Media: `Boycott may be too much of a maverick'

Click to follow
GOOD RELATIONS between governments and newspapers are a precarious balancing act, involving the mercurial characters of editors, proprietors and politicians. Churchill hit it off with Beaverbrook. Thatcher, Lord Rothermere and Sir David English could depend on one another for mutual support, while the efforts of both Labour and Conservative governments to toady to Rupert Murdoch would be ludicrous if they weren't embarrassing.

Like many journalists working at The Daily Express, I was puzzled when Lord Hollick took over the paper. Why would an ambitious Labour peer wish to own Britain's most reliably Tory newspaper? Of course, we can now see the answer. Hollick wanted to do in reverse what Murdoch did to The Sun, when he transformed it from a failing Labour paper to a booming Tory one.

A few months after Hollick's arrival, The Sunday Express was merged with The Daily Express, journalists were made redundant and those who remained were compressed into more restricted space on the third floor.

More and more opinion pollsters and political researchers appeared in the offices upstairs and the words "Daily Express" were removed from the top of the building. I know nothing of Lord Hollick's relationship with Richard Addis, the then editor, but I do know Mr Addis gets on well with Tony Blair.

Ten years ago, when Addis was features editor at the Evening Standard, and Blair was opposition spokesman on employment, I took them both to lunch at Boodle's. It was the first time they had met, but they were on the same wavelength. They discussed religion. Each has subsequently told me how much he likes the other. If Hollick had been looking for an editor who could have smoothed his relationship with Downing Street, he would have had the right man in Richard Addis.

Instead, in April this year, Hollick lost his grip. He replaced Addis with Rosie Boycott, former editor of The Independent, whose left-wing views were more in tune with new Labour. The Prime Minister wrote a handwritten note of commiseration to Addis, saying how much he had enjoyed The Express under his editorship.

Boycott is a shy, awkward person, but much admired in some quarters as a fearless feminist. She thrives on an atmosphere of creative tension between colleagues, as those who saw the Channel 4 documentary, "Independent Rosie", will have noticed last week. But Tony Blair's obvious boredom, when she was filmed meeting him at an awards ceremony, indicates she is not going to help Hollick in his friendship with Downing Street.

Boycott was recommended for the job by Philip Gould, a Blairite pollster who works in The Express building, and is said often to have been seen in the editor's office. His wife, Gail Rebuck, was at school with Boycott, at Cheltenham Ladies College.

I do not wish to comment on Rosie Boycott's skills as an editor, but it is possible that they do not much matter in Lord Hollick's grand scheme. But what he wants in charge of The Express is someone who will increase his political influence, not diminish it. He wants to demonstrate that The Express has grasped the Blairite cause.

Many observers believe Boycott's views are too far to the left of the Blair government and could be embarrassing for Hollick. And that Hollick's employment practices, laying off journalists without proper pay-offs, could be embarrassing for Peter Mandelson at the department of Trade, where Hollick is an employment adviser.

Boycott may be too much of a maverick for this subtle diplomatic role. Her swipes at Geoffrey Robinson in The Express, and Peter Mandelson in her recent TV documentary, may not have pleased his Lordship. She may have upset his plans to emulate Lord Beaverbrook, and ensure that The Express has influence on the levers of power. If Hollick wants to please Mr Blair, he may have to try harder in future.

James Hughes-Onslow was sacked from `The Express' by Rosie Boycott, and has asked Cherie Booth QC to handle his affairs