Sinclair Robieson (a former foreign editor of
The Australian,
foreign correspondent in News Ltd’s London bureau, and 16 year veteran on the
Financial Times) writes from London:

With respect to the esteemed Terry Maher, there were things he left
unsaid in yesterday’s item: “The first great newspaper war of the
century?”

Around a decade ago, give or take a year or two, Associated
Newspapers – which owns the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the London Evening
Standard
– began to publish a London morning freesheet called Metro (a
title and concept that has now been exported around the world). This paper was made available to commuters in bins at mainline
and central London underground rail stations Monday to Friday.

Earlier this year, however, it fell foul of the Office of Fair
Trading which ruled that the Metro monopoly at these stations was unsustainable.
It put the whole thing out for tender; a decision is expected in the (northern)
autumn.

One of the contenders is Rupert Murdoch’s News International, run
from its Wapping headquarters in east London by former Australian scribe Les
Hinton. But NI jumped the gun some weeks ago when it announced that it intended
starting its own afternoon freesheet.

Now, it is no secret that Rupert has had an eye on the London
market for years. Indeed, it was thought, back in the 80s, that he might
start an evening daily to compete with the Standard.

In the event, it was the late Robert (Cap’n Bob) Maxwell who did
that. It took just a few months for Associated to sink him with all hands,
largely by resurrecting the old London Daily News (which folded in 1980 and was
absorbed by Associated) and flogging it at a lower cover price. Not too long
afterwards, Cap’n Bob himself sank, terminally, in the mid-Atlantic, after which it
emerged that he’d been keeping himself afloat on other people’s money.

Which brings us to the Evening Standard. This has been taken
markedly upmarket in recent years, as Terry said, but has been haemorrhaging
circulation and money for yonks and its circulation now stands, as Terry
reported, at under 310,000. This is derisory for a city with a population of
eight million.

Some time ago, it started a truncated lunchtime freesheet, the
aim apparently being to try to mop up people who might not usually buy the
full-priced edition and even persuade them to get the real thing
later. There have, however been (unsubstantiated) rumours that Associated
might be considering closing the Standard, anyway, because of its continued
slide. From London’s point of view, this would be a tragedy. But the coming
Murdoch onslaught might do the trick, in any case.

His new paper is no fly-by-night operation. It will have a highly
professional staff of 70 headed by editor Stefano Hatfield, and will be launched
on 18 September. It won’t be sold from bins, either; instead, 700 – repeat,
700 – vendors will be used to distribute it between 4.30pm and 7.30pm each
afternoon, Monday to Friday. The aim is for a circulation of 400,000.

Just what Associated can do is the big question. Raising the News
from its grave once more doesn’t seem an option unless it also is given away.
Cutting the Standard‘s cover price does not seem to make sense when the
opposition is a freebie. Could it be that Associated will opt to give away the
Standard for free and hope its corporate pockets are a match
for Murdoch’s?

This would be a hugely expensive gamble. Associated is a wealthy
company, buoyed by the enormous success of the Mail and its Sunday stablemate
… but is it that wealthy? We could be about to find out. Roll on September
18.

Peter Fray

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