Why Kelvin needs to look in the Mirror

Last week Kelvin MacKenzie blamed everyone but himself for the current difficulties at Trinity Mirror. But, says Richard Stott, he should reflect on his own part in the sorry saga

When Kelvin MacKenzie ruled
The Sun it was said he had the attention span of a demented gnat. Now age and obsession with becoming a radio tycoon has seen the gnat hop off and seek refuge in his memory.

When Kelvin MacKenzie ruled The Sun it was said he had the attention span of a demented gnat. Now age and obsession with becoming a radio tycoon has seen the gnat hop off and seek refuge in his memory.

In last week's Independent Kelvin made the not particularly remarkable observation that the most prized employee of a newspaper company should be its editor. He pointed out Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail was worth more than a million quid a year - no arguments there - before moving on to what I suspect was the main reason for his piece, written originally for the British Journalism Review, an attack on Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror.

He blames her for the decline of the Daily Mirror, the latest circulation of which stands at 1,719,743 - down 9.5 per cent year on year. Worrying figures by any standard, which Kelvin puts down to her lack of editorial interest, knowledge, or effective journalistic input. "So where is the person who will say they know how the readers think, that the content of the paper is no good ... layouts poor ... or ask are we making the right editorial decision? This sort of thing is unwanted in Canary Wharf," he says. It is certainly true there should be editorial expertise and critical acumen at boardroom level of a national newspaper. But it is by no means a guarantee of excellence, and over-powerful can be disastrous, as Kelvin has good reason to know.

Let's go back a few years. In 1992, after the Maxwell scandal, the difference between the circulations of The Sun and Mirror in England and Wales was 486,814 and narrowing fast, albeit by then in a declining market. In some areas they were neck and neck. (The Mirror didn't circulate in Scotland, leaving the field to its sister paper the Daily Record. Added together the Record and Mirror sales figure was higher than The Sun). This resurgence was because the second half of the 1980s had seen considerable investment in the paper by Maxwell, including extra value supplements and, particularly, fine colour presses. Much to the fury of those who can see nothing but Maxwell the fat fraud, this was the only time in the past 40 years the Mirror has recorded a sustained growth in circulation.

All that came to an end with the appointment as chief executive of David Montgomery, a refugee from News International where he had been sacked as editor and managing director of Today by Rupert Murdoch. He joined Charlie Wilson, another former Murdoch employee from The Times, who had been taken on by Maxwell as editorial director. Two editors on board and yet another to come. Kelvin MacKenzie, after his man-management skills failed to impress Sky, joined to run the ill-fated L!ve TV. Three editors on the board of Mirror Group newspapers. They were not only in the driving seat. Like a honking blur of Mr Toads, they hogged the whole road.

But what happened? During Montgomery's tenure of more than six years he destroyed the infrastructure of the Mirror. The staff that gave the paper its own unique flavour all went - the spectacular removal of Paul Foot and Alastair Campbell are the two best remembered, but there was a host of others. Montgomery bag carriers were immediately appointed as editors to cull journalists. The circulation plunged by more than 500,000 copies, 18 per cent of the total sale. Altogether the three papers, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People, lost 1,722,420, 5,000 more than the then entire circulation of The People. The gap between The Sun and the Mirror in England and Wales doubled to more than one million.

All this was monitored from the boardroom by the three editors fortified with massive pay packets and bonuses in the name, as Montgomery never tired of pointing out, of destroying "the old Mirror culture" and replacing it with a new one based on "lifestyle", "aspiration" and "modern thinking". This new thinking reached its apogee in 1996 when the Mirror was presented with one of the great political scoops of recent years - the Tory budget in full. Instead of running it and causing huge embarrassment, the paper returned it unpublished and ran the fact it had done so. A victory for Montgomery's style over substance, an editorial strategy about which there wasn't a peep of protest from editors Wilson and MacKenzie, Thatcherites to the core who loathed everything the Mirror stood for, except its cash, of course.

For six months as deputy chief executive - in the first half of 1998 - Kelvin was in charge of the papers and he did make them better; for such an accomplished editor it was the work of only a few days. But technical ability is one thing, belief in your paper and an all-consuming passion for it - which he had at The Sun - quite another. Kelvin didn't give a damn for the Mirror's philosophy and belief. To him it was incomprehensible tosh.

So any good was outstripped by the decision to introduce the City Slickers, for which he was in part responsible, a fill-yer-boots money column based more on gambling than prudent advice to careful readers. It was particularly ironic as the Mirror was the first popular paper to introduce a City column in the 1960s. Hugh Cudlipp did it with the specific intention of providing readers with advice to prevent them from being ripped off by get-rich-quick City shysters. To underline that commitment, all City editors and their staff were prevented from share dealing and paid extra to compensate.

Two years later Kelvin's considered editorial judgement of what the readers wanted was to come back and haunt the Mirror with a marathon Department of Trade inquiry. Whatever the truth of that murky affair, there is no doubt it struck at the heart of the Mirror's integrity and the trust that bound readers to newspaper. That was to happen again with the publication of the fake Iraq torture pictures, the decision to publish taken by Piers Morgan, Kelvin's protégé. A bit rich, then, to blame Sly Bailey for the loss of circulation that followed.

Newspapers, particularly tabloid ones as Kelvin will be the first to tell you, are all about passion, belief, fun, strong character, consistency and making trouble of the best kind. To do that you need an editor and staff who believe in what their paper stands for, can articulate it forcefully and have the confidence to do it.

All that was ethnically cleansed from the Mirror in the 1992-3 bloodbath and consolidated by the years that followed in spite of two relaunches, countless makeovers and shifts in direction. You cannot rebuild from such a scorched-earth policy quickly or easily. During that time the editorial direction, such as it was, came from three ditched Murdoch editors determined to show the man they still revered as The Boss that they could run a big newspaper group.

But they couldn't, although Rupert can be well satisfied with his old boys' performance. By shattering a vibrant, successful Mirror that was giving The Boss a real run for his money, they did more for his business once off the payroll than they could possibly have achieved by staying on it.

Richard Stott is a columnist for the 'Sunday Mirror' and former editor of the 'Daily Mirror'

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