Star Trek Part 1 
To boldly go where no one has gone before (and never will again)

FINGERS IN THE PIE: Express Newspapers chairman Victor Matthews starts the first run of the Daily Star in Manchester with a little help from Daily Express picture editor John Knill, dressed rather cheekily as a Crusader

JEFF CONNOR recalls the early days of the Daily Star at the Daily Express Manchester offices in 1978

The meeting to discuss the launch of the new newspaper, mandatory for all NUJ members, was to be held in a large assembly hall on Oldham Street halfway between the suits and expensive restaurant of Piccadilly Gardens and the tracky bottoms and piss and chip shops of Ancoats. 

The building had been leased from the Temperance Society of Manchester, which some saw as a bit of mischief by someone in the chapels, though more likely because some 100 journalists were unlikely to fit in the Crown and Kettle.   

It seems remarkable now, four decades later, to think that the fate of a new tabloid (in a city deserted by every other national newspaper) was dependent on the whims of a small number of NUJ members. But that was the case. 

The owners and the management had already won over (or bribed over) every other union including, remarkable as it seems, all the printers. The NUJ and Express chapels, for arguably the last time, held the whip hand and could approve or kill it off there and then.

The ‘brain child’ — if that’s the word — came from professional back-street Cockney (about the only thing he had in common with editor Derek Jameson) Victor Matthews and his Trafalgar House business partner, ex-Guards officer Nigel Broackes. 

They had bought Beaverbrook Newspapers in 1977 and, according to Roy Greenslade, were Thatcherite ‘money men who viewed newspapers as nothing more than cash cows’. They also believed that Express Newspapers, as they now called it, was chronically overstaffed to which they may have had a point. 

On my first night on the Express in 1976 I spent six hours subbing a 30-word filler and two hours in the White House, one of a dozen similar grotty boozers in the recesses of Great Ancoats Street. When I arrived for my second shift I found every desk occupied by a completely different set of staff.

So there we were to vote, for or against the new tabloid. As this building was owned by the Temperance Society of Manchester it goes without saying that smoking and drinking wasn’t allowed in the hall and on that basis it was also equally obvious that the meeting wasn’t going to last long.

It soon became obvious that this was going to be no ordinary meeting. I had a good view high up in the gods, looking down on four men seated and facing their audience, like the debaters in an edition of Question Time.  Two of the men were FOCs so were bound to state the facts without an opinion. That did not apply to the two Express staffers alongside them who had come armed with written notes and permission to speak (in favour). 

Dave Harbord, bespectacled and bearded, with the appearance of, like many news subs in those days a raddled folk singer, was there as the good cop. When Chris Davis, who I didn’t know, was greeted by a chorus of hisses and boos it was obvious who had been chosen as the operation’s bad cop. It turned out later that Davis (soon to re-title Roycroft-Davis) was to specialise in this sort of thing; Ancoats ’78 was an audition to other things:

He warned us of the fate of the Scottish Express in 1974 and the dangers of over-staffing. This was the last chance saloon, so to speak. Harbord was more measured. He didn’t have the blatant ambition of Davis (or at least didn’t show it). The Daily Star, he said, could not only be a new challenge but it could mean more staff and more jobs. There were a few voices disbelieving voices but as I hinted, no-one was minded to argue the toss for any length of time. In the end the vote in favour of supporting the new paper was almost unanimous.

It was around 3pm by then and I was on the dog shift with plenty of time to kill. Some of us adjourned, this time to the Land O’Cakes (I hated the notion of being considered a ‘regular’ at any pub back then) and naturally, most of the discussions were about how this was going to affect us (me). 

For some time I was the only staff London-based reporter on a national newspaper. It was a strange but exciting time and for a while it was great fun and very lucrative.

Individual heads of department, for example, were to be given the heartless jobs of deciding which member of his staff would join the new title and which would stay with the Express. Their decisions would then be passed around in sealed envelopes, rather like the Oscars. 

There was much soul searching: if my sports editor, Mike Dempsey, decided I was to stay with the Express (as he did) does it mean I’m not good enough for the Star? Or is he intent on hanging on to all the staff he rated? In the end (and I don’t think Mike ever forgave me for this) I whined long enough and loud enough to win a transfer to the Star. 

Express journalists in Fleet Street had similar problems though by all accounts Jameson gave staff no choice at all. Ashley Walton, later to become the venerable Royal Correspondent of the Daily Express, says now: ‘I was among a very small group of Express hacks called into Jamie's office to be "volunteered" into starting the Star with just two weeks' warning. For some time I was the only staff London-based reporter on a national newspaper. It was a strange but exciting time and for a while it was great fun and very lucrative.’

And so it was for me. I was 32, which back then was today’s 70, but like everyone else felt revitalized by the challenge. Think of the new faces, new young, enthusiastic staff, new editors, new management, new writers and new stories! Even people who’d never buy the paper or even read it seemed supportive and enthusiastic. 

‘Hoping it’s a Knockout,’ said one ‘letter to the editor’ from Stuart Hall of Glossop, Derbyshire.

*Former Daily Express executive Rick McNeill said: "That front page, of course, was the work of the great Vic Giles. No fancy computers. Virtually hand-drawn.”

PART 2 Wolf Man meets Bugsy Malone



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