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Daily Express: what a difference a new owner has made (especially if you are a migrant)

Daily Express: a history of hostility towards migrants. Liz Gerard

Downright offensive and Islamophobic: these words were used to describe the Daily Express – not from the usual left-leaning critic but directly from the mouth of the newspaper’s latest editor. Gary Jones pulled no punches when quizzed by MPs over the editorial stance of the right wing mid-market tabloid.

“Cumulatively, some of the headlines that have appeared in the past have created an Islamophobic sentiment which I find uncomfortable,” Jones told the home affairs select committee, which is investigating the treatment of minority groups in print media.

It is my responsibility to ensure content is accurate and newspapers don’t look at stereotypical views that may or may not be around in the general public. I should be held to account and be answerable.

Jones was appointed editor of the Daily and Sunday Express after Trinity Mirror bought the two papers as well as stablemate the Daily Star as part of an acquisition of publisher Northern & Shell in March 2018. The deal also included Desmond’s OK! magazine. (It should be noted that the culture secretary, Matt Hancock has asked the competition authority to look into the deal.)

Former owner Richard Desmond. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The change of ownership at the Express has given one of Britain’s most famous names a long overdue shift in direction. I joined as a reporter in 2002, eager to swap regional dailies for the experience of London on a national title, steeped in Fleet Street history from days when it was the world’s biggest selling newspaper. But what I should have realised was that the Express, already on the wane from its post-war glory as Lord Beaverbrook’s mid-market behemoth, never stood a chance once it had been bought in 2000 by UKIP-supporting porn publisher Richard Desmond.

Despite the best intentions, energies and experience of his staff, the billionaire tycoon did not understand or value journalism, merely milking what advertising and circulation revenue remained from its historic base. Relentless job and cost-cutting left it trailing way behind the Daily Mail alongside a bizarre Desmond-led obsession with front pages – whether they merited a story or not (and it was very often not) – that focused on the same themes year-on-year, including weather, Princess Diana and immigration.

As a news reporter, firstly in London and later in Manchester, there was never pressure from the news desk to do anything than cover an assignment to the best of my ability. But that was easier as a generalist who was sent out (before my departure in 2008) on “hard” fact-based news stories including the Soham murders and Morecambe Bay drowning disaster.

In terms of politics and story selection, Desmond – who I vividly remember regularly chomping on fat cigars over early page proofs in the Express’s non-smoking Ludgate House HQ – was obviously king. The paper’s lurch further and further to the right was confirmed by its backing for then UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and the constant headlines that were so publicly condemned by Jones – previously the editor of the Labour-supporting Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People.

New broom

Jones’ appointment two months ago has already brought change as the Express looks to find a new way and identity. The oft-ridiculed themed front pages have gone, recently exchanged, for example, with a campaigning piece on care for the elderly.

Media commentator and former Times journalist Liz Gerard noted recently that although the word “migrant” had appeared in 23 news stories under Jones’s watch, most references were neutral and some positive. Gerard’s acknowledgement carries some weight as her in-depth monitoring of newspaper immigration stories from the May 2010 general election concluded that the old Express regime was clearly the worst for negative coverage.

Splash headlines included “Migrants Rob Young Britons of Jobs”, “Migrants Grab 12,000 Jobs a Month” and “Migrant Workers Flooding Britain”.

Contrast this with new regime coverage including a comment piece supporting the “impressive” new home secretary, Sajid Javid, trumpeting the “first member of an ethnic minority to hold a great office of state”. On the Windrush migrant scandal, the leader writer added:

He must act decisively to sort out this mess which has ruined the lives of many decent, law-abiding British citizens who came to this country in the hope of a fair and better life, who uphold British values and have been terribly badly treated.

Can the Express – now with a seeming blank canvas and a new boss who is clear to break with the paper’s less than impressive recent performance – reach back to its pioneering past, as befitting the Crusader masthead, to produce stories and web content for a new audience?

I hope so. But the odds are not favourable. The length and depth of decline in its (ageing) readership is huge. And perhaps, more crucially, so is its longstanding lack of investment in a digital audience compared to its heavyweight rivals.

Desmond’s cigar may have been extinguished but much will depend on whether Jones and Trinity Mirror can find the money and formula to find a new generation of readers.

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