Peter Hill: 'Express is world's greatest newspaper'

This feature interview with Daily Express editor Peter Hill first appeared in the November 2009 edition of Press Gazette magazine.

Although the Express is regarded by many of its rivals, and even some of its own staff, as the poor relation of the British national newspaper world, the title continues to make money for its owner Richard Desmond.

Profits at RCD1, the holding company for Desmond’s Northern & Shell publishing empire, including the Express, dropped 25 per cent as a result of the recession in 2008. But the pre-tax profit was still a robust £41.6m.

The Daily Express has stayed in the black despite maintaining its cover price at 40p, ten pence less than its main rival the Daily Mail.

To help pay for all this price-cutting, around 75 members of staff at Express Newspapers are expected to lose their jobs, of which about 57 are journalists. It is the second round of job cuts in less than a year, on a paper already described by one source as ‘down to the marrow”. Last year around 80 staff and freelance journalists, mainly working in production, were cut.

Given this background, the paper’s editor Peter Hill does not want to give a ‘set-piece interview’at present, but he is happy to defend the Express and its management against their critics.

Hill explains: ‘As a company we have to keep our affairs financially sound. We can’t make economies in any further way; we simply have to tighten up the staff.”

While Hill believes journalists on the Express understand the need to make cost-savings to keep the paper on a sound financial footing, the National Union of Journalists sees the situation rather differently.

The NUJ chapel at Express Newspapers recently passed a motion criticising what Father of the Chapel Steve Usher describes as a ‘flimsy’consultation process.

According to the NUJ, management is being vague about their plans for the future and how they plan to run the newspapers with a reduced workforce. Proposals include looking for at least 38 volunteers for redundancy, phasing out long term casuals across Express Newspaper titles, introducing a nine-day fortnight for sub-editors, moving more sub-editing jobs to Broughton in Lancashire, where the group already has a sizeable subbing operation, and sharing late news rotas across the Express and Star titles.

Usher says: ‘Uncertainty over the future does little for morale. We are all concerned about the quality of the titles and the health and safety of the staff here as a result of constant cost-cutting.”

But Hill insists: ‘We are still perfectly capable of producing a newspaper, just in a tighter way.”

The Express has installed a new production system which management claim requires fewer subs. More stories are written straight to page and Hill has done away with the old practice of having specialist teams of subs allocated to each department.

Hill says: ‘I believe the standards of writing have vastly improved. It’s not like the old situation where reporters used to spend half the day in the pub, then get a decent story from some contact and hurriedly dictate it over the telephone to a copytaker, who might make a few mistakes in the transcription.”

Advertising has taken a hit on the Express, as with all newspapers, but Hill says revenues have not shrunk to the same extent as some of its competitors, adding that the paper has benefited from a price war between the supermarkets waged in its pages.

The circulation of the Express has fallen by less than the Mail in recent months, dipping 2.46 per cent year on year to 730,234 in August 2009 compared with the Mail on 2,171,686, down 3.9 per cent.

And unlike many of its rivals, the Express does not include bulk giveaways in its circulation figures.

But it is still from a far cry from the title’s 1960s heyday when it was selling up to four million copies a day.

Critics might say that Richard Desmond’s Express has thrived by running any story that sells ad infinitum, such as the conspiracy theories surrounding the Princess Diana car crash which the paper published for months on end, only running out of steam following the official inquiry into her death, or the more insidious series of articles alleging that Kate and Gerry McCann were responsible for the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. Express Newspapers was forced to pay £550,000 in damages to the couple in March 2008.

Aside from Diana conspiracy theorists, who reads the Daily Express?

Hill is reluctant to pinpoint his readership by age or class, although he rejects the suggestion they are predominantly elderly, declaring: ‘They’re not as old as the Telegraph’s readers.”

He adds: ‘I think they are more serious minded than the Daily Mail’s readers. I don’t think they’re interested in this slick, celebrity lifestyle.

The Express, in Hill’s view, is much more female-friendly than the Mail. ‘I can’t understand why women would read the Daily Mail, because it clearly has a view of them which is akin to what the Taliban might think about women,’he says.

‘It thinks women ought to be in the kitchen, looking after the kids and ironing their rugby gear and not going out and playing a full part in life. They’ve found a way to get to that somewhat pretentious suburban housewife.”

The European Union and immigration are also high on Express readers’ agenda. Hill says, ‘I know they absolutely detest everything to do with the European Union. I know they’re deeply concerned about the enormous levels of immigration which have gone unchecked. I know they detest the idea of multiculturalism which is ghettoising the country.”

He adds: ‘I don’t believe the idea that people should try to integrate with the British way of life is in any way racist.”

Under its previous editor Rosie Boycott and owner Lord Hollick, the Express was a Labour newspaper. But when Hill took over the editor’s chair, he switched allegiance back to the Conservatives. He is adamant this was his decision alone and that it came as something of an embarrassment to owner Desmond, who was friendly with the Blairs at the time.

‘It had been a serious mistake to try to force Labour politics down the throats of our readers, who are deeply conservative both with a small ‘c’ and with a capital ‘C’,’says Hill, who has unreserved scorn for Gordon Brown and nothing but admiration for David Cameron and George Osborne.

Journalists on the Express describe the paper as ‘woefully under-resourced’and ‘a machine for putting out wire copy”, although they also speak of an ‘esprit de corps’among the staff.

Their editor, however, is convinced the paper is on the right track. Asked where the Express sits in the pantheon of British newspapers, he replies: ‘It’s the world’s greatest newspaper. That’s what it says on the front. It must be true.”

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