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Ian Mean - interview

He started as a reporter in London’s ganglands in the early 1960s, and worked with some of the most colourful characters in journalism. Now he’s retiring as editor of the Western Daily Press. Steve Dyson interviews Ian Mean.

Steve Dyson

Posted on: 25 March 2015

Looking the part - Ian Mean (Picture: Simon Galloway)
The name ‘Ian Mean’ was a newsroom legend when I was a young reporter on the Birmingham Mail in the early 1990s.

I remember Phil Banner, the paper’s crime correspondent, telling me how ‘Old Meany’ stormed onto the smoke-filled, booze-driven editorial floor one morning, dressed in his sheepskin jacket and with a huge cigar sticking out his mouth, shouting: “Banner! You’re going to f*****g Spain. A bomb’s gone off – there’s bound to be Midlanders. Judy! Get the lad a flight and a cash advance of £200 worth of pesetas. Banner: phone me when you’ve got the story.”

Banner’s tale was from the early 1980s, and as I retell it to ‘Old Meany’ himself – aka Ian Mean, now 68 and stepping down as editor of the Western Daily Press – he creases into warm chuckles at the memory.

“It’s true! I was chief news editor with 60 reporters and there were ten of us on the news desk, including Judy [Judy Simpson, as she was then, the news desk secretary, now Mrs Mean]. I had a great tie up with Charlie Garside on the Evening Standard’s news desk and one of us would call the other and ask: ‘Are you going out to this story in Spain?’ And we’d share the spoils. [Garside later edited The European, and is now managing editor at the Daily Mail.]

“At the time, the Birmingham Mail was a great paper, selling 365,000 copies a day, with twelve editions changing all afternoon. There was no internet – if something big happened, you read about it in that night’s Mail. I remember when the Pope was shot at something like 4pm, it was running in late editions of the paper by 5pm. [This was Pope John Paul II in 1981.]

“We sent people on stories like that. With the Pope, I sent Maureen Messent – the cost didn’t matter. Mind you, I remember her calling late that night: ‘Ian, I've had to get a taxi.’ I said: ‘That’s OK.’ Then she said: ‘A taxi across the Dolomites.’ God knows where she’d landed! [Messent is still an outspoken columnist on the Birmingham Mail.]

“There were some great people, and some fantastic, raging rows – that’s what the game was like. The staff loved it, but they were dealt with properly. The best thing about the job was developing people, and sending out on the big stories was good for the staff.

“I remember when the Pope was shot at something like 4pm, it was running in late editions of the paper by 5pm.”

Dress code

“Take Phil Lymn, I was always shouting: ‘Where’s f*****g Phil Lymn?” because his coat was hanging on the back of his chair, but I knew he was in the pub. I rang the pub once, to let them know I was looking for him. It was pouring with rain and he turned up minutes later, hair dripping wet: ‘You called, Ian?’

“But Lymn was a great reporter. When the Louise Brown story broke [the first IVF baby, 1978], I sent him to Oldham. As he was dashing up the motorway, his car’s bonnet flew off. The police stopped him, but he told them: ‘I’m on a story for the Birmingham Mail!’ They let him carry on!”

As he talks, Ian undoes the jacket of his smart, pin-striped suit, with the handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket matching his silk tie, his patent black leather shoes shining. It’s become his signature dress code, and I ask why.

“I’ve always believed you’ve got to look the part when you have to go and knock on some chap's door and ask: ‘Did you murder your wife?’ I remember shouting at David Bell [the Birmingham Mail’s municipal reporter in Mean’s day]: ‘You f*****g scruffy prat. Where's your tie? Put it on!’ I hate people who don't look smart. He was a good reporter, though.”

The air, it seems, was pretty blue in the Birmingham newsroom, much at high volume in Mean’s cockney accent. He agrees: “I remember the great editor at the time, David Hopkinson, shouting at two reporters whose copy wasn’t good enough and throwing a great big dictionary across the room, really putting the s***ts up them! You can imagine the culture, and Judy used to hate it. She’d scold me: ‘All you do is shout and swear.’ But people loved that banter.”

Talent pool

Mean then runs through some of the Birmingham Mail journalists he worked with: Bill Ludford, an ex-Daily Express reporter; Richard Littlejohn, one of what were then six reporters on the Mail’s industry desk, now earning fortunes at the Daily Mail; Richard Garner, now education editor at The Independent; Stafford Hildred, who became one of Fleet Street’s top TV writers; and Geoff Baker, who went on to work for Paul McCartney.

And there was Ian Dowell, then the chief sub-editor, later becoming editor of the Birmingham Mail from 1986 to 2000, who Mean describes as “my closest friend”, despite “rowing a hell of a lot because we each had strong views – it worked brilliantly”. He pauses, and reflects: “This business really isn't about newspapers, it’s about the people.”

Then he’s recalling more memories: “Do you remember the sombre announcements from Ian McDonald, the Ministry of Defence’s spokesman in the Falklands War? We'd watch him on TV and I'd dictate the splash to Judy on a typewriter, suction tubes taking the typed copy to composers in the print works, the machines running within ten minutes.”

Once, after a run of top stories, Mean was sent to America to cover the 1980 presidential elections “as a reward”, flying with the press on Reagan’s campaign plane. He stopped off in Las Vegas to report on Muhammad Ali’s last big fight with Larry Holmes – making friends with the boxer and telling him to “keep in touch”. Sure enough, when Ali came to Birmingham years later, he visited Mean at the Mail.

We've got to recreate the golden days with people who really love the job – online and print – and make the business fun again.

