Nightmares on Fleet Street

We are left to wonder why Sly Bailey was asking candidates for Piers Morgan’s job what keeps them awake at night (apart, presumably, from the tacky way she sacked him). Maybe, as she went about picking her second Fleet Street editor, someone told her it’s a question favoured by Rupert Murdoch, who has picked 35.

Bailey could also learn from the masters to select a successor before you dismiss your editor. When Rupert fired me, he had Ken Donlan warming up on the touchline. When Vere Rothermere fired me, Stewart Steven was already abseiling down to The Mail on Sunday from the floor above.

The Mirror’s chief executive should have announced Richard Wallace’s appointment simultaneously with Morgan’s departure, not five weeks later. So much better for the paper. So much better for her City image.

It would be nice to know how Wallace fielded the troubled-sleep question. Golden slumbers are the perk of editors who take no chances – and Bailey wouldn’t want one of those, would she? Or editors who miscalculate chances – and she shouldn’t want one of those, should she? Or editors who don’t give a damn – and she couldn’t want another one of those, could she? Nor was she certain to embrace any contender who told her no Mirror editor can sleep easy when its cover price is 5p above the Sun, its ABC half a million below the Daily Mail and when Desmond’s Star is gnawing at its young male C2DEs. I also doubt that Wallace felt like replying: “What keeps me awake, Sly, is the idea of rival editors taking chances I don’t take, for fear you’ll bundle me out in a wheelie bin.”

Having been three years Rupert’s second Sun editor (of 7), I had been five years his fourth News of the World editor (of 16) when he sprang the troubledsleep question on me – and did not stay for an answer. He hardly needed to. I would only have gone on about repeated postponement of the switch to tabloid. Blah-blah. It did not require an Enigma decoder to get the message that, unlike Caesar, this emperor wasn’t happiest with “men about me such as sleep o’nights”. What kept him awake was that I wasn’t keeping him awake.

I guess I had done myself no favours by becoming pretty good at getting his paper out of the sort of trouble in which it properly revels.

It took nine changes of editor to arrive at Piers Morgan, a graduate of the Kelvin MacKenzie Academy of Gung-ho. I rate Piers quite the most exciting News of the World editor since John Browne Bell (1842-1855). His run of celeb exclusives had jaws dropping (and Max Clifford’s tills ringing). His was the first Sunday that news desks reached for when the earlies dropped.

But Piers hoed a gung too far with a long-lens shot of the sick Countess Spencer. This won him his first PCC censure and a public bollocking from Rupert. He skipped to the Daily Mirror, where he won a bar to his PCC for Slickergate – and, amazingly, was not terminated before he could further damage the credibility of the Mirror. He might have been less secure had his opposite number at The Sun, David Yelland, not campaigned for his sacking. “Spiv,” yelled Yelland. “Alien,” spat Morgan.

Now Yelland, showcasing himself after 17 months out of his Sun chair, proclaims sympathy for the foe he did his damnedest to destroy. “Morgan deserved better than to be marched out like that,” he said.

Yelland sees himself as a guy who “cared too much to be a natural tabloid editor”. Glug. One more bloody ex-editor putting an heroic gloss on his “agreed departure”. One more bloody ex-editor improving his downmarket image (as did Sun founder Larry Lamb: “I’m not naturally a pop journalist”). One more bloody ex-editor seeking asylum in the PR asylum and becoming his own first client.

I’m afraid I regarded Yelland as passionkillingly unsentimental about our profession. Launching his training scheme, he barred journalists’ offspring.

Critics pointed out that, had the Express taken his view when Sir Keith Murdoch’s lad came for a subbing job in 1953, we might never have heard of Rupert.

It was also painful to hear Yelland’s boast that bringing the drooling fugitive Ronnie Biggs home, in a Sun Tshirt, was the greatest scoop in history.

Did he mean most unenvied? I also recoil at Yelland’s MBA-speak: “Any editor is just a temporary custodian of the brand.”

But I am moved by his answer to the question that started this sermon off.

He confessed that his wee small hours have been haunted by his Sun exposing the private life of comedian Lenny Henry five years ago.

Morgan (left) comes from the gung-ho school of editors, while Yelland claims he “cared too much to be a natural tabloid editor”

Regretting too late what a story has done to individuals is the perpetual purgatory of editors. Never mind five years. A quarter-century on, I still think about the suicide of a teacher investigated by the News of the World.

It was following-up his ad in a contact magazine offering sex parties. We had abundant public interest justification, and a complaint to the Press Council was withdrawn once we filed our reply. Still, somebody’s husband, somebody’s father, had died for a page lead.

“Did it keep you awake at night?” I was asked by Matthew Engel, researching Tickle The Public, his history of the popular press. “Still does,” I had to admit. The scar was still raw when an armed man took a child hostage and sent a message threatening to kill them both if the NoW did not publish his deranged grievance against the police. I passed the message to the officer in command, asking if he would rather we publish it than hazard two lives plus possibly those of his team. Our reporter came back with an affirmative answer.

We published. The armed man was shown our story and the siege ended peacefully. The police went on to sue us for libel, denying giving the goahead.

I told the jury I would rather be justifying my decision to them than to an inquest on that child. The other side’s QC taunted: “I suppose that to you this was just another jolly good story?” I said: “And I suppose that to you this is just another jolly good case?” We lost.

Newspapers need editors who care – but not too much, eh? Pleasant dreams, Richard Wallace. May you not keep Sly awake. But keep Rupert awake. 

Next week: Alison Hastings

by guest columnist Bernard Shrimsley

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