Rothermere vs Desmond: this time it's more than personal

For all the knockabout insults, the war between 'paradiddler' Desmond's Express group and 'Little Johnny' Rothermere's Mail is entering a bloody new phase. And London is the battleground. Vincent Graff reports

If anything, one might have expected the charity to be grateful for the free advert. A few days ago, the Daily Mail published a small titbit in one of its gossip columns:

If anything, one might have expected the charity to be grateful for the free advert. A few days ago, the Daily Mail published a small titbit in one of its gossip columns:

"Exotic publisher Richard Desmond is to play the drums in a rock band for the Anglo-Jewish charity Norwood on October 18, flanked by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who, Zoot Money of The Animals and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum. BBC chairman Michael Grade and paradiddling Dick are the impresarios behind the event. Tickets cost a mere £750 and include a 'kosher' buffet."

Desmond, the proprietor of the Mail's arch rival the Daily Express, was not grateful for the publicity. His response? "The bastards. Snide, snide remarks."

His anger, it seems, was fuelled not by criticisms of his percussion technique but by the (albeit factual) references to the Jewishness of the paradiddler's chosen charity, and to the fact that Peter McKay, the author of the Ephraim Hardcastle column, chose to use quotation marks - known in the trade as "scare quotes" - around the word kosher, implying to Desmond's mind that Judaism and its associated rituals are still rather too foreign for a decent gentleman reader of the Daily Mail. "It was another anti-Semitic jibe," says Desmond.

The "exotic" proprietor's verdict came in a week that saw the war between Desmond and Lord Rothermere, his opposite number at the Mail, move into a new, bloody phase.

Unattached observers can once again revel in a delightful display which, though ostensibly about newspaper sales, is really an age-old tale of class hatred and snobbery between an old-money hereditary peer and a new-money upstart who got wealthy on the back of selling pornographic magazines.

Desmond gave a long interview to The Independent last week. Paul Dacre, editor-in- chief of the Mail titles, was a "thug; Lord Rothermere was not fit to be the chairman of a publicly quoted company; Desmond himself was Rothermere's "worst nightmare. I won't rest until he is out."

Hard though it might be to believe, he stood by his claim that the Daily Express (circulation 960,000) will overtake that of the Daily Mail (circulation 2.44 million). "We are stable, and we are making money and we have got no debt. If I wanted to increase the sale - if I wanted to do a Rothermere and piss away a billion of other people's money - I could do that ...

"When we decide to go for volume, that's their end. You give the paper away for a penny and put a £5 note on the front."

But it is in London where the next really nasty battle is promised. Early last year, Desmond announced his plans to take on the capital's monopoly evening paper, the Evening Standard, which just happens to be published by Lord Rothermere's Associated Newspapers. He says he will launch a free title, and give it away to commuters as they catch their Tube home.

Such a move is, of course, likely to have an extremely damaging effect on sales of its rival, which currently sells for 40p and already faces competition from a freebie: Associated's own Metro, which is distributed in the morning.

The Standard has lost about 10 per cent of its circulation since its editor, Veronica Wadley, took over the helm in February 2002 from Sir Max Hastings. (The Standard currently sells 368,000; those of us who worked there under Hastings remember the long faces of senior executives if the circulation threatened to dip anywhere close to the dreaded 400,000 figure.)

But Desmond faces one enormous problem: currently the Evening Standard has an agreement with the management of the Tube network that it is the only newspaper allowed to be distributed by vendors on London Underground property. Desmond can print as many newspapers as he likes, but at the moment he cannot hand them out at the one place he can be sure they will get into the hands of commuters.

So last year he lodged a complaint with the Office of Fair Trading, claiming that Associated's Tube deal was a stitch-up banned under competition law. The OFT has been investigating ever since, though far too slowly for Desmond's taste. A spokeswoman for the government department says that no date has been set for any verdict and refuses to speculate. Those in the know do not expect anything before the new year.

But will Lord Rothermere get his retaliation in first? Last week it emerged that Associated is planning what is being called within the company's Kensington HQ "Standard Lite": a slimmed-down version of the paid-for paper which will be given away at lunchtime, before the main title hits the streets.

Not all at the paper think it is a brilliant idea. For a start, the Standard is currently on sale by 10am in some London newsagents, having long ceased to be purely an "evening" paper. These copies will automatically disappear with the appearance of the "Lite". But so will many of those currently sold later in the day. Talk of a Lite paper is officially dismissed as one of "a number of initiatives for the Evening Standard and its editions" and "pure speculation". But there is no doubt at all that the idea has been discussed.

"The 'Standard Lite' idea came up over the summer," confirms an Associated executive. He is sceptical: any slimmed-down version of the day's paper could do one of two things. It could, as its proponents claim, keep Desmond's title out of readers' hands and whet people's appetites so that they buy a copy of the Standard later in the evening - or it could satisfy that very hunger and save the commuter the money he would have given to Lord Rothermere. Many people within Associated are not impressed.

For that reason, and others, we should not run away with the idea that the "Lite" edition is a done deal. Indeed the hush-hush meetings behind closed doors - of which there have been several - are very likely, says my source intriguingly, to involve a spoiler of a very different sort.

One suggestion is that the Standard itself will evolve into a free newspaper, perhaps within a couple of years.

No one can forget how the Standard dealt with Robert Maxwell's London Daily News two decades ago. Londoners woke up one morning in 1986 to find not just one new paper, but two. Associated had reincarnated the downmarket Evening News, a title which it had taken over and closed down under the cloak of a "merger" six years earlier.

The similarity of the names of the new papers, and the bitter price war that ensued between the two titles, sowed enough confusion to kill Maxwell's project within months.

The Evening News, no longer useful, died the same day as Maxwell's Daily News. It was, however, very nearly reborn three years ago, when Rupert Murdoch was thought to be planning his own free evening paper. Again the paper pulled together a small team, of which I was a junior member, to produce an "Evening News".

For several weeks, dummy editions were designed, ready to be printed at the touch of a button. But Murdoch never pounced. Perhaps he had never intended to.

Perhaps Desmond, too, is bluffing? Some in the business suspect as much but, having spoken to people he has interviewed for jobs on the title, I do not think so.

The "snide bastards" - if that is what they are - do not think so either.

DESMOND & 'THE EXPRESS' ON ROTHERMERE & 'THE MAIL'

We are stable, and we are making money and we have got no debt. If I wanted to do a Rothermere and piss away a billion of other people's money - I could do that. Easy. I could double the sale - Richard Desmond

Testament again to how people are growing disillusioned with coverage that has more to do with the agenda it seeks to impose rather than the actual stories to be reported - Express' on a fall in 'Mail' circulation

Chums of Lord Rothermere ... wonder why he continues to use his newspaper to preach family values and to vilify 'single mums', etc. Can this really be the same Lord Rothermere who fathered a child out of wedlock when he was plain Mr Jonathan Harmsworth?- 'Express' diary item

ROTHERMERE & 'THE MAIL' ON DESMOND & 'THE EXPRESS'

I think Desmond is a very clever man. I don't believe he ever does anything emotionally. I think there is always a reason for him doing it. His attacks on us ... are purely in order to garner support from among our many enemies - Lord Rothermere

Refined publisher Richard Desmond has long embraced the most colourful of business techniques - witnesses still giggle at his Basil Fawlty-style goosestep around a London boardroom - 'Mail' diary item

When Blair proclaims his own integrity at such length, he should be reminded of his dealings with Bernie Ecclestone, the Hindujas, Mandelson, Vaz, Robinson, Mittal ... oh yes, and Richard Desmond- 'Mail' leader

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