The New Statesman Profile - Clive Hollick

He thought that by buying a newspaper he'd make friends and win influence. But he didn't even have a

You might have thought that if there was one thing more fun than writing for a newspaper it would be owning one. All those parties, all that political influence, the words in the ears of editors, the hiring and firing of same, people hanging on your every little phrase. Think Beaverbrook, who used to ring up his journalists for a gossip and whose hand fell so heavily on his papers that he wouldn't let them use the word cancer in print because it was bad luck.

Now think of the heir of Beaverbrook. One Clive Hollick. Not exactly the owner of the Daily Express, but until now the chief executive of United News and Media, and as near to a press baron as you're going to get in this fallen world. This is the man who has just sold the Express to Richard Desmond, soft-porn mag proprietor and owner of OK! magazine, and by so doing, has become the Demon King of what once was Fleet Street.

What kind of newspaper proprietor sells the Express to a porn merchant? A businessman, of course. There are two possible ways of looking at Clive Hollick's action. The first has the beauty of simplicity. He sold the paper to the highest bidder. Or rather, the highest bidder with the fewest strings. Other interested buyers, like Associated Newspapers or the Telegraph Group, might have encountered difficulties with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. According to this view, he had a duty to his shareholders - or stakeholders, as he likes to call them - to obtain the best possible price for the paper, without protracted haggling.

The other explanation, favoured by Lord Hollick's detractors (whose name is Legion), is revenge. Clive Hollick, 55, on this account, is a disappointed man who had hoped to exercise political influence by virtue of being a media mogul - and didn't. When the government did not go out of its way to back his group's bid to take over Carlton TV earlier this year and he was outflanked by Granada, his pique turned to bitterness, and the sale of the Express to a disreputable buyer, at a time monstrously inconvenient to the government, was a way of saying sucks to an administration which had marginalised him so woundingly. (This viewpoint is supported by the fact that Hollick's last contribution to Labour Party funds was in 1997.)

Most people will tell you that Clive Hollick doesn't seem awfully interested in newspapers. Even while he was still in effect owner of the Express, he was prone to remind his listener that the paper was merely a small part of his extensive group, which includes market research, high-tech publishing and newswire services. Indeed, at times, he gave the impression that he had inherited the paper in 1986 rather by accident, as a result of acquiring the company's more lucrative assets, and found himself in the embarrassing position of occupying Beaverbrook's mantle without actually having asked for it. He got rid of his regional papers early on.

Certainly, he gave no sign of enjoying the perks of being a press baron. On the party scene, he didn't look as if he were capable of enjoying himself; he was gauche, lanky and ill at ease. "He looked as if he was holding someone else's glass for him," remarked one ex-employee. In a way, that was his demeanour as a newspaper proprietor, too. He rarely ventured to the Express newsroom, and hardly ever came to the lunch parties for celebrities hosted by his own editors, though he would occasionally encounter them in the loo or the corridor. "Do you know, I've just met Ronnie Corbett," he told his secretary wonderingly, after a visit to the gents'.

Among the great and good, he was no less awkward: "He showed no sign of a sense of humour," one new Labour hostess told me, "and I saw him positively wince once, when a vivacious young woman put her hand on his arm." Nor were social encounters made easier by his aversion for small talk or for alcohol, which rarely passed his lips. Those who met Lord Hollick and his Trinidadian wife, Sue Woodford Hollick, at one of the Blairite gatherings (he was never "in" with the Brown entourage) were left with the impression that his sociable wife, something of a "quango queen", was pushing her husband into the drawing-room - and on to the political stage - against his will. Woodford Hollick who was on the Runnymede Trust committee that described Britishness as a quasi-racist concept, comes across as far more politically involved than her husband. Indeed, there might be worse explanations for Hollick's commitment to new Labour than his wife's insistence. Hollick's socialism, according to one old Labour stalwart, "is, as is the case with so many new Labour peers, political correctness, rather than true ideology."

