Peter Hill: An appetite for battle

With a multimillion-pound ad campaign and a 30p cover price, 'Daily Express' editor Peter Hill is more convinced than ever that he can take on Paul Dacre's 'Daily Mail'. Raymond Snoddy meets a man with an appetite for battle
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The Independent Online

People seemed to know what other newspapers stood for, but not really the Daily Express. Nobody knew what the Express was all about," admits Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Express.

After a three-week advertising campaign featuring images of wedding guests in top hat and tails (tradition), a man giving his seat up on the tube (good manners) and the scales of justice (law and order), he hopes the message is now clear.

"It's been a long process to try to make the Daily Express into a newspaper that really does have a firm, and good, set of beliefs that people are aware of," says Hill, who has been in charge of Richard Desmond's flagship title for three years.

It hasn't helped that the Daily Express has gone from Conservative to Labour and back again, that a succession of previous editors have been hired and fired and that, during the political odyssey, the circulation slide has continued unabated.

So to try to give the old Crusader its identity back, Hill and his editorial director Paul Ashford turned to Trevor Beattie, the legendary adman behind such campaigns as Wonderbra's 'Hello Boys', French Connection's FCUK and the Labour party's 2001 election posters showing William Hague with Margaret Thatcher's hairstyle.

What Beattie came up with wasn't just any old multi-million pound campaign. It was a "themed" approach, as opposed to the common tactical promotion of the latest give-away DVD.

Hill, along with Beattie and Ashford, thrashed out a philosophical synthesis that covered a multitude of bases including: standing for "traditional values" and "good, clean fun" but opposing "freeloaders" and "yobs".

The Express is also decidedly against political correctness but, much to Hill's fury, a segment illustrating this - boys wearing goggles to play conkers - was removed from the campaign because the BACC, the body that clears advertising copy, saw it as a political statement.

The ad campaign, which ran nationally for three weeks, concluded with a very traditional Express message - "Crusading For Britain and Proud of It".

Furthermore, the paper was to be offered at the new knock-down rate of 30p, 25% less than the previous cover price.

This year, Desmond says he is planning to spend as much as £30m on television advertising for his main newspaper and magazine titles, including the Daily Star and OK! magazine. The Express price cut alone is believed to be costing him up to £500,000 a week. Not since the Knights Templar, an order with vast wealth, a wharf on the Thames and a medieval approach to dealing with their enemies, has anyone splashed out so much on Crusading.

Hill comments: "The Express stands for tradition but it does not stand in the way of progress. We are not fuddy-duddy. We are all for progress, provided it's the right sort of progress. We are all for law and order. We are all for - and we do stand for - inclusivity," declaims Hill.

He insists that his journalists have not reacted with cynicism to the advertising statements of mother and apple pie principles.

"People were very proud of it and very complimentary, genuinely so. It has given us a greater sense of purpose than perhaps we had before," says Hill, who made his name editing the Daily Star, where he nearly doubled the circulation to around 800,000 with a populist diet of sport, sex, gossip, pop and Big Brother.

The political philosophy graduate admits proudly that he once devoted 28 consecutive front page splashes to the Channel 4 reality show because he knew that this was what most interested his readers.

Hill is the first to acknowledge that trying to reverse the circulation decline at the Express represents a challenge of a completely different order, not least because of the dominance of the Daily Mail in the middle market.

The most recent numbers show that Desmond's decision to spend serious money on promotion has had an effect.

Sales bounced back to 849,001 last month, a rise of 6 per cent compared with December. But the year-on-year figures show an apparently devastating drop of 10.6 per cent from a January 2005 total of 949,238.

The numbers reflect the Express editor's decision to ditch 61,000 bulk or highly discounted copies such as those that used to be given away free on airlines.

"We might be down 4 per cent in street sales but the only sales to me that matter are the street sales," said Hill. Warming to his theme, Hill adds that foreign sales don't really matter either "because every copy that you put into the shops abroad is counted as a sale so you can dump as many as you like. But it's a stupid thing to do because it costs an enormous amount of money."

Unlike bulks and airline giveaways, the Daily Express plans to continue with its foreign circulation of around 35,000 a day to service both ex-pats and Daily Express readers on holiday.

But how difficult was it to persuade Richard Desmond, better known for cutting costs than spending millions on advertising, to agree to the campaign?

