Rosie Boycott will need more than her metropolitan image


The Sunday Express magazine's contribution last weekend to promoting Notting Hill, the new Richard Curtis film, took the form of a chart purporting to explain the real-life romantic and power structure of fashionable W11. There, neatly flanked by the names of Tony Benn and Carmen Callil, was that of the Express's editor, Rosie Boycott, soaring above the likes of Jade Jagger and Van Morrison, not to mention Lord Hollick, Boycott's boss.

It is rare for the editor of a British newspaper to pursue celebrity in this way. Some, like Paul Dacre at the Mail, are socially invisible. Others, like Max Hastings (London Evening Standard) or Dominic Lawson (Sunday Telegraph), are figures in a certain part of high society, but I can't think of any whose social image is so clearly part of his or her identity as an editor. Andrew Neil tried it for a while, but was rewarded with a dismembered wardrobe and, when Rupert Murdoch concluded that Neil was too much of a celebrity, removal from office. On the other hand, the present editor of the New Statesman ceased to be editor of the Independent on Sunday because, he was told, he was "not metropolitan enough". He was replaced by Rosie Boycott, who is as metropolitan as the Central Line.

Hollick insists that Boycott's ability to attract attention is a virtue, and contrasts it with the forgettable maleness of her predecessor, Richard Addis. Celebrity saves money on marketing and gives the newspaper an instant new brand identity. The editor can represent directly the new readers the paper is seeking: politically leftish, concerned but tolerant, and cautiously fashionable. Boycott has even been represented in commercials, so perhaps the paper will soon be promoted as "Rosie Boycott's Express", though it didn't do much for sales when they tried "Will Hutton's Observer ". It is, happily, a striking feature of 1999 that you can now be a successful editor without putting on sales - a capital offence in the previous decade. Under Boycott, sales of the Monday to Saturday Express are down 6 per cent, though the forthcoming April numbers are expected to show some improvement.

There are, however, dangers when an editor, or an owner, becomes the newspaper's own subject. The Express's self-congratulation about its plane-load of gifts for Kosovo reminded me of Robert Maxwell's mercy missions. The reader worries about the distinction between moral purpose and self-promotion and whether truthfulness in reporting can survive the need to work within a campaign's over- simplified certainties.

Some other Express campaigns are simply muddled, like the one launched to force the Nationwide Building Society to become a bank. The paper sees this as a good cause because the Nationwide - in an attempt to head off carpetbaggers - has announced that any conversion windfalls due to newer members would go to charity. The Express denies hostility towards mutuals, but it is surely politics, not charity, to pressurise someone else to make a sacrifice. The trio chosen to endorse the campaign give the game away: Jane Asher, the actress who now writes a household tips column for the Express; Esther Rantzen, who is also involved in another Express campaign about children; and Richard Branson, whose Virgin financial services division competes with Nationwide, and who is the role model for businesses seeking to sell ordinary commercial services as moral and social aspiration. All three are clearly selected on grounds of image.

This is not to argue that Rosie Boycott's Express lacks achievement. She has transformed the paper's political and social outlook, along with the quality of its political writing, widened the scope of its features and hugely enhanced the quality of its longer reads - Peter Tory's account of his fight against depression is a recent example. Some of her campaigns have struck hard and set the pace for others - most notably on genetically modified food. She has also made the paper more interesting to women, though personally I find some of her columnists unreadable and a random check of bylines (on 11 May) revealed 49 males against a mere 14 females, without counting the wholly male domain of the sports pages.

The paper's principal weakness is its lack of in-depth reporting power, which means that it mostly strikes postures rather than breaks stories. Unlike the Mail, it lacks the ability to take hold of a non-exclusive story and wring it dry for angles and detail. On genetic food, although the Mail has moved in the Express's wake, the Mail 's reporting has been superior. Other problem areas are anaemic editorials, fewer extras than its main rival and routine failure of quality control on writing. One front-page story began: "The west was struggling to put the Kosovo peace process back on track last night after bombing it off the rails in its most dramatic own goal of the conflict." Even columnists, edited without the pressure of news deadlines, are not discouraged from massacring their mother-tongue and sometimes several tongues at the same time, as in Asher's recent lead item, which told us that "regular household shopping is so boring that it's chacun a son gout as far as I'm concerned: list or no list, whoever is willing to do it should be dispatched pronto".

Anyone who has tried to produce a newspaper with too few people will sympathise with these problems, but when you're up against Lord Rothermere's machine that never sleeps, you can only pray that Lord Hollick is a patient man. He has a good editor who has made a good start, but successful papers require strong teams as well as cute branding, and the Express has a long way to go.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence