David Hellier, chief City correspondent at Express Newspapers and editor of the new Media Uncovered section of the Sunday Express, remained on sick leave this week after accusing proprietor Richard Desmond of editorial interference and condemning the paper’s coverage of asylum seekers.
He pulled out of editing the media pages on Wednesday night after colleagues say he was told they were increasing from two to four in order to include "a hatchet job" on The Daily Telegraph’s boss, Conrad Black.
Hellier, they say, is suffering from chronic insomnia after several confrontations over coverage with Desmond in the four weeks Media Uncovered has been running.
Hellier has argued his corner on fair and accurate stories, not ones "that look as though the Sunday Express is just taking pot shots at its rivals", said one senior journalist. But Desmond constantly wants late changes to the pages.
Hellier has written to Sunday Express editor Martin Townsend to ask him not to allow Desmond to interfere on a regular basis.
Daily Express editor Chris Williams is already believed to have suggested that Hellier take voluntary redund- ancy after he failed to write a negative enough piece about Daily Mail and General Trust results.
Hellier issued a statement through the NUJ last week saying: "I am sickened by the continual interference of the proprietor in allegedly objective reporting and, above all, in the inflammatory hate-stirring headlines on asylum seekers.
Friends say he fears his colleagues are being branded racist for their stories. He was especially upset by an e-mail from a friend at The Guardian about Express reporter Rachel Baird asking: "Has Rachel got a swastika on her forehead?"
After Hellier addressed a meeting of the NUJ ethics council, the union decided on Friday to complain to the Press Complaints Commission about the coverage under the Code of Practice clause on discrimination.
The NUJ’s national newspaper organiser, Jeremy Dear, was due to meet the Express chapel to discuss the possibility. The PCC said the clause was there to protect the individual and that the it could only look at a complaint if it were on an individual’s behalf.
Hellier, 41, has been at the Express for five and a half years and is said to be one of the journalists who likes Desmond. Hellier was one of 25 people given £40,000 by Lord Hollick when he sold the papers to Desmond.
Hellier told Press Gazette he agreed with a remark one of his best friends made to him at the weekend: "It really is time for journalists to stand up to proprietorial interference.
"We are not the proprietors’ stenographers."
By Jean Morgan