Dominic Mohan: Last man standing
Editing The Sun through the phone-hacking scandal has been a tough job. And with the launch tomorrow of a Sunday edition, it has just got much tougher
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor at The Independent, i paper and Independent on Sunday. He covers news from the whole media sector from television, press, radio and advertising to technology. His weekly column on the media appears every Monday in The Independent and i paper. He also writes on media, music and culture, including long-form pieces for The Independent’s Saturday magazine and the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, New Review. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s What The Papers Say and a specialist commentator to Monocle 24 radio. He has contributed to most major broadcast outlets including BBC television and radio, CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera and LBC. He has also written on media for GQ magazine. Ian has been reporting on the media industry for The Independent for more than a decade. Previously he was the newspaper’s Home Affairs Editor. He worked at The Sunday Times for five years, including as a member of the investigative Insight team, covering stories on political funding, industrial espionage and the arms industry. Previously he worked in ITV for London Weekend Television, on a weekly current affairs programme presented by Danny Baker. Ian trained at the Birmingham Post & Mail and was Regional Reporter of the Year in Press Gazette’s national awards.
Saturday 25 February 2012
Even when Dominic Mohan was at the very outset of his career, working as a cub reporter on an agency called the London News Service, he liked to tell people: "I'm going to be editor of The Sun one day."
Described by one colleague as "desperately ambitious", and by another as "fiercely ambitious", Mohan has always known what he wanted to do in life. Having realised that ambition two years ago, Mohan now has the chance to edit The Sun seven days a week, having been placed in charge of the Sunday edition of the paper, which launches tomorrow into a space in the market vacated by the News of the World when it was dramatically closed seven months ago.
For a Sun editor, Dominic Mohan cuts an unremarkable figure. He does not have the gigantic presence and megaphone voice of Kelvin MacKenzie, nor even the noticeable physical traits of the bald-headed David Yelland or the carrot-haired Rebekah Brooks, who appointed him as her Sun successor in 2009.
Like Brooks, he shuns the television cameras and doesn't do interviews. But while she has become a lightning rod for media coverage of the meltdown of News International, Mohan has succeeded in keeping his low profile.
When he finally appeared before the Leveson Inquiry last October, a performance which he is likely to have been rehearsing for many weeks, he was quite deliberately demure. "As editor, I have always been determined to foster a culture of honesty, integrity and high ethical standards at The Sun," he said in his witness statement. He talked of the paper being a "powerful force for good" with a "strong moral compass", and cited charity initiatives such as supporting the Help for Heroes campaign and starting a "Sunemployment" scheme to help readers to find jobs. Many in the Leveson audience were incredulous. "All the tabloid life had been dashed out of him," wrote Simon Carr, this newspaper's sketch writer.
This was not the same Dominic Mohan who had signed off his stint as editor of the paper's Bizarre showbiz column with the epitaph: "Getting hammered with ROD, partying with MADONNA, tea at ELTON'S house – it's been the greatest five years of my life."
Mohan joined The Sun as a reporter in 1996, after being hired by Andy Coulson, the editor of Bizarre, who would become a great mentor. Within two years, Mohan had inherited the prized showbiz role himself, a job regarded within News International as an anointment for a future editorship. When Coulson moved to the News of the World, he and Mohan remained close friends in spite of the intense rivalry between the two newspapers.
Not that Mohan has been anything other than a complete Sun loyalist who is said to be "completely in awe" of Rupert Murdoch and his management of newspapers. As he climbed the editorial ladder, Mohan would work "punishing hours", colleagues say. He built relationships with London club owners such as Peter Stringfellow, Piers Adam and Mark Fuller. "He worked hard but he partied very hard," said one member of his social circle at the time.
Even in the small hours, Mohan never lost his news antennae. "He has amazing speed of thought," says an admirer. "You can feel the clock start ticking when he's on a story – he's got a news reporter's energy."
The showbiz stories that have defined his career are the rise of Oasis and the soap opera surrounding Madonna, who once paid for him to travel first class to Los Angeles for a party. "It was a long way to go for a few glasses of champagne but I got an interview out of it," he later commented.
