Profile: Hard news man switches channels: Sir David English: The former Daily Mail editor reveals to Jason Nisse that he has lost none of his competitiveness

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The Independent Online
SIR DAVID ENGLISH is a competitor. You can see it in the way he stands, the way he walks, his whole approach to life. The man whom many in the newspaper business rate as one of the finest editors of his time likes nothing more than getting one over on the competition. If someone gets the better of him, he remembers, and can't wait until he is back on top.

That's why Associated Newspapers' victory in the battle for London's first cable TV channel, announced last Tuesday, was so sweet. For one thing, it is the culmination of many months' work, spearheaded by Sir David in his role as chairman of Associated, which he assumed 15 months ago when he stood aside as editor of the Daily Mail. For another, it is a sea change for Associated in broadcasting, where its track record with investments in the now insolvent Trilion and Crown Communications, is poor.

But most of all, it was a victory against the old foe. Associated beat Mirror Group Newspapers, and its chief executive, David Montgomery, to the prize.

So, did Sir David enjoy putting one over on Monty? 'Not half,' he beams, leaning forward in his excitement. 'Not half. It was like being on a story. David Montgomery was a very competitive editor when he was on Today - always nicking stories from us and passing them off as their own. He's an extraordinary fellow, who always had his own vision for moving into TV.'

Sir David, though, has never really been a TV man. Until he changed jobs recently he was only peripherally involved in that side of Associated.

After the sudden decision to promote Paul Dacre - then editor of the Evening Standard - to the Daily Mail hot seat, a reaction to Rupert Murdoch's attempts to lure Dacre to the editorship of the Times, Sir David found himself in the peculiar position of being the proprietor of the paper he'd edited for 21 years. He had to resist the temptation to phone his protege and tell him how to do his job.

'I helped build up the the culture of editor power; I didn't want to destroy it,' he says. Hadn't he even wanted to get involved when Dacre's Mail started attacking John Major's premiership? 'There is no reason to think I would not have responded in an equally critical way. What else could you have done when faced with the current economic and political environment?'

Associated's ambitions in TV have helped Sir David make a clean break with the past. 'To get around the temptation to interfere, I had to have a job that is absorbing. But it has been easier than I thought.'

He has been busy since moving upstairs - a job he says he was 'lucky to get'. There was Associated's success in winning the Teletext franchise last year - though that was tinged with embarrassment when the Independent Television Commission ticked them off for the quality of their service; and there has been the constant lobbying of the Government to have the laws changed so newspapers can buy more than 20 per cent of any TV company.

But Sir David's main task has been to sort out Associated's disparate TV interests - which include two TV production companies, New Era and Cheerleader, and a US education channel, Whittle. In doing so he's turned to the people he knows best - journalists - and set up a management team made up of senior editorial executives. His logic is that there must be an awful lot of good ideas floating around in Associated's offices which could be turned into TV programmes.

Owning production companies was not the sort of thing Associated did well. A large company does not feel right knocking on doors of LWT and Channel 4, hawking concepts, he says, and it was frustrating. 'The big companies are very slow and bureaucratic. They are run on a club network and it is very hard to break into that. That's why we wanted our own TV station.'

Now Associated has its own station - albeit a small one. It is investing pounds 20m in the project, with maybe another pounds 100m if and when it can expand the service across the country and add other stations in London. It looks as if Peter Brooke, the Heritage Secretary, may change the ownership rules and Associated will be allowed to buy an ITV company. But whatever Sir David achieves in TV, he will always be remembered as a newspaper man.

Sir David first came to Fleet Street 32 years ago, aged just 20. His mother - who ran a Bournemouth boarding house - was widowed when he was three. He joined the Bournemouth Evening Echo as a copy boy, straight from school, and within a couple of years was on the left-of-centre Daily Mirror. He gained a reputation for aggressive reporting - he is remembered for a particularly juicy scoop about Errol Flynn's sex life when he was Washington correspondent of the Sunday Dispatch, and for stealing mailbags to show the lax security of British Rail while on Reynolds News.

He was foreign editor at the Daily Express when the paper was still in its glory days with a circulation of three-and-a-half million and capable of funding a lavish array of expensive foreign correspondents. Lord Rothermere, who had befriended Sir David in the 1950s, headhunted him to be editor of the Daily Sketch in 1968. When the Sketch was merged with the Mail two years later, Sir David took the helm of Associated's flagship. He was 40.

Soon the Mail was gaining a reputation as a tough competitor. Always a conservative newspaper - the current Lord Rothermere's father had decreed that the paper would support the Tories 'not just through its leaders but throughout the paper' - Sir David moved it further to the right and fostered the second of two defining relationships of his editorship. The first was with his proprietor - the canny and quick-witted Vere Rothermere - whom Sir David refers to as a great newspaper man. Rothermere returns the compliment, describing Sir David as 'God'. The second relationship was with Margaret Thatcher.

The Mail was a Thatcher supporter from the start. And when she stood against Edward Heath, the Mail backed her. 'We supported her for many reasons - maybe because she was a woman. But she had new ideas and the Tory party needed new ideas.'

Much has been written about the mutual love affair between the Iron Lady and her favourite editor. They had much in common, being middle-class, hard-working and Methodist. He was one of the few close to her who was not savaged in her memoirs, even though they disagreed over Europe.

'I fell out with her politically because I am a Europhile. We enjoyed a good argument and agreed to disagree.'

As Thatcher rose, so did the Mail, finding a particular niche among middle-class women. Sir David seems to have an empathy with women, perhaps because of his childhood in a female-dominated household. But despite or maybe even because of this, women never held senior editorial roles at the Mail.

Perhaps Sir David's management style at the Mail was not suited to promoting women. A small, dapper man, without any obvious presence, he has always favoured an aggressive approach to his subordinates, building on what has been termed 'creative tension'. Former employees tell of grown men trembling before editorial conferences; of senior executives flitting around Sir David so they can laugh at his jokes; of curt memos attacking mistakes. At the same time Associated has a reputation for being among the best payers on Fleet Street.

Sir David laughs at the picture drawn by his critics. 'You say we run an unhappy ship and people only stay because we pay them so much?' He dismisses this out of hand. True there is heavy, hands- on editing; true there is tough competition for space in the paper; true there is a ruthless drive for efficiency. But he says: 'In a competitive world, working in a winning environment makes people happy.'

Away from the pressures of editorship, Sir David appears to be enjoying himself once more. He writes a regular column in the Spectator where he even went so far recently as to praise the Daily Mirror, allowing his comments to be used in its advertisements. He has also been fulsome in his criticism of the Times, saying that News International doesn't know how to run a paper like the Times and denying its price cut has had any effect on the Mail. At the same time he describes good-natured exchanges with Rupert Murdoch, in which Murdoch has apparently promised to put the Daily Telegraph out of business for Sir David's benefit.

At the age of 62, Sir David English looks forward to the prospect of becoming a media mogul. Expect fireworks.

(Photograph omitted)

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