Consolidation of the national press is never simple.
Interesting story in the Guardian today that Richard Desmond is in talks with Trinity Mirror over the sale of his newspaper assets, namely the Daily Express and the Star. It’s no secret that the former soft porn tycoon has been keen to offload the papers, but it does raise interesting questions about ownership of the Express and the wider national media.
The Daily Express has fallen a long way from the heady heights of the Beaverbrook days when the paper had full news teams and printing presses in London, Glasgow and Manchester, with correspondents around the world and sales of over 2 million daily. During this time, the paper did not only report the news, it often made it as well, usually at the behest of its megalomaniacal proprietor.
It may be an urban myth, but I was once told that in the 1920s a foreign correspondent bought a biplane to fly over the Valley of the Kings and photograph Tutankhamen’s newly discovered tomb. Once the job was done, he left the aircraft in the care of a local Bedouin and instructed Fleet Street to send payment, which they did each year until, sometime in the 1980s, am eagle-eyed accountant spotted the annual retainer. A local reporter was dispatched to the desert where the plane was discovered in a shed, maintained in perfect working order by the original Bedouin’s grandson.
Although much reduced, the paper today maintains a loyal following of almost half a million, and this comes closers to 1 million when the readership of the Star is included, a fair addition when you consider that most employees work across both titles. This means Express Newspapers is still a prize worth winning, but it would be a big surprise if Trinity Mirror were to be the successful purchaser.
There is the question of competition for a start, although Trinity Mirror, as Mirror Group, did once own the Independent, which at the time boasted circulation not a million miles from where the Express is now. Whether one business would be allowed to own three mid-market tabloids is another question. Rupert Murdoch was allowed to buy Today back in 1987 only because it was on the verge of collapse. He closed it eight years later.
Then there is the issue of politics. The Express has always been right-of-centre, barring a few short periods of backing the Labour Party, but under Desmond it has become almost virulently right wing, anti-EU and anti-establishment. It’s hard to see how this would fit with the traditionally leftist Daily Mirror and the paper might alienate its core readership by moving to the left, even if it remained right-of-centre.
The main stumbling block to any sale, however, is likely to be a much simpler one. Richard Desmond is famed for placing a very high value on his assets, Channel 5 being the best known example, and he’s likely to be asking a higher price than Trinity Mirror would be willing to pay, even if the deal is permitted by the government. Circulation of the Daily Express dropped below the magic million in the 1990s, but was still around 800,000 when Desmond took over. Despite losing another 300,000 since, however, ruthless cost-cutting has made the papers profitable.
Many would not be sorry to see the departure of Richard Desmond from the national newspaper industry, but unless his valuation of Express Newspapers is met, he may be around for some time yet.