Mohan spent so much time hanging out with Oasis that Liam Gallagher warned the journalist he was in danger of becoming alcoholic. But rivals acknowledged that Mohan had spotted a music phenomenon and played a significant role in the band's success. In 2005, he was a central figure in persuading the Live Aid musicians to reconvene for the Live8 charity concerts in 2005. "He came up with the idea and drove it until he had everyone on board," says one source.
Even now, he prides himself on his musical knowledge and peppers The Sun with headlines based on song titles. A recent story on energy waste was titled "There is a light that never goes out ... at the Department of Energy" – a reference to a track by The Smiths. "He likes to think he's very hip and modern," said one colleague in reference to Mohan's penchant for fashionable suits and a hairstyle that seems to owe something to the Gallagher brothers.
Despite his ambition, he is said to be self-conscious and susceptible to criticism. Piers Morgan, a rival when editor of the Daily Mirror and the first editor of Bizarre at The Sun, knew how to trigger Mohan's insecurities by comparing his scoops with the stories Mohan was "scraping up". In a rare error of judgement, made at an awards ceremony in 2002, Mohan derided the Mirror's achievements as being linked to Vodafone's lack of security. The apparent reference to tabloid phone hacking has caused him to face some difficult questions, though he says his comment was in jest.
Unlike Morgan, Mohan has avoided the celebrity spotlight and remained focused on editing. "He doesn't court publicity and he doesn't hang out at Soho House or the Ivy Club," said a friend, indicating how Mohan has reined in his partying since becoming an editor. At editorial meetings, he might sip water and eat Japanese edamame beans, while cracking his knuckles as he discusses ideas.
Mohan, 42, is married with three children. At around 6pm on a working day, he takes a break from the news cycle by having dinner in an annexe to his office behind a sliding door. Colleagues believe he uses the time to talk to his children. He remains in the office until around 9pm when the first edition of the paper has been produced. Although he has adopted a "rolling news conference" system which suggests a collegiate approach to editing and an openness to ideas, colleagues say Mohan tends to "just do what he wants".
He is a graduate of Southampton University, where he worked on the student newspaper, but has little interest in intellectual subjects. At weekends, Mohan, who grew up in the West Country, often takes his sons to cheer on Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, close to the family home in north London.
But as he prepares a new dawn for The Sun this Sunday, Mohan has significant problems. When he gave his Leveson evidence and talked of a "culture of honesty" at the paper, Mohan claimed that "The Sun has never knowingly paid or made payments in kind to police [or] public officials". He did not know then that in the weeks to come 10 serving and former members of the paper's staff would be arrested by detectives from Scotland Yard's Operation Elveden inquiry into alleged bribery of public officials. Mohan has also strenuously denied any knowledge of phone hacking, despite his familiarity with the practices of tabloid showbiz journalism which has been shown to be the epicentre of that scandal. Having given Mohan such a vote of confidence, Rupert Murdoch will be hoping that his seven-day editor will not be sucked in to a police inquiry that has focused on so many of his close colleagues.
Faced with uproar on the newsroom floor after the recent arrests, Mohan, The Sun careerist, was criticised for his failure to back his troops until he was finally persuaded to run an article by veteran political journalist Trevor Kavanagh complaining that the paper was being subjected to a "witch hunt".
As he plans the most important edition of his career, most of Mohan's senior colleagues have been arrested. "He's like the last man standing," as one former senior News International executive put it. "The challenges that face Dominic are much more severe than any other Sun editor has had to face. And now he has the Sunday paper to edit as well."
A life in brief
Born: Dominic Mohan, 26 May 1969 in Bristol.
Family: Married with three children. Lives in north London.
Education: Attended comprehensive schools in Cambridgeshire, then studied English at Southampton University.
Career: Joined The Sun in 1996, working on the Bizarre column under Andy Coulson. Became editor of the column in 1998. Appointed deputy editor of The Sun in 2007, then editor in 2009.
He says: "The alchemy of successful tabloid journalism is achieving the balance of seriousness, mischief and wit that makes the conversation with readers sparkle."
They say: "[He has an] unrivalled understanding of what makes the paper tick and a real grasp of what makes a great Sun headline." Rebekah Brooks
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