The Media Column: Can a new celebrity pull-out stabilise the Mirror's wobbles?

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The occasional pothole might be expected on the road to Damascus, but nobody told Piers Morgan he would encounter the Grand Canyon.

The occasional pothole might be expected on the road to Damascus, but nobody told Piers Morgan he would encounter the Grand Canyon. His much commended conversion to a more serious approach to popular journalism ended when his new, no-longer redtop, Daily Mirror fell into the seemingly bottomless pit of reader rejection. Result: a backwards shuffle to embrace once again celebrity trivia and, last week, the introduction of a pocket-sized "free" weekly supplement, 3am Magazine, launched on the back of one of the paper's least cerebral features.

The spread of pages supplied each weekday by the "3am girls" ( below)- a trio of attractive young women not afraid to put the stiletto in after trawling show business haunts - changed the face of tabloid celebrity journalism. So, regrettable though newspaper purists may have found the backtracking, it must have seemed like a natural extension of the idea to give 3am its own magazine as an inducement for readers to stay loyal, despite a 3p price increase.

Only up to a point, it appears. The relentless down-market direction of the Mirror, as well as the opening up of a 5p price differential with the Sun, is, I discover, repugnant to most of the paper's editorial executives. What's more, they fear the consequences of a widening division between journalists working on the newspaper and those producing add-ons such as 3am Magazine and We Love Telly! (of which the title alone makes them squirm).

Chief executive Sly Bailey's creation of a magazine group under the direction of former News of the World and Hello! editor Phil Hall effectively means the Mirror is being produced by two separate editorial entities. So severe is the separation that the reporters after whom the new magazine is named - currently Jessica Callan, Eva Simpson and Caroline Hedley - are not involved in any way with 3am Magazine.

Is was easy to detect the newspaper's antipathy to the project last week. Where was the spread of pictures from the magazine's launch party at London's Café Royal? (The party was attended by the 3am girls under sufferance, I am told, but by few other members of the newspaper's staff.) Where was the constant tub-thumping that normally accompanies such an enterprise? After a handful of "I love my 3am Magazine" panels the morning after it appeared ("Well done girls", applauded Denise Van Outen) such reader come-ons were noticeable by their absence.

At the heart of what could become a canker within a group struggling to be true to its heritage and retain its self-esteem is a deep philosophical difference between many of those controlling the newspaper, and Hall's magazine team.

Mirror journalists believe the chief executive is compensating for her lack of newspaper nous by launching a rash of added-value, if largely tawdry, magazines - there is talk around the Mirror of a planned gardening and fishing title, despite the long-held newspaper view that the millions who enjoy these pastimes are more than adequately served by established specialist publications.

The magazine team think the newspaper has totally lost its way and can quote the findings of focus groups - two of the most despised words in newspaper journalism - to back up their insistence that the only way to fatten an anorexic readership is to offer a celebrity-dominated diet.

Whether the insubstantial 3am Magazine can make an impression in a market now saturated with celebrity remains to be seen. The territory swarms with magazines, such as Hello! and Richard Desmond's OK!. As for the opposition papers, not only the Sun, whose flimsy "Free Celeb Picture Pullout" response to 3am was almost disdainful, but Desmond's celebrity-obsessed Daily Star and, increasingly so, Daily Express, may have stolen an unassailable lead during the Mirror's unsuccessful attempt to take the high ground.

The only "famous" faces to be seen in the early stages of the 3am Magazine launch were publicist Max Clifford and the Mirror's 3am girls, who arrived jet-lagged from covering the Academy Awards in Hollywood. The girls have, of course, become celebrities in their own right. How long will it be before they are invited to appear on a reality TV show?