What next for the 'Express'?

Mention of the Barclay brothers in newspapers is usually preceded by the word "reclusive". That description can now be formally transferred to Lord Hollick, owner of Express Newspapers. He has been extraordinarily reticent about his plans for the titles - the
Daily and
Sunday Express and
Daily Star - and has not even discussed them with his editor-in-chief, Rosie Boycott. Indeed, the two don't seem to have spoken for three months.

Mention of the Barclay brothers in newspapers is usually preceded by the word "reclusive". That description can now be formally transferred to Lord Hollick, owner of Express Newspapers. He has been extraordinarily reticent about his plans for the titles - the Daily and Sunday Express and Daily Star - and has not even discussed them with his editor-in-chief, Rosie Boycott. Indeed, the two don't seem to have spoken for three months.

But yesterday Lord Hollick, or some of his top brass at United News & Media, were discussing the future of the Express. They were discussing it with the Hinduja brothers. The Hinduja brothers, with a £100m bid join fellow siblings, the Barclays (£75m) and another new entrant in the race, former Mirror chief executive David Montgomery, who is preparing a £90m bid with private equity firm, 3i. Mohamed Fayed is interested but hasn't made a cash offer.

According to The Observer at the weekend, Tony O'Reilly, executive chairman of Independent News and Media plc, owners of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, is also among the suitors. That much is wrong. Brendan Hopkins, chief executive of Independent News and Media UK, said yesterday: "We have no interest in the Express titles. We have never expressed an interest, or seen or received any figures in relation to the titles."

That may not be the best news for Express editor Rosie Boycott, who has confided to friends that she would like to see the titles come under the ownership of Independent News and Media.

Ms Boycott has also, of course, worked with David Montgomery. Indeed, he made her a newspaper editor, bringing her from Esquire to The Independent on Sunday. That faith in her ought to make him, too, a welcome potential proprietor. But her memory will be good enough to know that for Montgomery, proprietorship and extreme cost cutting go hand in hand. The Express group now desperately needs investment, of which it has been starved under Lord Hollick.

The Barclay Brothers and their publisher Andrew Neil would love to get their hands on the Express, and a head-on fight with the Mail under Neil's stewardship would be invigorating. Almost certainly, the Barclays would ditch the Blairite approach under present owner Lord Hollick. And Rosie Boycott who has said that a sale to the Barclay brothers would be a "betrayal" would not expect to be kept on as editor.

But this may all be academic. Right now, the Hinduja brothers look like the men most likely to. They are deeply serious about this bid and desperate to own a British newspaper group, I am assured.

There are four brothers. A company insider says they speak of themselves as "Four hearts, one head." It's more like eight hearts, as there are four sons in the business as well.

Unusually for potential newspaper proprietors, the Hindujas seem willing to talk about their plans for the paper - even if in the most general terms. Firstly, they say Express Newspapers will complement their existing media interests. As their existing media interests are an Indian cable network and Net business, it is not obvious how the Express, Sunday Express and Daily Star will fit in.

They guarantee "an injection of cash" for the titles, though there's no indication yet how big an injection that would be. The Express titles, say the Hindujas, are "great British institutions with a proud history". They have clearly been mugging up on their Beaverbrook. They also promise "a genuine campaigning spirit on issues that matter to the British people and that improve the quality of life for everyone."

There will need to be a few extra pages each day to encompass such an all-embracing mission statement. And it is , of course, possible that one of the first problems for an Express editor under a Hinduja ownership would be how to cover the affairs of the Hinduja brothers. We will know on 20 November whether charges will in fact be made against them in India in relation to alleged payments regarding an arms deal. I doubt if any would-be proprietor has ever considered entering the market with their own affairs under such scrutiny.

It can safely be said that neither Andrew Neil nor the Hinduja brothers will continue with the (admittedly wavering) Blairite approach that has existed under Lord Hollick. As the latest circulation figures show, the Express is down year on year, while the Mail continues to climb. The Hindujas say they would appoint trustees to guarantee editorial independence. Those who know the brothers say that they will honour this pledge, but they add that they, their four hearts and their one head all believe that the Express's future is not as a left-of-centre newspaper.

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