Express watchdog panel backs Desmond regime

The watchdog panel set up at Express Newspapers said this week it was satisfied that editorial integrity was being maintained, despite complaints from staff and a formal protest from the NUJ about editorial interference from new proprietor Richard Desmond.

After "rigorous and interesting discussions" with the three editors, the panel issued a carefully worded statement on which it declined to elaborate:

"Details of the discussion remain private but at this stage the board is satisfied that editorial independence and integrity is being maintained. The enthusiasm and commitment of the new proprietor is understood.

"The board remains committed to upholding the traditional role of editors to conduct day-to-day editorial policy with freedom of judgement and within broad general guidelines established with newspaper management."

It is understood that the board, made up of chairman Arthur Davidson QC, Barbara Thomas, a former News International director, and former Mail on Sunday editor Jonathan Holborow, is fully prepared to take up complaints with Desmond, but first they have to be raised by editors.

And although Michael Pilgrim, executive editor of the Sunday Express, is believed to have raised a recent "instruction from on high" not to publish a story – about the shady dealings of a financier – at the Tuesday meeting, he had published it anyway so there was little the board could do.

Another complaint, from Daily Express television critic John Lyttle, that one of the reviews in his column had been replaced by one about a Spice Girls documentary written by someone else, was not even discussed.

Editor Chris Williams said it was a "purely editorial decision". He added: "What should have happened is that the review should have been split with both names appearing and I have apologised for that."

Williams has been fighting a strong rearguard action to keep the number of job cuts to a minimum, nowhere near the expected 145. He is trying to persuade management that jobs could be saved by cutting back on retainers, which could save up to £1m a year.

But he is committed to the policy of sharing resources across the company, even star signings such as new Express TV critic Charlie Catchpole and the Daily Star’s football writer Brian Woolnough.

Journalists were this week sealing fast-track agreements to accept redundancy without waiting for the consultation period which ends in July.

From among the 30 who have expressed interest, those expected to leave shortly are Simon Young, assistant editor (news), and business editor Patrick Tooher from the Sunday Express and, from the Daily Express, comment editor John Price, head of pictures Chris Djukanovic, City editor Patrick Hosking, City news editor Emma Dandy, art director Chris Krage, news desk No.2 Phil Derbyshire, motor racing correspondent Bob McKenzie, deputy showbiz editor Neil Michael , books editor Maggie Pringle and columnist Peter Tory.

Also going is investigative journalist Michael Gillard, who has declined to renew his contract at the end of the month and is thought to have been less than pleased to see some of his recent stories pulled "for commercial reasons" by Pilgrim.

Paul Ashford, editorial director at the titles, said: "We’re involved in a formal consultation over our redundancy proposals and would not wish to make any comment at this stage on individuals’ positions."

by Philippa Kennedy and Jean Morgan

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