Is this the Express's final crusade?

Lord Beaverbrook's once-great legacy is being fought over yet again. And not all the big names involved can emerge victorious

It was the first newspaper to boast a full-time correspondent covering gay issues. Whenever William Hague jumps on a bandwagon - from asylum seekers to fox hunting - it calls a cab heading in the opposite direction. It is non-racist, non-sexist, non-hierarchical, non-nuclear, nondescript - ecologically sound and friend to every sensible right-on cause from militant vegetarianism to cancelling Third World debt. It is edited by a woman who co-founded Spare Rib, has grown cannabis in her office, and whose personal life story is a peculiarly modern version of triumph over adversity.

It was the first newspaper to boast a full-time correspondent covering gay issues. Whenever William Hague jumps on a bandwagon - from asylum seekers to fox hunting - it calls a cab heading in the opposite direction. It is non-racist, non-sexist, non-hierarchical, non-nuclear, nondescript - ecologically sound and friend to every sensible right-on cause from militant vegetarianism to cancelling Third World debt. It is edited by a woman who co-founded Spare Rib, has grown cannabis in her office, and whose personal life story is a peculiarly modern version of triumph over adversity.

And yet for many people over a certain age the associations that accompany the words Daily Express are still hard to shake off: Hanging's Too Good For Them. The Country is Going to the Dogs. Red Peril. Bring Back The Birch. God Bless the Queen. Vote Tory. It is as though Nelson Mandela had suddenly joined the Ku Klux Klan.

Many of the paper's readers, apparently, are just as disoriented. After several years of relentless bombardment with 100 per cent proof New Labourism, plenty still appear to think that right-wing columnists like Peter Hitchens still represent the soul of the paper. All other content is surely some sort of temporary fault - possibly caused by the paper's once familiar cast of candidates for stringing up, such as KGB fifth columnists, Communist trade union officials, truculent, long-haired print "workers" - and that normal service will be resumed in due course.

And, funnily enough, that - or something like it - might just happen. It was high drama last week at the paper's Blackfriars headquarters. This is a place that has retained the spirit of "The Black Lubianka" - the paper's former premises in Fleet Street, so known because of the Express's long tradition of fraught and sometimes brutal internal politics. A clutch of would-be pretenders to the throne of Lord Beaverbrook have been squabbling with Lord Hollick, the latest in a long line of proprietors who have tended to treat the Daily Express - and its sister papers, the Sunday Express and Daily Star - rather like the booby prize in a game of pass-the-parcel at an IRA letter-bombers' Christmas party.

The leading contenders to buy the titles are Andrew Neil (backed by the secretive billionaire Barclay brothers), and the Hinduja family, who are heavily involved in television in India. Long shots include Gannett, the publisher of USA Today, a consortium led by former News of the World editor Phil Hall and his business partner, the PR king Max Clifford, and even Mohamed Al Fayed, owner of Harrods and Punch. Beaverbrook - a crusty, flag-waving, old-style right-winger who set up the Express group in order to save the Empire and warn the working classes about the perils of drink, VD and Bolshevism - is reported to be turning in his grave.

Neil and the Barclays have made a firm offer of £75m for Express Newspapers. It was rejected. The analysts Merrill Lynch, substantial shareholders in Hollick's company, value the papers at between £80m and £100m. The Hindujas have come in with a counteroffer of £100m, backed with a promise of unspecified but "substantial" investment in the titles. Significantly the Hindujas, who are close to Tony Blair and helped bail out the Millennium Dome, said they would preserve the Express's editorial support for the Labour Party or, at least, editor Rosie Boycott's myriad campaigns for "social justice".

In the event, Hollick told the Hindujas that their bid was too low. He is said to be holding out for at least £150m, and in addition wants to hang on to the booming Daily Star-linked MegaStar website which, in sharp contrast to the Star itself, is neck and neck with the Sun in the race to become the country's leading "internet tabloid".

While the Hindjuas went away to think about upping their offer, David Montgomery, the media entrepreneur who was once editor of News of the World and chief executive of the Mirror Group, entered the fray with the backing of a couple of merchant banks. The rumour was that Montgomery's business plan was based on cutting staff numbers and editorial budgets by half and using the savings to cut the cover price. "That is what Montgomery does," according to an Express employee who is one of many refugees from previous Montgomery downsizing binges at the Mirror and the Independent.

Others at the paper believe Montgomery would have difficulty in finding enough money to run the paper even if he were able to come up with the asking price. A Hollick-Montgomery deal seems unlikely in any case, not least because the two men have clashed badly in the past. Hollick (a New Labour man) resigned from the Mirror Group board in the early 1990s over concerns at the way Montgomery (an exotic species of uptight Ulster Unionist, closer in many ways to the Express's traditional stance) dealt with "issues of corporate governance".

The best bet for Express readers hoping for a return to traditional values are the Barclay brothers. Their editorial chief, Andrew Neil, is best known for making the Sunday Times the very embodiment of Thatcherism during the 1980s. Boycott has said that she would not expect to continue as editor under the Barclays' ownership, and that selling to them would be "an act of betrayal". She and most other journalists at the paper appear to be hoping for a speedy sale to the Hindujas, in the belief that they are more likely to preserve the existing stance. Plus, for reasons best known to themselves, they would pour several hundred million more down the E xpress's seemingly bottomless drain, in the hope of beating the Daily Mail in the battle to be top dog in the middle market.

Towards the end of last week the rumour mill at the paper went into overdrive, with talk of a management buy-out and news that Hollick had already taken steps to remove the word "news" from the title of his United News and Media Group. At 4pm on Thursday the drama climaxed when the story that the papers had "definitely" been sold to an unknown buyer flashed around the Express newsroom. The following morning one journalist bumped into the company lawyer in the lift and asked who the new owner was. "I have no idea," came the reply. The rumour was later denied.

But senior people at the Express are now convinced that Montgomery and the other long-shot bidders have dropped away. "It is a two-horse race now," said one. For now at least, the smart money is on the Hindujas.

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