Unlikely face at the 'Mirror': Michael Leapman looks at the adaptable David Montgomery

THREATENED with a strike on the Daily Mirror last Friday night, David Montgomery, the new chief executive of Mirror Group Newspapers, assured the journalists of his 'continuing support for the left-of-centre tradition of all titles'. This is not the same as a pledge of unswerving loyalty to the Labour Party, and on past form he will be disinclined to give one.

In March last year, just before Rupert Murdoch pushed him out of the editor's chair at Today, Mr Montgomery was talking about his philosophy for that paper: 'There has to be some alternative to the rather strident Tory tabloids and the tunnel-vision Daily Mirror, which grinds on supporting the Labour Party; and you wonder whether the people who work there and the proprietor (Robert Maxwell was still alive) could cope with the Labour Party actually being in power. There has to be another way. We're trying to have opinions which are challenging to the Tory party as well as impatient with Labour policies.'

Sir Nicholas Lloyd, editor of the Daily Express - whose protege Mr Montgomery was at the Mirror group's People and Mr Murdoch's News of the World in the early Eighties - says: 'I would have thought he was a left- wing Tory. When we were on the People he was probably still a Labour voter. Now I would have thought he was a Tory and a capitalist, but not a very right-wing one.'

Those at the Mirror who believe he will be too right-wing point to his role in the overnight flit of the Murdoch papers to Wapping in 1986, which broke the power of the print unions. He encouraged his News of the World journalists to defy their union's instruction and work at the new plant; but his role was less prominent than that of Charles Wilson, then editor of the Times and yesterday appointed managing director of the Mirror group by Mr Montgomery.

There were no strike threats when Mr Maxwell brought Mr Wilson to the Mirror group in 1990. Yet it remains an unsettling thought that the two senior executive positions in Britain's most important left-wing newspaper group should be held by former Murdoch trusties.

Now 43, Mr Montgomery's career path has meandered between papers of conflicting political views: on Today he once advocated electoral support for the Green Party. He spent 10 years at the Mirror group before joining Mr Murdoch's Sun. Then he briefly went back to Holborn Circus to the People, then back again to Bouverie Street and the News of the World, where he became editor when Sir Nicholas left. When Mr Murdoch bought Today from Lonrho in 1987, he appointed Mr Montgomery as its editor and managing director.

'His politics are quixotic,' says a former colleague on Today. 'He'd support anything he thought popular and in the readers' interests. He'd look at it issue by issue. He's totally pragmatic about newspapers and wouldn't turn the Mirror against Labour, because that would be commercial nonsense.'

His first two years on Today were a success, seeing the circulation double to 600,000. He was directing it at what he then called 'people from pretty ordinary backgrounds who are asserting themselves and are children of the Thatcherite revolution'.

Circulation fell as the Thatcherite revolution petered out. He sought to revive it by copying the approach of the popular magazine Hello] which eschews the strident scandal-mongering of the tabloid press. The result was a sugary, gutless confection that appealed to few, least of all Mr Murdoch. Mr Montgomery was swept aside and left News International soon afterwards to try to set up a satellite television news operation.

Whatever the doubts about his political convictions and journalistic judgement, nobody has any reservations about his energy and commitment. On Today he would often stay in the office from 9 in the morning to 11 at night.

On the day he took over as editor he arrived at about 6pm. 'He tore the entire paper apart and rewrote half the stories between the first and second editions,' a colleague recalls. 'He wanted to make his mark at the beginning, and I'm sure he'll want to do the same at Mirror.'

He already has. On his first day he opened the executives' dining room and lift to the other ranks. Alcohol is now banned from the premises, as at Wapping. 'The old Mirror habits will die now - the drinking and the long lunching and all the boyos having a good time. The fun Mirror is over,' says Sir Nicholas. 'He's very Ulsterish - hard and driven and dark. His weakness as an editor was that he wanted to do it all himself. He burnt himself out.'

Those who know Mr Montgomery are sure that he will be unable to resist looking over his editors' shoulders. This could provoke clashes, especially with Richard Stott of the Daily Mirror, who has never formally abandoned his plan to lead a management buyout. When they have worked together, say supporters, they have seldom been the best of friends.

Bill Hagerty, editor of the People, may be regretting that he parted company with Heidi Kingstone, Mr Montgomery's wife, who worked for him as a feature writer until early this year.

Ms Kingstone insists that the parting was cordial. Even so, if the motive behind Mr Montgomery's appointment is to bring stability to the troubled group, he is an improbable choice.

(Photograph omitted)

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