Of all the robber barons who sail the global media oceans, the Harmsworths and the Murdochs are the most likely to size each other up for their ships-of-the-line to fire the first broadsides in London’s new freesheets newspaper war.

Everyone should know about Sun King Rupert. But how many Australians know the slightest about Fleet Street magnate Jonathan Harold Vere Harmsworth, the fourth Lord Rothermere? Suffice to say he is worth about 850 million pounds and is a fourth generation hustler on the Great Street of Shame.

His grandfather Harold, was brother to Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) who founded the Daily Mail in 1896. Over the years, the Harmsworths have launched dozens of papers in Fleet Street. thelondonpaper is Rupert’s first.

Of course, Fleet Street is now a generic name for the UK national dailies. Jonathan’s Associated Newspapers is based at Derry Street, Kensington, and Rupert’s News International holds out at Fortress Wapping in deepest docklands.

But Fleet Street is the context for this fascinating newspaper war. Rupert’s Sun, with a circulation of 3.2 million in the mornings, is fighting a gradual losing battle with Jonathan’s Daily Mail at 2.4 million and rising. The other Red Tops Mirror, Express, Star and Record are not even in the race. Jonathan also has the freesheet Metro in the mornings which gives away 1.1 million copies over 14 cities making it the fourth largest paper in the UK. Combining Jonathan’s two morning figures tells you exactly why Rupert started planning this war over a year ago.

So, will it be a bloodbath when Rupert’s thelondonpaper takes on Jonathan’s new London Lite next month? Both Gentlemen of the press will spend some of their vast fortunes hiring whole armies of brightly-coloured distributors to hand out 400,000 copies of each paper every afternoon on every street corner in central London. Then there are the journalists (the paper is planning for an editorial staff of 70) and the printers and paper and ink suppliers to be paid out of deep pockets and a highly-contested and diminished advertising revenue stream.

To see into this future newspaper apocalypse, look not to the freesheet battle on the streets of Melbourne in 2001 between Rupert’s mX and Fairfax’s Melbourne Express – Rupert won that contest hands down and has since taken the mX formula to the Sydney market. Look instead to the fair streets of Dublin every weekday morning since October last year. Stop at the traffic lights, or get of a bus or train or Luas (that’s tram to you non-Irish speakers) and you will be immediately assaulted by either the blue team handing out Metro or the red team handing out Heraldam – or likely both. They are so highly competitive that they follow up their morning rounds with rah-rah team meetings in the street.

Metro is published by a joint venture of Jonathan’s Associated Newspapers, Metro International and The Irish Times. Heraldam is published by Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News and Media Ltd which also owns the Dublin Evening Herald and The Irish Independent. Head-to-head every day for ten months, the Dublin scorecard is 56,000 to the blue corner and 63,000 to the red corner. Let the battle of Britain begin.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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