Media: Wind of change in Kensington: Will the Daily Mail still be rallying the Tory faithful? Steve Boggan reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE FUNNY story at Associated Newspapers goes like this: when Stewart Steven, the former editor of the Mail on Sunday, got home last Friday night, the tape on his answering machine had run out. On it were the desperate voices of dozens of members of his staff begging for jobs on his new paper, the London Evening Standard.

Not very funny, if you happen to work at the MoS. Or if your name is Jonathan Holborow, the incoming editor and a man with a reputation for toughness.

The story is the product of uncertainty at Northcliffe House, Kensington, where the wind of change is already blowing despite the apparent ease with which Lord Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust plc, Associated Newspapers' parent company, saw off the Times's abortive bid for Paul Dacre, the former Evening Standard editor.

Mr Dacre, 42, a former associate editor of the Mail, found himself at the centre of Fleet Street's most bizarre game of musical chairs after telling Lord Rothermere and Sir David English, the man he replaces, that Rupert Murdoch wanted him to take over from Simon Jenkins as editor of the Times.

Lord Rothermere's response was swift and carried out in the utmost secrecy. He would relinquish the chairmanship of Associated Newspapers to Sir David but would remain chairman of its parent company; Mr Dacre would be replaced at the Standard by Mr Steven, who, in turn would be replaced by Mr Holborow, deputy editor of the Mail. At the Times, an unfortunate Mr Jenkins was left to explain that he knew Mr Dacre had been approached - indeed, he was helping Rupert Murdoch to choose a successor because he had decided to stand down. Although his contract runs until next March, Mr Jenkins's position, as a man sitting uncomfortably in one of Fleet Street's hottest seats, appears untenable.

This was how the seeds of change were sewn. But how will they grow? While speculation over Mr Jenkins's replacement at the Times is already growing, it is perhaps more important in political terms to examine the likely changes at the Mail, which, with the Sun, was generally credited with winning the election for the Tories.

Mr Dacre will continue the tradition of supporting the Tories with at least the same fervour as did Sir David. During Mr Dacre's successful period at the Evening Standard, the paper not only became more readable and developed a sharpness that halted a decline in sales, it also became arguably more right wing.

But while the Tories could always count on the paper to rally the faithful, it could not always rely on its support for European policies. This is where Mr Dacre differs from Sir David. He is against both membership of the exchange rate mechanism and the Maastricht treaty, a split that could lead to friction between Mr Dacre, Sir David (who remains editor-in-chief) and Lord Rothermere, a committed European.

Since Maastricht, when the Standard's leader was headed: 'Game, set and match' (11 December 1991), Mr Dacre has shown his opposition with increasing frequency. Last month alone, three leaders read: 'Maastricht is dead' (10 June); 'Unrealities in the EEC (sic)' (29 June); and, finally, 'Come on, John, gizzaballot]' (30 June).

Paradoxically, Mr Dacre hopes his appointment may lead to closer links with the Tories. Colleagues remember him returning from a lunch with John Major several years ago, before his rise to power, and declaring that Mr Major would one day be the party leader and, eventually, the Prime Minister.

Such support for Mr Major, and the fact that Mr Dacre is a generation younger than Sir David, may promote closer links but only if the European differences can be ironed out. No relationship between the newspaper and the party could survive such a deep-rooted rift.

In terms of content, Mr Dacre is said to be concerned that the paper's columnists (with whom, he tells colleagues, he is satisfied) are, like the readership, ageing. Last week, before the changes were announced, he caused ripples in the office by asking the Mail library for their cuttings. Now they know why.

The reaction from staff to the appointments at the Evening Standard and the MoS could not be more different. The feeling at the former is that, with Mr Steven, they have inherited a man with a proven track record and a background in daily papers; he was executive deputy editor at the Mail until 10 years ago.

'To see him coming down the office on Monday, glad-handing everyone and saying hello, was like a breath of fresh air,' said a senior journalist. 'In contrast, Dacre left without saying goodbye to anyone. There are some people here he never spoke to in 17 months.'

Mr Steven is believed to have viewed the move with disappointment - despite reports that he received a pounds 100,000 a year pay rise. Staff say he has made no changes yet, although the paper's more right-wing commentators may be feeling uneasy; Mr Steven once described himself as Fleet Street's only Socialist editor and he is known to believe the Standard lacks a social conscience.

In contrast, Mr Holborow's arrival at the MoS has devastated reporters. They are used to Mr Steven's fireside manner of editing. Now they expect frenetic Daily Mail-style leadership. Most newspapers in Fleet Street had received applications for jobs by yesterday. One said Mr Holborow had already scrapped the paper's IQ and Review sections, of which Mr Steven was very proud, and planned to replace them with a section called Femail.

He is thought to favour Rod Gilchrist, a former Mail news editor, as his deputy, over Jim Anderson, a man universally liked. One reporter said: 'Holborow demonstrated his idea of an introduction yesterday. He walked into Features and said: 'Hello' before turning round and walking out. That was it.'

Meanwhile, at the Times, the search for an editor continues. Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, has ambitions in television and may consider the Times job to be a demotion. Other internal - and able - candidates are John Bryant, deputy editor, and a former editor of the European and Sunday Correspondent, and Peter Stothard, a long-standing Times executive. Roy Greenslade, a former Mirror editor, is understood to have been ruled out.

Outside candidates could include Jonathan Fenby, deputy editor of the Guardian, and Ian Hargreaves, deputy editor of the Financial Times. Some pundits have even thrown in the name of Stephen Glover, former editor of the Independent on Sunday.

It will be interesting to see whether the newspaper follows the cycle it seems to have adopted since the appointment of William Rees-Mogg in 1967. He may be regarded as a 'gentleman' editor, but he was followed in 1981 by Harry Evans, very much a 'player'. The cycle continued in 1982 with the appointment of Charles Douglas-Home, gentleman; in 1985 with Charles Wilson, player; and, in 1990 with Simon Jenkins, gentleman.

Had he been appointed, Mr Dacre would have been regarded by many as a player. It will be interesting to see whether the search for a player continues now that the Times's conservative independent directors, who must approve appointments, know that Mr Murdoch is on the hunt for new blood.

(Photographs omitted)