The warring after the knight before

The death of Sir David English has left a dangerous power vacuum at the `Mail' group.

Wars of succession are rarely pretty. The heirs apparent of Moghul emperors in 17th century India used to take care of business simply by murdering all their relatives the minute the ruling emperor started to look ill.

So last week, when Lord Rothermere surveyed his Associated Newspapers empire in the wake of the death of Sir David English, he made a pre-emptive strike to avoid any bloodshed on the editorial floors of Northcliffe House. He just installed himself in English's old post of editor-in-chief and appointed his 30-year-old son, Jonathan Harmsworth, as deputy chairman.

So far, so good. But as powerful and influential a figure as English does not disappear from the scene without leaving ripples in his wake.

For a group as professional and sure-footed as Associated, it might seem naive to suggest that the existing order will collapse. After all, English was no longer day-to-day editor of the flagship Daily Mail, and the paper has gone from strength to strength under his successor, Paul Dacre. Having created the "cult of the strong editor", English facilitated rather than orchestrated the rise of the Mail. And upward its has gone, eating up Today's readers after it closed, scooping up those trading up from the mass market, gaining readers in Scotland and nibbling constantly at the sales of The Daily Telegraph. By spending its money on journalists rather than price cuts or subscription schemes it has become the one glowing success in the British press.

And yet it is the very culture of intense competition between its own journalists, subtly fostered as "creative tension" by English, that may have set the scene for some destabilising times ahead.

Rothermere is 73, and insiders doubt whether he wants to look after the shop for very long. His tax advisers already make him spend most of the year out of the country, and day-to-day management has never been his style.

Importantly, Dacre has had his sights fixed on the job. This presents Rothermere with a problem. He needs to try to keep Dacre on board - particularly as Dacre's eye for detail, while still focusing on middle England's broader landscape, is one of the most important factors in the Mail's success. It is also sensible to remember that the only reason the position of editor- in-chief was created for English was because The Times tried to poach Dacre from the Evening Standard. English volunteered to move upstairs so Dacre could be kept in the company.

It is for Dacre's skills as an editor, not as a manager, that Rothermere values him. He is an incredibly hands-on editor, taking an interest in every aspect of the newspaper's production, and he is credited with energising the whole paper - partly, it has to be said, through fear. To move him away from what he does best makes no sense to anyone except, possibly, Dacre.

The further problem for Rothermere is that, if Dacre were to become editor in chief, he might have to look for a new editor for the Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday. These vacancies would arise either because Dacre would rid himself of Max Hastings at the Standard and Jonathan Holborow at the MoS or because they might walk if Dacre was their boss. Not insignificantly, there is no heir apparent to Dacre within the organisation, although Martin Dunn, ex-editor of Today and now running the company's cable TV service, Channel One, might see things differently.

Hastings, in particular, would be disappointed if Dacre moved up because it was in English's nature to have told both men that they were next in line to be editor-in-chief - he was the king of divide and rule.

Insiders believe Hastings also has something up his sleeve. The deputy editor's chair at the Evening Standard has been empty for some time, and Hastings says he is in no hurry to fill the post. This smacks of a man keeping his options open. He seems to want to know what's going to happen to him before he decides on who to put in the line of succession for the Standard.

What Rothermere may have decided, in the short term, is to steady the ship by holding on as editor-in-chief. The share price of Daily Mail General Trust fell last week, and Rothermere must reassure the City that he can bring stability that will ensure business as usual. But before too long, he has to grasp the nettle of succession, and not just on the sixth-floor management suite.

English is known to have told his editors to start fast-tracking a number of the paper's younger staff so that they would be ready to move into senior positions in three to four years. This indicates a lack of confidence in the current crop of second-level executives.

Jonathan Harmsworth is acknowledged as too inexperienced to take over just yet, but he is clearly a key figure in Associated's future. The pre- eminence of the group owes much to the relationship English forged with Rothermere when he was plain Vere Harmsworth 30 years ago.

If Vere's son is now scouting the company's Kensington offices looking for a fresh-faced candidate to join him on the next, difficult stage, who could blame him?

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