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Donald Trelford on the press

The Barclays have flexed their muscles. What happens next?

Three months after taking over the Telegraph Group for £685m, the Barclay twins appear to be flexing their muscles. Since Murdoch MacLennan was hired as chief executive from Associated Newspapers, reportedly for "a king's ransom", the managing director and finance director have both departed, followed by the independent board of The Spectator.

People had begun to wonder what the Barclays were up to: why were they so quiet? Then suddenly they produced MacLennan, stunning the industry, and announced a new printing deal with Richard Desmond. They are expanding paging capacity and introducing more colour. John Allwood, formerly of the Mirror Group, is joining the management.

The Telegraph certainly needs a shot in the arm after the depredations of the Conrad Black era. When the Hollinger scandal first broke, I was lunching in the boardroom with a senior Telegraph executive (no longer there). I asked him what it was like working for Black. He replied: "At the end of the week it feels as though we're sending a huge envelope of cash to New York. Conrad opens it, takes out some notes for himself and his wife and gives some to his friends. When I ask if I could have some back to invest in the Telegraph, I'm told: 'Sorry, chum, there doesn't seem to be any left'."

For all its upheavals, the Daily Telegraph still has by far the biggest sale among quality dailies. The highest priority of the Barclay-MacLennan regime must be to protect that dominant market position and exploit it ruthlessly. Market leaders survive by the brutal exercise of commercial strength.

Look at the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the News of the World, who allow no one to challenge them. The moment a rival comes up with a circulation-winning idea - whether it's an add-on supplement, a CD or DVD giveaway, or a giant sales promotion - they either copy it or beat it by pouring money into the product. They also extract the highest rates from advertisers.

The one market leader that has conspicuously failed to strut its stuff is the Daily Telegraph, the industry's sleeping giant. The Barclays' main focus is on the daily, which is the group's cash cow, or should be. Once their new executive team is in place and the new printing facilities are on stream, they will turn their attention to what my source called "husbandry", which means increasing revenues and cutting costs. Only then, when the commercial side is fully overhauled, will they switch their focus to editorial matters and ask: what are these papers for and are they addressing the right market in the right way?

Until then, probably in the new year, Martin Newland and his editorial team are effectively on trial. There has been speculation that Dominic Lawson, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, has ambitions to edit the daily, though the Sunday hasn't been doing so well as to make that an obvious move. Nor, one senses, are the Barclays bowled over by celebrity.

The one editor who might attract the Barclays is Paul Dacre, who has presided over the huge success of the Daily Mail. When I suggested this, however, a Telegraph source commented: "I doubt it. Murdoch MacLennan spent too many years in Dacre's shadow at the Mail. This is Murdoch's own show now and he'll want to keep it that way."

Spectator board had to be sacked

Poor Algy Cluff. I felt for him as the Barclays forced him to quit the chairmanship of The Spectator after 25 years, along with his star-studded board. A number of newspapers have independent directors, but what good do they do?

My experience of independent boards when I was editor of The Observer was mixed. The most powerful director in my time was Lord Goodman, who was chairman of the Newspaper Publishers' Association and confidante of Prime Ministers. However, he had a serious blind spot: an aversion to investigative journalism.

The independent directors saved my job 20 years ago when Tiny Rowland tried to sack me after a report on Mugabe's atrocities threatened to damage Lonrho's commercial interests in Zimbabwe. Some outside directors, like Sir Geoffrey Cox, the founding editor of ITN, David Chipp, former editor-in-chief of the Press Association, and Lord Bullock, the Oxford historian, were supportive. Others were not. Lord Shawcross pressed me to sack William Keegan, the economics editor (who is still there today).

All this arm-wrestling with the great and the good was a distraction from the main business of editing, which is about talking to journalists and reading their copy. Advisory groups are all very well, but it's a mistake to have them on the board, because it gives their opinions an authority that muddles the role of the editor. Sorry, Algy, but I'm on the Barclays' side here.