Stephen Glover On The Press

Desmond's golden goose could easily become a dead duck
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last month both papers posted their lowest-ever circulation figures in what is admittedly an unhappy market for newspapers. The Daily Express, which just over 40 years ago sold 4.3 million copies a day, claimed sales of 831,373, a fall of 13.43 per cent from September last year. Of course, Mr Desmond cannot be blamed for the 25-year circulation decline of the Daily Express, but it has continued to lose sales on his watch, recently at an alarming rate. It was selling around a million copies when he bought it from Clive Hollick's United News and Media, with the encouragement of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, in December 2000.

Mr Murdoch believes first and foremost in circulation. That is why he has spent tens of millions of pounds in roughly doubling The Times's sales since 1993. If you get circulation right, so Mr Murdoch thinks, everything else will follow. In this respect Mr Desmond has not matched the achievements of the man to whom he was once compared. He has attacked costs with gusto - so much so that the Daily and Sunday Express are probably more profitable than they were when he bought them, and last year he paid himself a dividend of £42m. But the golden goose is becoming distinctly peaky. If both papers were to continue to lose circulation at the same rate for the next two or three years as they have over the past 12 months, Mr Desmond would find that his goose was dead.

At the Daily Mail, where I write a column, there is an air of condescension as the Daily Express hurtles downwards, the more so, perhaps, because the paper had itself hoped to buy the Express titles five years ago. And yet in the circumstances the Daily Express seems to me not a bad paper. Its editor, Peter Hill, has much less money than the Daily Mail to hire good columnists and writers or to buy up gripping books or to spend on marketing. The deeper problem is that neither he nor Richard Desmond seems to have very much idea of what the Express should be like. Mr Desmond having returned the Daily Express to its right-wing political roots, Mr Hill has produced a paper that in form and appearance and tone increasingly resembles the Daily Mail. But the imitator is unlikely to be as effective as the thing it imitates, the more so if its editorial budget probably is less than half.

My sense is that most journalists no longer care much about the fate of the Express titles, and that they could slip off the radar without their minding. This would be a sad end for two newspapers that were arguably once the most successful in the world. Mr Desmond is not going to be their editorial saviour, though he has made a great deal of money out of them.

Rather than castigate him, I am inclined to pin the blame on Lord Hollick of United News and Media, who unloaded the Express titles with unseemly haste in 2000, though there were other plausible prospective bidders such as the Daily Mail, the Telegraph Group (then owned by Hollinger), and the Barclay brothers.

Others would doubtless have emerged if there had been a properly conducted auction. As it was, the papers were sold to a man who was not only unsuitable because he was a pornographer but also had no background in publishing national newspapers.

Some blame should also go to Mr Blair and Mr Campbell who, thinking Mr Desmond would be a political ally, had him around for tea at No 10 before the ink was dry on the contract, and championed his bid. Much good it did them, in view of the Daily Express's later reversion to the Tories.

Can anyone see a long-term future for the Express titles? Their readers are dying more quickly than they are being replaced, and the papers have become as unfashionable as it is possible to be. They need money and love and vision.

Without an amazing turnaround, they won't receive these things from Richard Desmond. If he does little more than continue to cash his dividends, their most likely, and tragic, fate is that in five years or so they will be sold off as scrap to the Mail group, and folded into its titles.

Why Murdoch would not hold back evidence against Cameron

Has the furore over whether David Cameron has taken drugs gone away? I doubt it. Until last Thursday he had refused to answer any questions about this matter. Then, in response to a question from Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News, he confirmed that he had not snorted cocaine since becoming an MP in 2001. Such an answer may arouse suspicions that he may have done so between the time he left university and 2001. Moreover, by answering this question he may have made it more difficult to continue to stonewall other questions on the subject.

Of course, I have no idea whether he has ever taken drugs, nor whether such a disclosure by him would be fatally damaging. It would obviously depend on the time and the circumstances, as well as the frequency, of any illegal abuse. My guess is that any drug-taking at university would be freely forgiven by the Tory faithful, whose call it is, but that more recent widespread usage might not be. The interesting question is whether over the next six weeks any of the tabloids will deliver a knockout blow. Of course, there may be no such blow to deliver, either because Mr Cameron never did anything he should not have done, or because it is difficult to prove that he did. But it is also possible that newspapers might come across information which they would keep to themselves.

If the evidence were marginal, they might choose to do this. Does the Mail group wish to injure the Tories' brightest hope for many years? I doubt it. Conceivably the Labour-supporting Mirror papers might want to finish off Mr Cameron if they could, but they may lack the journalistic wherewithal to get hold of the best inside information. The newspaper most capable of unearthing damaging stories, if they exist, is of course the News of the World. However, I have heard the suggestion that its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, wants to look after David Cameron in case Gordon Brown should turn out to be a disappointment, or even a threat to Murdoch's interests.

There are dangers, though, in any tabloid suppressing a story in case it should come out in a rival publication. So I tend to think that if there is a mountain of evidence against Mr Cameron it will be used against him, however protective Mr Murdoch might feel. But, of course, we have absolutely no reason to suppose that such evidence exists.

Comments