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TUESDAY 27  FEBRUARY 2024

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Express dilemma 1974: Splash on Ronnie Biggs or the M62 IRA atrocity?

GOTCHA: Ronnie Biggs, left, plays cards with Expressmen Colin Mackenzie, photographer Bill Lovelace and Michael O’Flaherty


The first time I saw a momentous decision made on the Daily Express was almost 50 years ago, on the night of February 4, 1974.

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Well, perhaps momentous is overcooking it a little. Perhaps decision is, too, given the outcome. But it was a tricky one, that is sure.

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The Express was all set to splash on Ronnie Biggs, who had been tracked down in Brazil by reporters Colin Mackenzie and Michael O’Flaherty and photographer Bill Lovelace. It was our own story and copper-bottomed: My life on the run, by Great Train Robber Biggs.

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Then the IRA, as so often, committed an act of sheer evil, one of the deadliest atrocities on the mainland in the history of The Troubles, blowing up a coach on the M62 that was carrying British Servicemen and their families.

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The terrorists detonated a 25lb bomb hidden in the coach’s luggage locker, killing nine soldiers and three civilians and injuring 38 other people, including children. It was a tragic, dramatic and politically significant attack.

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It was also a terrible conundrum for executives on the Express. What to splash on? A huge breaking story or our own superb exclusive?

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I had recently started work on the Express in Great Ancoats Street, Manchester. It was an especially tough call there, for the scene of the bombing was just a few miles up the road.

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In between rushing down copy to clear the decks for this memorable night in any journalist’s career, I watched as poor Tony Fowler prowled the Backbench, tie askew, one hand clutched to his balding head and the veins pulsing at his temples.

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To look at him, you would say he was just one shock short of a heart attack.

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Frantic phone calls were fielded from London. The front page was drawn and redrawn. In the end, they split Page One vertically – the paper was still a broadsheet – and if memory serves me, Biggs got the splash headline.

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But that was a tactical decision; those that shaped our futures were the strategic ones. Such a decision was unveiled on Page One of the Daily Express on May 20, 1935.

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Legendary Editor Arthur Christiansen did not keep a diary, so he browsed the files to jog his memory for his book Headlines All My Life.

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Coming across a heading that read, “To-day’s Daily Express is different”, he wrote in his memoir: “I remember that all right.”

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What was it? Well, we’ll come to that. But first, one of the sea changes that shaped the modern Express and made it truly different from the day before.

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‍                           First tabloid and last broadsheet of the DX, 1977


After much agonising, in 1977 the Daily Express switched from broadsheet format to tabloid. But as ever, they did it with little conviction. Journalists know that tabloid is more than just the size of the paper; it is a state of mind, a technique, a branding of the product.


But the Express went into it half-heartedly, gloomily regarding the switch as the last throw of the dice. Circulation had dropped below four million in 1967 and below three million in 1975. By 1977, it was selling just 2,250,000,

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The BBC had cameras in the Fleet Street building for the last night of the broadsheet days (newspapers made news in those days as well as reporting it).  The television reporter referred to the “familiar large-sized Daily Express” coming off the presses and said they were producing “a quarter of a million papers an hour – every copy losing money.”

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Only the mainly middle-aged and old would read it, he said. “To survive, to attract the teenage readers who can save it, the Express has decided to go tabloid, the same shape as the Mirror, the Daily Mail and the Sun.”

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Editor Roy Wright ponderously summed up his dilemma: “You want to change it in such a way that you make it clear to people who haven’t bought it before that things are moving, that it is different, there’s something in it to appeal to them.

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“Yet at the same time you mustn’t change it so drastically that you alienate the loyal bulk of the readership who have stood by you for years and who support you and you can’t afford to lose.”

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The reporter’s commentary went on: “With 40 smaller-sized pages and a new look that its rivals have worn for years, the Express hopes to gain its million extra readers almost overnight. It’s got to.”

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Well, of course, it didn’t. Wright, who had previously been Deputy Editor of the Evening Standard, produced the dullest tabloid Fleet Street had ever seen. Within months, Max Aitken had sold the paper and gone off to do something he actually enjoyed – powerboat racing, skiing at St Anton, anything but newspapers.

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Victor Matthews bought it and brought in Derek Jameson to replace Wright.

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Meanwhile, the Daily Mail, which had gone tabloid six years earlier, was flourishing under Editor David English. It understood the pejorative implications of the description tabloid and never so much as acknowledged the word – choosing instead to call itself a “compact”.

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It was part of a three-card trick in which it used every known tabloid ploy and also presented itself as a newspaper for women while printing condescending, mysoginistic articles about fashion, the prominent women of the day and a woman’s place in society.

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So what was the radical change that so exercised Christiansen? May 20, 1935, was the day the Express began to omit full stops from headlines.

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“Now that was a BIG day!” writes Christiansen. An editor does not lightly take such a step. Seriously, he does not lightly make such a revolutionary change.

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“The chances are that it was discussed for weeks, was referred finally to Lord Beaverbrook for O.K., and that Percy Pratt, the Head Printer, thought the whole idea outrageous.”

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‍ PS Cedric Belfrage, the Daily Express’s own resident Russian spy whom I wrote about last week, gets a (dishonourable) mention in Christiansen’s memoir.

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Belfrage had been sent to Southampton to meet the Aquitania, which was carrying film stars from America. As the film critic, he was to interview them and Christiansen remembers thinking: “He will obviously hire a speed boat to cover the story.”

