The Empire takes over

Media - Bill Hagerty on how the <em>Daily Mail</em>'s owners could make history and mischief

Those familiar with the early Stars Wars movies will remember Chewbacca, the furry giant friend of Hans Solo and a creature it was most unwise to tackle without the aid of an entire battalion of Jedi knights. Chewbacca was a member of the Wookie race, and I call him to mind now because, as icy winds continue to blow down the corridors of Ludgate House, there are many employees of the up-for-sale Express Newspapers who are whispering fervently: "Let the Wookie win."

Any resemblance between the Daily Mail & General Trust and an abominable snowman lookalike covered in yak hair is, needless to say, highly defamatory, so I shall not suggest any such thing. But it cannot be disputed that when the DMGT comes to the gaming table, it brings a mountain of Chewbacca muscle in the form of serious money, editorial expertise and a managerial set-up that towers above those of all other groups in terms of dominance of its market.

"They are heavy hitters," said an Express Newspapers acquaintance of mine, seeking comfort as a torrent of rumour and hypothesis rose faster than the flood-swollen Thames on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. "You just feel that if they really want the Express, there's nobody capable of stopping them. And at least they know what they're doing and would have some idea of how to rescue the papers." A Wookie supporter, without doubt, and, in my view, a canny reader of the situation.

Let us examine those lining up to arm- wrestle the Wookie for a prize that, on the face of it, looks about as valuable as a couple of goldfish in a plastic bag won at hoopla.

The Barclay brothers, having let it be known through their mouthpiece, Andrew Neil, that they were offering £75m for the Daily Express, Sunday Express and Daily Star (the opening hand in this high-stakes game), decided to withdraw and contemplate life in the slower Scottish lanes even before the DMGT stepped in majestically to up the ante.

Those other brothers, Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja, with a bid now said to be £120m, certainly have the money to put where there mouths are and they have successfully wooed the editor of the Express, Rosie Boycott. However, they know no more about newspapers than they do about synchronised swimming - although I am told that Mohamed Fayed, himself not a contestant in the Express stakes, has loaned the Hinduja brothers the services of some of his top media advisers. Such largesse may have come too late. The need for them to bolster their newspaper nous was emphasised early on, when it was suggested that they might consider joining forces with another interested party, David Montgomery, in order to gain credibility. This is like inviting Dr Crippen to join a consortium of heart transplant surgeons. The idea, surely, is to breathe new life into the Express group, not bury it.

Montgomery is the man who bled the Mirror Group so viciously that it was in danger of being diagnosed with acute anaemia before the regional group, Trinity, arrived and made it plain that there was no place for him there if it were to take control of Mirror Group Newspapers. Boycott, as busy as they come, has apparently also been involved in discussions with Montgomery, although it is not from any meetings between the two that the Ulsterman's plans, in the unlikely event of his £90m bid being successful, were leaked to me.

Montgomery's big idea, I am reliably informed, is to cut the price of the Daily Express - as well as its in-house sisters - to 15p, and considerably to pare down the staff of what, presumably, would be three very basic newspapers. As anyone at Ludgate House will tell you, Lord Hollick, the head of United News & Media (the owners of the Express group), is himself such a dab hand at paring that there is nothing much left to pare.

That leaves Conrad Black's Hollinger group, which owns the Telegraph, as the only plausible rival to the Wookie. But Hollinger, despite talking a good fight as the Express saga rolls on, has not come up with a bid. What's more, as I suggested on this page several weeks ago, recent Hollinger strategy suggests that Black's ambitions lie more in the United States than on this side of the Atlantic.

So the DMGT it must be. Paul Dacre, the 23rd most influential person in Britain, according to the recent Channel 4 Power List, would relish the chance to reshape the title on which he began his national newspaper career. Lord Rothermere, strangely absent from that same list, could step boldly away from his father's shadow in a takeover that, although audacious, is unlikely to be blocked by a Competition Commission concerned with overall market share rather than total control of one particular segment of the market.

As for the intricacies of the rescue operation, Peter Preston astutely surmised in the Observer that the DMGT's successful experiment with the freesheet Metro series could provide a pro forma for a politically impartial Express, marketed, initially, in city centres throughout the country. Also, with Mail resources and drive, the Daily Star might just be able to do to the Sun exactly what Rupert Murdoch's raucous baby did to an ageing Daily Mirror about 30 years ago.

The DMGT can make savings by amalgamation in the areas of printing, newsprint buying and the like, which will make the deal even more attractive. But a more important consideration, I am sure, is that for £120m, plus an investment in the titles of £50m a year for five years, there is journalistic history and great mischief to be made - both particularly pleasurable pastimes of the late Lord Rothermere.

So I say to all interested parties, make way for the Wookie - and may the force be with you.

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture

2000-11-13