Some friend the 'Express' proves to be

Richard Desmond's excesses have helped to turn a once-great title into a laughing stock

It is hard to believe that not so long ago Richard Desmond, the owner of Express Newspapers, was a possible, even, some said, likely buyer of the Telegraph titles after the fall of Conrad Black. For Desmond demonstrated last Thursday that he is several cards short of a full hand, as Anne Robinson might put it.

His behaviour at a meeting with the Telegraph board over their joint ownership of printing facilities in London Docklands was breathtakingly offensive. In what was understood to be a reference to the courting of the Telegraph group by the German publisher Axel Springer, Desmond led his colleagues in juvenile - some would say racist - anti-German behaviour, mimicking German accents, using schoolroom German words, goose-stepping, describing Germans as Nazis and singing "Deutschland über alles". The Telegraph directors wisely called a halt to the meeting.

All this from the owner of a newspaper once highly respected, once dominating the market. For all their recent, Desmond-led, decline the Daily and Sunday Expresses occupy a major place in British newspaper history. Desmond's xenophobic actions have made them a laughing stock.

So you might be forgiven for thinking that in the context of the past week the expression "historic decision" referred to the one the UK electorate will be asked to take in the referendum on the EU constitution, not to some realignment of the Daily Express. That paper would say you were wrong.

In big capital letters across its front page on Thursday it declared: "Why the Daily Express is taking the historic decision to back the Conservatives." The point was underlined across pages four and five: "Why the Daily Express has taken the historic decision to back the Tories." Lest the point had not entirely sunk in with its shrinking band of readers, the paper declared in capital letters across pages six and seven: "Why the Daily Express has taken the historic decision to back the Tories."

Decisions clearly do not come much more historic than this. So it was unsurprising that the Express's editor Peter Hill felt the need to borrow the whole of page 12 to explain, in a rare signed editorial, just why he had decided to make history in this way. He insisted on the BBC Today programme that the historic decision was his and his alone. It had not been required, or even suggested, by his proprietor, although as a matter of courtesy Hill had told Desmond what he was doing.

It cannot have been comfortable for Labour having the support of a newspaper owned by a German-hating pornographer with the sort of views on crime and punishment, asylum and immigration that the Express has promoted. Whether Michael Howard, for whom all has gone so well lately, is welcoming his new ally is something a politician of his sagacity should not be expected to disclose.

Pause a moment to sympathise with the poor Express reader. One of the golden rules of newspapers is that while it is acceptable to sack staff it is a bad idea to sack readers. But that is precisely what the Express did under its previous owner, the TV magnate and lifelong Labour supporter Clive Hollick, a New Labour crony peer. Throughout decades of huge sale, success and influence (in the 1950s it was selling four million copies a day; today it sells fewer than one million) the Express had been Tory to its core, a true believer in keeping the Great in Great Britain and, if possible, hanging on to the Empire.

After a period of resisting seismic change, Hollick decided that the paper should shift its support to Labour, brought in a left-of-centre editor in Rosie Boycott, and effectively told the Express's residual readers that they were too right-wing or too old for the paper and were surplus to requirements. Such strategies tend not to work. This one didn't.

So Hill's historic decision could be seen as no more that a resumption of normal service. Surviving pre-Hollick Express readers will presumably be welcomed home, although sadly, newspaper life tends not to be like that. Sales in Germany, or to Germans in Britain, are unlikely to rise.

Peter Hill's explanation for the historic decision was summed up in the headline over his leader: "You can't believe a word Blair says any more." Hill concludes: "It is a question of trust, and regrettably Mr Blair has lost ours."

So while we're on the subject of trust, let us consider the Daily Express. On the Saturday before its "historic decision" the paper used the historic decision slot, the front-page lead, for a story headlined "Jacko in 'suicide' mystery. Shock report stuns the world." The story opened: "Pop fans throughout the world were stunned yesterday by a report that troubled superstar Michael Jackson had committed suicide. The report, flashed on a website, had news agencies everywhere in a spin. Investigations finally proved, however, that it was a cruel hoax."

The Express was giving as its most important story of the day a report that it admitted was a hoax, although the headline designed to grab readers certainly did not make that plain.

Newspapers regularly receive stories that turn out to be untrue. They come from all sorts of suspect sources. Much journalistic effort goes into checking out stories that are never published for the simple reason that they are untrue. It is unusual journalistic practice to publish them anyway. The rumour was known to many other newspapers that checked it out, saw it for what it was, and discarded it.

A little research would have revealed that the website the Express identified as Global Assisted News was in fact Global Associated News. Go there and click on "About Global Associated News" and you get taken to FakeAWish.com. Try that one and you read "Ha! Did someone get you? The story you read was a complete hoax. If you are reading this page it's likely that you read a fake story from Global Associated News, a totally bogus news source."

Michael Howard, keep your distance.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

MEDIA DIARY

Mercy for Desmond

The Daily Mail was remarkably restrained on Friday in its coverage of Richard Desmond's tirade against executives at The Daily Telegraph. All it offered was a diary item on page 15 in which it coyly referred to Mr Desmond as an "exotic publisher". Yet the Mail, a frequent target of tirades from the Express boss, had every reason to gloat. Could its treatment of the episode have anything to do with the fact that the Express shares ownership of The Daily Telegraph's print works? Should the Mail's owners buy the Telegraph titles (a race from which Mr Desmond has withdrawn) then Mr Desmond will become a business partner.

Early doors resignation

Ron Atkinson's racist outburst last week was certainly embarrassing for The Guardian, where he had a column on the sports pages. But it could have been a lot worse. For a start, Big Ron (above) made it easy for the paper, phoning up and leaving a message saying: "I suppose you want me to step down", which it did. And if the episode had happened a couple of weeks later, The Guardian would have embarked on promoting its Euro 2004 coverage, in which Atkinson was due to feature prominently.

Mind that satchel

Boris Johnson's overgrown schoolboy act was on display at the launch of Harper Perennials, a new HarperCollins imprint, on Thursday night. While others left their bags in the cloakroom, the Spectator editor and Tory MP (below) insisted on wearing a tatty and very bulky satchel over his arm, which swung around, knocking into those nearby as he gesticulated wildly. At least one guest's canapé went flying, while the wine waiters steered clear.

What not to war

Party of the week was undoubtedly BBC2's 40th birthday bash in Knightsbridge, where Trinny Woodall's presence alongside Charles Wheeler prompted the thought that the grizzled newsman might be in line for a makeover. Richard Wilson was larging it, but the real comedy was the sight of the BBC's senior management - among them Peter Horrocks and Roly Keating - jockeying for position as decisions are made on a new DG and on a Controller of BBC2 to succeed Jane Root.

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