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But no. “At seven o’clock that night,” Christiansen writes, “the apocryphal story of the reporter who returned to the office with the news that he had not stayed to cover a wedding because the church had caught fire, came true.”

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The ship had run aground, so Belfrage had returned to Fleet Street, telling his bosses he could not interview the stars because they were stuck 10 miles off Southampton.

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Christiansen teased his film critic at a cocktail party that evening, regaling guests with Belfrage’s “classic boob”.

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“He sneered back that it wasn’t his job to report a ship aground; that could be left to the general reporting staff,” writes Christiansen.

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“But I wanted film critics who could cover shipping disasters and general reporters who could interview film stars.”

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His verdict on the master spy? “A rum case, Belfrage.”

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‍ PPS Belfrage wasn’t the only spy to work for the Daily Express, of course. Frederick Forsyth, who wrote The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File, was an MI6 asset for more than 20 years.

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He admitted his secret past in a 2015 interview with the BBC as he published his memoir, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue. It began when he was covering the Biafra civil war as a freelance journalist. He was approached by an Intelligence officer called Ronnie, who asked him to “tell us what’s going on”.

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“For the last year of the Biafran War I was sending ... both journalistic reports to the media and other reports to my new friend,” he said.

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At the time, the Foreign Office was denying that children were dying in Biafra. Forsyth knew differently. “They were dying like flies,” he said.

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Forsyth, who in 1971 was awarded a CBE for services to literature, wrote a ferociously Right-wing column for the Daily Express for 20 years and was a contributor to the newspaper going back to the Sixties.

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He gave up the column only last August, when he turned 85, and Editor-in-Chief Gary Jones called his dispatches “a must-read in the corridors of power”.

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After Biafra, Forsyth continued to do odd jobs for the Secret Intelligence Service, one of which took him into East Germany at the height of the Cold War. He posed as a tourist to collect a package of secret files from a British spy and take them back to London.

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In return, MI6 would vet some of his plotlines, which were so authentic they clearly came from real-life adventures.

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“I would have a lunch at the club, I’d ask is it OK? They would check with their superiors, and then they would say yes, you can use that, with one proviso, that sheets must be provided for vetting – just in case I went too far.”

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Usually, he told the BBC, “the response was: ‘OK, Freddie!’”

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Star broadcaster Mike Graham, formerly of this parish, is interviewed in the current edition of The Spectator and tells how he was fired from the Daily Express in the middle of a shift as night editor.

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Alongside a picture of Graham, 63, in a dark suit, with button-down shirt and tie and slicked back hair – not entirely the rumpled, slightly bohemian bloke I remember – Max Jeffery, the interviewer, writes that management told Graham he had not hired enough women. This is entirely plausible given that Rosie Boycott was Editor and seemed determined to have every department run by a woman. She came close, too, as a picture from the time confirms.

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Recounting his sacking, Graham told the Speccie: “I said, ‘Do you want me to finish the edition?’ They went, ‘No, not really.’ I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll just go to the pub, then.’”

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Perhaps it slipped his mind, but he doesn’t mention a story I heard at the time – that he had given La Boycott a cheerful, relaxed mid-afternoon tour of the office, which was peppered with so much effing and blinding that she decided there and then that he had to go.

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The picture shows Graham looking shrewd, sly and a little smug. And perhaps with good reason. His show, The Independent Republic of Mike Graham, has just been switched from mid-morning to a new prime time evening slot on TalkTV. Viewers and listeners love his “bloke in the pub” schtick.

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The boy done good. Like so many outstanding journalists shown the door at the Daily Depress.

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‍ A hint in Friday’s edition of The Times of what life might be like for journalists if the Abu Dhabi-backed fund RedBird IMI wins control of the Telegraph titles and the Spectator magazine.

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The fund is headed by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who for five years was his country’s censor in chief. Human rights activists accuse him of overseeing laws against free expression and “exercising strict control over local and international media”.

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In 2008 the United Arab Emirates, where al-Jaber is boss of the state oil company, launched a new newspaper, The National, which they hoped would be a quality English language daily. Former Telegraph Editor Martin Newland was hired to get it off the ground. It is now owned by International Media Investors (IMI).

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After an early period when journalists were given a high degree of editorial freedom, The Times says the owners “started to use both direct and covert methods of censoring the paper’s coverage.”

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It adds: “One journalist said there was a hotline from a government adviser to the news desk.”

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The journalist added: “If you’re asking whether we were told what not to do, then the answer is: absolutely.

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“The journalists at the paper started to self-censor as they learnt to avoid scrutinising policies, sensitive events and state-owned firms.”

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One reporter said editors would call late at night to be dismissive of stories that would irritate the government and take offending articles out of the paper.

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The tussle for ownership of the Telegraph stems from a £1.2 billion debt owed by the Barclay family to Lloyds Bank, which seized the assets. The family wants to repay those loans with help from RedBird IMI.

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Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer has said she is minded to open an inquiry to determine if the bid by Abu Dhabi-backed fund would be against the public interest.

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There has been a lot of coverage in Murdoch’s newspapers of the threat to Press freedom and independence posed by the potential takeover by the Arabs. Surely it is not driven by fear of what a newly invigorated Telegraph, supported by a very large wedge of oil cash, could do to circulation at The Times?


RICHARD DISMORE

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28 November 2023