The one person who did go on record as a fan of Hollick's was - rather improbably - the late Woodrow Wyatt, who admitted to liking the "ruddy great socialist capitalist". But the general view was considerably more negative - of an uncharismatic, constipated man, at once hungry for, but uncomfortable with, power. Mary Kenny, the respected columnist who exited the Express when Richard Desmond took it over, went one step further: "He is a rat-faced little upstart asset-stripper." She went on: "If the world is divided between Roundheads and Cavaliers, he's a Roundhead."

Lord Hollick's background isn't grand: he went to state school and Nottingham University. He has been a member of the Labour Party from the age of 15, but it was in business, not politics, where he shone. He was one of the youngest-ever board members of Hambro's Bank and he transformed the small money-brokers J H Vavasseur Group into a successful media company. Last year, he was a power to be reckoned with: owner of substantial television interests and a national newspaper. But it is precisely as a businessman that some of his peers fault him; Dan Colson, who unsuccessfully bid for the Express on behalf of the Telegraph Group, said flatly of the deal with Richard Desmond that it did no justice to the company, its employees or its shareholders. And most commentators think that Hollick was simply outflanked in his bid for Carlton by rather more able operators at Granada, specifically by Michael Green.

When Hollick took over the Express in 1996, his relations with the government were amicable; he would talk excitedly about his meetings with the Prime Minister. He liked being an adviser to the Department of Trade and Industry - part of the Blairite rapprochement with business - but when it came to it, his contribution simply doesn't seem to have cut the mustard, for he was dropped by Peter Mandelson, then at the helm of the DTI.

Hollick is a keen Europhile, and a leading member of Britain in Europe, but even ministers who might have been sympathetic to his world-view don't seem to have warmed to him personally. Nothing suggests that the Prime Minister was a fan. One reason might be Hollick's robustly unsentimental approach to labour relations; not to put to fine a point upon it, Clive Hollick has a reputation as a sacker, and Cherie Blair herself took the part of one journalist who was put out of his job on the Express.

He remains a friend of Philip Gould - indeed, increasingly, this friendship affords him the only opportunity to boast about his ties with Blair's inner sanctum. Gould apparently was something of a broker between the Express and the government. Hollick has expressed a wish to work with Peter Mandelson in the next election campaign - though he could be forgiven for being wary of collaborating again with the Prince of Darkness. At present, though, he cuts rather a marginalised and lonely figure, someone who has lost his Midas touch in business and whose prospects in politics may be as arm candy for his dynamic, ideologically motivated wife.

It would be possible to be more sorry for him had there been rather more congruity between his socialism and his employment practices. They weren't illegal or anything, you understand, just beastly. The legend concerning Clive Hollick is that he once paid employees in gold bullion to avoid National Insurance contributions - but there is no doubt that his employees at the Express had a dreadful time under the regime of austerity inaugurated by him.

He saw the paper from the start as a vast, moribund organisation that needed modernisation; he took out about £15m in costs, though he maintained that it was later reinvested. What journalists saw was that the bar was closed down, the fax machines and the photocopiers were broken, there was a freeze on book-buying and a bar on recruitment of new staff, which created a shortfall filled by graduate interns. His entirely business-oriented merger of the Sunday and Daily Express resulted in 80 workers being sacked, on the Gradgrindish principle that the workers on the daily could simply work harder to put out seven papers a week, rather than six.

An organisation that used to occupy three floors was squeezed into one, with the freed space rented out to other organisations and journalists all but sitting on each other's knees. On the bright side, his carefulness with money seems to inform his own life, too. At Rosie Boycott's wedding last year, he told guests cheerfully that he would be driving his wife to Luton rather than Gatwick, which was just around the corner, to catch a flight because there was an EasyJet service from Luton that was far cheaper.

There is something rather tragic about Clive Hollick. This is a man who had it all: status, influence, bags of money, plus the hope of being a mini-Murdoch. The awful thing is not that he has lost almost all of these worldly and transient prizes, bar the money; it's that he never really got much fun out of them at the time.

See Media

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to the dirty mac image