Magazine article The Spectator

Does Lord Hollick Enjoy the Express as Much as I Do?

Magazine article The Spectator

Does Lord Hollick Enjoy the Express as Much as I Do?

Article excerpt

Perhaps I am unusual, but I can't help liking Rosie Boycott's Express. Its politics are not exactly my own but it has a freshness and vigour that are attractive. There are several intelligent columnists. The editorials treat us like grown-ups. Nor is the paper always slavishly Blairite. It has attacked various government ministers, most notably Geoffrey Robinson, the former PaymasterGeneral forced to resign before Christmas.

So I like the Express. I really do. I pick it up with a light heart. (Let me again declare an interest as a columnist for the rival Daily Mail.) But I do not for a moment imagine I am a typical Express reader. If I were, I think I would be bewildered to see my old paper, for so long anti-European, embrace the euro with such enthusiasm. I think I might be surprised to read so many enlightened columnists, though it is true that Peter Hitchens is still allowed to shoot his mouth off in his admirable saloon-bar way. I think I would be foxed by the paper's progressive opinions and its increasingly metropolitan view of the world.

My guess is that old Express readers are in a state of some confusion. And yet most of them hang on. After a year of Ms Boycott's editorship, the paper's readership is still strongest outside London and particularly well represented among those over 45. Its readers are more likely to vote for the Tories than any other party, and according to one recent poll slightly more of them are anti-euro than people in the country at large. This last finding is surprising, given that the Express has veered so much in a pro-European direction. Ms Boycott is making fewer converts on this front than she might have expected.

It may seem odd that these older, nonmetropolitan, Conservative-leaning readers should continue to buy Ms Boycott's paper at all. Newspaper-buying habits die hard. But some are deserting: sales have declined by about 85,000 copies a day in the year since Ms Boycott took over, or some 7 per cent. The Express management claims that it is attracting new, younger readers, but there are not enough to make up for those who are jumping ship. The 25-year circulation decline of the paper has slightly quickened. The Express's lurch to the Left does not yet seem to be working.

How long can this decline be allowed to continue? There are faint signs that Lord Hollick, chief executive of United News and Media, which owns the Express and its Sunday sister, is beginning to panic. Though the titles account for a relatively small proportion of the company's turnover, their worsening performance is affecting the share price of United News. Some institutional investors are becoming jittery. In these circumstances Lord Hollick might have to be a seller. The problem is, who will pay the kind of money Lord H is said to want - some L350 million - for two declining titles which are probably making no more than L12 to L15 million a year between them?

One answer might be David Montgomery, the recently deposed chief executive of Mirror Group Newspapers, who is believed to be trying to raise money in the City to buy the Express titles. Mr Montgomery's talents lie in ferocious cost-cutting, and Lord Hollick and his people have already removed millions of pounds of costs. It is difficult to see what inspiration Monty could bring. …

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