The move appears to have been triggered by a decision by Simon Jenkins, editor of the Times, to leave his post within months. It is understood Associated Newspapers sprang into action because Paul Dacre, one of its editors, had been asked to replace him.
Rumours of widespread change began circulating early yesterday afternoon until Viscount Rothermere, chairman of Associated Newspapers, issued a statement saying he was relinquishing his chairmanship of the company in favour of Sir David English, 61, who will end his 21-year reign as editor of the Daily Mail.
Sir David, whose record in tabloid journalism is unparalleled, will remain as Editor-in- Chief of the group. Lord Rothermere will retain the chairmanship of the Daily Mail and General Trust Plc, which owns Associated.
Mr Dacre, editor of the Evening Standard, will take over the editorship of the Mail; he will be replaced by Stewart Steven, editor of the Mail on Sunday, who will in turn be replaced by Jonathan Holborow, deputy editor of the Daily Mail. Nicholas Gordon, editor of You magazine, will be replaced by Dee Nolan.
Mr Jenkins denied rumours suggesting his contract as editor of the Times had not been renewed. 'Those rumours arose as the result of the bizarre incidents at the Daily Mail,' he said. 'I have told my staff that I intend to stand down in the course of next year to continue with my writing career in accordance with what I told Rupert Murdoch and the independent directors of the company when I joined in 1990.'
He said he had accepted the editorship only on the condition that he could leave within three years. 'Many of my staff knew that and it came as no surprise,' he said. 'There will be no change of direction at the Times and there is no panic here.'
However, sources at Associated said the reshuffle there was made because Mr Dacre's departure appeared to be imminent. A senior executive said: 'Sir David was summoned to a meeting with Lord Rothermere in Paris yesterday and I believe that is when the decision was made. The threat of Paul Dacre's departure meant the plans were brought in early.'
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