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Friday, July 27, 2007

Birth of a national

By Alun John
While the launch date of the Mail on Sunday drew closer and as we were assembling a staff for the big day, Mrs Thatcher was assembling a task force to sail to the South Atlantic. Just as our own D-Day day arrived, so did the British forces in the Falklands. Editor Bernard Shrimsley was pleased: ‘I love a war.’ he said, ‘There’s never any argument about what to lead on.’

The first paper was not a great one. The lead headline, ‘Our Day’, on the story of the successful landings on the islands appeared above an old agency picture of General Galtieri riding a donkey. Inside were lots of maps and graphics. It didn’t really set me alight; it didn’t set the readers alight, either.

I rang picture editor Gary Woodhouse on the first Sunday morning of publication after listening to the review of the papers on Radio Four. He told me never to ring him again at home on a Sunday. He’d previously been picture editor of The Observer.

Shrimsley lasted eight weeks as editor.

We came in on the Tuesday to be told he wouldn’t be there, but that the morning conference would be held as usual at 11am. I was running the desk that week with Gary on holiday. Not really sure what to make of this news, I went to see Wendy, Bernard’s secretary. She was in tears. The door to his room was ajar and I could see the desk had been emptied and turned upside down with papers scattered everywhere. It looked like a crime scene.

Small muttering groups gathered in the newsroom. None of us really knew what would happen next. I prepared a picture schedule and we filed into the editor’s office. We all looked at the desk in the same transfixed way you look at a serious road accident.

It was freezing in the room and the net curtains waved in the breeze from the open windows. John Walker, the entertainment editor, said he thought things might soon warm up. He was right.

The door burst open and in walked Lord Rothermere. The senior staff of the Daily Mail - editor David English, news editor Paul Dacre, executive editor Stewart Steven, and a few others - followed him. Most were in dark blue suits, white shirts and restrained ties. You could cut the tension with a knife.

Rothermere announced that Bernard had been fired. ‘He had to go. He has not given us the paper we needed.’ He told us from now on the Daily Mail would take over and David English would edit both the daily and Sunday papers. Changes would follow and we would be informed about them. ‘Let there be no mistake,’ said Rothermere, ‘The Daily Mail is now in charge. There will be a few small changes…’

Just small changes, but by the end of the day there was only a handful of the original staff of the Mail on Sunday left in the building. People were taken up to the next floor to be told their fate. Either they left immediately, never to be seen again, or came down silently to clear their desks. Amazingly, the picture desk was untouched. It was if an Exocet missile had struck our editorial floor.

The next day we came in to pick through the wreckage. There were a few survivors. Art editor John Butterworth and Trevor Bond on the sports desk were still standing, as was news editor Iain Walker, and the minders from the Daily Mail were beginning to arrive. The picture desk minder was a guy named Harvey Mann, with a thin moustache, a grin and a perma-tan, who specialised in showbiz pictures from his ‘contacts on the coast’. That was California, not Eastbourne. After a ten-minute conversation with him, I was left alone for the rest of the week. Perhaps he thought I might know what I was doing.

The week wore on and the tension didn’t ease. David English took daily conferences and dismissed most of our offerings and assured us that there would be plenty left over from the Daily Mail to fill that week’s paper. A steady trickle of former staff came into the office to empty their desks properly, or to collect their severance cheques.

Saturday arrived and we made the usual move up to the Daily Mail floor to get the paper out. Bernard’s brother, Tony Shrimsley, had also somehow survived the week, or possibly had simply been overlooked. He had been a distinguished political editor and editor of the failed news magazine Now and had joined Bernard at the new paper as executive editor.

There was much laughing and joking on the Back Bench that first Saturday under the new regime. Tony, however, was not included in any of it. He took his customary seat at the table and was completely ignored for the whole day and evening by the others. They didn’t speak a word to him, didn’t ask him anything, didn’t consult him on anything, didn’t say goodnight when he left later. His loneliness lasted four weeks until he managed to negotiate a settlement from the management to ease his obviously wanted departure.

Tony had a drink with a few of us in Scribes, and we asked if he had been given the cheque. ‘Not yet,’ he replied, and then, producing a set of keys from his pocket, ‘but I’ll keep the company car until I get it.’

It was obvious the paper was better for the surgery. Nonetheless, it was painful to lose friendships forged in the heady pre-launch days of long lunches with no paper to produce.

David English could not continue editing two papers simultaneously for long, even given that he was one of the most talented journalists of his generation. He appointed Stewart Steven as the editor of the Mail on Sunday and gradually David faded into the background.

Stewart was an excellent editor, the best I’ve worked for, but he had a bit of baggage to lose first. He had been responsible for two terrible errors of judgment in the past – he believed he had found Nazi Martin Bormann hiding in South America when he was at the Express, and had been involved in breaking a series of stories about a slush fund operating at British Leyland when he joined the Mail. Both had turned out to be untrue. But Stewart had established himself as a shrewd operator and often used to joke about his two failures.

I instantly hit it off with him in two ways. First, I supplied him with an autofocus camera for his holidays, complete with an ample supply of colour film, which I would collect from his secretary on his return and make sure was promptly processed and returned. Second, he could not understand how to work the video recorder in his office and I would be summoned to set it to record his choice of programme most days. This gave me a little privileged access and we occasionally chatted about office events as I punched in the channels for the video.

Stewart’s greatest gift as an editor was a supreme confidence in his own ability to become the greatest newspaper editor the world has ever seen.

He was also able at conference to absorb a long and detailed list of stories and features planned for the week ahead and immediately home in on the best contenders, especially for the centre spread display. Sometimes this would be simply a schedule one-liner or a passing comment from an executive. Stewart would fall upon it, issuing instructions for writers to be engaged, pictures to be taken, with ideas for the show it might make on the Sunday. He would brief writers and photographers alike, with a confidence based on his ability to visualise the end result, before they had even left the office.

The paper was soon steadily building circulation under his command and establishing a reputation for exclusive stories and pictures.
Alun John started his career on the South Wales Echo in his hometown of Cardiff before transferring to the Western Mail, he worked for the Press Association and the Evening Standard, before joining the launch of the Mail on Sunday and then was launch picture editor of The Independent, assistant editor of The European, and later managing director of Syndication International.