All newspaper editors attract colourful tales from the journalists they employ, but few can boast of death threats. Few can have bashed a phone as forcefully against a wall as he is known to have done. Few can shout so loudly that their nose begins to bleed. In the Fleet Street mythology, then, Martin Clarke is already well established even if London Lite, his new baby, is just a week old.
Whether this is a spoiler for Rupert Murdoch's thelondonpaper, out tomorrow, or whether it is inspired by Associated Newspapers' genuine enthusiasm for the freebie market, the ferocity of the forthcoming battle between Mr Murdoch and Lord Rothermere calls for exceptional measures.
Thus Clarke - the formidably large, aggressive 42-year-old associate editor on the Daily Mail and former launch editor of Standard Lite - has been brought in to oversee the launch. Over the past week he has been at full throttle, arriving at 5 am, "ranting" about the smallest thing - listings, the code word in the puzzle page, fine details of layout- and dominating the newsroom in an effort to ensure that his upbeat, downmarket, celebrity-led freebie spoils the Murdoch launch.
"We're suffering from Stockholm syndrome here," said one insider. "He's so focused, he can force people to do things they don't want to, the least of them being working a 12-hour day."
While all eyes are on the battle of the free newspapers, it is another contest that focuses minds at Associated. Clarke's past ambitions to edit The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard appear to have been put aside in favour of a duel with John Steafel over who becomes next editor of the Daily Mail.
Throughout his journalistic trajectory, from The Scotsman to the Daily Record and then a range of Associated titles including the Irish Daily Mail and Ireland on Sunday, Clarke's editorial demeanour has attracted a range of tributes from former colleagues - "vile", "offensive", "appalling", "obsessive", "childlike" and "foul-mouthed" being among the less flattering.
Like those other tabloid terrorists Kelvin MacKenzie and Paul Dacre, whose briefings are called "the vagina monologues" for their reliance on one particular expletive, Clarke excels at morning conference.
"He would start by saying, 'You're all a fucking disgrace and one of you is going to be fucking sacked this week," and the terrible thing was, one of us usually was," said Alexandra Blair, The Times educational correspondent who worked for him for a year and a half at The Scotsman.
Another journalist, who refused to be named, said: "The stories were always 'mince' or 'shit' and a typical conference might end, 'you are all fucking cretins and this is all crap'. He once said to me: 'You've got to go and shout at the bastards or they won't respect you.'"
"He's explosive and unpredictable," said a former colleague. "He's hugely demanding."
During his tenure at Ireland on Sunday, where he presided over a soaring circulation but an exodus of staff, he was resented for his reliance on the English journalists he brought with him. "He would say this is a fucking great story, don't give it to the Irish subs. That was just crass," said one insider.
Another said: "They don't realise that Irish people will not tolerate being shouted and yelled at. They may shout and roar in England but it doesn't work here."
At The Scotsman, he berated a former marine commando, who had forsaken the forces for the gentler world of journalism. "The man took him outside and we understand he threatened to kill him. Whatever happened, Martin never spoke to him like that again."
On another occasion, on hearing hammering against the walnut panelling of the editor's office, colleagues entered to discover Clarke bashing the phone against the wall in conversation with "Donald fucking Dewar".
Given such tributes, Fleet Street lore dictates that in private Clarke must be a sensitive, charming, well-read poetry lover. And plenty insist that he is.
"He is a much more sophisticated human being than he appears," said an associate. "I didn't understand, until I met Paul Dacre, that everything Clarke did was modelled on the behaviour of his hero. He believed that was the way you did it. Privately he was very compassionate, and whenever friends were ill or needed help, he was always on hand."
Blair said: "Though he was absolutely frightful in a lot of ways, he was quite gentle with a lot of women and very kind to me."
Others attest to his love of poetry and history and point out that among his regular magazine orders are The Architectural Review and History Today. In Ireland, he immersed himself in Irish history and worked hard on Gaelic pronunciation.
These renaissance man tendencies were evident early on. After Bristol University he joined a local news agency and then moved to the Daily Mirror, where he worked on the picture desk, acquiring production skills which he has continued to use when editing.
