Sly needs a cunning plan

How long could it have been during the celebration of her appointment as chief executive of Trinity Mirror before Sly Bailey began to wonder if she was sipping champagne from a poisoned chalice?

The ink on her contract could barely have dried when media and City commentators decided the company was so on the skids that Ms Bailey would swiftly be forced to break up the group if it was to have any kind of future. Soon the job was sounding like the media equivalent of the managership at Leeds United.

Trinity Mirror may not have sold its star performers, but the national papers in particular were not getting the right results, said the doom merchants, and editor Piers Morgan’s commercially dubious repositioning of the flagship title meant a rapid exit from the Fleet Street premiership looked imminent.

“Do the Mirror a favour, Sly. Sell it” was the headline on Andrew Neil’s column in the London Evening Standard. “I personally would not be over-confident about the chances of Sir Victor Blank, Sly Bailey and Piers Morgan stabilising the group’s national titles, let alone reviving the Daily Mirror,” wrote Stephen Glover in The Spectator, who went on to suggest Richard Desmond as a potential purchaser of the group.

Now nothing would surprise me about the mercurial Mr Desmond. Were I to hear he was to run for Parliament, or perhaps buy the Taj Mahal, I would remain with both eyelids unbatted. But constant speculation of a change of ownership must be unnerving for MGN staff, much abused by charlatans and cavaliers until Trinity Mirror returned some stability.

What is more, it then became known that Apax Partners and Candover, the venture capitalists, had made a £1.3bn takeover bid for Trinity Mirror, an approach rejected by chairman Blank on the grounds of financial inadequacy. Ms Bailey, it was reported, did not learn of the offer until just before she took up her new job.

As auspicious starts go, Ms Bailey’s was beginning to look like a nightmare – and there was worse to come. Last weekend it was reported that former Mirror Group chief executive David Montgomery was fronting an offer of £300m for the Daily Mirror and its Sunday sister on behalf of another investment group, 3i. In the circumstances, it’s a wonder Ms Bailey bothered to turn up at work for a second week.

As for most of the staff, the only thing worse than the reappearance of the cost-slashing Montgomery who, as the late Hugh Cudlipp once memorably remarked, never wasted anything apart from staff, could be the resurrection of Robert Maxwell as head of the company’s pension fund – and even then it would be a darned close-run thing.

Yet inquiries among my friends at Trinity Mirror suggest that Ms Bailey’s arrival has transformed the uncertain atmosphere at Canary Wharf. “She set about meeting as many people as possible from her very first day,” I was told. “Whereas Les Hinton at News International sees his editors every day and often can be found wandering around the editorial floors, the senior Trinity Mirror executives tended to remain ensconced in their 20th floor offices. Management practically cut itself off from editorial, so Sly has made a big impression by being so visible.”

Ms Bailey also, I discovered, wrote to every member of staff, stressing that it was not the size of the business – 250-plus titles – that attracted her to the job, but the quality of the people. “Frankly,” said one informant, “there has been no one in management who really understands the national newspaper business, but already Sly seems to. She’s funny, dynamic and very focused, and the sale of the national titles is certainly not the message coming from her.”

The only thing worse than the reappearance of the cost-slashing Montgomery could be the resurrection of Robert Maxwell as head of the company’s pension fund.

So, many of those at Canada Tower are already won over – although considering the alternatives, it’s a safe bet they would wave their paws in the air and purr at even the gentlest pat on the collective head.

For all that, I tend to believe there will be strenuous efforts by Ms Bailey to retain Trinity Mirror’s national titles – chairman Blank would also be loath to lose them – with the possible exception of the ill-treated and fast-sinking People, which may well be available to anyone with the required number of shirt buttons loose in their pockets. And as he has just been proclaimed – by his own Sunday Express – the ninth richest man in Britain, Mr Desmond may have enough buttons to spare.

Rarely do I agree with the views of Andrew Neil – the scariest media commentator on the planet – but he was right when observing in his Standard column that Michael Jackson deserved pity rather then condemnation following the Martin Bashir interview.

Subsequently, I heard the actor Mark Lester, a friend of Jackson’s, claiming on radio that the notorious footage of the singer bottle-feeding his obviously discomfited baby was obtained only at the instigation of the TV crew. The baby had not even been hungry, said Lester.

Were Jacko less wacko and so pathetically anxious to please, he would have vetoed the idea. As it was, the sight of Jackson jiggling the child up and down on a knee that had taken on a life of its own outraged mothers from Neverland to Neasden.

If Lester’s story is true, it is the ITV team that should be condemned. Had it been the News of the World, we’d have been deafened by the yells of “entrapment”.

His late father, Dan, an eminent news editor of the Daily Mirror, would almost certainly not have approved of Nick Ferrari’s plan to continue presenting his LBC 97.3FM radio show from 9am until noon every day while simultaneously editing the proposed new London Evening Mail.

As several critics have pointed out, a paper whose editor is elsewhere during the most vital period of production is bound soon to find itself as all at sea as a coracle in a cyclone.

Personally, I think it is an interesting departure from the norm that might benefit many in Medialand. For example, Jeremy Paxman would be able to realise a long-held ambition to appear on the West End stage and hoof his way through Fiddler on the Roof each evening before nipping into the BBC to wing his way through Newsnight. Over at the Mirror, the 3am girls could get in several hours of barmaiding at their local boozers prior to gossiping their way glitzily around town.

As for Andrew Neil, I am sure he’d fit in doing several other jobs during the empty hours before having to turn up most weekday mornings for his new television programme, The Daily Politics. Come to think of it, he already does. n

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in four weeks

lNext week: Janice Turner

Bill Hagerty

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