The legend at the top of Richard Stott's weekly column in the Sunday Mirror used to read: "his bite's as bad as his bark". This was no idle boast. There are those who have come into contact with this former record-breaking national newspaper editor who will be rolling up their trouser legs to search for teeth marks as his autobiography snarls its way into the bookshops.
Twice editor of the Daily Mirror, twice of the People and once of the late and, by many, still lamented Today, Stott has a track record that is a sound qualification for providing free character readings of those he brushed against - sometimes with bruising on both sides - during a remarkable career. Yet the one man who might be expected to come in for the most spectacular savaging is treated with a regard missing from most of the evaluations.
Robert Maxwell may have been a cantankerous despot (Stott's recollections of ducking and diving to avoid some of the publisher's more ludicrous editorial demands brought back vividly my own similar skirmishes when editing the People) but, contrary to the majority view expressed after his death, he was not all bad. Totally selfish, Stott rightly observes, and untameable, dangerous and unpredictable - "a monster in every meaning of the word" - yet "he had saved the Mirror, whatever the knockers and piss-takers said".
Maxwell "was appalling", continues Stott, who served the greater part of his four Mirror Group editorships under the ubiquitous heavyweight, "but he had turned a puny profit into big bucks, he had revolutionised the workplace and smashed the print unions . . . and, above all, he had introduced colour, encouraging people once again to take a look in the Mirror". If you judge a newspaper proprietor by whether he leaves the paper in a better state than he found it, "Maxwell, for all his many faults, had been a successful owner", he concludes.
Hence the Mirror headline, written by Stott, the day after Maxwell's bloated body had been pulled out of the Atlantic: "The man who saved the Mirror". Only days later, the paper's front page proclaimed "Missing millions at the Mirror" as the gaping holes were discovered in the company finances and its pension fund. The Mirror board, so long cowed by Maxwell and now scuttling like frightened rabbits, didn't much like that. But it was becoming clear to Stott that there had been "colossal movements of money" and that what was happening "was not a total surprise to all members of the board".
These Maxwell puppets are here castigated ferociously. At the time of Maxwell's last board meeting, half of the 14 directors were aware that something was seriously wrong, yet the looming crisis was not even mentioned at the meeting.
The directors are not the only ones, among those in the A&E ward, to suffer scorched lobes. Stott's view of David Montgomery, the former Mirror sub- editor who returned as chief executive and whose policy of cost-cutting and ethnic cleansing - Stott and I were among the first he sacked after promising that "editors will remain in their positions" - brought the newspapers to their knees, is contemptuous: "He . . . showed a breathtaking disregard for keeping his word and a merciless savagery unheard of even by Fleet Street's blood-soaked and hypocritical standards."
But there is much more to this fascinating book than a litany of indictment. Although the author's early years, growing up in Oxford with an itinerant, drunken father and a mother who described herself not as a landlady but a "hostess to the university", may be of little interest to those who do not know him, his journalistic observations are astute and his anecdotes often wildly funny.
The episode when the Mirror executive John Penrose and the late Peter Cook, both plastered after meeting for "a few drinks", occupied the editor's office, emptying the bar and spraying graffiti on the windows and walls, is priceless. Cook eventually rang Maxwell, who happened to be in New York, to tell him he was getting back the £50,000 the publisher had recently won from Private Eye in a libel action, by drinking the Mirror Group building dry. Cook then made himself scarce as security men scoured the building, and a comatose Penrose ended up hidden under a pile of coats in the photographers' room. It couldn't happen today - such fun is now frowned upon.
Stott has taken the title of his book from H L Mencken's remark that the proper relationship between a journalist and a politician should be the same as that of a dog to a lamp-post. Mencken also wrote that all successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. The same might be said, in the best possible way, about Richard Stott.
Bill Hagerty is a former editor of the Sunday People