Is the Express's wonderboy in trouble?

Jason Fraser was meant to bring Express Newspapers the cream of the celebrity pictures, but rival picture editors have quickly fought back by pooling their buying power. So is Fraser really worth the money? By Jade Garrett
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The Independent Online

In the weeks after Jason Fraser joined Express newspapers the talk was all of "traumatic times ahead", the "crippling effect" he would have on rival picture desks and the "crisis meetings" taking place up and down Fleet Street.

Just over three months on, picture prices are up and exclusivity is harder to come by; but Fraser is far from ruling the roost. Certainly, he has had an effect on Fleet Street; but it is an effect that is beginning to rebound on him and on the Express group. New alliances have been forged among Fraser's rivals, changing the nature of picture buy-ups. The Mail on Sunday has got into bed with the Sunday People. Even The Sun and The Mirror are sometimes cooperating on pictures.

The result is a diminution of Fraser's picture power. No one doubts the 34-year-old's ability, after nearly two decades dealing in celebrity fodder, to rein in the most sought after pictures. The question is whether his exclusivity to the Express group is worth the high price it has agreed to pay and the effect on the competition.

The contract Fraser hammered out with Richard Desmond is believed to pay him £1m over three years an element of which includes £1 for ever copy he puts on to the Daily Express's circulation. Fraser is no glorified picture editor. As executive director of Express Newspapers and Northern and Shell he now has responsibility for advertising and promotions across the group's stable of titles.

"We watched with very close interest when Jason joined the Express," says Geoff Webster, number three on the News of the World and previously picture editor of The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Sunday People and Today. "There was a lot of agonizing and a lot of anxious people on picture desks but that is not the case anymore. He's not making life at the NOW difficult at all. We have our own contacts the same as we always did. There is a constant flow of pictures being offered to us and we are generating a lot of our own material."

But Webster concedes the cost of the Fraser brand of pictures has been forced up. "There is fierce competition out there and there is no doubt all the prices took a hike shortly after he joined the Express."

According to one senior picture executive on one of the broadsheets, picture agencies are now being paid huge retainers by newspapers whose sources have been stifled. One has just paid to send 10 photographers to the Côte d'Azur (an area where Eliot Press, an agency represented by Fraser, excels at pictures of celebrities holidaying) to ensure nothing is missed.

"Previously people would have known Fraser was on the job and wouldn't have bothered," she said "but sending your own people can sometimes be cheaper than paying Fraser and you no longer need to worry about staying on his good side – you know you've got the pictures coming anyway."

But competition between the two camps remains fierce enough to bring about surprising results. When the Express secured photographs a couple of weeks ago of page three model Jordan and footballer boyfriend Dwight Yorke in Monaco The Mirror is said to have called the Express syndication department attempting to buy them. The Daily Mail also stands accused of paying £7,500 for unremarkable shots of It Girl Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, that were used on an inside page purely to keep them out of the Express.

Since moving into Ludgate House Fraser has pulled in a number of high-profile exclusives: The Geri Halliwell yoga pictures, the Beckhams in Venice, Davina McCall on holiday in Mauritius, Robbie Williams in his underpants for charity and Jordan and Yorke in Monaco.

Of course he has, say his rivals, he can afford to. "The Express does not have to quibble over money and Fraser has not got a problem with his picture budget which puts more pressure on the rest of us," says one tabloid picture editor.

But the recent Chris Evans and Billie Piper wedding "exclusive" for OK! magazine and the Express has provided a wonderful opportunity for rivals to gloat. Fraser got the paper changed late with the story not that the couple intended to marry but that they had – with full pictures. For that he paid £79,000, filling the front cover and 15 other pages in OK! Meanwhile an amateur photographer struck a deal with the Headline News agency in America that eventually saw The Sun, The Mirror and the Daily Mail with similar pictures in the same editions for around £10,000 to £15,000 each.

Then came the pictures of a cellulite-covered Jerry Hall. The Mail on Sunday and News of the World ran the pictures in their first editions on June 24. The Express was forced to follow their lead, adding the shots into a later edition.

"There have certainly been occasions when the competition has got one over on Jason," said one picture editor who preferred to remain anonymous. "You'll sometimes find the other pictures are better than the exclusive ones."

Fraser strongly denies any suggestion that he ever pays over the market value for pictures as a preventative measure. On the Evans and Piper saga he says: "It can happen to newspapers and it did happen and that is why we are discussing their fee in relation to what we got. It happened to me, not very often I might add, when I was selling features exclusively and a lesser version appeared elsewhere. Before the picture editor even had a chance to pick up the phone I'd have called and offered to take 15 per cent off the price.

"It's the Daily Mail who are paying over the odds to try and gain loyalty from photographers whose pictures they only use on the inside pages. I turn things down that are too expensive.

"I was offered pictures of Prince William on holiday in Mauritius recently from a photographer who wanted £100,000. I discussed it with Chris Williams [editor of the Express], we decided against it and they ran in one of the Sunday papers. I don't want to get on the wrong side of the Palace or squander the Express's money.

"Other picture editors find it very difficult to understand that the reason people come to us is we project the photos very well, we're very quick to make decisions on usage and we offer good prices, but it is complete bull to suggest that we pay over the odds.

"Other magazines were very keen on the Louise and Jamie Redknapp pictures [the couple enjoying a romantic break in Sardinia] but I secured that deal and it has a lot to do with personal relationships."

But while Fraser continues to cultivate cosy relationships with the stars, rival newspapers are making in some cases unprecedented deals to share material. "Picture desks are paying less but are missing out on exclusivity," says one picture editor. "The Mail has banded together with The Sun and The Mirror while The Mail on Sunday works with the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People. It was happening before but it's happening a lot more now."

On 25 April, the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Mirror all shared pictures of the England manager Sven Goran Eriksson holidaying in Barbados with his bikini-clad Italian girlfriend Nancy Dell'Olio. The Express had nothing.

While he avoids exposing any specific alliances Darryn Lyons, an Australian photographer who set up Big Pictures, confirms that picture editors are unconcerned about the increased collaboration. "No one wants to miss out on a set of pictures, they prefer that they all have a bite of the cherry and they don't resent any lack of exclusivity. The picture editor's role today is to make sure that they get the editor everything they can. There are no mad panics."

The picture editor at one of the biggest selling tabloids says there has been ample time for him and his opposite number on every other paper to become proactive in the areas where they know Fraser can deliver the goods.

"He's a fantastic operator, there's no denying that, but our damage limitation operation has been working out very well," he says. "And from an agency point of view they can place their pictures in the Express and the Star where they will be seen by around 1.7m readers or they can place them in the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and The Mirror and reach at least three times that number. There are still some very big players out there that are giving everyone else a fair crack of the whip."

Last year Jason Fraser pictures accounted for 75 front pages, at least 20 of which were, he claims, with the Daily Mail and The Sun. Between 27 December 2000 and 1 January this year he had four consecutive front pages with The Mirror alone after supplying shots of Prince Andrew sailing across the Andaman Sea, off the island of Phuket, with several topless women; Ali Cockayne (Will Carling's ex) on holiday; and Lady Victoria Hervey and Michael Winner out together. When he put Robbie Williams and Geri Halliwell on the front page of the Star recently, the paper's circulation is said to have increased by 11 per cent on that day alone.

As the summer season gets properly underway his influence will be felt in full and he knows it. He laughs at the suggestion he's having no impact on his rivals and at this stage, at least, still feels it's appropriate to be smug.

"I wouldn't expect them to hold up their hands and admit to getting a thrashing," he says. "The summer will be an entertaining time for the other papers and I wish them all the best of luck."