How the Express fell into the wrong and clueless hands after Sir Max lost interest

As we worker bees laboured in 1970s Fleet Street, it never occurred to me that we were the playthings of bored rich men.


I should have known, really. There were plenty of clues, not least the necessity of getting Sir Max Aitken’s favourite ski resort, St Anton, into the weather report.


He was our boss: Dashing war hero, decorated fighter pilot, sometime MP and son of Beaverbrook. He joined the newspaper group as a director in 1946 and became chairman in 1968. But his heart wasn’t in it.


He preferred skiing and powerboat racing and was reluctant to wear the mantle left by his father. That made us appear, to outsiders at least, as rudderless. It also meant Beaverbrook Newspapers was stalked by predators.


We were, of course, taken over in 1978 by Trafalgar House and Victor Matthews was installed as chairman. And so began – or perhaps continued – the slow decline that has left the Daily Express now one of the undead titles at the vile, doomed Reach.


However, what I hadn’t realised was how many business titans wanted the Express. How different our lives might have been if Trafalgar House and Matthews had not emerged as winners.


What if Rupert Murdoch, the finest newspaperman of his generation, had won control of the Express titles? What a dream ticket that might have been. We could have flown in formation with the soaraway Sun.


Having lost a tussle for ownership of the Observer, Murdoch set his sights on the Beaverbrook empire. It was, says Simon Jenkins in his 1979 book Newspapers: The Power and the Money, the ripest plum on the Fleet Street tree.


It had “glamorous newspapers, immense revenue potential and valuable plant and property”. Murdoch didn’t want to popularise the titles – why would he want a rival to the Sun?


No, he “wanted the Evening Standard for prestige and the Daily and Sunday Express for their industrial might,” writes Jenkins, who edited both the Standard and The Times.


Murdoch was already plotting how to break the power of the Fleet Street unions and thought the titles would give him the muscle he needed. He didn’t want to buy the group outright, just put his money and clout behind the ailing Beaverbrook group.


He would put his own management team in. “I have half a dozen men ready to go down the road and get the place sorted out,” he said. But with that outspoken Aussie attitude, he made enemies on the Beaverbrook board. They made sure he did not win.


Another suitor was James Goldsmith, who built Cavenham Foods, a colossus that owned brands such as Bovril, Lipton’s and Home and Colonial. It employed 60,000 people, had annual sales of £1.6 billion and was three times as big as Tesco. It was liquidated in 1986.


Goldsmith was minted but that did not stop him becoming the butt of countless scornful jokes in Private Eye. He owned 40 per cent of the Beaverbrook non-voting shares and was frank and unashamed about why he wanted the Express titles.


“I want to get into newspapers because I am a politician manqué,” he said. “I want to do exciting things with them, develop them, use them to play a part in public affairs.” Later, for the same reason, he launched Now! Magazine, which sank with all hands even as some were still boarding.


Goldsmith was a disruptor and was disliked and mistrusted by the Aitken family. He clashed with Jocelyn Stevens, the Beaverbrook managing director, who threatened an editorial campaign against him if he did not stop buying their shares.


Curiously, Goldsmith’s attempt to take over the Express was aided and abetted by his friend and fellow business mogul Tiny Rowland. He was boss of Lonrho, a trading company that owned mines and farms in Africa – and a sinister figure.


Rowland was a swashbuckling corporate raider, cold and vengeful, once described as “not quite human”, who was outmanoeuvred by Mohamed
Al-Fayed when both were trying to buy Harrods.


He owned newspapers in Africa and when Jenkins asked him about his relations with his editors, he replied: “Easy, I simply appoint them on the advice of the local minister of information.”


They made an odd couple and Jenkins points out that observers could not fathom how the two overbearing personalities could possibly share an office if their bid was successful. It wasn’t. And I, for one, give thanks.


But we still had to adjust to the new emperor, Victor Matthews. He was able to step in because Beaverbrook Newspapers was saddled with massive debt from its investment in new plant. Circulation was falling, costs were rising, especially with the spiralling price of newsprint, and the unions were still untamed. The company was at risk of going under.


The situation was so bad that Peter Hetherington, the company auditor and the Aitken family’s personal accountant, went to see Max and told him: “We are technically trading insolvently.”


Max, ever the dilettante playboy, replied: “Nonsense, there’s always been plenty of money.”


Trafalgar House was founded by property developer Nigel Broackes, a canny operator who survived a crash by seeing it coming and preparing. He diversified into construction and met builder Matthews.


They were polar opposites: Broackes educated at Stowe public school, bright and charming; Matthews a rough diamond, dour and unsmiling, equally at home on a building site as in a boardroom.


Their speciality was spotting ailing companies and turning them around with an injection of cash, expertise and flair. They did it with Cunard; they did it with the Ritz hotel. By 1977 they were turning over £587 million.


Their purchase of the Express was a prime example of their business acumen. They got it for the knockdown price of £13 million. The first thing they did was to move the Evening Standard, over the course of one weekend, into 120, Fleet Street, the art deco masterpiece that housed the Daily Express.


Then they redeveloped the Evening Standard building in Shoe Lane – and sold it off for £13 million. Job done. They now owned a national newspaper with a rich history as well as a prime chunk of Fleet Street. They had made their money back with a single deal.


They retained the Beaverbrook management under Jocelyn Stevens and Broackes, still only 42, appointed Matthews to be chairman and chief executive of the Express Group.


Broackes was no backseat driver. He gave Matthews, then 58, three years to make the newspapers profitable and left him to run them his way. Simon Jenkins was puzzled by his motives for standing back but from the vantage point of 2024, they seem obvious.


Broackes had no interest in newspapers and if Matthews could put the company into profit again, all he had to do was wait for the property to soar in value.


“When I first discussed matters with Matthews as one of his future editors,” writes Jenkins, “he impressed me as a simple but confident businessman, though one who knew little about newspapers.”


However, his lack of experience and feel for the newspaper business did not stop him from peering over the shoulders of Daily Express editors Roy Wright and later Derek Jameson.


He left Jenkins on the Standard and John Junor on the Sunday Express to their own devices but subjected the others to an ill-informed critique on the day’s paper and debated the merits of the splash headline. He also made their lives difficult by reacting, like so many proprietors, to the earache he got from people he met at functions.


Matthews was a small man with a Brylcreemed quiff, which former Express managing director Andrew Cameron likened to that of the TV star The Fonz, played by Henry Winkler. He was known in Private Eye as Lord Whelks, for his love of the sea snails.


He is said to have met his match in Sir Larry Lamb, who did not care for interference in what he regarded as his domain. When Matthews poked his nose in, Lamb was prone to put it out of joint. The two had tense confrontations but with similar backgrounds, they managed to live in mutual respect.


But neither managed to fix the Express and in 1985 it was taken over by David Stevens and United Newspapers.


That, though, is a different nightmare.


5 March 2024