James Lawton: How the 'Daily Express' lost its magic and its way

'One by one, the great figures were missing as you walked down the long corridors of the old office'
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The Independent Online

When I joined the Daily Express in the Sixties, it was a worry that circulation had dropped below four million, but you could still tell an Expressman by his camelhair coat, suede shoes and superior air.

When I joined the Daily Express in the Sixties, it was a worry that circulation had dropped below four million, but you could still tell an Expressman by his camelhair coat, suede shoes and superior air.

The Duke of Edinburgh said it was a "bloody awful" newspaper, but among his peers, the Expressman was envied both for his expense account and the superb professionalism of his newspaper. When I left, a few months ago, circulation was around a million and the sadness could be relieved only by assurances that one hadn't been entirely responsible for the loss of three million copies and a blazing identity.

What had been lost most of all, it had been clear for many years, was style and a passion for making a newspaper that knew both its own voice and precisely to whom it was addressing it. As that voice grew progressively irresolute, as the procession of owners who followed in the steps of Beaverbrook displayed an ever-increasing ignorance of what the paper had once meant to the people who both read and produced it, even someone who operated in the "playpen" of journalism - the sports room - could not but be aware of the dwindling horizons.

One by one, the great figures were missing as you walked down the long corridors of the old Fleet Street office. Cartoonists Osbert Lancaster and Carl Giles; legendary foreign correspondents René McColl and Sefton Delmar; the scourge of Whitehall, Chapman "Harry" Pincher; doyen of crime reporters, Percy Hoskins; the sportswriter in the brown bowler, Desmond Hackett; the voices of racing, Peter O'Sullevan and The Scout, Clive Graham, relentlessly took their leave, both of the newspaper and a large slice of the nation as a captive audience.

As a young sportswriter, I was sent to the Harley Street clinic to talk to The Scout, who despite severe illness had phoned in to say that he had come up with a revolutionary idea to root out the first hooligans disfiguring British sport. It was a rotten idea, largely based on the model of branding cattle, but it was a fascinating afternoon. One couldn't help noting the range of those wishing him a speedy recovery. There was a card and flowers from the Queen Mother.

Sadly, The Scout didn't recover. Nor did the Daily Express. Hackett, who had done so much to maintain the massive circulation, left the building almost unnoticed. He had been relegated to a boxing column, this man who had once inflamed much of west London with the declaration that he would walk all the way back from Wembley if Chelsea ever won the FA Cup.

Somewhat earlier, as times began to change, Peter O'Sullevan arrived in Dublin for his annual tour of the Irish stables to be told by the car-hire company that his usual Mercedes had been replaced by a Ford Cortina, by order of the London office. O'Sullevan, naturally, took the Mercedes, and on his return to Fleet Street, sat down with Sir Max Aitken. The upshot was a new deal for O'Sullevan, which required him to do half as much work for twice as much salary.

The exodus rolled on down the years. A young thruster like David English left to build up an empire at the Daily Mail. A certain young reporter named Tom Stoppard went off to write plays. The magic was dwindling sharply.

In the Seventies, the Express still had foreign bureaux dotted across the world, and the liveliest, no doubt, was at East 42nd Street in New York. It was presided over by the imperious Brian Vine when I made my first visit.

When I told him expenses were running lower, he casually reached into a treasure chest in his desk. He sent his men roaming across North and South America. It was from there that the Express master-minded one of the last of its great scoops, the tracking down of the train robber Ronnie Biggs in Brazil.

Phillip Finn worked in the New York office. He carried the aura of a superlative news reporter among his colleagues, and, like so many old Expressmen, he wore the Old Crusader of the Express on his chest beneath an inevitable bow tie. He covered it all, civil rights, the burning ghettoes, the assassinations, but a few years ago, he got a phone call from London from the editor of the Express that said that the paper was changing direction and he was going to be sent a "nice cheque". The editor, when asked how much it hurt to cut away such veterans, is reputed to have said, "It's a bit like sorting out your sock drawer".

A young journalist who briefly worked in that New York office for the Express also showed a lot of promise. He once took copy on deadline from me during the Montreal Olympics because of some problem in London. But he, too, became disenchanted with the Express. Eventually he left and now is editor-in-chief and tzar of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday.

It may have been his idea to dispatch an Evening Standard seller to the doors of the Express building yesterday afternoon, complete with the banner, " Express sold to Porn King".

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