How many ex-Daily Express editors has Express editor Rosie Boycott invited to the paper's centenary celebration party next month? The choice of venue - the cavernous Vinopolis, rather than the more familiar environment of El Vino's - suggests all of us. My own invitation arrived last week.
Rosie is the paper's 14th editor since the legendary Arthur Christiansen was sacked by Lord Beaverbrook 40 years ago as his reward for doubling the circulation to four million. Or she's the 15th editor if you count Bob Edwards twice, since Bob has had the honour of twice being appointed editor of the Daily Express - and, of course, twice being fired. Twelve of the 14 of us are still alive and proving what great survivors we ex-editors of The Express are. The most senior member of us, Sir Edward Pickering, is 87 years old and as the vice president of Times Newspapers still goes to the office in Wapping most days.
I hope there will be a good turn-out of the members of this most exclusive club. Besides sharing the privilege of having edited this great newspaper, we are united by a common bond: an absolute contempt for successive Express managements who ran the place into the ground. We also share a burning desire - now as then - to see The Express succeed again since it was our inspiration, when we were young. Certainly Rosie seems to be hacking it. Two years into the job, she looks disconcertingly well and happy, unlike many of us who stopped looking well and happy the moment we entered the Black Lubianka.
If I went to The Express with any illusions in 1981, they were stripped away before the end of my first day. As I settled myself proudly behind the late, great Arthur Christiansen's double-pedestal mahogany desk, I opened the large centre drawer which was empty except for four visitors cards concealed under the lining paper. They were typographically identical and each said Editor, Daily Express, each bearing the name of one of my four immediate predecessors. Later that day my secretary gave me a box of similar cards with my own name on them, saying, "I'm afraid there's just the one box. The management won't let us order any more until those are finished. They say it's a waste." I removed one and placed it next to the others under the lining paper.
Prophets of doom were all around. A telegram from Sir Larry Lamb arrived: "Congratulations on your appointment as a probationary member of the sacked editors club." It would be Larry who would find my visitor's card next to the others in the same drawer two years later and who later, I hope, left his own behind for Sir Nicholas Lloyd. My driver, John, told me proudly that I was the seventh editor he had driven and wherever we went there would be a landmark which would remind him of one of my predecessors. "Derek Jameson used to have a flat there." Or: "I used to pick Alastair Burnet up from there. I don't know what goes on there." Or: "Bob Edwards liked the Savoy Grill, too."
Two months later there was a further reminder of one's mortality at the Daily Express when the managing director, Jocelyn Stevens, who had hired me from the Daily Mirror, was himself fired for "disloyalty" by our chairman, Lord Matthews, over remarks made by Jocelyn after Matthews had stormed out of a board meeting. This left me marooned with Matthews, a builder, whom I had met only a couple of times, who had no vision or experience of newspapers and who hated journalists.
Our relationship got off to a bad start as the result of a hilarious misunderstanding straight out of Scoop. Matthews rang The Express switchboard from his Rolls-Royce on his way home at 5.15pm one evening and said: "It's Lord Matthews here, is the editor there?" Unfortunately the mobile signal started breaking up as he was entering the Dartford Tunnel and all the switchboard operator could hear - or thought he could hear - was someone furiously shouting, "Is Lord Matthews there?" to which he truthfully replied, "I shouldn't think so. He's hardly ever here and if he does come in he's usually gone by five."
Next day I was summoned and accused of "shirking", which was particularly galling since I had been working 14-hour days, six days a week, throughout the Falklands war. At first Matthews mysteriously refused to reveal his "sources". Then he told me about the call to the switchboard. All was revealed when I asked the operator why Matthews had not been put through to me, when I was in my office, and was told, "There were no calls for you, but some nutter did ring around that time asking for the chairman."
There were other unhappy summonses to "come down" to see Matthews although his office was on the floor above me, something he never discovered. When The Express won the What The Papers Say Scoop of the Year award for our exclusive on the break-in at Buckingham Palace, Matthews was furious. This story had been firmly denied at the time by Buckingham Palace, Scotland Yard and Downing Street, but, believing it to be true, I made the decision to run it. "You had no business publishing that story if the Queen didn't want anyone to know about it," said Matthews, "the trouble with you journalists is you're always sticking your noses into other people's business." At the time, the Daily Express was still outselling the Daily Mail (the Mail sells approximately 1.2 million more copies than The Express these days), but Matthews was convinced that the Mail had overtaken us. This view was based not on audited circulation figures but on the number of television soaps that he had watched in which a copy of the Daily Mail featured in some way. I tried to explain that this was because producers used the Mail as a kind of shorthand to identify a character immediately as middle class. The Express had undergone so many changes of direction in recent years that it could not be used for this purpose. Matthews thought about this for a few seconds and said, "This is your fault for not bunging the producers as much as the Mail."
Attempts to create a new voice and new identity for The Express were not rewarded by the management at that time. Support for a new weekend section, Express on Saturday, the first of its type to be published in a national newspaper, was withdrawn because it might have damaged advertising revenue in the Sunday Express.
My front-page headline, "Hand in Hand for Peace" above our aerial photograph of thousands of protesters ringing Greenham Common, was seen as "dangerous Commie stuff". Clearly, it was time to move on.
Three editors later, The Express that Rosie has inherited now sells one million copies, which is less than half what it was when I left in 1983, which itself was less than half what the paper was selling at its peak in 1962. Or to look at it another way - perhaps Bob Edwards's way? - Rosie is widely perceived as the successful editor of a newspaper which used to fire its editors when it was selling two or three million more copies than it is today. Surely some mistake?
This, I suspect, will be the burning topic of conversation among the conspiracy of ex-editors who gather at Vinopolis. Can The Express still be saved after so many years of neglect? When is a famous brand damaged beyond recovery? Can Rosie succeed where the rest of us failed? Rosie, I would say, has a better chance than any of us since she seems at least to have identified a niche - young, upwardly mobile C1s and C2s - and brought to the paper a distinctive voice and more liberal opinions. This appears to have arrested the decline. The question is, are there enough newspaper buyers within this niche to replace older Express readers who are dying? And will the paper's political shift to New Labour lose still more loyal old Express readers when the Government's fortunes go into reverse?
Rosie has one other thing going for her, besides her obvious personal qualities. She appears to have won the support of her chairman, Lord Hollick. The late Sir David English - an ex-Express man whose talent a former Express management failed to spot or reward - generously attributed his enduring success at the Mail to his partnership with Lord Rothermere. "There is no great editor without a great proprietor," he told me. "Just as Beaverbrook backed Christiansen, Vere backed me from the beginning."
But Hollick is no Beaverbrook nor is he a Rothermere and there are questions over United's commitment to the future of The Express. The proposed merger between United and Carlton, or a sale to a new owner, could undermine everything Rosie has achieved. I hope for The Express's sake that in its 101st year it enjoys a period of stability.Reuse content