whole thing but I didn't make the decisions. A great myth develops around you when you're in the position I'm in.'

So far, the radical staff changes do not appear to have helped the paper's circulation. Its April figure was 2,693,720, down 7.2 per cent from a year ago. Its main rival, the Sun, is now 850,000 ahead.

'It's a two-year plan,' says Ms Platell. 'It's too early to expect results. Our ambition is to get back to three million.

'There was a huge change in the market in the Eighties, when Thatcher grabbed all those people, exposed them to aspirations and everyone moved up a notch. The Sun and Mirror didn't keep up with that market. We know 60 per cent of our readers have two cars. Half our readers have a woman in the household working.

'We've been too cloth-cap based. A lot of people out there have a lot better life than their parents, who bought the papers a generation beforehand. Their parents lived in a council flat and these people have bought their own homes.'

A lot of that sounded familiar. Later, I looked up an interview I conducted with Mr Montgomery in 1989, when he was talking about his target readers for Today. They were 'people from pretty ordinary backgrounds who are asserting themselves, the children of the Thatcherite social and industrial revolutions . . . Just because they were born in a Newcastle council flat does not mean they are going to stay there.' Ms Platell has drunk deep of the Montgomery philosophy.

One fear has been that revamping the Daily Mirror's image will dilute its traditional support for the Labour Party. That seemed to be confirmed when, on the day after the Conservatives were trounced in this month's Newbury by-election, the paper led on a story about the pop group Bananarama, with Newbury barely making the front page.

'It was a mistake,' Ms Platell conceded. 'Obviously it's difficult for me to talk about, but it was considered a mistake. You can't judge a paper by one day. We did catch up the next day and did four or five pages on the political story.' (Memory plays tricks: it was in fact only two pages, in a paper whose lead story was headlined: 'We didn't beat Home Alone star.')

'If you look at the political coverage since David Banks took over, I don't think we've been found wanting,' Ms Platell insists. 'But the Mirror for a long time has been like a trade magazine for the Labour Party, uncritical and whingeing about the Tories in an unintelligent way.

'We want to look critically at the way the Labour Party is performing. We want them to win the next election but we're not doing them any favours by blindly saying: 'Everything you do is great. We support you on every issue.'

'People are buying fewer papers in our market, but there's no evidence that they're stopping taking the Mirror because they're dissatisfied with its political coverage.'

She is determined that more women should be attracted to the paper: at present they make up only 44 per cent of the readership. The strategy is to increase coverage of issues such as education and health care.

'We're not going after the Sun's readership. We think we have a more intelligent market.'

Before she was put on to the board, Ms Platell was tipped as a future editor of one of the papers in the Mirror Group. Does her new job rule that out?

'I don't think it rules out any possibilities for me for the future. I still think of myself as a journalist. I've been a journalist for 13 years. The skills I learnt are not going away.'

And what about her television career?

'I don't have any ambition to be a star. I do it for the Mirror because it's very important for us to be getting out there and showing people that it's changed, that women are involved in it, that it has an intelligent voice. I go on simply to be a voice and a face for the Mirror Group.'

As a corporate image, Amanda Platell is certainly a step up from Andy Capp.

(Photograph omitted)

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