So it wasn't a wind-up! Enter Piers, Press Baron

You couldn't make it up. When he was editor of the 'Daily Mirror', the words 'Press Gazette' meant a night of awards, boozing, heckling and a punch-up. Now Piers Morgan is talking 'love and resources' as the industry magazine's new proprietor. Tim Luckhurst gets the inside story...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Dog eats dog." A favourite Fleet Street cliché came true this weekend, as former Mirror editor Piers Morgan clinched a deal late on Friday to buy the media weekly Press Gazette from Quantum Business Media. The venerable house magazine of British journalism has ended up in the hands of one of the very people whose heels it used to snap at.

"Dog eats dog." A favourite Fleet Street cliché came true this weekend, as former Mirror editor Piers Morgan clinched a deal late on Friday to buy the media weekly Press Gazette from Quantum Business Media. The venerable house magazine of British journalism has ended up in the hands of one of the very people whose heels it used to snap at.

In a deal thought to be worth £1m, the 40-year-old title will pass this week, barring legal difficulties, into the hands of the enfant terrible of tabloid journalism who was forced to leave his last newspaper in disgrace after publishing fake pictures of British troops abusing Iraqis. The main shareholder is the PR guru Matthew Freud, putting up his own money rather than that of his company Freud Communications. A source close to Morgan said: "We have not paid a huge amount. What matters is what we can put back into it. Piers has got a lot out of journalism and he would really like to put something back in."

Morgan's first plan is to move the Croydon-based magazine closer to Fleet Street. But many journalists and media analysts wonder whether the magazine is worth saving. Press Gazette has had five owners in the past 15 years. It was launched in 1965 into a less sophisticated media market in which national newspapers did not spend column inches examining the entrails of their own industry. Now many newspapers have respected media sections. London media professionals are far more likely to consult the Independent titles, The Guardian or even the Evening Standard for the latest industry news and analysis.

Few newspaper executives will declare war on a magazine that can cast their work in a bad light, but one former national newspaper editor says: "The juicy gossip about who's in and who's out is in the Guardian or Independent. Press Gazette doesn't set the juices flowing any more. There is residual affection for it in the industry but affection doesn't sell copies."

Although profitable, it currently sells only 6,000 copies a week, less than a third of its 1970s circulation. The heady days when ambitious provincial journalists would race out to the newsagents to scan a bumper ad section for Fleet Street jobs are long over. The current issue has a single page of classified ads, the main career proposition being news editor of the Greenock Telegraph.

Press Gazette editor Ian Reeves proclaimed himself delighted with the deal. "We're really pleased that the uncertainty we've lived with over the past six months seems about to end and we look forward to an exciting new future."

He maintains the national press has not stolen his turf. "There are two big problems which the national papers have in writing about their own industry. First, they are hopelessly compromised by their own commercial interests and cannot be objective. Second, they concentrate on very narrow strata. It is very rare to see pieces about the regional press or business media." These areas are unlikely to interest Mr Morgan, whose nine-years at the helm of Britain's biggest selling red-top were marked by a series of controversies, including a share-tipping scandal that almost unseated him, the serialisation of Paul Burrell's memoirs of Diana, Princess of Wales and the infamous "Achtung! Surrender" headline on the day of England's Euro '96 semi-final against Germany. A leading industry analyst, Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University, reckons that Morgan will have to make radical changes. One option in Professor Lewis's view is to make it a rumour-based sort of Private Eye for the industry. "That might be fun if the writing is sharp and the sources are excellent."

Morgan is well aware of Press Gazette's diminished status but insists it can be made to work: "Journalists produce tremendous trade magazines for every other business. I have always believed Press Gazette ought to be the best trade magazine there is, but it has not had the love and resources. I will do my best to give it the love and resources to do that."

An insider explains. "There is no reason for journalists to buy it at the moment. It could be a very positive force for the newspaper industry. There are endless journalists now working in television, radio and online, as well as newspapers. If Press Gazette can address their concerns and fight the corrosive cynicism that dominates existing media sections, it can become a title every journalist will want to read and a positive force for the industry as a whole."

