The perculiar progress of Michael Pilgrim


Whatever else, Richard Desmond has never posed as the patron saint of editorial integrity. Indeed, the only reason he was persuaded to set up an editorial appeal tribunal (under distinguished QC Arthur Davidson) was to encourage the Government to allow him to gobble up the Express without putting the DTI on the case.

So why didn’t beleaguered Sunday Express editor Michael Pilgrim go to the tribunal? It could hardly have worsened his predicament. Had he won, which must have been an even chance, he would be dismissible only with enormous compensation.

Is that why Desmond chose not to refer Pilgrim’s complaint to the tribunal?

Things were rather less miserable at the Express in the good old days when an editor uneasy with the proprietor’s demands told him: "If you insist, you leave me no alternative but to resign." Beaverbrook did insist. And Beverley Baxter replied: "In that case, you leave me no alternative but to withdraw my resignation."

Such lightness of touch was never likely to characterise the relationship between Pilgrim and the outsider from a world in which Beaver has a very different meaning.

Publishers need to be confident enough not to appoint editors who will always say "Yes, boss", though such characters come a lot cheaper.

And, in turn, editors need to be wise enough to appreciate that "No, boss" is best said in the Havana-scented privacy of the chairman’s Bentley.

Quite the worst place to advise the boss that he is wrong, wrong, wrong is in a memo, memo, memo.

Why did Pilgrim choose that kamikaze route? Were all attempted conversations stemmed with a barrage of asterisks? Did he reckon a memo would persuade Desmond to leave editing to the editor (and cease degrading the package with free copies of Punch trumpeting Mohammed Al Fayed’s obsession that MI6 was behind the deaths of Dodi and Diana)?

Pilgrim’s indictment of constant pressure to do things "outside the legitimate and ethical remit of a newspaper" was somehow leaked not only inside the Express but to his old paper, The Observer.

He recorded that he had been "asked on several occasions to suppress evidence of wrongdoing" and was "under ridiculous pressure to run unjustified stories to settle scores." And so on.

The most tempting analysis is that Pilgrim, having seen the writing on the wall, was determined to do unto Desmond what Desmond was about to do unto him. In that, both have won. And both have lost.

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