The power behind the throne

The changes at the Evening Standard give total control to Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief at Associated Newspapers. They also bring him a new challenge, says David Lister
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The Independent Online

On the night of Sunday, 3 February, a glittering but poignant occasion will take place at the Savoy Hotel in London. Max Hastings will preside over the Evening Standard Film Awards. It will be the last time he presides over anything connected with the Evening Standard. The next morning his successor, Veronica Wadley, currently joint deputy editor of the Daily Mail, will edit the paper.

What a dramatic climax to Hastings's career. For once, the stars may be upstaged by a journalist. Who will waste a glance on Kate Winslet when they can be transfixed by what promises to be a tear-jerking farewell speech from the Evening Standard editor?

But serious students of both the film and newspaper worlds will know that the real movers and shakers are not always the ones on screen, or even in the editor's chair. The leading man can, on occasions, be the producer. And in the Evening Standard scenario, there is only one Harvey Weinstein. He is Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief at Associated.

The most significant aspect of the Veronica Wadley appointment is not that a woman is editing London's paper for the first time – though there is no lack of interest in this former debutante with a manner that has scared Daily Mail staff, who generally don't scare easily. (More importantly, she is a proven executive and former deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, respected for her tenacity and sure touch with features.)

What is more relevant, both within Associated and in the wider landscape of Fleet Street, is that Hastings's departure marks the end of the David English era at Associated, and the assumption of total power by Paul Dacre. Dacre, of course, was himself a David English appointment, in a bid to thwart overtures from Rupert Murdoch. However, English and Dacre were never bosom buddies. Max Hastings was appointed by the late Sir David, and had a contract that ensured no interference from the Daily Mail editor. Veronica Wadley can only dream of such a contract.

Hastings has also developed a warm friendship with the young Lord Rothermere. The professional relationship that matters for Veronica Wadley is with Dacre.

Mind you, Wadley may owe the Rothermeres more than she realises. Insiders say that Lady Rothermere has been taking an increasing interest in the group's affairs, and is often seen on the sixth floor, where the top management meets. Lady Rothermere had, apparently, been especially keen for a woman to edit the Standard.

The Daily Mail's own pages can be pretty ambivalent about high-flying career women. But Dacre will not worry about that. Wadley's appointment is the last piece in a jigsaw that sees Dacre moulding the group in his own image – or at least with his protégés and lieutenants.

Drafted in as Wadley's deputy is Ian MacGregor. Good on news, and especially good on people stories, MacGregor launched Metro, Associated's excellent free paper which London commuters can read on their train journeys. London train journeys being what they are, commuters have long periods in which to study Metro, and have found it stealing a march on the Standard in one or two areas, most notably in its exhaustive and often alternative health coverage. MacGregor is thought by Associated insiders to have been secretly working on dummies for a "new" Evening Standard; and it will be surprising if some of Metro's successes are not incorporated in them.

Over at The Mail on Sunday, Dacre long ago put in Peter Wright, his most trusted colleague in journalism, as editor. Their friendship goes back 20 years, to when Dacre was the Mail's news editor, and Wright his man in charge of forward planning. They still enjoy a drink together most Friday nights.

Rod Gilchrist, Wright's number two, was a David English appointment, and was much liked by English. He is not a Dacre man. But Gilchrist, a former showbiz writer, is in his late fifties; and the move last week of Ted Verity from the online operation to be number three at The Mail on Sunday has the look of forward planning about it. A new number three at the Mail is Eric Bailey, brought over from The Mail on Sunday. Bailey, who originally came from The Daily Telegraph, is another who is not from the David English line of hirings.

Where is it all leading? The smart money seems to be on Dacre, who this year celebrates his 10th anniversary as Mail editor, sooner or later relinquishing the day-to-day running of the Daily Mail, to give more time to wider group initiatives, promotions and business matters. But he would be very much a hands-on editor-in-chief of all three of the group's national papers. Lord Rothermere is said to defer to him on a number of group matters. His influence has never been greater; and however he may reshuffle the pack now, he will have his own people in the key editorial positions.

Will we, in a year's time, see Wadley at the Standard, Wright brought over from the Sunday to edit the Daily Mail and Alistair Sinclair – the sole surviving deputy editor at the Mail after Wadley's departure – moving to The Mail on Sunday? Maybe – though outsiders have a habit of emerging when jobs at that level are up for grabs. What is clear is that whoever does emerge will need Dacre's blessing.

But there is one element in the jigsaw that might mean the future for Paul Dacre is not as rosy as it now seems. And that is the Evening Standard. Dacre's success at the Mail is beyond doubt. Sales have gone up steadily. And, on matters as diverse as the Stephen Lawrence murder and Tony Blair and the MMR vaccine, he has shown that the Mail's championing of an issue means that the Government and the country take notice. And it remains a superbly produced paper.

As an editor of the Standard in the early Nineties before taking over at the Daily Mail, he brought about a circulation rise of 16 per cent, largely due to breaking major news stories, packaged with strong features and promotions. He is said to believe that today's Standard is not a coherent package, and its features are too fluffy.

The Standard had 528,000 sales under Dacre. It has 402,000 now. That should not be forgotten; and according to some who have heard him talk about the Standard, he has certainly not forgotten it. It is the first paper he edited; and he retains a sentimental attachment to it.

But these are trickier times, with a reported threat of a London evening rival from Rupert Murdoch. There is also the difficulty of where to position London's paper. Dacre's campaigning journalism will not go amiss; but will he be self-effacing and commercially cute enough to see that the middle-England values that delight the Daily Mail readership would get short shrift with much of the London readership that he hopes to capture?