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November 22, 2000 03:22pm
U.K. Newspaper Snapped up by Soft Porn Mogul
Source: Reuters/Variety
by: Giles Elgood

(LONDON) -- Lord Beaverbrook would not have been pleased.

The Daily Express -- which the Canadian-born magnate once turned into Britain's most powerful newspaper -- is being sold to the publisher of soft porn magazines such as Asian Babes and Women on Top.

And if Express readers were wondering what was happening to their favorite newspaper Wednesday, they would have had to look in The Financial Times, which correctly forecast the deal.

Richard Desmond, whose media empire includes celebrity weekly OK! and adult cable television outlet The Fantasy Channel, is paying 125 million pounds ($177 million) in cash for the newspaper group that once ruled Fleet Street.

While the Daily and Sunday Express titles have waned in influence over the past decades, Desmond's stock has risen.

The Sunday Times earlier this year estimated his personal fortune at 500 million pounds (now $707 million), ranking him the 44th richest person in Britain.

When he opened new offices for his Northern and Shell publishing company, Desmond was able to persuade Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth's husband, to do the honors.

``Desmond is the man for whom the age of the celebrity was invented,'' said Philip Beresford, who compiles the Sunday Times list of Britain's richest people.

If OK! has still not quite seen off its bitter rival Hello!, it has shown itself to be a serious player in the celebrity game by paying one million pounds ($1.4 million) each to buy up the weddings of Spice Girl Victoria Adams and footballer David Beckham, and of Hollywood stars Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

For the Express, starved of resources in recent years, such editorial spending would have been unthinkable. But it was not always like that for the newspaper with the red crusader motif on its masthead.

Express correspondents were once the lords of virtually all they surveyed. The Daily Express, which now sells just over one million copies daily, had a daily sale of five million in the 1950s.

The newspaper's black glass and chrome building in Fleet Street was of such magnificence that it appeared in Evelyn Waugh's satire of newspaper life ``Scoop'' as the headquarters of the Daily Beast, owned by the grotesque press baron, Lord Copper, allegedly based on Beaverbrook himself.

These have been turbulent times for the Express, which marked its centenary earlier this year. One former editor recalled that the paper had had 14 editors in the last 40 years -- or 15, if you counted one man who was appointed, and duly fired, twice.

Christopher Ward recalled how, on taking up his appointment, he received a telegram from a journalistic colleague: ``Congratulations on your appointment as a probationary member of the sacked editors club.''

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