Desmond's denials don't wash

As an Express journalist, David Hellier became well acquainted with his proprietor's attitudes on race. Here he tells the inside story

Whether goose-stepping in front of Telegraph Group executives, or using his papers to attack Jean-Marie Le Pen while denouncing the expansion of the European Union, Richard Desmond has been more active than ever in the politics of race and nationality in recent weeks.

So much so that a group of European Labour MPs - now freed from the embarrassment of having the newspaper magnate as a supporter of the party - were moved to describe the man as being "no better than a street-corner skinhead, mixing obscenity with racist abuse at passers-by".

Desmond doesn't consider himself a racist, however. As a reporter on both the Daily and Sunday Express, I remember being at one lunch with him, attended by a number of business leaders, when he complained about a column in The Independent that day by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, accusing him of racism. Desmond was extremely vexed by the allegation and began the lunch by hitting out at the claim and denying it venomously, pointing out his titles' harsh criticism of the British National Party.

Ever since his takeover of the Express Group in 2000, though, Desmond and his editors have undoubtedly tried to encourage their readers to believe that the country is being overrun by immigrants. Now, with the accession of a new tranche of countries to the EU, the anti-immigration tone of some of the coverage appears to have reached fever pitch.

Where does this leave those working at Desmond's newspapers? The journalists on the titles have put up some resistance to the owner's editorial agenda. Soon after the takeover by Desmond, the journalists' union at the group condemned the proprietor's attitude towards asylum-seekers after a meeting that had actually been called to discuss the planned partial closure of the staff canteen.

The asylum issue was put on the agenda after the former home-affairs correspondent, Rachel Baird, spoke to me about the turmoil she was in because of being repeatedly asked to write stories about immigration into the UK. The stories, though written fairly, were more often than not accompanied by wild front-page headlines.

I chaired the meeting at which the asylum issue was first discussed and distinctly remember some of my union colleagues leaving the room when the issue came up for debate. Some who stayed at the meeting protested that in showing our displeasure we were in effect undermining the editors (the then Express editor Chris Williams certainly held that view, and only spoke to me a handful of times during the almost two years I remained at the paper afterwards).

But the motion, which condemned the inflammatory, hate-filled headlines about the UK's immigration policy under the new ownership, was passed. Following the meeting, which received publicity on BBC's Newsnight, a group of us took the matter to the Press Complaints Commission with the support of the National Union of Journalists. It was an uncomfortable time, since we were not universally supported by our colleagues. Our complaint was thrown out by the PCC, but at least it raised the profile of the debate.

Baird, who was finding her position increasingly difficult, remained in her post for some months before being transferred to a less controversial part of the Daily Express. I struggled to find an alternative job and eventually moved to The Independent. During the period I remained at the Express, Desmond treated me well, considering the circumstances. He told friends of mine that he rather admired my "chutzpah". Sadly, some colleagues were more critical of me and I lost friendships because of the way I had helped to highlight a difficult issue.

As Desmond was being ridiculed recently for his behaviour at a meeting with Jeremy Deedes and executives of the Telegraph, a group of Labour MEPs complained to the PCC after a Daily Express article claimed that a low-cost airline was being booked full to the rafters by Eastern Europeans hell-bent on settling in the UK.

The MEPs' assertion is that the article was based on completely erroneous information. The paper has published a correction but the MEPs remain unsatisfied.

Whether their campaign gets any further than our attempt remains to be seen. What is certain is that as long as Desmond remains an owner of national newspapers, race relations will always play a big part in their agenda.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
News
peopleWarning - contains a lot of swearing
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm - London

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Accountant -Home Entertainment

£200 - £250 per day: Sauce Recruitment: 6 month contract (Initially)A global e...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Accountant -Home Entertainment

£200 - £250 per day: Sauce Recruitment: 6 month contract (Initially)A global e...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project