THE takeover of Express newspapers by Trinity Mirror has understandably been greeted with concern by many long-term Daily Express readers.
While Trinity Mirror has stated it will not seek to turn the Daily Express left-wing – and indeed it would be daft to given the overwhelming views of the readers – that does not mean new ownership will have no effect on its political outlook.
When I was first Political Editor and then Chief Political Commentator of the Daily Express, the senior editorial team I was part of created a persona for the paper which was not just right-of-centre but also ready to campaign on issues that the political establishment sought to suppress.
Under the editorship of Peter Hill, we were the first newspaper to push the issue of the uncontrolled immigration being overseen by Labour to the top of the agenda. I recall once going on Newsnight, shortly after the 2001 election, to defend our series of splashes on the issue to a seemingly outraged Jeremy Paxman. We were not afraid to rock the boat.
Later, Peter and his then deputy Hugh Whittow (who has been the paper’s editor for the last seven years) put massive faith in me when I pitched to them in the autumn of 2010 the idea of the Daily Express becoming the first Fleet Street paper to campaign to get Britain out of the European Union.
On top of that, when Peter told Richard Desmond what we were planning, Richard as sole proprietor was able to say: “Do it. It is absolutely right for the paper.”
Had Trinity Mirror been our proprietors at the time, would the paper have got the go-ahead to take up such a controversial cause that proved so influential and such a hit with the readers? I somehow doubt it.
That is, of course, all water under the political and media bridge as Britain inches towards a Brexit that the pundit class never expected.
These are different times and I fully acknowledge that the increasingly difficult economics of newspaper publishing do mean that consolidation of ownership has a certain logic to it – especially in regard to the ability to achieve economies of scale on back office functions.
But if Trinity Mirror is to win the consent of Daily Express readers for the takeover, it needs to do more than simply assert the paper won’t be turned left-wing.
So I will be writing to Trinity Mirror chief executive Simon Fox shortly to request a meeting and to seek further assurances about his group’s plans. In particular, I think it would be hugely reassuring to Daily Express readers were Mr Fox to make clear that Trinity Mirror intends to keep Hugh Whittow in place as editor rather than imposing its own placeman into the role.
Nobody understands the Daily Express or its readers better than Hugh and he has run the paper superbly on limited resources.
Ultimately it is well understood that the owners of a newspaper help shape its political direction. But in this case the putative new owners need to understand the very specific role of the Daily Express in taking up issues that larger, less courageous competitors only later get involved in. The current Daily Express campaign to cut the bloated foreign aid budget is merely the latest case in point.
In the interests of a diverse media sector, the Daily Express must not be turned into a toothless tiger but must continue to have licence to upset establishment apple carts in the interests of its patriotic readers. If Trinity Mirror can guarantee that then the takeover may well turn into a good thing. But given the political outlook of the national newspapers it already owns it should understand that many Daily Express readers will be rather sceptical.