Paul Anderson looks at the implications of the spectacular crisis at Mirror Group Newspapers
The rumbling crisis at Mirror Group Newspapers came spectacularly to a head last week as the Labour leadership woke up to the danger that the party might lose the support of the Daily Mirror and its Sunday sister titles - support that it has taken for granted for decades.
Labour's top brass kept quiet last autumn when MGN appointed David Montgomery, a former editor of Today and the News of the World and regarded as a union-busting right-winger, as chief executive. Although reported to be "concerned", they issued only mild statements of regret after he fired two editors, the Mirror's freelance journalists and a string of experienced staffers.
MGN's assurances that Montgomery would not change the political stance of the group's newspapers -he was being employed solely to get rid of over-staffing and waste, according to MGN - apparently convinced Labour's leaders that they had nothing to fear.
No doubt this had much to do with the fact that Montgomery had been brought in by Lord Hollick, the Labour peer who rung MAI Group and a key figure in the Labour leadership's inner circle in the run-up to the 1992 election. Hollick, prevented from taking a majority shareholding in MGN because of his stake in broadcasting, is the brains behind the whole current MGN operation.
But last week the Labour mood turned to one of panic. John Smith publicly expressed worries about the direction of MGN and arranged emergency talks with the board, Last Wednesday, on Neil Kinnock's initiative, 170 Labour MPs signed a House of Commons motion on the subject.
The reason was simple. Montgomery had hired David Seymour, another former Today hack, as "associate editor (politics)" - an appointment that was completely unacceptable to Alistair Campbell, the Daily Mirror's political editor. Campbell had protested and by Wednesday was no longer in his job, although whether he was forced to resign is a matter of argument.
Smith and his colleagues were up in arms because Campbell has been the national newspaper journalist most loyal to the Labour leadership for several years. While other pro-Labour journalists often write stories that embarrass the leadership, Campbell has always presented Labour Party news sympathetically (his critics say sycophantically). To make matters worse, Seymour was the author of some virulent attacks on Kinnock in the run-up to the 1992 election and has a reputation for hostility to trade unions.
A simple case of an enemy of Labour taking over from a friend? Not quite. Seymour has his reasons for distrusting Kinnock, who used to be a personal friend. They fell out in 1986 after Kinnock lent his Welsh cottage to Seymour's then wife, Hilary Coffman (chief press officer in the Labour leader's office) and David Hill (then Roy Hattersley's chief adviser but now the party's director of communications), who needed a bolt-hole to pursue an affair. Seymour is still a little sore.
Campbell, by contrast, is still a personal friend of Kinnock. They went to the ballet together on the evening that Campbell had his run-in with Montgomery over the appointment of Seymour. Kinnock last week defended Campbell in an article in the London Evening Standard.
In response, Seymour says that he is as committed to Labour as Campbell is and that the support for Campbell in the Parliamentary Labour Party is a simple product of Kinnock's personal friendship - a point echoed by George Galloway and six other Labour MPs who last week presented a Commons motion supporting Seymour's appointment. Galloway himself has reasons to dislike Campbell, however, because of his coverage of the affairs of War on Want, the charity that Galloway ran before becoming an MP.
With this colourful story of sex and well-ground axes as a backdrop, the Mirror in an editorial promised undying support for Labour. Montgomery has made it clear that he thinks that Campbell’s closeness to the Labour leadership is unhealthy for any journalist.
The banks, which have owned MGN since the collapse of Robert Maxwell's business empire, have expressed worries that the MGN papers will not make money unless they back Labour. And Hollick has been reported to be at daggers drawn with Montgomery over the papers' political stance.
It is unclear what will happen next, although a showdown of some description seems inevitable. Montgomery's position is vulnerable unless he can persuade the board, on which the banks are dominant, not only that he does not want to drop Labour but that his strategy of cost-cutting and sending the MGN titles further downmarket will soon yield results.
On cost-cutting, he is probably safe: the banks applaud the vigour with which Montgomery has axed "surplus" staff. He is also almost certainly capable of finding a form of words that satisfies the board on the commitment to Labour - at least insofar as that commitment has to do with the Mirror calling for a Labour vote at election time. But when it comes to looking at the broad marketing strategy for the newspapers, which of course includes the backing for Labour, he has a more difficult task.
The MGN tabloids have been engaged in a bitter circulation war for more than 20 years with the two mass-circulation papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Sun and the News of the World, both of which have been sold on sex, sensationalism and a sometimes-rabid anti-establishment right-wing populism that affects not to take politicians too seriously most of the time.
The Sun has been one of the great newspaper marketing successes of all time, particularly among younger working-class readers: the Mirror has been on the defensive for most of the circulation war, unsure whether to copy the Sun formula or to take the moral high ground. For the most part, this lack of certainty has led the Mirror into the worst of all possible worlds: trying to do what the Sun does, but doing it half-heartedly and failing miserably both editorially and in circulation terms.
Of course, the Mirror has not simply taken over the Sun’s territory. It has remained pro-Labour, its political and social coverage has remained (until recently) infinitely more serious than its rival’s, and perhaps out of regard for the sensibilities of its ageing readership, it has generally been a little less prurient.
But, with the exception of a brief period under the editorship of Roy Greenslade, when the Mirror asserted a clear identity for itself, the Mirror has copied more and more from the Sun since well before Maxwell bought MGN in 1984. Now Montgomery wants to take this process still further.
Even if he will allow the Mirror to call for a Labour vote at election time, he clearly wants to dilute the Mirror's political content, moderate its campaigning and make it even more of an "entertainment" paper. Under David Banks, with whom he replaced Richard Stott as editor last autumn, the Mirror's coverage of political and social stories has been pitiful. Its tone has become increasingly crass and sensationalist.
Montgomery's problem is that this strategy of inexorable cheapening is not only questionable on the grounds that it represents a final abandonment of what was good about the Mirror, even if it is associated with a "vote Labour" line at elections. It is also bad for sales. Just as under previous regimes that have taken the Mirror downmarket, circulation has continued to plummet since he seized the controls.
Meanwhile, rumours abound that Murdoch is planning to turn Today into a Labour paper to cream off the top of the Mirror market. Belatedly, it seems that the MGN board is realising that there could be something in the notion that there might be some model other than the Sun for a successful popular newspaper.
None of this resolves precisely what sort of relationship the Mirror ought to have with Labour, however. It is clear that it would be a disaster for the Mirror if it ceased to back Labour and that further depoliticisation and trivialisation of the paper will seriously damage its credibility and circulation.
But it is not obvious that the paper will benefit if it is seen to be in the pocket of the Labour leadership. The reputation of politicians is low. If they are seen to be controlling a newspaper’s every move, its credibility suffers.
What's more, Labour would benefit if the Mirror took a more critical attitude to the party leadership. During the Kinnock years, the Mirror became far too close to the Labour leader's office, giving every Labour initiative a fair wind. A little more friendly candour might have shaken some of the comfortable assumptions that lost Labour the last election.
The Mirror will die if it is not a Labour paper. But no one will care if it dies if it has no function apart from parroting the Labour leadership line. Montgomery might be disastrously wrong about the Mirror's marketing strategy but he is right when he says that political journalists should not be too close to the politicians on whose affairs they are supposed to report and comment.