South London roots

Born in West Norwood, near Dulwich in south London, Mean left comprehensive school at sixteen and “wrote to 120 newspapers” because “I’d decided to be a journalist”. The first to answer was Ian MacKenzie, editor of the South London Observer, in Camberwell, and he gave Mean his break as a trainee reporter. He soon got to know the editor’s sons – Kelvin MacKenzie, later editor of The Sun, then a trainee on the South East London Mercury, and his brother Craig, another journalist.

“These were ganglands in the time of the Richardsons and Krays, when people were nailed to the floor. Ian was a brilliant guy, and one of his main preoccupations was linage for the big London papers [then an accepted perk for local weeklies in and around London]. Before long, I was doing work for the Evening Standard, and was on a night shift at the Daily Sketch the night the Torrey Canyon oil tanker ran aground off Cornwall [1967]. Doing stories like that at such a young age was pretty good experience.”

In his early 20s, Mean moved north as crime reporter for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, now a weekly, winning a Young Journalist of the Year award. After “a row”, he joined the Daily Mail’s huge Manchester operations, reporting for the paper from all over Yorkshire, and then a year covering the Belfast troubles.

Another “row” saw him move to the Daily Express, then to the Daily Telegraph as night news editor in Manchester, before becoming a partner at a local news agency. It was now the early 1970s and Charlie Wilson, later editor at The Times, was the Daily Mail’s deputy editor in Manchester and tempted Mean back as deputy news editor, working with Jonathan Holborow, later editor of the Mail on Sunday. “We were in charge of the northern editions, from Derby to Scotland and all over Ireland,” remembers Mean.

Mean inevitably “got involved in another big row, as you do in newspapers”, and left to join the Birmingham Mail. These important years in his career came to an abrupt end after yet another “row” in the early 1980s. Mean then ran his own PR firm for eight years before Charlie Wilson – by then a boss at the Daily Mirror – took him on as marketing manager.

“I stayed for six years, working with Mirror editors David Banks, Colin Myler and Piers Morgan. Promotions were so important versus The Sun. We ran a National Lottery syndicate, famously winning the Lotto, sharing it between 250 readers. I got a real kick out of doing stuff like that.”

“Editors today also need to be the paper's marketing director and advertising director.”

West Country bound

It was now the 1990s and the Mirror was changing – and Mean realised he was missing journalism anyway. So he left to join the news desk of the Western Morning News in Plymouth, initially “on a third of my salary”, soon becoming assistant editor.

The paper was owned by Northcliffe whose chief executive, Kevin Beatty, knew Mean from earlier in their careers. Beatty invited Mean to “see the chief”, Lord Rothermere, and he was appointed editor of the Gloucester Citizen in the early 2000s. Mean spent more than ten years in that role, picking up two Newspaper of the Year awards, also becoming editor-in-chief of the sister Gloucestershire Echo.

More importantly, Mean realised the importance of online: “I became obsessed when most editors rejected it. I remember saying to Lord Rothermere and Kevin Beatty: ‘Why don't we just bang these editors’ heads together?’”

Mean’s digital vision meant that when Northcliffe’s regionals were absorbed into David Montgomery’s new Local World in 2013, he became content director for the company’s Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset titles – helping to integrate print with online.

“The online figures are absolutely amazing,” he enthuses, sharing the company’s latest statistics sent by Matt Kelly, Local World’s digital director, a former online whizz-kid from the Mirror. “It’s not just unique users, but page views and how long readers are on our sites. It’s huge. Editors need two hats: online first, and what's the traffic doing? Then, how does that affect my judgement on what I put in the paper the next day? You ignore that at your peril.”

Early in 2014, Mean became editor of the Western Daily Press in Bristol – what’s turned out to be his swansong before semi-retirement. He loved the role, but says: “You've got to know when to go.” Note the word ‘semi-retirement’, though: Local World has kept him on two-days a week to work on major commercial partnerships.

“It’s all about the total audience, and that’s how we've got to monetise the business. I believe we have to have better people able to talk at levels where they can gain entries into companies’ budgets. Editors can influence that, because they know the right people. Editors today also need to be the paper's marketing director and advertising director. Over the years, people have been critical, asking: ‘Where's the dividing line?’ But I think you can retain credibility if you do it properly.”

Mean, an Arsenal supporter, fisherman and cricket fan, says he’ll try to enjoy some retirement: “I want to devote more time to Judy. I’m very lucky to be with someone who was at the sharp end with me. I have two daughters, while Judy has a son and a daughter [they both had previous marriages], and we’ve nine grandchildren between us – so there’s plenty to do. I’m also chairman of the NHS Organ Donation Committee for Gloucestershire, and president of a male voice choir, while Judy sings in three choirs.”

But ‘Old Meany’ admits he’ll find it hard not to throw everything into his new part-time role: “This industry’s engrossing because of the people. I enjoyed the golden days – and they were golden, in terms of money, circulation and people. Now we've got to recreate that with people who really love the job – online and print – and make the business fun again. Local World is starting to do that…”

“This business really isn't about newspapers, it’s about the people.”

About Steve Dyson
(Details last updated: 25 May 2017)

Steve Dyson is a freelance editor and journalist, working as a media consultant and trainer via Dyson Media. He also creates courses and exams for the National Council for the Training of Journalists, and is associate director of ASAP PR. Dyson is a former editor of the Birmingham Mail and The Gazette, Teesside.

Tel: 0781 800 4575

Email: Send a message to this author


Twitter: @stevedyson

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