Author: Jim Waterson
Which national newspaper is edited by a lifelong Labour supporter who voted remain, wants to promote the positive impact migration has on the UK, thinks Brexit is going badly, and has pledged to do all they can to fight Islamophobia?
The answer is the Daily Express, the once-mighty tabloid newspaper that over the last two decades has become associated with barely veiled racism, a relentless campaign for Britain to leave the EU, and an obsession with Princess Diana.
“The Express was undoubtedly anti-immigrant, despite the fact that without immigration we would not have a National Health Service,” said Gary Jones, who took over the editor’s chair last March and appears to have recanted almost everything for which his publication was known.
He said he was horrified after searching for Daily Express front pageson Google shortly after accepting the job, only to see headlines such as: “At last! May gets tough on migrants!”, “How migrants snatched our homes”, and “Britain’s 40% surge in ethnic numbers.”
“I just couldn’t sleep,” he said. “People had collated every front page which was anti-immigrant. It was certainly Islamophobic. This was not representative of the kind of society I think we should be.”
In his first morning news meeting, the team presented him with a standard-issue set of Daily Express story ideas. He gave an instruction to staff on the spot: “I’m not going to be doing an anti-immigrant story. Ever. Do not put them on the schedule.”
Jones, who spoke to the Guardian to mark his first year as editor, at various points describes the newspaper he inherited as “an irrelevance” with a “tortured history” that dealt in “brutality” while promoting dubious stories about miracle cures for cancer and unreliable weather forecasts.
While the departure of Paul Dacre from the Daily Mail prompted lengthy coverage, many people in the news industry would struggle to name Jones – reflecting the relative decline in the newspaper’s standing and his lack of a public profile.
Jones, whose accent hints at his “lower middle-class” upbringing on the Wirral, was happily editing the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People when he was summoned to meet his boss, Lloyd Embley.
Reach Plc, the Mirror’s rebranded owner, had finally agreed to buy the Daily Express and Daily Star titles from former pornographer and major Ukip donor Richard Desmond. Embley said the company wanted its own editors in charge when the deal was announced the following day.
“He asked, do I fancy editing the Daily Express?” recalled Jones. “I asked how long have I got? He said, ‘you’ve got five minutes’. I didn’t have any time to really think about it. I didn’t sleep much.”
Jones’s Conservative-supporting parents had been lifelong readers of the Daily Express when it was still selling millions of copies a day, and passed on the habit to their son. After leaving his local comprehensive school, where the expectation was that “you would never really amount to anything”, Jones trained at journalist college in Preston and worked his way up to a job at Piers Morgan’s News of the World. When Morgan moved across to the Daily Mirror in the mid-1990s, he took Jones with him.
“I’m a complete mix of contradictions,” he said, unexpectedly bringing up his children’s education. “I suppose the reason why I sent my son to Eton was, you know, I just wanted to confront the establishment and authority and to try to have a say, but to be authentic. He’s not thanked me for it at times.”
His son was appalled when he found out his father would be swapping chats with Jeremy Corbyn for editing the Daily Express and interviewing Theresa May.
“He just looked at me and said: ‘I feel sick’.”
“It was one of those defining moments. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I said: ‘Good on you for having views.’ He said: ‘I can’t say I don’t feel just a little disappointed.’ And then I said: ‘Anything else?’ He goes: ‘I do hope you’re not doing it just because you need to pay the school fees.’”
Since then Jones has removed the Express’s frontpage claim to be the ”world’s greatest newspaper”, along with its inaccurate weather forecasts. He has placed an emphasis on exclusive, original, campaigning and investigative stories about care home abuse and the NHS, while turning down coverage of Tommy Robinson and Steve Bannon – claiming that, nowadays, “the BBC gives far more airtime to rightwing propagandists” than his outlet does.
Critics have noticed his changes, even if most of the public has not. Stop Funding Hate, the campaign that pressurises advertisers who place adverts alongside extreme content in newspapers, has publicly declared that the Daily Express has substantially changed the tone of its reporting, and has scaled back its active monitoring of the paper.
“There’s been a significant reduction in anti-migrant stories,” said the group’s founder, Richard Wilson. “But we have continued to see inflammatory headlines about trans people – one of the most marginalised groups within UK society.”
Last month, the Express news team moved to Canary Wharf, where it shares an open-plan newsroom with the Mirror and the Star, with all outlets increasingly sharing content due to financial pressures. Jones, who still uses a vintage pre-smartphone era Nokia 6310, has control over the 314,000 circulation print newspaper. But he does not have day-to-day control of the the Daily Express website, which has different editorial standards, including a dedicated UFO section, and recently ran a story suggesting Angela Merkel was making secret hand signals to the Illuminati.
Equally, while Jones personally believes “this Brexit nonsense” is being “monumentally” screwed up and would prefer to focus on social justice issues, he understands that Express readers would not accept a pro-remain paper. Instead, the paper has adopted a soft Brexit position, backing May’s deal with Brussels.
There remains the issue that, while the editorship may have changed, the role is the figurehead of a institution, employing many of the same staff, which created the media environment that – according to the UN refugee agency – helped sow anti-migrant hate in Britain, while also running a long-running campaign for Brexit.
Does Jones think Brexit would have happened without the Mail and Express campaigning so hard for it? “Possibly not,” he said.
But the editor said a recent meeting with Daily Express readers had given him hope his audience did not want to read hateful content: “They reminded me of my parents. They weren’t entirely aware of what the newspaper had become. But they were sucked into it because they’re loyal to the Express.
“They are compassionate, traditional people. I think they were just led down a path.”
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