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Profile: Sobering task for a 3am Boy - how to save the 'Mirror'

He is a roustabout who knows how to kick ass. But can Richard Wallace reverse the decline of the venerable red top, asks Sholto Byrnes

There was a defining moment in Richard Wallace's career when he was called in by Piers Morgan, his editor at the Daily Mirror, and told he had a choice.

There was a defining moment in Richard Wallace's career when he was called in by Piers Morgan, his editor at the Daily Mirror, and told he had a choice.

Either he could continue making the most of the liquid pleasures and nightcrawler lifestyle of the showbusiness journalist, and remain in that position for the forseeable future; or he could ship up, take himself a little more seriously, and earn the prospect of promotion.

"He decided overnight to change," says a friend. "He stopped going out and getting hammered every evening. From then on he was always one of the first to get in to the office and the last to leave."

The most glittering promotion of all is now his. After a successful spell as showbusiness editor - he and Morgan share credit in creating the "3am Girls" column (a brand that has now been extended into its own celebrity magazine supplement) - and rapid moves through the positions of head of news, US editor and, until last week, deputy editor of the Sunday Mirror, Wallace is now ensconced in the editor's chair at the Daily Mirror.

The appointment has been greeted with relief at the Mirror, where a cheer went up when the general manager, Ellis Watson (who was also promoted to managing director), announced the news during the England vs Switzerland football match on Thursday night.

He may be popular with the staff, but Wallace was not the first choice for the job. Sly Bailey, the Mirror Group's chief executive, had interviewed a succession of internal and external candidates in the month since Morgan's sacking over his publication of fake photographs purporting to show British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. The process became public knowledge, as did the fact that she offered the post to Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World, and Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, both of whom turned it down.

Tina Weaver, the Sunday Mirror editor for whom Wallace has been standing in while she is on maternity leave, and Phil Hall, a former News of the World editor now overseeing the Mirror Group's magazines, were thought to be the leading internal candidates

But although he has only been Weaver's deputy for a year, Wallace has been awarded the senior job.

"The process was totally wrong," says the friend. "It looked like they were interviewing everyone down to the cleaner. But they've stumbled into the right choice in the end. The fear was that they would appoint a dullard."

That is not a word generally applied to Wallace, who, according to one Mirror employee, "exudes male pheromones. He's tall, gruff, a lad. He may have calmed down a bit but he still enjoys going out and having a drink or three."

His supporters say that his 14 years at the Mirror (he previously worked for the Daily Mail and The Sun) provide him with "the perfect background".

"He'll get in there and kick ass. As head of news he was quite fearless, happy to call in senior reporters and tell them they weren't doing well enough," says the friend

Shortly after his arrival in that position Wallace sent a three-page memo to his reporters' homes warning that he wouldn't tolerate slack journalists. "We know who you are," he wrote, adding that those who didn't produce regular exclusives could look elsewhere for work.

However, his ability to be "all things to all men", according to a former colleague, means that he has remained liked by the staff. "He's a bit of a maverick. He's been able to be creative and take risks without losing either his hair or his popularity, which is about as much as you can aim for."

Wallace is often referred to as a protégé of Morgan, although he is in fact four years older than his predecessor, but under him the Mirror is unlikely to repeat the attempt to summon up the ghost of Hugh Cudlipp by leading the news pages with more serious stories.

"Any idea of a heavyweight agenda will suffer," says a former senior journalist at the Mirror who worked with Wallace. "He is Mr Showbiz. I don't think he gets politics at all. Piers had a man-in-the-pub interest in what goes on at Westminster, but I don't think he has even that. He'll be careful not to go too far, though.

"When Piers started and it was all froth, there were three words under the banner expressing the paper's pursuit of excellence. We used to dub it 'light, trite and shite'. Wallace is a newsman so he'll be aware of that."

Creating the right mix of news and stemming the long-term decline in the Mirror's circulation, now firmly below the two million mark, will be the main challenges for the new editor.

"Putting sales on and breaking stories is what will keep the board happy," says the friend, "both of which will be difficult."

It seems likely that Wallace will also keep a lower profile than his predecessor. He has been refusing interviews and his appointment merited only the tiniest of paragraphs on page 14 of Friday's edition of the paper. "His will be a roustabout tabloid, and he will be doing a lot of rousting about," says one Mirror insider, "but the success of his management will be judged on how often the paper, rather than its editor, makes the headlines."