Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, is an opponent of the coming war against Iraq. Fair enough. Many of us are unhappy about it. But he has taken his opposition to extreme and, I would say, imprudent lengths. To use a military analogy, he has fired off his biggest nuclear missiles without first going through the range of lesser weaponry. Last week there was an enormous picture of Tony Blair on the Mirror's front page with his hands covered in blood. It referred to an inside rant by John Pilger. The previous day the front-page headline had told George Bush to 'Cool it, Cowboy'. Day after day the paper inveighs against war. Most of its readers may be sceptics, but I cannot believe that they relish coverage that is both hysterical and obsessional. Our boys, after all, are steaming towards the Gulf. What will the Mirror do when the fighting starts? It is one thing to argue that there is insufficient proof to justify war against Iraq; quite another to depict Tony Blair as a mass murderer on a par with Saddam Hussein.
Perhaps I am being naive. Perhaps the childish outbursts of 'red top' tabloids are not taken very seriously by their readers. When the first shot is fired, and Mr Morgan falls in behind our boys, the readers may simply shrug their shoulders and barely notice. I don't really think so. Mr Morgan's more extreme japes endanger the reputation of the paper he happens to edit. No British newspaper has ever opposed a war in such a manner. For all his undoubted flair, Mr Morgan is considerably pushing his luck. He is an editor who is partly out of control, and he lacks a strong proprietor or hands-on chairman with editorial nous to stay his hand.
You may say that an editor can get away with anything when sales are rising. But that is not the situation at the Mirror. Circulation is down by more than 5 per cent over the year, admittedly in a market that has been generally depressed. In that same year Mr Morgan has spent some £20 million of shareholders' money on a relaunch which may have won the plaudits of some commentators impressed by the Mirror's supposedly more serious tone but has left the punters underwhelmed. His position is not a strong one, and yet he is behaving as though he were a proprietor-editor in full flow; as though, one might say, the Daily Mirror belonged to him.
It doesn't. In fact, the paper's management has been trying to flog it off, along with its sister titles. Last October I revealed that the Mirror was being 'offered around to the buy-out boys'. According to last Sunday's Sunday Telegraph, Trinity Mirror 'has received a £1.3 billion takeover approach from Apax Partners and Candover, the venture-capital groups'. Evidently Sir Victor Blank, the chairman of Trinity Mirror, and the man who has shown Mr Morgan such extraordinary indulgence, does not think that the offers are generous enough. Sir Victor - a former merchant banker with no previous publishing experience - is said to believe that Trinity Mirror's new chief executive will want to hold the group together. This person is called Sly Bailey, a blonde bombshell who has spent her life in magazines. We will have to see whether she is happy with Mr Morgan treating the Daily Mirror as though it were his personal property.
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. In the end, the shareholders will call the shots, and some of them are known to be unhappy with the performance of Trinity Mirror's national titles, all of which are in long-term circulation decline. (Trinity also owns some 240 regional titles, which are collectively performing much better.) So I stand by the prediction I made last October that the Daily Mirror will be sold, though Sly Bailey's arrival may delay the process. I just can't see how this team can make it work. My only worry, if I were a shareholder, would be that, with the market as it is, and Mr Morgan charging around like a mad thing, the Daily Mirror may be a declining asset.
Who might buy it? A management buy-out has been mentioned but, unless there are kamikaze investors, this seems an unlikely outcome. The eventual purchaser may well be a dark horse, but we should be on our guard against Richard Desmond, the pornographer who owns the Daily and Sunday Express and the Daily Star. On the face of it, competition considerations would seem to disqualify him from acquiring the Daily Mirror. But Mr Desmond is very close to Tony Blair - he is forever popping round to No. 10 - and the Mirror is very important to New Labour. Mr Blair will want it to go to sympathetic hands. This is a space we must watch. If the Mirror were owned by Desmond, we would look back on the reign of Sir Victor Blank, Piers Morgan and now Sly Bailey as a golden age.
A couple of weeks ago the exotic figure of Mary Ann Sieghart, the Times columnist, fluttered across these pages. I suggested that, as she is a known New Labour cheerleader, Tories with their heads screwed on would be unwise to heed her advice about what to do.
Ms Sieghart has sent me a letter which, as it was not marked private and confidential, I think I am free to quote. She does not much like being described as a New Labour 'groupie'. She says that, although she supported Tony Blair's takeover of the Labour party, she is a free spirit who has written acerbically about the party. Her point is that she favours the modernisers. Likewise, in the case of the Tories, she wants the modernisers to prevail. She tells me that she has as many Tory contacts as Labour ones, and she cites an academic study before the last election which considered her 'one of the most neutral [columnists] in the whole of the national press'. A further missive supplied chapter and verse. According to Peter Christopherson of a company called Echo Research, Ms Sieghart falls 'plum in the middle of a Polly Toynbee-Lynda Lee-Potter seesaw'.
I am very grateful to Mary Ann for making all these points. I am very sorry if I gave the impression that I do not think she is fair. I am sure that she is the fairest person alive. But I still can't help wondering whether she is as neutral as she makes out. She writes as though she is even-handed, on the one hand supporting the modernisers of New Labour, on the other hand the modernisers in the Tory party. But in fact she is supporting the same thing, for what is there to choose between these groups? She definitely does not back old Labour, or Conservatives with unfashionable values. This would seem to mean that if you are a modernising Tory you should have every confidence in Mary Ann, but that if you are not you should watch your step. She may be fair, but she is certainly not neutral, and she would be a very boring columnist if she were.