"He's done every job - picture editor, production editor - so he knows how newspapers work. He has a brilliant eye for a story," said one journalist. "He can turn round huge amounts of copy with quality rewriting."
Such skills do not impress everyone, though. Feelings still run high in the liberal, civilised world of The Scotsman, where he was accused of contempt for the culture, even though his wife, Veronica, is Scottish.
"He can be an energising, dynamic force, but he's not a stickler for accuracy and he's not at all rigorous about detail," said one of his close colleagues there. "He thinks readers will have amnesia but Scotsman readers don't. He was the start of terminal decline."
Others demur from this. "He shook up a moribund newspaper. He did what Andrew Neil and [Scotsman owners] the Barclay brothers wanted him to. But in the course of it, he spent too much, drank too much, smoked 60 Silk Cut a day, went clubbing so much he was badly hung over in the morning, and alienated staff in the most dramatic way."
Subsequently, at the Daily Record, he provoked ire when he campaigned against the repeal of Clause 28 on promoting homosexuality. But an admirer said: "He got it right. He recognised that most working-class, left-voting Scots were tiny minded and conservative about social issues."
Clarke's capacity for hard work and his willingness to make himself unpopular by pushing others are highly respected at Associated. Having helped launch London Lite, he will return to the upper floors in a few weeks as he continues his scramble to the top. But given such a rosy outlook, what is it, apart from the early mornings and Associated's smoking ban, that makes him so cross?
"He's exasperated with having to do all these jobs to prove himself," said one insider. "There's a real battle between him and Steafel, the No 3 at the Mail, which Dacre seems to encourage for the fun and tension of it all."
Blair said: "He is extremely bright and his brain works at four times the speed of ordinary human beings, and that causes this enormous frustration which might eventually stand in his way."
Alan Taylor, who was his deputy at The Scotsman, said: "The Irish called him Jurassic Clarke and there is something prehistoric about that demeanour. He needs somebody like Bert Hardy [an Associated veteran], who can give great advice from his own experience and provide a steadying hand at the tiller rather than letting him run riot."
Yet Clarke, who did not respond to a request for interview, is said to be toning down his act. "Compared to previous times when he has been a wild man, he is calmer," insisted one person who has worked with him over the last week.
"He's reining in the swear words. He is completely hands-on and driven, and may well make it a success."
VERDICT OF THE EXPERTS
Magnus Linklater Ex-London Daily News
You've got to get the paper into the hands of the reader at the right time. You've got to prise away a readership from a loyalty that goes back a long time, so the indigenous paper is always in a stronger position if it's ready to compete. People will not pick up extra newspapers; they will make a choice.
Brian MacArthur Ex-Today
'London Lite' is a very professional product from Associated Newspapers. But News International is equally professional and Rupert Murdoch goes into somethingto win. The 'Evening Standard' is going to be embattled, but as long as it makes a profit it can survive. We're living through the end of the era of news delivered on newsprint.
Kim Fletcher Ex-The Independent on Sunday
The difficulty is to make a free paper feel like it's not free. As a journalist on 'London Lite', you'd want to make it better than the 'Standard'. But from a business point of view, that doesn't make sense for Associated.
Peregrine Worsthorne Ex-The Sunday Telegraph
The freesheets won't have much news because it's expensive. The 'Standard' is already pretty light on news, so the only competition will be in hot air. The only problem I shall have when these freesheets are thrust in my hand is finding somewhere to dump them.
Peter Wilby Ex-New Statesman
At 50p the 'Standard' is going to have to raise its game to survive as a niche product - the future for newspapers. People will get their news from websites; actual newspapers will become class products almost like books, selling for much more than they are now. The 'Standard' is one of the first tests of this.
Kelvin Mackenzie Ex-The Sun
It's going to be fantastic. We've got the best newspapers and journalists in the world, and this is an astonishing commercial experiment that could never have been predicted a decade ago. With Associated and News International battling it out, these newspapers are going to be good, because they've got to be if you're handing them out to 800,000 people who actually want to receive them. The real victim is going to be the 'Evening Standard'.