"I didn't have to persuade him. He knew very well we had to do something, but I think it took him a long time to come round to the idea that we should try a theme ad because they are an unquantifiable thing to do," says Hill.

Desmond was persuaded by the poor economics of giving away free CDs or DVDs, which the Daily Express estimates can cost anything between £3.50 and £6 for each extra newspaper copy sold, when everything from the rights to promotion is included.

With the rights to a decent film costing more than £300,000, the total cost of giving away a DVD at the weekend, Hill suggests, can come in at anything from £1m to £1.2m. "The history is that all of the extra sales have vanished by next week. They all vanish and sometimes - and I'm talking about all newspapers here - they vanish and then some more, because if your rivals have got a DVD when you don't, even your genuine readers might jump ship," he notes ruefully.

When all the papers have a DVD, virtually nobody scores.

The cost of the TV advertising campaign and the price cut comes in at "£1 or less" per extra copy sold and there is, he believes, a much better chance of attracting a genuine reader who will stay with the paper.

The Daily Express has not abandoned DVD giveaways entirely, but their use has been greatly reduced.

Naturally, Hill says he is "not silly enough" to reveal how long the price-cutting will last. It will depend on how effective it continues to be. It will run as long as he and his proprietor believe there are gains to be made.

"It is Richard's money. He is the sole shareholder in this company. He certainly does listen to people and he doesn't do things on a whim. If he wants to keep the paper at this price forever, it would be perfectly possible because I don't think the company has any debt," Hill says. The Express is "very significantly profitable", although group Northern & Shell numbers are not broken down.

What readers often get on a Monday for their 30p is a Princess Diana splash. Hill and the Daily Express seem endlessly fascinated by conspiracy theories about the death of the Princess of Wales.

In an example of the species earlier this month, the Express hit with the headline "Diana Death: Spies flashed laser beam at crash driver." The paper said that detectives were investigating claims that British spies had pointed the laser into the eyes of the car's driver, Henri Paul.

Is it all a fantasy?

"What did Lord Stevens (ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner) say quite recently? He said that the concerns being voiced by Mohamed Al Fayed and some people, which really means the Daily Express because no one else is doing it, were worthy of an investigation and we had asked questions that needed to be asked," says the unapologetic Hill.

The Diana stories appear on Mondays because Sunday is often a quiet day. Hill says he likes to "plough my own furrow" and have stories no other paper has.

"My job is to sell the Daily Express. My job isn't anything else. My job is to produce newspapers that people want to read and I can tell you that people want to read about the Diana conspiracy because the figures tell me that they do, seriously tell me that they do. People are fascinated and people tell me that they are fascinated," says Hill, who tends to repeat his arguments for emphasis. "When I talk to people, they are fascinated by these stories and the more we write them, the more they are turning out to be true."

The Express editor produces numbers for the Diana laser beam edition - up 30,000 on the same time last year and 9,000 higher than on the following day, while Monday sales of all his rivals were markedly down on numbers a year previously.

"I rest my case," says Hill, a highly experienced journalist of 60, whose journey to the editor's chair at the Daily Express has included spells at the Colne Valley Guardian, the Huddersfield Examiner, the Manchester Evening News, the Oldham Evening Chronicle, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Sunday People before his 10-year stint at the Daily Star.

But does he personally believe in the Diana conspiracy theories?

"I believe there are enough grounds to think they might turn out to be true. I don't know, but there are definitely so many things, so many strange coincidences, so many things have happened that shouldn't have happened that there are enough grounds to believe that something is wrong here. Very, very wrong," says Hill who lists one of his interests in Who's Who as making mischief.

Mischief, yes, but not, according to Hill, unnecessary or gratuitous cruelty.

"I am not by nature a destructive person and when I was on the Star I figured out that rival newspapers were really being very stupid because they kept doing knocking pieces on everybody. It might be David Beckham. It might be any damn thing at all," says Hill.

As he sees it, those with no interest in Beckham will have little interest in such stories. Only Beckham fans will really count.

"So why are you going to piss them all off? Unless somebody does something where they destroy themselves and I'm thinking of someone like Gary Glitter, for instance," Hill adds.

He has been responsible for hard-nosed, controversial campaigns against gypsies and asylum seekers, and remains completely unrepentant.

