Is Richard Desmond the new Murdoch? Many lips were curled when he acquired Express Newspapers in November 2000. People said that he had borrowed too much money. It was suggested that as a man whose fortune was built on pornography he knew next to nothing about running national newspapers. In some quarters he was dismissed as a foul-mouthed vulgarian who would be unable to halt the long decline of the Daily and Sunday Express.
Nearly three years later Mr Desmond is taken more seriously. Largely as a result of ferocious cost-cutting, he has increased the profits of Express Newspapers, last year pocketing nearly £21 million for himself. The Daily Express has been stabilised, and is even selling a few more copies. By upping its quotient of tit 'n' bum, the Daily Star has added more than 15 per cent to its circulation over the past year. The owner of Big Ones and Asian Babes has become a frequent visitor to No. 10, where he is welcomed by that broad-minded Christian, Tony Blair. People now speculate that Mr Desmond might bid for Trinity Mirror, which publishes the Daily Mirror, as well as other national and many regional papers. (He has recently disavowed any interest in the titles.) The current gossip is that Mr Desmond is eyeing up the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in the hope that they might one day come on the block.
He is also concentrating a few minds at Daily Mail and General Trust, which publishes among its many titles the London Evening Standard and the freesheet Metro. (I should remind readers that I write a column for the Daily Mail. I have spoken to no one at DMGT in preparing this article.) Mr Desmond is preparing to launch a London freesheet, which might damage the Evening Standard and Metro. He wanted to call his new paper the Evening Mail, but was told by a judge that he could not do so after DMGT (in fact its subsidiary, Associated Newspapers) had accused him in court of passing off. He now appears to be awaiting the outcome of an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading which is looking into the long-term deals struck by DMGT with London Underground and Railtrack (as it then was) which gave it exclusive rights to distribute Metro. There is no certainty that Mr Desmond will ever launch his freesheet.
The comparison with Mr Murdoch is tempting. In the 1960s the Australian outsider talked the owners of the News of the World into selling him their paper. When he picked up the Sun, then a low-selling, broken-down newspaper, he was still dismissed by many establishment voices. Before long he turned the paper around. Quite soon Fleet Street learnt to take the brash upstart seriously. As Mr Desmond has shmoozed Tony Blair, so Mr Murdoch hitched his wagon to Margaret Thatcher, and in 1981 was allowed to acquire both the Times and the Sunday Times in controversial circumstances. Rupert Murdoch may now appear almost an establishment figure, but in his early days he shook up Fleet Street. Like Mr Desmond today, it seemed that he did not really care what people thought of him.
And yet there is this difference. Whatever you may think of Mr Murdoch, he was, and is, a gifted journalist. He had his own sense of what readers wanted, and gave it to them. I am not competent to judge Mr Desmond's record as a pornographer. Possibly he has pushed back all sorts of boundaries and brought an original touch to displaying naked women. This is not my field. I am no expert on celebrity magazines, but it seems to me that Mr Desmond's OK! is essentially a clone of Hello!. On firmer ground, I can see that his Daily Express has achieved limited success by becoming more and more like its much richer and more successful rival, the Daily Mail. Though his editorial director, Paul Ashford, has criticised that newspaper for its 'right-wing' social agenda, the Daily Express has if anything gone further than the Mail in its campaign against asylum seekers. Rather surprisingly, in recent weeks it has even turned its guns on Mr Desmond's patron, Tony Blair, with Mail-like vitriol. One front page carried the headline 'Loony Blair?' – and suggested in the accompanying story that Our Great Leader was indeed a few apples short of a complete picnic. As for the Daily Star, its success can hardly be gainsaid, but its recipe of tit 'n' bum is not original, and was offered by the paper when it achieved much higher sales in the 1980s.
Mr Desmond may be a clever businessman who knows how to cut costs, but there is no evidence that as a newspaperman he has many ideas of his own. Though DMGT is wise to take his proposed London freesheet seriously, nothing we have heard suggests that it is going to take the capital by storm. It is true that he has hired the former advertising director of the Evening Standard, which is reckoned a bit of a coup. But his editor-designate, Nick Ferrari, seems an odd choice. Mr Ferrari presents a mid-morning phone-in on LBC which he does not intend to give up when (or if) the freesheet is launched. Whatever his virtues, he would not appear to be ideally placed to edit an afternoon paper which is supposed to sound the death knell for the Evening Standard.
It is a sound principle in journalism, as in life, not to underestimate your adversaries, and one can understand why DMGT should be preparing for war. Mr Desmond is ambitious, ruthless and formidable. But can you become a great press proprietor if you haven't any original ideas about newspapers? I would have thought not. Mr Desmond would pose much more of a threat if he acquired other national titles, but even then one wonders whether he would know what to do with them once he had stripped out the costs, which mostly means sacking people. Though these may be famous last words, I cannot for the life of me see Richard Desmond as another Rupert Murdoch.
From the pages of the Times, the top people's newspaper: 'It is encouraging that Lord Hutton has already stated firmly that it will be for him to decide what matters will be the subject of his investigation, within the terms of reference' (first leader, 22 July).
'Once known as "the Biarritz of the North", where Edward VII, Lord Kitchener and Haile Selasse of Ethiopia took their holidays, thousands of daytrippers and homehunters have followed, sending the resort back into the elite of holiday towns' (article on North Berwick, page nine of the Times, 28 July).
In a story at the bottom of page 23 of the second section in its issue of 29 July, three paragraphs from the end, the Financial Times let slip that it lost £15 million in the six months to 30 June. I believe this is a record amount for the newspaper.