One of Richard Desmond’s heroes is Rupert Murdoch, who was profiled in glowing terms in the most recent Sunday Express. The proprietor of the Express group regards the Australian-born adventurer as an outsider like himself. In fact, Desmond is far more of an outsider than Murdoch. His fortune is based on his pornographic magazines and television channels, some of which by my definition are hard-core. By comparison Murdoch – Oxford-educated, son of Sir Keith – is almost out of the top drawer. But Murdoch’s Sun did take on and topple the established Daily Mirror, introducing a new brand of popular journalism including ‘Page Three girls’. Desmond hopes to work a similar trick on Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail.
It is tempting to write off Desmond as a loudmouth who knows very little about national newspapers. But there is no question that he is making advances. The pornographer not infrequently pops into No. 10 – he was there last week with his editors – and is on good terms with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications. His newspapers are not in too bad shape, either. He has made enormous cost savings at the Daily Express, and more or less stabilised its circulation decline. While continuing to support New Labour, the paper has become a sort of clone of the Daily Mail, admittedly without its resources or its brio. (Here I must again declare an interest as a columnist on the Mail.) Desmond’s success with the Daily Star is more marked. Its new editor, Peter Hill, certainly has the magic touch when it comes to tit ‘n’ bum. The paper has increased its sales by more than 15 per cent over the past year from a relatively low base. Although the Daily Star’s circulation is still less than a quarter of that of the Murdoch-owned Sun, there is no doubt that it is beginning to worry its powerful rival, which, unless I am mistaken, has increased its own quotient of tit ‘n’ bum by way of a response. One may wonder, by the way, why Murdoch should be friendly towards Desmond when the Daily Star is attempting to do down his mass-circulation red-top. Perhaps because they share a common enemy in Associated.
To stem the decline of the Daily Express, and to make some progress with a paper like the Daily Star, may not seem an enormous achievement. But it suggests that Mr Desmond should be taken seriously. He did, after all, successfully launch OK! magazine as a rival to the established Hello!. Now he is planning to launch a free London evening newspaper in competition with Associated Newspaper’s London Evening Standard and its free morning title, Metro. On the face of it, this seems a near-suicidal challenge. Associated has considerably deeper pockets than Desmond. The company also understands the complexities of distributing hundreds of thousands of newspapers within London in a few hours. It was largely poor distribution which did for Robert Maxwell’s London Daily News in the late 1980s. But Desmond probably understands newspapers better than Maxwell ever did. If he cracks distribution, he might succeed with a downmarket free sheet which offers the celebrity mix he understands so well. Such a paper would hardly drive Metro or the Evening Standard out of business, but it would certainly irk Associated.
The question is whether Richard Desmond is the next Rupert Murdoch. I doubt very much whether he has Murdoch’s twisted journalistic genius. But, like the young Murdoch, he is dangerous because he has no reputation to lose. He will take anyone on. (In this connection, readers who are interested should take a look at the media pages of the Sunday Express, where rival proprietors and their editors are regularly libelled, sometimes, it must be said, amusingly so.) If Desmond does succeed, his influence on British society is likely to be far more baleful than Murdoch’s. Here is a man who has made his fortune out of publishing disgusting magazines which (I am relying here on what I read) show women in the most humiliating positions. OK! magazine, while blameless on this front, is nauseating in its worship of celebrities and in its complete avoidance of critical journalism. Judge the man by what he has done. Even more than Murdoch, Desmond will aim to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Will he thrive? I don’t think so, but I certainly would not rule it out. Nor does No. 10, which from the moment Desmond acquired the Express group has clasped him to its bosom. The reason, of course, is that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell see in him a battering-ram with which they can inflict damage on their arch-enemy – the Daily Mail and Associated Newspapers. But can they not lift their eyes above this relatively unimportant squabble and understand the greater danger which Desmond poses to society? Having allowed him to buy the Express titles without any kind of reference to the regulatory authorities, there is little the government can now do to stop him. But its encouragement of this man is squalid, and of all its sins and omissions the most reprehensible.
John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, has won an Emmy for his Max Hastings-like stunt in ‘liberating’ Kabul. Mr Simpson and his cameraman, Joe Phua (who shares the Emmy), walked into the Afghan capital ahead of Northern Alliance troops. This was duly shown on BBC 1’s Ten O’Clock News. Asked by Sue MacGregor on Radio Four’s Today programme who had liberated Kabul, Mr Simpson replied, ‘I suppose it was the BBC.’
Am I the only person not to share the universal joy and national celebration at Mr Simpson’s award? One can quite understand that journalists should want to make a name for themselves. Sir Max became famous when he entered Port Stanley ahead of the British soldiers who had risked their lives, and he went on to become editor of the Daily Telegraph. But at least he did not pretend that he had freed the Falklands from Argentinian oppression. As a result of his stunt and his absurd claim, Mr Simpson became the story. In fact, he played no part whatsoever in liberating Kabul. He merely associated himself with the gang of ruffians who did.
I do not at all deny that Mr Simpson is a cool, brave and incisive reporter. He stood up to the government during the Kosovo war when it was claimed that he was too sympathetic to the Serbs. (He had been confined to the Hyatt hotel in Belgrade, largely as a result of slipping in a Jacuzzi.) But I am worried that he does not appear to be often on our screens these days. He writes a column for the Sunday Telegraph which I personally find sticky going. No doubt he will tell us that he is constantly on the road, as he may possibly be. But it would be cheering to us licence-payers to see a little more of him. One of the few bonuses of a war against Iraq will be that Mr Simpson will gird his loins and head for the desert. Please, though, let there be no claims to have liberated Baghdad.