Monday, 25 October 2021

Would this be a winner in the Dragons' Den?

Richard Desmond, the media mogul, former pornographer and UKIP donor, sold his Brexit-supporting newspapers, the Daily Express and Daily Star, to the Mirror newspaper group three years ago.

Richard Desmond's company, Northern & Shell, bought Express Newspapers back in 2000 for £125m.

Then, in 2018, the Trinity Mirror Group, now known as Reach PLC, bought his titles for £200m, which also included his OK! magazine.

Reach PLC is now the largest commercial national and regional news publisher in the UK. 

Some assert that newspaper proprietors believe the prejudices they publish and promote; that it must be in their political interests to sell lies and prejudice. 

But in the Reach stable of newspapers now is the The Mirror, which supports Labour and was pro Remain, as well the Daily Express and Daily Star that supports Brexit and the Tories.

So, maybe what newspaper owners publish has nothing to do with what they themselves believe or politically support. 

Maybe it is more to do with what those publishers believe will sell newspapers and make profits.

With that in mind, I imagined that before he sold the Daily Express to the The Mirror (group), Mr Desmond pitched his newspaper to the BBC's Dragons' Den.

For those who don’t know, that’s the popular BBC TV programme where successful millionaires decide if they want to invest in the business plans of 'wannabe' entrepreneurs.

Remember that, apart from the numbers quoted and Richard Desmond's business history, what follows in the Den is just humorous fiction. 

But also remember the adage: much truth is said in jest.


And here comes Richard Desmond into the Den with an investment opportunity for his newspaper called the Daily Express. 

“So, what’s your idea, Richard?" asked one of the Dragons.

“Well,” said Richard. "This newspaper I’ve acquired has a brilliant reputation for selling scandals and gossip.

"It’s been going since 1900 and even the Royal Family hate it.

“Prince Philip described it as, ‘a bloody awful newspaper, full of lies, scandal and imagination.’ 

“And the previous owner, Lord Beaverbrook, told a Royal Commission into the press that he ran the paper ‘purely for the purpose of making propaganda’.”

Pipped in one of the Dragons, “A newspaper selling propaganda that the Royal Family hates. Is that a real business proposition?”

“Oh yes,” replied Richard.  

“In its heyday, back in the 1930s, the Daily Express was one of the world’s highest circulation newspapers. Its readership has declined since then, but I reckon it’s a great business opportunity.”

Another Dragon looked up. “So how much did you pay for the paper, Richard?”

“Oh, just £125 million,” he replied.

One of the other Dragons spluttered on his drink.  

“I think you were done mate,” he laughed. “I bought the paper only yesterday for 80p!”

Everyone in the Den laughs, somewhat nervously.

Time for one of the lady Dragons to chip in. 

“That’s an awful lot of dough you paid for the paper, if you don’t mind me saying, Richard.  Where on earth did you get the money?”

“Oh, I’ve been quite successful in the past,” replied Richard. 

“Yeah, I’ve made some good money for example selling pornographic magazines.”

“Any we might know?” asked a Dragon, with a twinkle in his eye.

“Well, there’s ‘Asian Babes’ and ‘Big Ones’,” replied Richard.

“Never heard of them,” said a Dragon. “Do you have any copies we could see?”

“Oh, I sold those magazines along with my channels Television X and Red Hot TV. Maybe you’d like to tune in if you’re interested in pornography?”

Er no, no, muttered all the Dragons in a quiet but embarrassed whisper. One of the Dragons broke the silence. 

“So, let’s get to the chase, Richard. What’s your big idea for this business of yours, the Daily Express?” 

“Well, there’s a market in the UK for selling prejudice and bigotry,” replied Richard.

“Stories that appeal to peoples’ myopic view of the world, even if those stories aren’t necessarily exactly true or truthful.”

“Give us examples, Richard.”

“Well,” responded Richard, his eyes glistening. 

“Stories for example that show migrants and asylum seekers in a really bad light.  

