Lunch with Richard Wallace

Blagging a lunch out of Richard Wallace is a hell of a lot easier than prising a quote from the Daily Mirror’s multiple award-winning editor.

For an ex-showbiz gossip writer and hellraising Sun hack, who left New York to be deputy at the Sunday Mirror only to become ‘the outsider who came from nowhere'(his words) and replace rambunctious Piers Morgan as the Mirror’s top dog, Wallace keeps a remarkably tight tongue in the company of profile writers.

And an honest profile is what Press Gazette ordered: an ex-editor’s take on the current man in the Mirror editor’s (swivelling) chair, the hottest seat in Fleet Street, as he approached his 1,000th edition.

His speedy reply to my emailed request was depressingly predictable. ‘I’m afraid I am maintaining my zero profile – it keeps me relatively off radar and allows me to be focused on doing the job,’adding the acidly accurate postscript: ‘For info, the 1,000th edition ticked by on 3 September.”

Still, I needn’t feel too crestfallen. We have a kiss-and-make-up lunch booked following a little contretemps over the Mirror’s recent rumbled Eurostar security check, although I know the Silent One will impose Chatham House rules.

In three years the hardworking, fast-living editor has given but two interviews, and then only to maximise his paper’s success: in 2006 he did a photoshoot and chat with GQ after winning the magazine’s coveted editor of the year award.

Earlier this year he sat down with Campaign and discussed his repositioning of the Mirror after the paper was named newspaper of the year at the What The Papers Say awards.

Indeed, the tall, tousled figure who bounds up to our table at Rules in Covent Garden 10 minutes after telephoning a ‘running late’message is second only to his boss, Trinity Mirror‘s maddeningly mute CEO Sly Bailey, in the No Comment Handicap Stakes.

My slight hope that the paper’s recent success in being named London Press Club’s newspaper of the year will encourage the Marco Pierre White lookalike’s third information outburst is quickly dashed.

‘Off the record, right?’he hisses fiercely as we quaff, pre-claret, a pair of cleansing ales and order up a brace of mixed grills.

We have much in common: time at The Sun, working in New York, helping to run the Sunday Mirror and, of course, editing the daily during years when the only thing tabloid circulation seems to do is fall. But there are differences: whereas my big fallout was with the royals, his biggest battle to date was with a politician, the man the paper calls ‘toff’and ‘posh boy”, David Cameron.

Wallace was furious when Cameron leaked a misleading version of their private conversation concerning the Mirror’s ‘unfair’treatment of the Tory leader. The 46-year-old editor is proud of stories such as the revelation that the ‘greeny-Blue’Opposition Leader cycles to Parliament for the benefit of the cameras while using a limousine to ferry his best suit and briefcase.

With a possible snap election in the offing, now is not a good time for the Conservative Party to get any further offside with the only fully paid-up Labour paper in Britain.

At a recent think-tank on future directions, Wallace’s reply when asked if the Mirror would consider backing Cameron – ‘I would rather saw my legs off!’– was an unequivocal statement of the work this editor has done to reposition the paper on the Left since its political switch-hitting under Piers.

Of more concern to the incumbent and his executives is falling circulation and its effect on profits and therefore resources.

Wallace, say colleagues, is ebulliently confident of the Mirror’s unique brand and the loyalty it inspires among readers. It is the brand, more than the means of delivery, that he believes will see Trinity Mirror’s national stable through a turbulent time for the entire popular press.

To his boss, say senior executives, he shows steadfast loyalty. His deadpan references to a suburban-sounding ‘Mrs Bailey’contrast with a lecture he has more than once delivered to truculent journalists who complain – as once they complained to me about the unlamented David Montgomery – that cost cutting cramps their journalism: ‘She answers to the City, her duty is to the shareholders. Our responsibility is to the Mirror’s journalism and to its readers.”

Wallace and his journalists have performed well against price cuts, bare-breasted Big Brother housemates and the CD and DVD giveaways that, says Sly Bailey, are all about ‘renting’circulation rather than establishing a pattern.

Their run of scoops has been the envy of the Street: John Prescott’s affair with Tracey Temple, Ruth Kelly’s decision to educate her child privately, and the McCartney marriage break-up were just three.

Politically, there was the leaked memo urging Gordon Brown to call a snap election. In showbiz, the first interview with Pete Doherty after his split from Kate Moss, an exclusive that infuriated Sun editor Rebekah Wade.

But as even this much-praised (and occasionally criticised) editor will concede from experience, even great scoops and sensational stories are not enough. With the most recent ABC figure registering just 1,582,290 copies (down 4 per cent on the year) the search is on for a new strategy.

‘After all,’said one rival grudgingly, ‘even the photos of Kate Moss allegedly snorting cocaine last year – by far the Mirror’s best showbiz scoop – only gave them a temporary lift of about 1.5 per cent.”

Wallace makes no secret of his belief in talent and technology. His greatest asset, he continually insists, is his staff. He will do whatever it takes to put their work in front of the Mirror-loving public, he has said. Newsprint, online, audio, video… you name it, he’s up for it, say insiders.

Lunch is at the coffee-and-dregs-of-the-claret stage. Wallace has a paper to get out. He rises, gives my shoulder a threateningly friendly squeeze and hisses: ‘All off the record, right?”

So that’s it. Hit the phones, put out some feelers, call in some favours and the hoped-for quote-packed profile becomes a ‘friends said’piece.

But at least I blagged a lunch out of him…

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