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Monday, July 30, 2007

Richard Stott

The Mirrorman Who Stood Up To Maxwell

Richard Stott, reporter and columnist, twice editor of the Daily Mirror, twice of the Sunday People, and once of Today.
1970: married Penelope Ann, younger daughter of Air Vice Marshal Sir Colin Scragg, KBE, CB, AFC & bar (d 1989). 2 daughters: Emily (b 1972) & Hannah (b 1975), 1 son: Christopher (b 1978).

By Revel Barker
Many people claimed it, but Richard Stott - who died this morning aged 63, after a year-long battle against pancreatic cancer - was the only man I knew who actually stood up to the bullying tactics of Robert Maxwell, megalomaniac proprietor and self-styled ‘publisher’ of the Daily Mirror group of newspapers. Some people occasionally talked him down, but Stott met him head on and often put him down.

It was perhaps fortunate, for both of them, that much of Stott’s ready wit and acerbic humour passed over the publisher’s head. But Maxwell immediately identified him as a ‘cheeky chappy’ and appeared to enjoy his company and, sometimes, even to take his advice on newspapers. Indeed, arguments between them often ended with a resigned concession from the publisher. ‘OK,’ he would say. ‘You are the editor.’

He was never heard to say that to any other person in that job. There was, on more than one occasion: ‘OK, you’re the editor – but I am right.’ And even, once, ‘Sorry, I was wrong.’

A former Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards, and later Editor of the Year in the What the Papers Say Awards, Stott was appointed editor of The People in 1984, six months before Maxwell acquired the Mirror group. When Mike Molloy was promoted from editorship of the Daily Mirror to editor in chief, Stott was a fairly obvious successor and remained in the job until the end of 1989 by which time Maxwell was becoming visibly irritated by him and tired of his arguing that a newspaper could have only one editor.

The crunch came on Christmas Day when Stott was planning to splash on pictures of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena lying dead after being sentenced and executed by a military court. Maxwell, fairly typically, wanted to lead the paper with an appeal to Mirror readers to donate cash for ‘poor Romanians’.

They fought angrily. Stott won the day. But on Boxing Day Maxwell offered Stott’s job to Roy Greenslade (managing editor of the Sunday Times), who had previously turned down the editorship of The People.

To save face all round, Maxwell told Stott he was accepting his suggestion of a management buy-out of the financially ailing People, and he returned to edit it, in anticipation of becoming his own ‘publisher’.

Stott would become chairman of the new company and they both somehow decided that I should be managing director; I was in Austria when that decision was made and Maxwell flew to Munich to offer me the job at a meeting that lasted half an hour and after which he flew back whence he had come.

But there were complications with separating the paper from the Mirror stable because the group as a whole was about to be floated, so Stott as editor and I as managing editor were given a year to prove that we were capable of both financing and running a newspaper successfully and independently (although Maxwell was planning to retain a minor shareholding, and keep the printing contract, at least in the initial years).

A further complication was that Maxwell prevaricated about putting a price on the title. Its real value was about ₤15million but it was shown in the flotation documents at ₤50million – despite the fact that nobody could remember when it had last made any net contribution to group profits.

Planning reached the stage where we had negotiated rents for new premises and established new deals for staff and services. But Stott made the mistake of holding and slightly increasing circulation against the trend and – through his brilliant presentations to major advertising agencies – bringing the title nominally into profit in that first year of independent editorial and budgetary control.

At that point, to nobody’s genuine surprise, Maxwell reneged on the deal and kept it within the group flotation plan.

Thus Stott’s ambition to become his own publisher – the People journalists didn’t think twice about it when I told them they could either remain in the employ of a big fat nasty bastard, or ‘cross the road’ and work for a little fat nasty bastard and a tall thin nasty one – came to nought.

His initial consolation prize was to be offered the editorship of the newly acquired New York Daily News, which he turned down. Asked by Maxwell what he wanted, Stott replied: ‘I think it’s pay-off time, now, Bob… unless you want me to return to the Daily Mirror as editor.’

And Maxwell offered him his old job back.

On November 5 1991, when Maxwell committed suicide on his yacht in the Atlantic it fell to Stott, as editor, both to manage the coverage and to man the bridge in Holborn; after hearing the news one Mirror director flew off to the Caribbean with his wife on a holiday they had won in a Mail on Sunday competition; deputy chairman Ernie Burrington went home to play bridge.

Stott led the paper with a big picture of his late boss and the headline ‘The Man Who Saved the Daily Mirror – by The Editor’. Fifteen inside pages were devoted to the one story. Then he walked outside the building to face hordes of newsmen.

Asked how Maxwell had sounded, last time the two of them had spoken, Stott replied: ‘He seemed very buoyant.’

He told me later that he regretted having said that. But he didn’t regret the Mirror headline, because he honestly believed that by sorting out the print unions, buying colour presses and introducing a ‘new technology’ system that actually worked, Maxwell had saved the papers from an otherwise inevitable slow death.