A number of Express journalists even wrote to the Press Complaints Commission alleging that they were being forced to write negative stories about gypsies. Ironically, Hill is a member of the PCC. "I have never forced anyone to write anything. There were stories at the time that needed running and I have never shrunk from stories that needed to be written. We are not an operation too much concerned with political correctness," he explains.

The Express editor argues that the lives of many people in rural areas have been made a misery by gypsies "who've invaded their lands" and turned their villages and hamlets into battlegrounds.

"Of course it is a legitimate story," he insists. As were, he believes, Express reports that as many as 1.6 million gypsies were on the way from Eastern Europe following the enlargement of the European Union. It may not have happened, but it was a genuine fear at the time, he argues.

Hill is also precisely aligned with many of his Middle England readership in what he acknowledges is his hostility towards asylum seekers.

He is hostile because he believes "the vast majority of these people" are economic migrants rather than genuine asylum seekers. People fleeing torture or terror is one thing, he believes, but the majority of those coming to the UK are seeking a better life and that is not a genuine reason under the rules.

"We have no hesitation at all in writing about those things. The readers are massively concerned. We get so many letters. We get massive, massive response to these issues, an enormous response," says Hill.

He seems to be on surer ground with his latest campaign, which is against inheritance tax. Rising property values are bringing more and more Daily Express readers within its net.

In the first two days of the campaign, more than 20,000 had signed up to the paper's "Great Inheritance Crusade." The signed coupons calling for the tax's abolition are still pouring in. They will be forwarded to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who is something of a bête noire for both Hill and his proprietor. Hill finds Brown convincing on a personal level but dislikes his "philosophy of redistribution of income," sees him as a Socialist and is convinced he is unelectable "because you have to be good on TV and he's not."

The Express editor also has "deep reservations" over whether David Cameron would make a good Prime Minister but is still "absolutely certain" that the paper will support him.

"The Conservative Party and the Daily Express are in many ways very similar. I won't call them problems, we don't have problems, we have opportunities. We have a readership, they have an electorate, that really we don't have enough of. We need to convince more people that we have the right message for them," he says.

It was Hill who ended the Express's New Labour days and took the paper back into the arms of the Conservatives because he thought the paper was swimming against a ridiculously strong tide - the opinions of most of its readers. "I consulted Richard and said 'this is what I think we should do' and he said 'you are absolutely right', even though he is not really a Conservative supporter at all," says Hill.

He clearly gets on with Desmond, as all editors must do with their proprietors if they are to survive, although equally clearly there are sometimes raised voices between them.

"We both believe passionately in what we are doing, really passionately, and we have a good old sparky relationship with an enormous amount of humour in it and we have a lot of fun together," says Hill.

Sir Nicholas Lloyd, editor of the Express for the 10 years to the end of 1995, thinks Hill is not doing too badly.

"I think he fights a good battle in his own way given the resources available, but he is facing really big battalions. He is facing Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail and I suppose also the Daily Telegraph and The Times."

Sir Nicholas says he would not like to be an editor of the Express taking on the Mail with the resources Peter Hill has got.

The Mail - January circulation 2.38 million, down 0.83 per cent on the year - is the ghost at any Express party.

Hill takes heart from the fact that the Daily Mail is selling off "the family silver" by getting rid of Northcliffe Newspapers, its regional division.

"They may look strong but in many ways I think they are quite weakened and what gives me confidence is the idea that Marx had that every economic system contains the seeds of its own destruction. I firmly believe that the Daily Mail contains the seeds of its own destruction and they are starting to sprout," says Hill.

He thinks the Mail is very dated, is against everything and yet stands for nothing - unlike the Daily Express, as the television ads make clear.

And then Hill heads off on a flight of fancy. Once the Express sold more than the Mail and there is no law of physics that says it can't happen again, he believes.

In his dreams, the battle with the Daily Mail even inspires the inscription on his tombstone. In this fantasy, Hill's grave would be marked with a diagram showing the rising line of Daily Express sales meeting the falling line of the Daily Mail's, and beneath it the epitaph: "He did it. He made it happen."

Peter Hill has a twinkle in his eye. "That would be what you would like on your gravestone - a graph, so that when aliens landed and there was no-one left, they would understand what had happened," he says.