'Express' owner in new race inquiry

Richard Desmond, already under fire for an extraordinary tirade against Germans, now faces fresh allegations of xenophobia - this time over the content of his newspaper, the Daily Express.

Richard Desmond, already under fire for an extraordinary tirade against Germans, now faces fresh allegations of xenophobia - this time over the content of his newspaper, the Daily Express.

Labour's European MPs have lodged a formal objection with the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) over the paper's inflammatory coverage of immigration. In an article from 18 March, headlined "Sold Out: mad scramble for flights to Britain from East Europe", the paper warned of an "exodus of gypsies to the UK". It claimed that flights from Bratislava to London on a low-budget Slovak airline had sold out, with most of the tickets bought by the country's Roma population.

"The story is simply untrue, as any casual caller to the airline can easily verify," said Gary Titley, the leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) in a letter to the PCC. "This has gone beyond comment and has entered the realms of lies, pure and simple."

Last week Mr Desmond was accused of racism by the Telegraph Group chief executive, Jeremy Deedes, after he embarked on a foul-mouthed rant at a meeting between executives from the two newspaper groups to discuss their jointly owned printing plant. A German company is attempting to buy the Telegraph titles. Executives were ordered by Mr Desmond to sing "Deutschland über alles". Mr Desmond was also reported to have goose-stepped around the office, in the manner of Basil Fawlty, while doing Nazi salutes.

This has been a controversial week for Mr Desmond, who made his money from pornographic magazines which he has recently sold. On Thursday he switched the Express's political allegiance to the Conservative Party. He had previously been a Labour Party donor.

According to insiders, Mr Desmond has been keeping an uncharacteristically low profile at the Express building since news broke of his outburst. "There is a general air of bemusement and horror," said one source at the newspaper. "No one can believe that we take a major step like switching political allegiance with all the fanfare it entailed and then the executives instantly go and shoot themselves in the foot."

The Express published a small clarification on its letters page regarding the 18 March article, but that has not assuaged Labour politicians. The clarification stated: "Our article 'Sold Out' reported that all Sky Europe's flights from Bratislava to Stansted were sold out. This was based on comments by the airline's reservation department. However, Sky now states that, although demand is very high, seats are still available and we are happy to make this clear to readers."

But Mr Titley is determined to take the case to the PCC. A spokesman for the EPLP said: "As it fails to acknowledge the fact that the central argument was false and as it appears to suggest that they were fed that false information by the airline, it's clearly unacceptable to us.

"In comparison to an article that nearly took up a whole page of the paper, one paragraph which appears to suggest the airline was responsible is not enough."

Justin Walford, a lawyer for Express Newspapers, has also written to the PCC, saying that the story came from a central European news agency.

The paper's heavy coverage of immigration and asylum issues provoked a complaint to the PCC from its own journalists shortly after Mr Desmond took over the paper, but the case was thrown out.

Journalists are concerned about claims in the paper that tens of thousands of "work-shy" migrants are preparing to fly to the UK on cheap flights when their countries join the EU on 1 May.

The National Union of Journalists chapel has written to the PCC twice this year asking for a "conscience clause" to be included in the industry code of practice, allowing journalists to refuse to write stories that contravene the code, without fear of being disciplined.

A committee currently reviewing the code will report to the PCC next month, but is unlikely to approve the "conscience clause".

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