He didn’t change that opinion even when, a few days later, he had to lead the paper with ‘Millions Missing From the Mirror’, detailing how the publisher had stolen around ₤500 million from the company pension fund. And now Stott revealed how, when Maxwell’s wife and daughter had flown out to Spain, ostensibly to make arrangements about the body, they had immediately started shredding documents from Maxwell’s files on his luxury yacht.

It was a unique situation for any editor – investigating his own newspaper and exposing his own board of directors. When it was discovered that Maxwell’s head of security, a former chief superintendent with Scotland Yard’s serious crimes squad, had bugged some of the executive offices, Stott led the paper with a snatched picture of him and the headline: ‘This is the bugger!’

While much of it appeared good knockabout (and it is true to say that Stott was personally having great fun wreaking discomfort among the ineffectual executives who had clung to the publisher’s shirt-tails for the past seven years) it was serious stuff. Stott was by background an investigative reporter and by nature as tenacious as a bulldog.

His reporters followed the money, revealing the names and the detailed dealings of high-profile city firms that had handled deals for Maxwell, often with little or no regard for the sourcing of cash or even for the whereabouts of tangible assets.

He ignored pleas – and eventually direct instructions – from the board who told him that to run these stories was damaging to the company. Stott replied defiantly that it might be damaging to the directors, but that it was vital to the integrity of the newspaper, and pressed on.

He had originally gained the editor’s chair by being called from the People to Maxwell’s office to be told that the publisher was ‘minded’ to offer him the Daily Mirror job and would put him on a short list. In what was to be a typical reaction to Maxwell’s pomposity, Stott told him: ‘Bollocks. You are either offering me the job or you are not.’ Taken aback, Maxwell said that, in that case, he was offering him the job.

Instead of taking over immediately, Stott confidently spent a full month writing the terms for his employment, which in part laid out a revised editorial policy for the paper but essentially said that he would brook no interference from anybody. To his astonishment, Maxwell accepted the document and signed it without demur.

This did not of course mean that Maxwell didn’t attempt to inject his own ideas, but it meant that Stott could remind him of the deal, and rebuff him, even to the point of describing the publisher’s suggestions as stupid. Nobody else ever did that.

The basic problem for Maxwell was that he had no sense of humour and was never sure whether his editor was being funny, cheekily rude, or downright insulting. The fact was that when he spoke with him Stott was being earthily honest. He believed that he worked for the Daily Mirror, not for Maxwell, and would frequently tell him so.

After one blazing row about the most trivial of matters – how the rival papers were delivered to Maxwell’s front door by a messenger around midnight every night – Stott told him, from home: ‘You make this job a fucking misery, Bob.You can stick it.’ He slammed down the phone and when Maxwell called him back, Stott hung up the phone.

Next morning he was summoned to ‘pop up’ into the presence and asked ‘What are we going to do about this situation? You know… I always accept resignations.’

‘You are going to apologise for your behaviour,’ Stott told him. ‘And I, of course, will accept your apology. Then I expect you will open a bottle of Champagne.’

Maxwell thought for no more than a matter of seconds. He walked to his fridge and took out a bottle of Krug and opened it. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I was wrong.’

Stott’s humour could be dry, or it could be cutting. When first introduced to his prospective father in law, a high-ranking RAF officer, he had immediately asked him for his views on the Spitfire. Although he had flown Lancaster bombers, the Air Vice Marshal spoke in high praise of the fighter aircraft before being interrupted by Stott saying ‘Because I came here in one…’ and took him to the window to show him the little red Triumph sports car outside. ‘…It’s so much more sporty than the Herald, wouldn’t you agree?’

When meeting Peter Jay, former ambassador in Washington who had been recruited as Maxwell’s chief of staff and was experiencing marital difficulties, Stott asked him: ‘If it’s true that you are one of the brightest minds of our generation, why didn’t you wear a condom when you shagged the nanny?’

After Maxwell’s death the company was sold and Stott found himself working for another unworthy chairman, this time a man he had originally known as an exceptionally irritating sub editor. David Montgomery, who had failed as editor of the News of the World and Today, told Stott that his job was safe – and sacked him two days later.

Stott edited Today until it folded, then became a columnist on the News of the World and, after Montgomery’s demise in the Mirror Group, on the Sunday Mirror, where he remained until overtaken by fatal illness.

His five editorships – twice of both the Daily Mirror and the People, once of Today (Rupert Murdoch described him as one of the three best editors he had known) – amount to a Fleet Street record.

He told his Sunday Mirror readers in June that he had cancer and that he might be away from the column for some time. But he continued to work with Alastair Campbell, his abiding friend and colleague who had followed him from the Daily Mirror to Today, and for whom he was editing the famous diaries, latterly from a bed at the Royal Marsden.
Copyright © Revel Barker 2007
Mirror reporter Revel Barker was editorial adviser to Robert Maxwell from 1984 to 1991.