If Labour lets Rothermere do a Rupert Murdoch...

...it will end in tears, as all newspaper takeovers do.

The last thing the Government seems to need just now is the prospect of having to make another delicate political judgement. The forthcoming struggle for control of the Daily and Sunday Express, and their sister the Daily Star, is likely to produce just such a scenario - but one that Labour could turn to significant advantage in the run-up to a general election.

The last thing the Government seems to need just now is the prospect of having to make another delicate political judgement. The forthcoming struggle for control of the Daily and Sunday Express, and their sister the Daily Star, is likely to produce just such a scenario - but one that Labour could turn to significant advantage in the run-up to a general election.

When the bids are in and Lord Hollick, who owns the papers, has signalled his preference, Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, will almost inevitably have to refer the deal to the Competition Commission and then, more crucial, decide whether to enforce its recommendations.

The paradox is that the Government's interests might best be served by allowing the Labour-supporting Express papers to be acquired by a newspaper group that bangs the drum for the Conservatives - not the Telegraph, but Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail, which has already declared its strong interest.

Through a thinly disguised briefing to Roy Greenslade in The Guardian last week, the Mail said that if it won the bidding war it would guarantee to put £50m a year into the Express papers for the next five years and to maintain their pro-Labour position. Those promises will allay the fears of those whose memory stretches back 40 years to the last time the Mail bought a competitor - the News Chronicle - only to close it straight away.

The Government would, naturally, welcome the Express's continued backing; but an even stronger factor in its calculations would be the effect on the Mail and The Mail on Sunday if the deal were waved through. With their unique insight into the attitudes of Middle England, they are allies to be coveted. And it would be the height of ingratitude if the Mail were to campaign too fervently next year against a party that had so recently done it such a big favour. For a jittery government whose lead in the opinion polls grows ever less stable, it is a tempting prospect.

There are two precedents, both involving Rupert Murdoch. Just 20 years ago, as proprietor of The Sun and News of the World, he was allowed to add The Times and The Sunday Times to his stable without a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, making him the most powerful newspaper-owner in the land. Of course, John Biffen, the minister responsible for approving the purchase in 1980, denied any political motivation. He argued that The Times and Sunday Times did not compete with Murdoch's existing titles, that they were making a loss (in fact The Sunday Times was in profit) and that their owner, the Thomson Group, intended to close the papers unless the deal went through.

Those were plausible arguments; yet the truth was that Murdoch's support for Margaret Thatcher the year before had been a big factor in her election victory. Giving the nod to his acquisition was a gesture of gratitude, as well as an investment in the future.

That investment was topped up in 1987, when Murdoch was allowed to buy the struggling mid-market title Today. The dividend for the Government's generosity was that his principal papers (but not Today) remained staunch Conservative supporters until 1997.

Murdoch's acquisition of Today is a worrying precedent in another respect. It shows how hard it is for a proprietor, despite his best intentions, to commit himself equally to titles whose markets overlap: Today seeped into the top end of The Sun's market and the bottom end of The Times's. When it came to the crunch, Murdoch was not prepared to let his weakest paper compete effectively with the other two. Today eventually expired, five years ago next week, with a circulation of just over half a million.

So, however sincere the intentions of Rothermere and Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, the long-term prospects for the Express under their ownership would be questionable.

Only months before an election, though, governments tend not to think in the long term. If the Mail did turn out to be Hollick's favoured bidder, Byers could easily manufacture persuasive "commercial" reasons to let the deal go ahead. He could maintain that acquisition by Rothermere would give the Express papers their only real chance of survival - and that, if they folded, the range of opinions on offer to the public would be restricted. He could point out that the Mail, Express and Star together amount to only 30 per cent of the daily newspaper market, compared with the 33 per cent constituted by Murdoch's titles.

What he surely would not say is that nobody with any political nous would alienate the newspaper group whose support Labour most yearns for.

The writer is a journalist and author whose books include 'Bare-faced Cheek', a biography of Rupert Murdoch

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