There has been great wringing of hands at the prospect of Richard Desmond owning the Daily Telegraph. Objections centre on Desmond's ownership of a string of top-shelf publications, the titles of which are regularly trotted out to much chortling. A pornographer, it is said, is an unsuitable person to control a substantial chunk of the fourth estate. How terrible that he managed to get his hands on the remnants of the mighty Beaverbrook empire. How much more terrible if the Telegraph's tweeds were soiled by having to snuggle up to Asian Babes and Horny Housewives.
It is worth considering, then, how Desmond's ownership has affected the Express. Apart from slightly more coverage of the proprietor's friends David and Victoria Beckham, it is much the same paper as before. The poet John Cooper Clarke wrote: "I've seen how democracy is under duress,/but I've never seen a nipple in the Daily Express," and I can't say I've noticed many in the past three years, either. Yes, there are plenty in the Daily Star, which Desmond also owns, but so there were before (as there are also in the Sun), and if people wish to admire Jordan's impro-bable embonpoint over breakfast, that's their business.
Does it matter that Desmond's fortunes stem partly from such saucy publications? Top-shelf magazines are perfectly legal, and there can hardly be a man in the British Isles who has not either purchased or glanced at one in his life. I can still visualise an imaginative tribute to the television series Dempsey and Makepeace in which a young lady disported herself as though she were Glynis Barber, only with rather fewer clothes, in a magazine I was shown aged 12. I'm sure many New Statesman readers have similar happy memories. Alastair Campbell wrote for Forum magazine under the name of "Riviera Gigolo" in his youth. Whatever reservations one may have had about his conduct as Tony Blair's mouthpiece, I hardly think that made him unsuitable for the role. If it doesn't affect how the newspapers are run, isn't all this fuss a load of hypocritical humbug?
It has been reported that Michael Howard has gained Desmond's assurance that if he bought the Telegraph it would remain a Conservative-supporting newspaper. Desmond is not hugely interested in politics, and, under his ownership, the Express has remained broadly supportive of the government. It seems clear that he would be a lighter hand on the political tiller than Lord Black has been at the Telegraph, and his touch would be feathery indeed compared with that of Rupert Murdoch at News International. If he interfered at all, it might be to ensure that a rigid ideological position did not lead the paper to take an obviously silly stance, as the Telegraph did when it supported IDS over Ken Clarke even though just about everyone in the country could see he was a complete duffer.
Unlike recent predecessors such as Lord Hollick, about whom the only thing that sticks in the mind is his slight resemblance to the late Kenny Everett, Richard Desmond has made a success of the Express group. He paid back the £97m he borrowed to buy the papers after only a year, and he has stopped the decades-long decline in circulation. To those who love newspapers, this is cause for celebration. Saving the Express from extinction, which is where it was headed, is a great achievement. Why does no one say so?
I suspect the girlie mags are really a side issue. Desmond is not an intellectual like Conrad Black, nor a toff like Lord Hart-well, the Telegraph's previous owner. There is a whiff of snobbery about the catcalls. He is a self-made man whose experience in publishing before the Express was with the titles already mentioned, OK! magazine, others more blameless, such as Home Organist, and even one for the edification of caravanning enthusiasts. The sure hand that Desmond has shown at Ludgate House is not good enough for his detractors, who consider him vulgar. If he'd been to Eton and Oxford and owned, say, the Erotic Review, which contains descriptions of acts far beyond anything that appears in his mags, would they be in such a tizz about the possibility of the Telegraph falling into his hands? The answer, surely, is no. Richard Desmond is above all a businessman, and he would not do anything to harm the profitability of the Telegraph titles. He might even reverse the Daily Telegraph's declining circulation. Isn't that what's important? One senses that it matters more to some that he is probably never seen inside White's and Brooks's.
Sholto Byrnes writes for the Independent