SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024


STAR: Ann was given all the crappy jobs on the Express

The death this week of Dame Ann Leslie reminds us of the great era of newspaper journalism which she bestrode but also of the terrible decline of the Daily Express.

I commend you all to read her memoir, Killing My Own Snakes, which tells vividly the unhappy time she had on the Express. Leslie arrived at the Manchester office straight from Oxford to be told by the oafish news editor Tom Campbell that he didn’t like her because she was a woman and, worse still, an upper middle class privately-educated graduate from the hated south. Oh, and she was foisted on Campbell by London.

That was in 1962 and when I arrived at the Ancoats ‘Little Lubyanka’ four years later this malevolent Scotsman (her words) had gone, his job taken by Bob Blake who at least had the decency to later apologise for Campbell’s behaviour. And there had been a spot of gentrification among the editorial staff with several women reporters and feature writers (though no subs) and a spattering of public school and Oxbridge people. Not to mention the northern motoring correspondent and Hickey reporter Sir James Scott-Douglas of gargantuan proportions and blessed memory.

Predictably Leslie was given all the crappy jobs by the news desk including one for the many slip editions, the Harrogate Toy Fair. And that’s where she first met Jean Rook. It was not love at first sight. Jean, 10 years Ann’s senior, was brash and northern and on the Yorkshire Post. Little did either know that in the following decade they would be seen as great rivals on either side of Fleet Street.

It happened because Ann had been hired by David English, by then editor of the Mail and flush with total support, both financial and personal, from the proprietor Vere Harmsworth. The brilliant but mercurial English had been passed over for the editorship of the Express and was determined to show his old employers how wrong they had been. Jean had been poached from the Mail to become the so-called First Lady of Fleet Street and we became great friends and nearish neighbours.

Both women flourished but by then the writing was on the wall; English and Harmsworth were not to be beaten whereas the Express was going through editors at an alarming rate and run by the great Beaverbrook’s son Max Aitken whose hobbies, according to Leslie, were power boats and adultery! He was hopeless and his father must have been turning in his grave. My great friend John Kidd, Aitken’s nephew, is even harsher in his judgment.

And so the inevitable happened; the Mail put on circulation and the Express lost it relentlessly. We also lost many of our very best to the Mail, most notably Geoffrey Levy who came out of retirement to write Leslie’s obit and of course Ross Benson. Meanwhile the Express not only changed editors, it also changed owners; Beaverbrook, then Trafalgar House, then United, Hollick, Dirty Desmond and now Reach.

Both Ann Leslie and Jean Rook are no longer with us. How long before the same will be said of the Express itself?

30th June 2023

Misogyny drove Ann Leslie from the Express and led to
the paper’s terrible decline