Desmond's inky fingers

Media - Bill Hagerty finds the proprietor taking a close interest in the contents of his <em>Express

It was the word "unready" in a splash headline - "Scandal of our unready forces" - that provided the clue. After all, where headlines are concerned, unready is a word used only on stories about Ethelred. But this was not such a story. No, it was obvious that non-inky fingers were meddling at the Sunday Express.

I made inquiries among friends and acquaintances still clinging to the wreckage of United News & Media - the tottering Expresses, daily and Sunday, and the Daily Star. Much had been made by media correspondents of the buccaneering arrival and unconventional style of the new proprietor, Richard Desmond. His face-to-face with Murdoch MacLennan, managing director of United's rival, Associated Newspapers, and Associated's subsequent promise to stop labelling Desmond a pornographer (in exchange for the Express ending its virulent sniping at the Harmsworth family), has almost passed into legend. It was Fleet Street's answer to the gunfight at the OK Corral, with Desmond in the role of Wyatt Earp.

But it seems that as well as what he sees as outgunning the Clanton gang, Desmond has been running all areas of his recently acquired group with the authoritarian vigour of the fearsome Arizona lawman. And he appears to have convinced himself that he is a talented journalist.

"Frankly, he doesn't value journalists very highly, and thinks he can do their jobs every bit as well as they can," said one Express hack. The proprietor, I learnt, had dictated the offending headline to Michael Pilgrim, the editor of the Sunday Express.

More disturbing than amateurish headlines is Desmond's apparent meddling in serious editorial matters. Take the case of a story concerning Open, a company largely owned by the BSkyB Group, that was scheduled to appear in the Sunday Express. The paper's financial reporters had discovered that the rates charged to retailers wanting to be part of Open's interactive online shopping service were so high that it would be difficult for them to make a profit. But the story bit the dust, killed by the editor unequivocally on the grounds of the company's commercial associations with Sky.

Pilgrim later requested a story about ONdigital, Sky's main rival in the British digital television market - for which, coincidentally, I am currently acting as a magazine consultant - which would be far from favourable to the company. When the business writer charged with putting together the piece demurred, on ethical grounds, Pilgrim publicly berated him.

A story detrimental to ONdigital, claiming that it lacked the financing to compete with Sky, did appear in the paper last month, despite protestations of unfairness from Stuart Prebble, the chief executive of ONdigital.

Then there is the case of Matthew Freud, the public relations "guru" and, until recently, the partner of Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert's daughter and the former Sky boss. Freud has been involved with a number of dotcom companies, rather unluckily so. It was the tendency for some of these interests to roll over and play dead - most realistically - that got the attention of the Sunday Express.

Only a few hours short of the deadline for the paper's financial pages, Pilgrim vetoed the story. Some executives, worried that the reason was Freud's importance to the celebrity-hungry OK! magazine, sought a meeting with the editor to discuss what again seemed to be censorship because of the commercial implications. Pilgrim, they were told, did not have time to allay their fears.

Were the decisions to spike the Sky and Freud stories made by Desmond, or is Pilgrim so anxious not to displease his proprietor that he is anticipating Marshall Earp's wishes and heading off trouble at the pass?

Most of the United News & Media journalists with whom I spoke were in no doubt. "The editorial interference from the top is blatant," I was told. "At the Express, Desmond is on the editorial floor from about six every evening, vetting pages, changing headlines."

"At the Sunday," another told me, "he more or less stands looking over the editor's shoulder, telling him what to do."

Desmond has, I learn, issued instructions that stories should be as upbeat as possible. With the major events of the past few weeks concerning death and destruction, of human beings and animals alike, this has been difficult - and the problem has not been eased by Desmond's proclamation that he does not like the term "foot-and-mouth disease". "Meat disease" would be less distasteful, he mused, or so yet another disgruntled hack told me.

Meanwhile, Express staffers now have to contribute a City column to the Daily Star, a title to which they are not contracted. Trades union membership is soaring as Marshall Earp strides the corridors, his trigger finger itching.

"It's a shame, really," said an Express journalist, "because in other ways Desmond has been like a breath of fresh air. Hollick lost interest and stopped putting any money into the papers, but Desmond is incredibly passionate and enthusiastic. But since what he sees as his triumph over the Mail, he's been puffing on his cigar and effing and blinding and crowing about it."

As for Wyatt Earp, the Express staff should perhaps note that the scourge of Tombstone lived to a fine old age and was finally claimed by legend.