The coming of the Maily Express

It makes sense - the two newspapers have printed the same stuff with different fonts for a while now

Talk of a merger between the Daily Mail and Daily Express seems a mixed blessing for those of us who wouldn't ordinarily read either. While it might seem like good news to be rid of at least one of them, how powerful would the resulting über-tabloid become?

It's probably best not to fall into the trap of imagining the worst-case scenario – a monstrous great politically incorrect Death Star of a newspaper blasting out lasers of bile across the galaxy, journalists dressed in scary black uniforms . . . because that's exactly the kind of catastrophistic panic-porn those papers like wallowing in.

No, the reality would be more mundane, less scary. Instead of a gigantic, slavering right-wing chimera, a Brundlefly with a cruel streak for minorities lurking on the shelves in WHSmith, the Maily Express could just end up being a rather dull, mid-market tabloid grasping for the same waning readership.

Instead of two sets of headlines panicking about "them" coming over here and taking our jobs, there would be just one. At least we'd only have to avoid one publication, rather than two.

After the sudden death of the Daily Sport and Sunday Sportwhich leaves a gaping void on the news-stands for upskirt photos of minor celebrities and very little else – it would be another blow to the newspaper industry. Would it be a sign that the tide really is turning, and the inkies running out of time? Those of us who harbour dreams of having gainful employment through the purchase of printed words on paper might like to hope not, but what if this is the second domino falling over?

If the Express and Mail really did merge, I don't think the Express would end up tremendously well represented, given the relative size of its circulation and readership. Just as Spitting Image's David Owen puppet told David Steel their amalgamated party would have "one name from your party and one name from mine . . . from mine, Social Democratic, from yours, Party . . ." you can't help seeing the resultant publication as being anything other than the Daily Mail. That would be disappointing from the point of view of losing the Express name from the news-stands, given its history as Britain's most popular newspaper for decades; but then again, the Express of those days died a long time ago.

Of course, this is all just idle speculation. Why would the Mail want to do anything other than see the Express wither on the vine and die away as its readership gets older? Why would the Express want to admit defeat and couple itself to the Mail as very much the junior partner? None of that seems to make any sense, but perhaps there is some logic in it: with 2.7 million potential readers, any joint force would be in a healthy position.

The two newspapers have been pretty much the same story in slightly different fonts for a while now. It's a sadness, perhaps, that there isn't room for a Daily Express that is markedly different from its main mid-market competitor, but maybe that's just the way these things are going. Maybe we really are going to face a future with fewer national newspapers, and maybe we're just going to have to get used to it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories