'Kilroy is not a racist, and neither am I'

In his first interview since the Robert Kilroy-Silk row erupted, the Sunday Express editor Martin Townsend tells James Silver why there will be no apologies
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The Independent Online

First things first. Martin Townsend, the editor of the Sunday Express, is standing by his man. If one of his columnists wants to call Arabs "suicide bombers, limb-amputators and women repressors", that is his privilege. "Robert Kilroy-Silk is paid to be provocative," Townsend says. "I feel comfortable standing by the column, because I believe passionately that he has the right to free speech. He is not a racist, nor am I. And it incenses me that the word 'racism' is bandied about like a political hand-grenade to silence debate."

If Townsend, who has been running the paper since May 2001, had been concerned that his paper is ignored by journalists - none of whom noticed that Kilroy-Silk's article first appeared last April (and only reappeared nine days ago because of an administrative screw-up) - he need worry no longer. For a while, anyway.

Townsend says he is not going to drop Kilroy-Silk's column - why should he, one might ask, when the TV presenter has provided all this publicity to the paper? - and that the BBC has behaved "disgracefully" by dumping Kilroy-Silk. "Their behaviour has the whiff of McCarthyism about it," he says.

What, I ask, has been the proprietor Richard Desmond's input into the current crisis? "This has got nothing to do with Richard. It is an editorial matter. It is my affair," he answers.

Maybe, but the Desmond-Townsend axis has been the subject of much debate among journalists. Townsend was recently passed over by the boss for the top job at the Daily Express when it became vacant, but he makes a fine job of hiding his disappointment. "If I'd been offered the job, of course I would have taken it," he says, "but it all happened so quickly that I didn't really have time to think about it."

Townsend is in a tough position. He is editing a paper almost universally seen as years past its best. He is also forced to defend the tactics and behaviour of a proprietor whom some in newspapers and Parliament still see as beyond the pale - even if Desmond, who made his money in the adult-magazine market, may yet add the Telegraph titles to his portfolio.

Thus it is that the Sunday Express editor finds himself virtually alone among journalists in appearing to argue that money is better spent on give-aways and big prize competitions than on journalism.

Townsend was formerly the editor of Desmond's OK! magazine. His relationship with his boss has been the subject of some intriguing newspaper stories. It was reported that after he turned up late for an in-house lunch, Townsend received an e-mail from Desmond threatening to "punch him in the mouth" if he ever repeated the offence. On another occasion, Townsend is said to have stormed out of the building and vanished - even switching off his mobile phone - after a difference of opinion with his proprietor.

Townsend laughs off both stories, but he concedes: "Richard and I have had a few... you know... bits and pieces in the past... but nothing worth worrying about." So Townsend has never stormed off after a row? "No, no, no..." he splutters. "At the end of the day he's a tough bloke to work for, and there have been a few ups and downs over the years, but nothing where we didn't kiss and make up afterwards."

Some of those downs involve budgets. Colleagues of Chris Williams, who left the editorship of the Daily Express to become the editor of the Daily Mail's Scottish edition, say he decided to jump ship when Desmond demanded another round of redundancies at Express newspapers.

Townsend dismisses this as malicious gossip. "There are loads of people outside spreading rumours about how we're going to cut more staff. It's a load of old nonsense. This is a proper newspaper group. Not like The Mail on Sunday, where you have five people working on the same story and executives going off for a team-building golfing weekend. I've been at the Mail, so I know what it's like. It's a gravy train. They're massively overstaffed. It's ridiculous."

So how should newspapers be run? "Like this group. Richard Desmond has put his money where his mouth is. We are now spending millions on promotion. I'm making a commitment that we will take back the market from The Mail on Sunday. It's going to take time, but we have the talent and belief to do it."

Talent and belief are all very well, but who outside the Express believes that it has the necessary resources to take on Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday?

Under Townsend, the circulation of the Sunday Express has risen to 960,000 (from 880,000 when he took over in May 2001). The Mail on Sunday - with its circulation of more than 2.3 million - has a vast editorial department, while the Sunday Express has seen staff numbers cut to the bone. Questioned about cutbacks and their impact on quality, Townsend responds: "How many journalists do you actually need to get a newspaper out?"

Kilroy-Silk aside, there are occasional surprises in the Sunday Express. Recently, Townsend wrote movingly about his father's struggle with depression. The column was prompted by The Sun's coverage of Frank Bruno's breakdown. "My dad was a manic depressive, and it loomed large in my childhood. He was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and given electric shock treatment. It left me with a great determination to succeed, because I was very close to my dad and I know he would have wanted it. Also, I'm incredibly tolerant of lots of things and very thick-skinned, because it was hard being around someone like that."

Human-rights groups might argue that it's a pity the same tolerance hasn't been extended to asylum-seekers, who come in for a regular battering in both Express titles. Townsend says he's merely reflecting his readers' concerns. "A good newspaper holds up a mirror to what's going on in the streets in our towns and cities. There is huge concern about large numbers of asylum-seekers coming in. We're lucky to have a balanced multicultural society, and it should not be wrecked by large numbers of people coming in illegally and basically milking the system." Does he accept that phrases such as "milking the system" are provocative? "You can't pretend that these things aren't happening. We didn't invent the asylum problem."

Despite his bullishness about the Sunday Express's future, Townsend acknowledges the scale of the task ahead of him. "Our sale has come up, but it's like pushing a boulder up a hill," he admits.

He adds that the Sunday Express "was once the biggest newspaper in the world, but it was utterly wrecked by a succession of owners. When I took over, I thought it was a miracle we had any readers left at all."