An Express route to celebrity

Media - In Richard Desmond's world, even Anna Ford is a babe, reports Bill Hagerty

Those pondering the direction in which Richard Desmond would drag that hostage to fortune, the Daily Express, did not have long to wait for an answer after Rosie Boycott completed her protracted negotiations with the escape committee. Boycott could barely have finished counting her pay-off before the paper, while not revealing whether it was screaming in protest or lying back and enjoying the journey, galloped off along the road so beloved of Desmond. Welcome to Celebrity Alley.

In reflecting the abiding interest of its proprietor, and the driving force behind his major publishing success, OK! magazine, the Express became the celebrity's bible almost overnight. It clasped OK! to its shrunken bosom, introducing an eight-page Tuesday supplement, OK! Express, just in case there was not enough room in the paper itself to chronicle the celebrity trivia that now masquerades as news at Ludgate House.

The following day, the television adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate was reason enough for the paper to recall that the writer Nancy Mitford coined the terms U and non-U. This enabled it to proclaim, in a feature on "the new social revolution", that celebrity is now U. The piece was illustrated by a picture of David Beckham and his wife, Mrs Posh Beckham, which was captioned: "The Beckhams and their golden throne suddenly don't look so vulgar any more."

Oh yes they do. And so does the Express, although Desmond will not give a twopenny cuss about such criticism if he can turn the paper from middle-market also-ran into a money machine. Buttering up his chums, the Beckhams, is a bonus. Reducing a once great national newspaper to an amplified version of Celebrity Bulletin is cool as long as the profits are hot.

But will they be? Can Boycott's successor as editor, Chris Williams, turn her touchy-feely, liberal Express into a house magazine for the rich and famous, mostly show-business "personalities" - those people who are known for their well-knownness, as the scholar Daniel J Boorstin once observed - without finally bringing down the house Beaverbrook built?

I wouldn't bet against it. Such is the British fascination with celebrity that there may well be an insatiable appetite out there that needs daily feeding to avoid starvation between issues of OK! and Hello!. Nowhere else in the world, as far as I am aware, has celebrity fixation grabbed such a hold. Only in Britain does one hear young people proclaiming "I want to be famous" when asked their ambitions in life. Engine-driving or medicine are passe, unless television develops a docusoap about Watford Junction, or potential nurses and doctors can be guaranteed a stint in Casualty.

It is these sad wannabes, the "if onlys" who have been glued to the humiliation of their like on ITV's Popstars with deep envy, who are largely the key to the future prosperity of the Express. Only they can be the targets of pages and pages of dross, where what for most papers would be gossip paragraphs are dressed in the clothes of genuine news stories.

In one edition of the paper, two full columns were devoted to telling readers that the television presenter Penny Smith and the "celebrity hypnotist" Paul McKenna had been going out together for a whole month. Elsewhere, Kevin Costner revealed that his superstar status had made it difficult for him to have a woman in his life. Even proper stories are Desmondised: the Express is as yet no Asian Babes, but it offered us "Babes from the Beeb" - these included Anna Ford - in reporting the BBC's plans for its general-election coverage.

As for the features, they gush more than a dozen oil wells. "Yes, fame really does come with a heavy price" read the headline on another piece of pap, in which Cheryl Stonehouse informed readers that limos, hangers-on and personal affectations don't come cheap, but are part and parcel of stardom. Heavens.

Some real news has been retained, along with two highly readable columnists in Carol Sarler and John Diamond, and even features on subjects other than stars and their hairstyles, the Royals ("who have finally proved they are just like the rest of us") and Britney Spears. Williams has even retained the leader column, although those I read seemed strangely muted and sat uneasily on the page, as if ashamed that they weren't famous.

The Express is not alone in devoting great chunks of space to celebrity worship but, in just a few days, it zipped past the Mirror and the Sun. Piers Morgan and David Yelland need to crank up their big-name quotient if they don't want to be left behind. But who will be the winners if popular journalism is successfully reduced to such worthless slop? Other than Posh and Becks, that is.

Meanwhile, the Express's celebrity escapee, Rosie Boycott, finished stashing the loot under the floorboards to discover that she had been recast from heroine to villainess almost as fast as OK! Express had been able to hustle on to the front of its first issue a sizeable piece on Sally James, "the face of Seventies children's TV" (I've known more famous window cleaners).

Boycott's elitist style of editorship came under fire in the London Evening Standard while, in the Daily Telegraph, a former Express staff member, Maureen Paton, wrote an indictment of Boycott's two-and-a-half-year tenure at the paper. As Paton recalled and others have told me with some bitterness, Boycott ruthlessly dispensed with staff early in her editorship and subscribed to severance terms that marked a new low in national newspapers.

I cannot understand why she and Desmond didn't get on.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose