The Media Column: It will take more than razzmatazz to revive the flagging Daily Mirror
Tuesday 22 June 2004
"I wasn't absolutely convinced that I was the right person for the job," said the editor of the Daily Mirror. "I just thought I'd be mad not to do it." Hardly surprising sentiments, you might think, coming from someone with a background dominated by frothy showbusiness journalism and lacking the political sophistication the best of previous Mirror editors brought to a seat hot enough to burn the backside.
The editor in question was Piers Morgan, talking some 12 months before Trinity Mirror decided that the latest wayward shot from its journalistic loose cannon would be his last in the company's employ. But the deficiencies Morgan recognised in himself when offered the editorship in 1995 could equally apply to his replacement.
Richard Wallace, former showbusiness editor, co-creator of the 3am Girls and a political enigma - most colleagues with whom I have spoken confess to not knowing whether their new boss is a Labour supporter, even - is a chip off the young block, a 43-year-old facsimile of Morgan when he was appointed at the age of 30.
If Wallace's credentials are as questionable as his predecessor's, the situation facing the new editor is even more daunting than that existing eight-and-a-half years ago. The disastrous decline that began under the Mirror Group stewardship of David Montgomery had then yet to reach the velocity that would see it hurtle past the two million mark in the wrong direction like a meteorite on its way to self-destruct. Last month's average circulation figure of 1,846,734 is far enough adrift of the morale-boosting two million mark for there to be serious doubts about the paper's continuing viability.
Other factors do not lessen the pressure that accompanies the enormity of Wallace's task. He knows he was not first choice as editor - two outside candidates turned down the job, one of whom, Andy Coulson, occupies the same editorship, at the News of the World, vacated by Morgan when he accepted the Mirror challenge. One can understand Coulson's reasoning: the national newspaper circulation ladder may be slippery, but better to be sitting on top within Rupert Murdoch's muscular organisation than scrabbling for a finger-hold in a public company where, when the going gets rough, the shareholders are likely to grease the rungs.
Wallace must also be aware that adopting an editorial formula too similar to The Sun's won't work. The Mirror's difficulties may make those at The Sun look insignificant, but the downward drift there may indicate that the celebrity-fed, bloke-culture era of gargantuan red-top sales is at an end. And if he needs further convincing, the new editor need only look at previous occasions when the Mirror took on The Sun in its tits-and-bum territory. Each time, the Mirror withdrew with a bloodied nose.
Somehow, Wallace has to recreate the ethos of the past, in which political and social awareness and vigorous campaigning on behalf of the broad Left gelled with the entertainment potpourri essential at the popular end of the market. In all areas, the Mirror should contain intelligent, quality writing - Wallace inherits some practitioners, but not enough - while avoiding the overlong, overbearing presence of such members of the journalistic literati as Jonathan Freedland, who was drafted in from his principal Guardian beat by Morgan.
If initially Wallace looks scantily equipped for pulling off the greatest comeback since Lazarus, he has one important factor in his favour: the goodwill and absolute commitment of his staff. The newsroom cheers that greeted the announcement of his appointment may have been spurred onby relief that authoritarian acting editor Des Kelly had not been confirmed in the role: outsider Wallace was always the journalists' choice. Those working at the sharp end of the paper who had dismissed him as a rock'n'roll lightweight when he was made head of news soon grew to like and respect him - and they hadn't forgotten.
Kelly's departure from Canary Wharf before Wallace even had the chance to get his feet under his desk leaves open a senior executive position that will be crucial to the editor's future plans. Wisely, he has decided to delay appointing a deputy for the several weeks it will take to settle in and take stock. He has indicated that there may be other changes in personnel. The workforce awaits developments with a renewed spirit and enthusiasm that had gone through the shredder the day the popular Morgan's tenure bit the dust.
One must wish Wallace and his team well, and hope the new editor's razzmatazz past does not overtly influence the direction in which he takes the paper. It will have been a gross disappointment if he arrived in his new office whistling, "There's No Business like Show Business."
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