Among Press Gazette's 10 editorial staff there are fears about that approach. Insiders believe Morgan has an exclusively national newspaper perspective. Their title is read mainly by the 13,000 journalists working in regional newspapers and a similar number in the specialist business and consumer press. They acknowledge Morgan's ambition to attract new readers among broadcast journalists but point out that BBC staff have their own in-house title, Ariel, and that the sector is already served by Broadcast magazine. There are also worries about Morgan's blunt, confrontational style and fears that he will use Press Gazette to pursue personal grudges and vendettas. Others highlight Morgan's managerial experience and point out that the role in which he is expert is that of editor - a job he has said he will not do. Ian Reeves can live with that. "I would love to stay," he says. "Press Gazette is a great magazine."

But uppermost in Morgan's mind must be what to do about the industry's annual jamboree, the British Press Awards, which is sponsored by Press Gazette and is its biggest moneymaker. It is due for a wholesale revamp after this year's event provoked a war with national newspaper editors, 11 of whom declared they would boycott it in future because it was marred by alcohol-fuelled squabbles. They declared that the awards "bring little credit to the industry and the newspapers that win them".

The pugilistic Morgan, who was famously involved in fisti- cuffs with television presenter Jeremy Clarkson at the 2004 event, may not be the happiest of peacemakers. In his memoir, The Insider, he describes the occasion as "watching a bunch of broadsheet journalists going up to get their obligatory awards for boring journalism and making terrible speeches".

He will almost certainly have to eat the words he wrote in this newspaper in March: "It is completely unacceptable to boo and hiss every time one of your rivals gets a nomination. But it is very cathartic and I would warmly encourage it. Don't be a good loser. Hunt down the editor of Press Gazette and give him such a good verbal ferreting that he won't even think about not letting you win next year."


On the far write

Danny Kruger, brainbox son of foodie guru Pru Leith, who was considered too right-wing to be a Tory candidate, has found a new outlet for his creative thoughts. Danny was the Tories' original choice to run against Tony Blair in Sedgefield, but had to pull out after he called for a "period of creative destruction" in the public services. He went on to offend residents of North Kensington with an article in The Spectator that wrote them off as "too posh" to vote Tory. Now Danny has found his spiritual home as as a part-time leader writer for The Daily Telegraph. He joins a distinguished team that includes the ultra right-wing Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan, who penned the famous editorial about George Galloway which accused the MP of treason and contributed to a costly defeat in court.

Marked man

Freudian broadcasting slip of the week: Jim Naughtie, presenting the Today programme from Nigeria on Wednesday, said: "And now over to our reporter Mark Thompson - sorry I should have said Mike Thompson." How many other disgruntled BBC employees in strike week must have wished for such a spectacular demotion for their director-general?

Too keen to be real

"My Life in Labour's Lie Factory" was how the Daily Mail headlined Jenny Kleeman's account of her film shot undercover in the party's election HQ. Among the "testosterone-fuelled" antics revealed were "high-fiving" between Alan Milburn and Alastair Campbell and the fact that activists occasionally sent letters to newspapers. It was a thin return for long weeks stuffing envelopes wearing a hidden camera because her cover had been blown within days. "We were suspicious of her pretty much from the start," says one worker. "So we sent her to another, less important office, and then when she begged to be let back we knew she was a wrong 'un."

Judd's sexy secrets

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector turned private schools mogul, will not be among those celebrating the arrival of Judith Judd as editor of the Times Educational Supplement. It was Ms Judd who, as education editor of The Independent, told the world of Wooders' intimate relationship with a former pupil. Owner Rupert Murdoch must hope that her sexed-up approach will halt the TES's sharp slide in circulation, now below 100,000.

MP on the ball

Bafflement over why James Purnell, the newly appointed Minister for Broadcasting, will be staying away from the industry's premier talking shop, the Edinburgh International TV Festival, this summer. The draw will be the BBC charter renewal and a lecture from Lord Birt, but the Lancashire MP will be playing golf. "I've been up there for the past few years and I've played all the Edinburgh courses," he said. Instead he will be cruising the fairways of Norfolk. "I had booked my holiday before I got the job," he explained.