Roy Greenslade Ex-Daily Mirror
Only a fraction of London's population has been prepared to pay for its news in the past and now, with the success of 'Metro', 24-hour TV and radio news, and the internet, they are clearly not going to fork out money in the future. So free newspapers are probably the only - and last - chance of winning a significant audience for a printed London paper.
Geoffrey Goodman Ex-Daily Mirror
Freesheets are an ominous warning to paid-for newspapers. The freesheets may penetrate the 18-30 market well, but I'm not persuaded that they will increase the market for paid-for newspapers, and I'm not sure that they are going to lift and sustain quality journalism. Between the freesheets and the internet there is a pincer threat to paid-for newspapers, and I'm not sure how we are going to combat that. The 'Standard' we knew is on a downward path.
Piers Morgan Ex-Daily Mirror
The new papers will do well because they're free. My concern is for paid-for newspapers. I remember when 'Metro' started we had massive haemorrhaging of 'Mirror' sales in London. These new ones could affect the sales of all papers. It'll be a good old bunfight, but if it accelerates the erosion of paid-for newspapers that's bad news because the freesheets tend to have very small staffs, resources and budgets, so you're replacing good journalism with mediocre journalism.
Bill Hagerty British Journalism Review
The 'Evening Standard' putting its price up to 50p is astonishing. People are already asking why they should pay when they can pick up a London paper for free. What's daunting for the 'Standard' is that they're selling 300,000 copies and they're losing money, so where are they looking to be encouraged? In free newspapers the future is rosy, but thatt's not much to do with journalism as we thought of it.
Cristina Odone Ex-New Statesman
Free papers will appeal to the young, but older readers want opinion and there is none in 'Lite'. The chances of London freesheets are good, but this is the end of the 'Evening Standard'.
Philps' fast farewell
Uproar and even talk of strike action at The Daily Telegraph over the sudden departure of popular foreign editor Alan Philps. Editor John Bryant explained that his decision to move Con Coughlin to the job of executive foreign editor would allow Coughlin to offer support to Philps. In part, Bryant said, he would help see off the increasingly powerful bean-counters who have made such inroads into the fabric of the paper. Yet when Philps sought clarification of his future role, he was told there had been a misunderstanding. After 15 years on the paper, he is out.
Handle with care
The Times is looking for a foreign editor, though, or rather someone to perform that function. Candidates are being interviewed at the moment. One pointed out that if he was to do the job, he wanted the title "foreign editor". This is not as simple as it might sound. That tag is held by Bronwen Maddox, who writes a daily "briefing", and who used to be head honcho on the desk. She is thought to be quite happy with her current title, thank you.
Oborne of Islington
The Edinburgh TV Festival debate on whether British TV was becoming too right-wing no doubt provoked a hollow laugh from many Conservatives, chief among them right-wing commentator Peter Oborne, one of the panellists. Oborne said that the agenda on mainstream television represented the "views of the mainstream, metropolitan, liberal people who are quite well off and live in London, specifically Islington and Hampstead". And where does Oborne himself live? Islington.
Clearing the air
BBC News 24 staff are none too happy at having to work from a temporary perch in the BBC newsroom this week after it was decided their own second-floor perch needed to be fumigated from top to bottom. Even worse, the BBC newsroom air conditioning seems to have only two settings: very hot and very cold. Expect tempers to rise and egos to explode.
Mentored and missing
Simon Tiffin, the editor of Esquire magazine, is to stand down. Sales in the first six months of this year were down 17.6 per cent, although Natmags put this down in part to taking out bulk sales from the calculations. Editorial director Lindsay Nicholson had been helping Tiffin for past few weeks. The upshot is not happy.
Diehard West Ham fan Denis Campbell leads a double life as sports editor of The Observer. Last week's rollicking headline about Hammers captain Nigel Reo-Coker heading for Arsenal or Man U proved to be a little wide of the mark. Let's hope he does a little better this week.
Tony and the tossers
Some years ago Tony Blair was overheard referring to the Scottish press as "unreconstructed wankers". On Friday they had a chance to get their own back as Blair faced the tartan press hordes at an Edinburgh hotel. Well, sort of. Blair's spin doctors had told the hacks that they couldn't record their interviews and they were only allowed to take notes. What can the spinmeisters have been afraid of?