His fight for survival

The Telegraph's Jeremy Deedes talks to Ciar Byrne about the paper's future - and the truth behind his goose-stepping encounter with Richard Desmond
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The Independent Online

The Honourable Jeremy Wyndham Deedes, the affable chief executive of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, who was recently brought out of retirement to oversee the sale of the troubled titles, has been down "on the shop floor" in a bid to spread cheer about the newspapers' future.

Known affectionately as "custard socks" because of his dapper style of dress, the old Etonian admits that the crisis that engulfed the papers' proprietor Lord Black of Crossharbour over the past few months has "demoralised" staff.

Since returning to the Telegraph Group in March after six months' retirement, Deedes has made it his mission to let people know what is going on, believing that there is nothing worse than no news. "We have a staff who got quite demoralised at the worst point of the Hollinger débâcle, which is quite understandable," Deedes says.

"Uncertainty is the most damaging thing that can happen in any business, particularly one where rumour and bad news spreads as quickly as it does in newspaper offices." He has held two lots of staff meetings, the second of them last week, and he hopes that the papers' employees are now clearer about where the future lies.

Deedes is working from the grand 16th-floor office he inherited from the company's former chief operating officer Dan Colson. He has rearranged the furniture so that he can see the door from his desk - "I prefer to be stabbed in the front," he jokes.

Deedes compares the position of Telegraph staff to frustrated rail passengers. "If you've stood on as many railway platforms as I have in total silence, it's the silence that's most infuriating. You'd rather someone was telling you something, even if the news is not particularly good."

But he is very hopeful of some good news. After presentations by Telegraph executives to the six remaining bidders for the titles, he has been able to tell the staff with some certainty that a sale will go ahead, quashing speculation they might not be sold at all. "From where I was sitting, they all looked pretty keen to me. Given the degree of interest that there has been, and having seen it and having gone through the presentation process, I would be very surprised if the Telegraph wasn't sold."

Potential buyers must submit their final bids by next week, after which the decision will lie in the hands of the Hollinger International board, on which Deedes does not sit, although he hopes to have "a voice at the table". The German publishing group Axel Springer, which has joined forces with the American finance house Hellman Friedman, is bidding for the whole of Hollinger International. So too is the Israeli billionaire Haim Saban, in a joint bid with the US venture capital group KKR.

Associated Newspapers, the owner of the Daily Mail, is bidding for the Telegraph Group alone, as are the Scotsman owners the Barclay brothers, who failed in an earlier bid to acquire the titles directly from Lord Black. A number of venture-capital groups are also in the frame, including Cinven, 3i, and Apax Partners in a joint bid with Candover. Lazards, the investment bank handling the sale, is said to value the whole of Hollinger at about £1.4bn and the Telegraph titles at £700m.

Deedes believes that at that price, the future Telegraph owner should not be asked for any assurances about the way in which they intend to run the titles. "When someone pays the sort of money they're going to be paying for the Telegraph, I think it's very difficult to start demanding guarantees. I've always taken a sceptical view about the idea that an owner has no right to interfere in a newspaper. What's the point of owning something if you can't put some of your thoughts in it?"

In Deedes's view, Lord Black, who was forced to resign as chief executive of Hollinger International last November after he was accused of taking millions of dollars in unapproved payments from the company, was a "model proprietor", with whom he had enjoyed an "extremely cordial" relationship.

He dismisses concerns about the five founding principles of one of the bidders, Axel Springer, which form the editorial guidelines for its journalists in Germany. These include support for "the vital rights of the State of Israel," a principle which Deedes views as uncontroversial, regardless of individual opinion on the actions of the current Israeli government.

Another principle is "to further the unification of Europe", opening up the interesting possibility that the Telegraph might shift to a more pro-European standpoint.

However, Deedes says: "The Telegraph is not an anti-European newspaper. It's sceptical about a federal Europe and it has some misgivings about Brussels, but if I read them right, Axel Springer's papers equally have reservations."

Axel Springer executives were "disappointed" at the Express Newspapers chief Richard Desmond's anti-German jibes at a recent meeting with Telegraph executives, Deedes reveals. At a monthly finance meeting for their jointly owned Westferry print works, Desmond goose-stepped around the boardroom, performed Nazi salutes and asked Deedes and his colleagues how they felt about being owned by "Nazis".

"Axel Springer is big enough and grown-up enough to be able to read between the lines of the jibes and ruderies of Desmond. I have spoken to them. I suppose 'disappointed' might sum up their reaction," Deedes says.

Desmond's expletive-filled performance could spell an end to the monthly finance meetings. "If they're just going to be forums for hurling abuse, it's not a good use of my time, and it's not a good use of their time," Deedes says. "We have to find an accommodation or restrict our discussion about the finances to main board meetings at which The Guardian and the Financial Times are present."

Whoever buys the titles, the name Deedes may be closely associated with the Telegraph for some time yet. Deedes, whose father Bill still writes for the paper he once edited, would be happy to stay on offering "advice and comfort" to the new owner, although he suspects they will want "someone younger" as chief executive.

When he retired at the age of 60 last year, Deedes looked forward to spending more time on the golf course. If all goes well with the Telegraph sale he may still have the chance get his 13 handicap down.