Whose side are you on, Mr Desmond?

Perhaps the most interesting meeting last week was not between Mr Tony Blair and Mr George Bush - this column is, you may be relieved to hear, for now a Bush-free zone - but between Mr Michael Howard and Mr Richard Desmond. Mr Howard, as the boxing posters of my youth used to put it, needs no introduction. Mr Desmond, however, could do with a few words by way of explanation.

He is the quite recently established owner of the Daily Express. He also owns some livelier publications intended, as they say, for an adult readership, which (English being the strange language it is) naturally means a non-adult readership. For some reason, the most famous of these is entitled Asian Babes.

In the immediate post-war period and for some time afterwards, the popular newspaper market was dominated by two titles, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. The Mirror supported Labour, never slavishly but always loyally: come the election, there was never any doubt about which way the paper was going to jump. It was widely though erroneously credited with winning the 1945 election and keeping Labour in office in 1950. For this reason it was treated as an ornament on the party mantelpiece, its journalists endlessly cosseted, flattered and indulged.

The Express, by contrast, was not so reliable a friend of the Tories. This was certainly so when its proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, was alive. He died in 1964, after which all his papers fell into a decline. Even so, there was never any question about where they stood when it came to an election.

Today the Mirror is more or less in the same position which it has always occupied in relation to Labour. If anything it is more sceptical than its predecessors would have been. In loyalty to the present government, it has been out-shouted by Mr Rupert Murdoch's Sun, which used to persecute Mr Neil Kinnock and bow down before Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

The Sun has not become a Labour paper but it has turned into a supporter of the Government or - what is not quite the same thing - of Mr Blair personally. Just over two weeks ago Mr Murdoch gave an interview to the BBC, one of his least favourite organisations, in which he indulged in a bit of teasing. He was, he said, distinctly impressed with Mr Howard. His papers might well switch to supporting him at the election. On the other hand, they might not. For Mr Blair had been very brave (this was Mr Murdoch's opinion) in international affairs.

Some papers unfriendly to Mr Murdoch commented that he clearly did not envisage the possibility that one or more of his editors might take a different view about the respective merits of Mr Howard and Mr Blair. And it is true that he did not appear to contemplate such a possibility. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that in 1990, under Mr Andrew Neil, The Sunday Times came out in favour of Mr Michael Heseltine as Tory leader. More recently, over both the Iraq war and the Hutton inquiry, most of the columnists of The Times have taken a different line from that of their paper.

Such mitigations of proprietorial power, if they ever come about, are no consolation to No 10. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when Mr Blair enjoyed the support not only of The Sun but of the Daily Mail as well. Mr Alastair Campbell was in Heaven, but Sir David English and the third Lord Rothermere had not then gone to that Better Place. When they did, within weeks of each other, it was only with difficulty, one felt, that Mr Blair was restrained from kissing their corpses. Instead he had to content himself with attending the various funerals or memorial services that were on offer, though he did not know either.

Alas! It was all in vain. Sir David's successor, Mr Paul Dacre, remained distinctly unimpressed; while the fourth Lord Rothermere was happy to agree with Mr Dacre. With the deaths of the two elderly admirers, the brief affair was over; and normal hostilities were swiftly resumed. No 10 had never really expected anything else. But the threat of the withdrawal of support by Mr Murdoch is a heavier and a more unexpected blow.

Naturally Mr Howard and his minions are salivating at the prospect of a return to favour with Rupert. But it is still a long way off. And it may never happen. The prospect of a Daily Telegraph owned by Mr Desmond is, by contrast, at once more pressing and more alarming. The Daily Express had become a Labour supporter under Lord Hollick's ownership, before Mr Desmond acquired it. Mr Desmond has happily continued this support: with, however, the proviso that it might cease if Mr Gordon Brown ever became leader.

Mr Desmond may shortly be in a position to buy or, at any rate, to bid for the Telegraph. The reason is that the present (or perhaps by now it is the past) owner, Lord Black, has been deprived of control of the organisation. The impetus for this change came from Wall Street. The ostensible reason for making it was that Lord Black had paid large sums to himself and to fellow directors rather than to a principal company in what is a black-coffee-inducing network of interdependent companies. Mr Desmond is in a strong position to acquire control not only because he is an established even if recent proprietor but also because he owns a half-share in the Telegraph's printing works not far from The Independent's offices on Devil's Island, as I call it, in London E14. Not only that: for Mr Desmond appears to possess a veto on any new co-owner.

It may be that he will still fail to obtain control of the paper. Someone else may make a better bid. Or perhaps the Government will intervene against him. While governments have always, since the 1950s, possessed abundant powers to meddle in television, which they have delighted in using, their powers to poke a finger into newspapers have, happily, been more circumscribed, confined largely to acquisitions under the monopolies legislation.

Thus Mr Murdoch's acquisitions of the early 1980s were facilitated by John Biffen, the relevant minister, for political reasons. His successor today, Ms Patricia Hewitt or whoever, so far from moving against Mr Desmond, might work on his behalf as her predecessor did on Mr Murdoch's. This political interference in what is called a free press is one of the blots on our constitution, however prettily it may be dressed up in talk of the public interest. What Mr Howard was looking for and obtained from Mr Desmond was the promise that the Telegraph would carry on supporting the Tories.

Comments