Lady Stevens: the hand that rocked the editor's chair?

DID Eve fall or was she pushed by the boss's wife? Newspaper gossips are divided.

Some say Eve Pollard's sudden departure last week from the editor's chair at the Sunday Express was the climax of a series of disagreements with Lord Stevens, the paper's chairman, according to one theory. Others link it more conspiratorially to Lady Stevens's friendship with the Princess of Wales, through the affair of the phantom phone-calls.

A few facts, and rather more suppositions, support the second of those explanations for After the downfall of one of the few female editors of a national newspaper - known to viewers for her appearances on television game shows and fashion programmes, and to her staff as a demanding taskmistress - both theories had their supporters.

The story that police had investigated a succession of irksome anonymous telephone calls to Oliver Hoare, a close friend of the princess, broke in the News of the World last Sunday. But it had been due to run in the Daily Express - edited by Eve Pollard's husband, Sir Nicholas Lloyd - three days earlier, until pulled at the last minute, apparently on Lord Stevens's instructions.

When it was clear that the story was about to break elsewhere, Ms Pollard was allowed to publish it in the Sunday Express, under a joint byline that included John Twomey, the Daily Express reporter whose original scoop had been stifled. But the headline, 'Diana Phone Pest Riddle', is said to have annoyed Lord and Lady Stevens because it implied that the princess had indeed made the disputed calls.

Next day the Daily Mail published an interview with the princess in which she denied doing any such thing. She offered detailed alibis for the dates and times that /when some of/ the calls were said to have been made. Among them was the claim that on 13 January, when one of the calls was made, she 'was lunching in Mayfair with Lady Stevens, the wife of newspaper proprietor Lord Stevens'.

Another lunch that both women attended, some time later, may be more significant. Last month Ross Benson, the Daily Express gossip columnist who is counted as a supporter of the Prince Charles in the Waleses' couple's family dispute, was surprised to be invited to lunch at short notice by Lord Stevens. When he arrived at the executive dining room, overlooking the Thames at Blackfriars, he was surprised to find Lady Stevens and the princess among the handful of guests. The object was to get him to rethink his support for the prince. Sir Nicholas Lloyd was also at the table but, perhaps significantly, his wife Eve was absent.

Lady Stevens is a Russian-born former photographer named Meriza Giori. She is Lord Stevens's third wife: the first left him to bring up their two children by himself and the second choked to death on a peach in 1989. He married Ms. Giori less than a year after the bereavement, following a whirlwind courtship. While she shuns the limelight, she relishes the social obligations that come with being married to a man who, though not technically a press proprietor, is chairman of a company (United Newspapers) that owns threetwo national titles.

Any friend of the princess's would have been upset by last weekend's reports. However, some Express staffers say that if last Sunday's lead story did play a role in Ms Pollard's abrupt departure, it was only to trigger an inevitable parting.

There have been persistent reports about differences between Lord Stevens and Ms. Pollard, almost since she was hired from the Sunday Mirror more than three years ago. One much-repeated story has her almost reduced to tears after a particularly heated discussion with the chairman. His alleged comment: 'Now you know how your staff feel.'

Staff turnover was high and morale low during her tenure and, more seriously, the paper's circulation remained in decline. In the Fifties and Sixties it would sell up to four 4 million copies a week, but when she took it over in 1991 it was down to little more than 1.5 million.

A change from broadsheet to tabloid format soon after she started took over boosted sales to just not far short of 2 million, but last month they were below 1.5 million, having dropped 10 per cent over the past year. On top of that, she has been the victim of a sustained campaign in the satirical fortnightly Private Eye, which has published damaging stories about her, emanating from disaffected staff.

'There's been a thrill, or a spill or a crisis every week,' said one staffer. 'It's very unsettling, especially for a paper in decline as ours is.' Another addedcommented: 'It's been like working in a concentration prison camp.'

Lord Stevens was said to have been further angered by reports last year that the Lloyds were looking into the possibility of spearheading a buyout of the Express titles from United Newspapers. They denied it, but now that Ms Pollard has departed there is inevitably speculation about Sir Nicholas's position. His newspaper's circulation is in no better shape than his wife's, down 8.79 per cent year-on-the year at 1.33 million. Suppressing stories that offend the chairman's wife seems an improbable way of stemming the decline.

(Photograph omitted)