Neil's pounds 300m offer for 'Express' fuels City sale pressure

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The Independent Online

Media Editor

Lord Stevens, chairman of United News & Media, is expected to face increasing pressure from the City to sell the Express newspapers, following revelations that a consortium led by Andrew Neil was willing to bid up to pounds 300m for the Daily Express and the Sunday Express.

Mr Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times, has teamed up with John Dux, former managing director of News International, Rupert Murdoch's UK newspaper company. Mr Neil said yesterday that Lord Stevens had "no apparent wish to sell the titles. All he said to us was that if we want to make an offer, he couldn't stop us."

He added that Lord Stevens "wants to keep his toy. The question is, will he continue to call the tune? This is a serious bid from serious people for serious money."

Deutsche Morgan Grenfell has lined up financing for the consortium, while Arthur Andersen, the accounting and consulting firm, has advised on the business plan.

It is believed a firm offer in the range of pounds 250m-pounds 300m would gain the backing of institutional shareholders of United News, as well as at least some of the non-executive directors. The under-performing national newspaper division has held United's share price back, despite robust profits from the exhibitions and magazines operations. Analysts said the shares could benefit from a re-rating if the national newspapers were sold.

Mr Neil has recently worked as a freelance journalist, since returning from a stint in the US. "I've been in a lucky position," he said.

"I don't have to do anything. I'm quite satisfied remaining a freelance journalist, and I'm making a lot of money."

He is also behind a company developing a pay-TV "black box" to rival Mr Murdoch's BSkyB near-monopoly. But, he says, Mr Murdoch's competitors, including the cable companies, "are like rabbits facing the headlights of an oncoming car: they don't know which way to move. "I'd be happy to work on the right business opportunity if one comes along."

Mr Neil is not alone in expressing an interest in the Express group. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer, has also discussed a separate bid for the titles, offering pounds 100m towards a pounds 300m bid with partners. Tony O'Reilly, chief executive of Irish-based Independent Newspapers, is rumoured to be interested, either with Sir Andrew or on his own.

But the appointment last week of a former Daily Mail senior editor, Richard Addis, as editor of the Daily Express, and former deputy editor of the Sunday Times, Sue Douglas, as editor of the Sunday Express suggested to analysts that Lord Stevens was intent on keeping and building up the titles.