RUPERT Murdoch Was Beaten to the Punch When Lord Rothermere Launched a Daily London Free Newspaper, but Is He Really Squaring Up for a Return Bout?

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RUPERT Murdoch was beaten to the punch when Lord Rothermere launched a daily London free newspaper, but is he really squaring up for a return bout?

Murdoch is said to be ready to take on Rothermere's Metro title in a war the like of which Fleet Street has not seen since Robert Maxwell's attempt to usurp the crown of Rothermere's Evening Standard with his London Daily News, in 1987.

Maxwell boasted that he had the cash and the technological know-how to deal the Standard a knockout blow. "We'll see who's got the deepest pockets" he said.

That turned out to be the then Lord Rothermere, father of the current Associated Newspapers chairman. Among the stunts pulled by his late lordship to see off the interloper was reviving the Evening News, the title he had closed after acquiring the Standard years before.

The appearance of another "new" title on the newsstands helped to undermine Maxwell's paper, which was itself hindered by a too-ambitious plan to print twice as many editions a day as its rival.

The only successful London-wide paper launched since then is, of course, Metro, published by Associated Newspapers, which also publishes the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and, of course, the Evening Standard.

Metro was launched in March 1999 and generates over pound sterling40m in revenues.

The contract between Railtrack and Rothermere's Associated Newspapers to distribute Metro at main stations is up for renewal and ends in March. The rail company wrote to media groups asking if any were interested in bidding against Associated for the contract, though crucially Associated has the right to match any bid.

News International, it seems, could be interested, though it is saying nothing officially.

The difficulty for Associated is that Murdoch has been here before. Famously, when he moved his operations to Wapping, it was under the guise of setting up a London paper to take on the Standard.

In fact, he was doing nothing of the sort and was instead planning his coup which led to the defeat of the print unions, the introduction of new technology into newspaper production and the subsequent transformation of Fleet Street.

Then, before the launch of Metro, Murdoch asked former Mirror editor Richard Stott to take a look at the London market and see if there was room for a morning paper to rival the Standard.

Is he really interested now - in the middle of one of the worst advertising slowdowns of recent years - in launching an advertising-dependent title?

Certainly, he has time and money on his hands. He had been saving money to spend on his planned acquisition of DirecTV in the US, but that deal failed and now he must turn his attention to other areas of potential growth.

Metro was itself a spoiling exercise since Associated was worried that the Swedish publisher, Modern Times, was planning to launch a London freesheet called Metro and wanted to get in first. …