The Grey Cardigan 31.08.06

IT WAS early in 1987. Terry Waite had just been kidnapped, a new series called Inspector Morse had just started on ITV and a lady called Cynthia Payne was enlivening our lives with tales of suburban orgies where Luncheon Vouchers (remember them?) were the official currency.

Some of us young bucks out in the regions, or provinces as they were then known, received a call to arms: Associated are launching a new paper to see off Robert Maxwell's planned London Daily News.

Did we fancy a few shifts?

Did we? Damn right we did. The bright lights of the big city, the chance to work among our peers, the opportunity to shine under the charismatic gaze of John Leese and Bert Hardy (respectively editor and managing director of the Evening Standard, and the men tasked with seeing off the bouncing Czech)… we'd have walked there if necessary.

And so we turned up, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, only to discover that the resurrected Evening News, far from taking on Magnus Linklater's very good London Daily News in a head-to-head contest of editorial quality, was an absolute bag of shite. It was crammed with PA and puzzles, extracts from out-of-copyright classics and straight lifts from the previous day's Standard. It was crap and, almost unbelievably, it was meant to be crap. And glamour? A nasty rented office round the back of the Daily Express was as good as it got.

One shift was enough. We never went back and, too young and naïve to understand the Machiavellian motives, had to live with the disappointment of what we saw as an opportunity missed. We were wrong, of course. Rothermere (Vere, that is) was right.

Assisted by some dodgy dealing which strangled the opposition's distribution, and able to slash prices with impunity (dropping to just 5p eventually), the Evening News thoroughly confused the market, particularly for those punters who bought it thinking it was Maxwell's effort and, understandably, never bought it again.

(We should pause briefly to acknowledge the fact that the LDN brought us the debut of a cartoon strip called Alex and the first appearance in this country of a section called Metro. Oh, and it lost Maxwell and, by default the Mirror pensioners, £50 million.)

Looking back, it was a classic defensive tactic that allowed the Evening Standard to sail on unmolested, while the enemy was engaged by an utterly disposable title of no real value. Quite brilliant.

So can Associated get away with it again? I think not. The media market is now far more sophisticated than the one that fell for Rothermere's three-card trick. This time around, quality will count.

And already, those smart young regional subs will be planning their shot at the big city. I wish them well.

THE PREVIOUSLY wellrespected Eamonn McCabe does his bit for The Guardian's empty August expanses by filing a sneering G2 spread bemoaning the clichéd nature of the A-level pictures that appear in most newspapers. His particular beef is "jumping for joy" pictures and the understandably regular appearance of blonde hair, long legs, teenage knickers, bare midriffs and expanding T-shirts.

Full marks then to Iain Lynn, picture editor of the Lancashire Evening Post, who writes in the next day, challenging Mr McCabe to "treat us to a lesson in how it should be done during GCSE results day".

Sadly, McCabe fails to rise to the occasion. And so The Guardian has to illustrate its GCSE coverage with an agency picture of a group of students including a young blonde with a cheeky smile, a black bra and an impressive cleavage. Plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change, as a Guardian reader would doubtless say.

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