Richard Desmond, the owner of the Daily Express, has asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the exclusive deal between Associated Newspapers and London Underground for the distribution of its Metro title, in an attempt to clear the way for a free newspaper of his own.
Executives from Mr Desmond's Northern & Shell company went to make representations at the OFT yesterday. The company wants access to the Underground, not so much to take on Metro as its stablemate, the Evening Standard. Both papers are owned by Associated Newspapers, Mr Desmond's arch-rival. Associated also publishes the Daily Mail, the direct competitor to Mr Desmond's mid-market Express.
Mr Desmond, cheekily, plans to call his Londonpaper the Evening Mail. It would hit the streets in the afternoons, from this summer, as a free alternative to the 40p-a-day Standard. Associated has taken out an injunction against Northern & Shell's use of the word "Mail" in the title.
Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, who is soon to gain control of the Tube, could help Mr Desmond to get his newspaper into stations. He makes no secret of his loathing for the Standard, which has campaigned vigorously against him. The Sunday Express published an editorial last week lavishing praise on Mr Livingstone's congestion-charging scheme.
Yesterday, Mr Livingstone said: "Private monopolies are inherently bad for the consumer and for business in general. There is clearly a strong case for greater competition in the London newspaper market, which is entirely controlled by the Evening Standard."
As well as the legal action, Mr Desmond is exploring other ways to distribute his newspaper, including hawkers outside Tube stations.
Christian Toksvig, the executive at Northern & Shell heading its Evening Mail project, said: "This is a very serious challenge to the Evening Standard. Free newspapers have taken the world by storm."
In an attempt to hit back, Associated, which refused to comment, is rumoured to be working on a celebrity magazine to rival Mr Desmond's OK! and a downmarket tabloid to take on his Daily Star.
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