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.