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29 January 1999

Driven, even in his own lunchtime

Amanda Platell reveals a (quite) nice side to David Montgomery, the deposed Mirror boss

By Amanda Platell

Four days after my brother died, my family and I were sitting in the back garden. My father had gone inside to answer the phone and returned with a fax in his hands. He was crying. Handing it to me, he said: “It’s from someone called David. It’s the loveliest thing I’ve ever read.”

Four days after we buried Michael I returned to work and sat opposite my boss, David Montgomery, at Canary Wharf. He asked me how I was coping. Within minutes, seven minutes to be exact, he started fiddling with his cufflink, drew back his shirt sleeve and looked at his watch. It was his signal that the meeting was over.

The two incidents reveal much about Montgomery who, before and after his departure as chief executive of the Mirror Group this week, got his usual bad press. Few people ever get a glimpse into his soul, and then only a fleeting one. But when they do they see a man who cares deeply about his friends and especially his family.

I think he equates displays of emotion with weakness, in both himself and others. From the moment I first met Montgomery, when he edited Today (I later worked with him at the Mirror and the Independent) he was driven in a way I had never seen before and have seldom seen since. His passion for the paper dominated him and admitted no interference whatever.

As an editor he was formidable. The night the Gulf war broke out he re-made every page, chose all the pictures and wrote all the headlines – they were good and they fitted – then started shouting instructions at the news editor about how he wanted the copy written.

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The most demanding of taskmasters, he had the ability to bring people on, to take risks with them, provided they showed the same dedication to the cause that he did. Nowhere was that more clear than with the “red-jacket brigade”, the group of young women journalists he nurtured. Montgomery was one of the first editors to promote women into top executive jobs.

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Even with his favourites he was unpredictable. On hearing that one of his young writers was running late for her child’s nativity play, he told his chauffeur to drive her to the school. The next day he tore her copy apart, forcing her to work late into the night. Everyone who ever worked for him will remember his anger, always triggered by a belief, justified or not, that people were not trying hard enough.

He took the concept of creative tension to new heights, setting one person against another, promising two people the same job at the same time. But the most difficult aspect of the Montgomery management style, especially for his executives, was his inability to tell them the truth. For him, truth and falsehood were apparently neutral categories, to be used according to the tactical needs of the moment. Like the proverbial chairman of a football club, he would tell people their jobs were safe, that he had absolute confidence in them. It would always send shivers down the spine.

Others will remember the way he blushed like a schoolboy when he was caught out doing something that offended his own sense of dignity, like eating a McDonald’s. He adores bright women, but is the least flirtatious man I have ever known. True, he has been married three times but that merely tells us that, until recently at least, work was his only passion.

While many say he prefers the company of women to men, he has several very close male friends who have long remained loyal to him – Bill Muirhead at M&C Saatchi, for example, and the former British Airways spin-doctor David Burnside. And loyalty is important to Montgomery.

Even for those who know him well, there is much about the man and his life that he keeps secret. Few know, for instance, of the role he has played in the Irish peace process, brokering the first crucial meeting between David Trimble and Tony Blair.

So what went wrong for him? No doubt there were simple commercial reasons for the loss of his shareholders’ confidence, but the significant point is that, when the time came to call in the favours, Montgomery had few friends. The business of building close personal relationships with his business associates was never high on Montgomery’s agenda.

The ultimate “lunch is for wimps” man, time was always too precious to attend to anything except the business at hand. Hospitality, which consisted of grilled skinless chicken, steamed vegetables and a modest cheese plate served at Canary Wharf, was never likely to endear him to anyone. In that respect he is completely unlike Rupert Murdoch or Tony O’Reilly, who can both take the time to make you feel the most important person in the world, even if only for a couple of hours over dinner.

The one thing we can be certain of is that Montgomery will be back. After all, he has made his own luck before. When he left Today he had nothing, save his ambition and his anger. Within a year he was running Mirror Group. Now, as Montgomery leaves the company, he will have an even greater anger to drive his need to prove himself, to be a major player again.

What the City will remember is that few people could have turned that company around with such speed and delivered quite so brilliantly (for a time, anyway) to the shareholders. What the journalists will remember, however, are the cost-cuttings, the sackings and the redundancies.

Montgomery is reputed to be leaving with a pay-off of £2 million. Most people in that position, at the age of 50 and with a young family, would take the money and run, settle down where they’ve always dreamed of living and enjoy themselves.

Not Montgomery. The only place he has always dreamed of is at the centre of power and I would place a large bet that he is already working away furiously at securing that place again.

The writer was until recently executive editor of the “Express on Sunday”