Mathew Horsman on the unsurprising Lord Hollick

It comes as a surprise that there was any surprise at the way Lord Hollick, Labour peer and chief executive of the media company MAI, has put his mark on United News & Media, the publisher of the struggling Express titles and MAI's putative merger "partner".

From the beginning, the alliance of the two companies was seen as a defensive move - and one that would benefit Lord Hollick more than United's Lord Stevens. Indeed, the Independent wrote as early as February, on the day after the marriage was unveiled, that "Lord Hollick will emerge the clear winner: he is the younger man and has the better reputation".

Lord Stevens might also have read of Lord Hollick's joking reference to the size of the two peers' offices. When asked who would get the bigger, he responded with a smile: "That doesn't matter, as long as I'm running the show."

And so it has turned out. Last week's departure of Andrew Cameron, managing director of the Express titles and a man closely identified with Lord Stevens, is only the most visible sign of Lord Hollick's overwhelming influence at United News & Media. Insiders confirm he is calling most of the shots, from editorial budgets to marketing schemes to internal administration. His concern about the costs of relaunching the two titles under new editors was believed to be behind some last-minute budget adjustments - and the decision to delay the introduction of a broadsheet business section at the Sunday Express.

Lord Hollick also showed who was boss by personally choosing Cameron's successor, the former managing director of Conrad Black's Telegraph Group, Stephen Grabiner. He called the much-respected manager a few weeks ago and offered him the job. The group will be sorry to see him go: a senior insider says Grabiner was in line for big things at Hollinger, its parent company.

But the fact that Grabiner, a savvy newspaper manager, was prepared to join the struggling Express group apparently has as much to do with his wife's unwillingness to leave London than with his confidence in the future of United News & Media.

For his part, Lord Stevens has been left with the task of overseeing the newspapers' political stance. Even here, there are signs that the Tory peer is being second-guessed by Lord Hollick and his men. The formerly slavish commitment to the Conservative Party has been replaced by welcome signs of independent thinking. And although the modestly changed line may not go over well with aging middle-class Express readers, the new editors - Sue Douglas at the Sunday and Richard Addis at the daily - apparently believe a fresh approach will attract a younger, less doggedly Conservative clientele.

It is perhaps hard to pity Lord Stevens, who should have known better. By casting his lot with Lord Hollick, he apparently believed he could safeguard the Express titles, even turn them around after a decade of under-management for which he must ultimately take the blame. He ought to have thought more deeply about Lord Hollick's likely ambitions, and read more carefully the Labour peer's record in business.

From a standing start, Lord Hollick has built MAI into one of the country's leading media companies. His two television licence holders, Anglia and Meridian, are profitable and popular, while the company's big stake in the new Channel 5 service will give it a national TV presence for the first time.

That said, Lord Stevens himself is a formidable corporate player and cannot be counted out. He may be second fiddle to Lord Hollick, but he knows a solo tune or two.

So what do recent developments mean to the future of the Express titles? For a start, it appears that the newspapers are going to get real support from the parent company. Lord Hollick is loath to throw too much money into promotion until he thinks the product is right, but there is every expectation that the revamped newspapers will get marketing support in the end.

Both titles look much sharper under new editorial management. The Sunday's new broadsheet sports section is handsome and comprehensive, while both papers have managed to produce exclusives. Both are also proving much more adept at trumpeting their successes, a favourite new form of promotion on Fleet Street.

But while other journalists may notice these changes, it isn't clear that potential new readers are aware. If circulation declines of recent years are to be reversed, the Express titles will have to begin to poach readers from the Mail, arguably the best mid-market newspaper in Britain (ie, "best" as in most confident, robust and self-assured; let us pass over in silence the titles' editorial content and analysis).

The initial reports on circulation are not hopeful. The new sports section allowed the Sunday Express to gain about 20,000 readers in its first week. But that dropped off to maybe 5,000 this past weekend. The Daily Express has seen its circulation stabilise, but that may have more to do with the demise of Today than with the new format.

Newspapers are devilishly difficult to make over. Successful relaunches are few and far between, and inevitably take considerable time. Stephen Grabiner's decision to join Lord Hollick's team suggests at least one senior executive thinks it can be done. But most industry observers believe the odds are far from encouraging. You can bet that Lord Hollick would be happy to sell the titles if the right offer came along. Indeed, there was speculation from the very start of the United-MAI "partnership" that Lord Hollick would push to sell the titles in order to concentrate on broadcasting. You can also be sure he will not plough on indefinitely if the results don't warrant the investment.

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