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Media: Can Evans do a Star turn?

Chris Evans has to persuade Ginger's shareholders that he can work his magic in newspapers.
ALL THAT is really known about Chris Evans's plans for the Daily Star, should he take control of it, is that he would make Mike Soutar the editor.

Mr Soutar is the man who turned FHM from a magazine selling 60,000 a month to one selling half a million plus. He knows about young men and he knows what motivates them to buy publications, so on paper he certainly seems like the man who could save the Star.

Weekend reports that Chris Evans's Ginger Media Group has been talking to the Star's owner, Express Newspapers, about swapping a 16 per cent stake in Ginger for the red-top were thin on details of what Ginger would do with the paper. All that emerges is the enigmatic phrase "a sport and television-led newspaper". The feeling seems to be that it can be updated into a daily "lads' mag" by one of that genre's inventors.

But the very fact that Ginger is looking at the Star casts some light on the current status of the Group's plans. Most people within Ginger Media are agreed that they have to make it less dependent on Evans. He drives the radio station, working on air six days a week on top of his TFI Friday show for Channel 4.

Although it was Evans's name which made the headlines, in reality the deal is Matthew Freud's. Evans's PR man, who knows a lot more about newspapers than Evans, has been conducting negotiations with Nicholas Rudd-Jones, managing director of Express Newspapers.

But it does show that Evans is serious about expanding Ginger as a media company with a diverse portfolio. Ginger has a production arm, making television and radio programmes, and a distribution arm, which is the radio station; he was looking for a third division, to be separate from Evans. That was to be the Star.

Holding Ginger back are Apax Partners, its minority shareholders and the venture capital company that lent Evans the money to buy Virgin Radio; and, to a lesser extent, Richard Branson, who took 20 per cent of Ginger Media when he sold Virgin Radio.

The fact that the "Ginger to buy the Star" story appeared in six newspapers' business sections on one day has led those at the centre of the deal to believe it was leaked when Apax consulted City analysts. Apax vetoed the deal at a meeting two weeks ago, but did not make its veto definitive. Supporters hope that the fact that Apax discussed it with the City means it is still possible.

Apax is opposed at least partly because it is worried that a share-swap deal for the paper would dilute its holding in Ginger. But it must also be worried that it backed Evans in the first place because he knows about broadcasting.

Branson has said in the past that he has decided against owning newspapers because, as a public figure, rival newspapers would turn against him and his commercial interests. For Evans the risk is that The Sun would turn against him.

The Sun sometimes seems like the in-house newspaper of Ginger Media, so often does Chris Evans's antics appear in its pages. This is a deliberate strategy and one which means that The Mirror is usually anti-Evans. If he used Virgin to promote his Star and the Star got all his exclusives, The Sun and the Daily Mail could be added to his list of enemies.

For Express Newspapers, there has been talk of continued involvement and co-operation with the Star, which is a smokescreen put up because the deal has gone public.

It is probably too late to try to make the Star's staff feel loved: circulation is down, staff numbers have been halved in a year and the general feeling is that management is embarrassed by the title's content and they want to be rid of it. In fact, under the Ginger deal the title would eventually move out of Express headquarters to a separate site.

The question now is whether Chris Evans and Matthew Freud want the newspaper badly enough to convince their backers that Mike Soutar can work his miracles again.