As new daily free newspaper London Lite hit the streets of the capital on Wednesday, Associated Newspapers insisted the title is not merely a "spoiler", but part of a long-term plan.
London Lite is widely seen as a defensive move to protect the Evening Standard against News International's thelondonpaper, which is launched on Monday.
But Steve Auckland, head of Associated's free newspapers division, told Press Gazette that the company's plans for a free afternoon paper in London date back to 2002.
He also insisted that Wednesday had been the long-term launch date and claimed that News International was the company mounting a spoiler operation.
He said: "It was actually 2002 when we first looked at this project. Richard Desmond pushed us into the OFT inquiry, which meant we couldn't use the bins in the afternoon.
"We were always going to go this week. We weren't really bothered when News International was going. They were going on 18 September at one stage; now they've brought their title forward — probably to spoil our plans.
"I'm surprised that they've launched now, when they could have launched any time in the last three years, when we were up to our necks with the OFT."
The Office of Fair Trading inquiry Auckland refers to was launched in April 2003 to look at Associated's exclusive use of free newspaper distribution racks at stations in London. In April last year, the OFT ended Associated's monopoly deal and the bidding process for the rights to use those racks now still has some months to go.
Auckland said: "We will be bidding for the Transport for London rights and will consider that at the time. I think that News International's views on hand merchandising have probably devalued slightly that position in the bins."
Some 400,000 copies of London Lite were handed out by merchandisers in two editions in Transport for London (TfL) zone one on Wednesday — with the first one going out at midday and the main edition from 4pm.
The new paper makes extensive use of Evening Standard stories and is also expected to use copy from the Daily Mail.
Auckland revealed that it had a launch team of 40 journalists, which he said was likely to drop to 30.
He said: "There's a misconception with free newspapers of this quality that you don't need many staff, you just pull it all off PA, resub it and lay it out. But if you are subbing something down to three or four paragraphs, it is not easy if it is 12 paragraphs long. You need to be able to sum it up in that space.
"On the test run last Friday, we had two exclusives in there, and it might end up that there will be two or three a day. We will utilise the strengths of Associated titles — we'd be crazy if we didn't."
Auckland insisted that London Lite was a long-term project that aimed to move into profit "around years four or five".
He said: "We would never look at this being a short-term project. One thing I can say, and I have worked outside with venture capitalists and other publishers — when Associated go into something, they go into something long-term. The business plan is worked out for a long period of time."
The big question facing Associated is whether both its title, and NI's thelondonpaper, can survive. They both have launch circulations of 400,000, targeting young professionals in the TfL zone one.
Associated's morning free Metro currently has a distribution of 548,762 in London, and according to TfL, the new titles have a total possible readership of around one million commuters leaving central London each day.
Auckland said: "It will be interesting to see how it goes — I know Copenhagen has about three newspapers rattling away.
"Distribution going home is almost like going into a funnel — and you can merchandise much easier in that zone one area because of that.
"I think we can move 400,000 every night and the business plan is based on that."