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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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The Times is now a dead ringer for the old Daily Express










It is possible now, from a distance of 35 years, to see former Daily Express Editor Nick Lloyd as a man ahead of his time. After all, The Times today is the newspaper he was trying to produce in the 1980s.


Not in design terms, perhaps. The Thunderer does not put 144pt Century Bold Expanded caps headlines on Page One. Nor in its political tone. The Times is liberal centre Left in its outlook, whereas the Express was an unwavering cheerleader for Margaret Thatcher (so much so that Nick became Sir Nicholas in her resignation honours list).


But in its choice of stories, its judgment of what makes news, The Times is a dead ringer for the old Express. That is, before Lord Hollick executed a sharp Left turn and Rosie Boycott redefined news in her own eccentric image; before Richard Desmond decided house prices were the only story in town; before the Mirror bought the Express and left it to wither on the vine.


The move upmarket was a Big Idea in the same vein as Monty Modular’s DX80, which Rick McNeill reminds us of on these pages. It had much the same result: The paper became duller, the circulation fell.


The disaster was board-driven but the Editor was all in. I remember him saying in my hearing: “I don’t like our readers; I wish we had different ones. I wish we had Times readers.”


But of course, we didn’t. We had the readers we had, and we treated them with less respect than they deserved. Inevitably, they voted with their feet.


The board had faith in Nick. They gave him almost 10 years to turn things around. They even accepted that circulation would fall and pronounced that they wouldn’t start worrying until it hit 1.6 million.


Just so long as they could get their hands on some of that advertising money that was sloshing around – Rolex, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Mont Blanc. Luxury brands for whom the Daily Express was not the first name that came to mind when they were looking to place an advertisement.


That’s what advertising boss Stan Myerson craved and what Nick Lloyd was charged with attracting.


But the project was always doomed. Nick Lloyd, though a sharply intelligent man, was no visionary. And even if he had been, there is no percentage in being ahead of your time in newspapers. It is as bad as being stuck in the past.


There is only the here and now. Anyone who doubts it has only to ask the circulation manager and he will open his drawer and show them yesterday’s sales figures.


In those days they would have made grim reading. And the reason is not merely that we were embarked on a Fleet Street suicide mission, turning our backs on the aspirational, lower middle-class families who had read the Express for generations.


The other problem was that across the road in Tudor Street a revolution was taking place. One that gratefully swept up the disillusioned, disaffected readers who turned their backs on us in increasing numbers.


The Daily Mail, first under the brilliant Sir David English, once foreign editor of this parish, and then under Paul Dacre, who also began his career on the Express – and later turned down an offer from Rupert Murdoch to edit The Times – ruthlessly targeted the demographic we were increasingly shunning, while cannily hanging on to the wives of Times readers and ladies who lunch (as well as a few blokes who read the Mail but would never admit to it).


I well remember the gloom that pervaded the office when finally, inevitably the Mail overtook the Express. Nick and the board had seen it coming, of course. But it was still a shock to lose our preeminent position in the middle market.


English and Dacre did it by getting inside the heads of their readers and rummaging around until they found out what they wanted to read in their newspaper. Then they gave it to them: Hard news, high society, showbiz, sport.


And that’s not to mention crime, politics and campaigns, all of which were contained in their brave and brilliant reporting of the Stephen Lawrence tragedy.


They did it all with the instinct, belief, flair and passion which for a while were missing in action at the Express. Instead, we had reader panels, advertising gurus, think-tanks.


It was that old Sunday Express charlatan Sir John Junor who said: “An ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts.” It’s true and we forgot it.

*****

Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player who ever lived. The statistics tell us so. He has won a record 23 grand slams, has been ranked world No1 for 389 weeks in 12 different years.


But we don’t love him. We never have. We love the elegant Roger Federer and the cool, intense Rafa Nadal. Djokovic knows it and he resents it.


Sometimes it causes him to behave like an oaf, a brat, as when he feigned the crowd’s tears in the semi-final while he demolished their favourite, Jannik Sinner. It was disrespectful to his opponent. And to the crowd. He should know by now that spectators at Wimbledon always favour the underdog.


Djokovic, 36, hasn’t been that for a long time. But he showed his age on Sunday and was second best to Carlos Alcaraz, the young pretender to his throne.


Their wonderful match prompted this brilliant headline in The Times: The kid beats the GOAT [Greatest Of All Time]. Wish I’d written it.


18th July, 2023