“Our readers are proudly British and really don’t like foreigners. So, our stories excel at pandering to that prejudice.  

“And we’ve discovered this niche in the market that really hates the EU.  

“So, we do stories saying how awful the European Union is. It doesn’t really matter if the stories are accurate or not, that’s not our business mission.  

“The point is that our customers love to buy stories that confirm their view of the world.”

A Dragon, looking a little incredulous, pips in, “But can you really sell stories based just on disliking foreigners and the EU?”

“Oh, well we do other stories that also appeal to this particular market segment and customer base,” continued Richard.

The Dragons listened intently, appreciative of Richard’s use of business jargon and terminology not often expressed in the Den by those seeking investment funds. 

“A lot of our customers are elderly, so that means many of them are ill with all sorts of illnesses, but especially cancer and dementia.  

“So, we run front-page exclusive stories announcing new miraculous cures for say cancer or Alzheimer's disease. The readers love it.”

“Goodness,” gasped one of the Dragons. “So, there’s really new super cures for cancer and Alzheimer's?”

Richard laughed. “Oh, not really,” he replied. 

“Most of these so-called cures have only ever been trialled on animals or haven’t gone beyond stage one or two testing. 

“Chances are none of them will ever pass final safety or efficacy tests and even those that do will take at least ten years.  

“But it gives our readers hope, even if it’s a false hope, and that’s what they want to buy.  

“Really doesn’t matter how true the story is, does it?”

Responded a Dragon:

“Well, I guess on that basis, most of your elderly readers will be dead before they get to see these cures, assuming any of them actually turn out to work!”

Richard closed his eyes and momentarily bowed his head.

“Numbers Richard, we need numbers,” chirped yet another Dragon, tapping his pen on his chair.  

“What’s your circulation? Turnover? Profit? Come on, we need to know!"

“Well, the Daily Express has a loyal readership and makes a good profit,” replied Richard.

“I’m getting a bit annoyed,” said a Dragon. “We want numbers, not words!”

“Ok,” said Richard. 

“Well, in 2015, my Express group of newspapers had a turnover of £173.7 million, making a profit £30.5 million with a circulation of almost half a million.*”

All the Dragons rolled backwards on their chairs and hit their heads on the floor.  

One of them, rubbing his head but with his feet still in the air, commented with awe, “So there’s real money to be made in selling this gossip and bigotry? Who’s your main rival?”

“Oh well that’d be the Daily Mail,” replied Richard, looking down on all the Dragons now sprawled on the floor.

Perked up one of the Dragons, “And they have the same business model? Selling stories that aren’t necessarily completely true, but appealing to peoples’ prejudices?”

“Sort of,” replied Richard. 

“But they’re more successful and the Mail Online is the world’s biggest online newspaper, peaking at over 200 million readers each month across the planet. 

“Their business group in 2015 had a revenue of almost £2 billion

“Gives me hope though, and something to aspire to.”

“Goodness,” said one of the Dragons, as they all gingerly picked themselves up from the floor and sat down again.  

“There really is big money in selling stories appealing to peoples’ prejudices. So, Richard, how much do you want from us for a share in your amazing business selling gossip and bigotry?”

“Oh, well I don’t really need your money,” replied Richard. 

“I’m already one of Britain’s richest men with a net worth of around £1 billion

“I just came for a laugh really. Love your programme, wanted to see you all in person!”

The Dragons all fell over again. 

“You’re richer than me!” gasped one of the Dragons. “Me too!” groaned another.

FOOTNOTE: I fully support the Hacked Off campaign that is pushing for a free and accountable press. They want newspapers to be subject to effective, independent regulation, that would mean newspaper lies are properly addressed and corrected. 

There's little doubt that £1m fines - which was originally proposed but never acted on - would make newspaper lies unprofitable. 

But there’s another issue here.

If readers didn’t buy lies and bigotry, the publishers wouldn’t be able sell them. 

So, there is a different campaign that’s also urgently needed: to make readers more aware about the lies and to encourage them to be more discerning in the news they buy.

And this also raises a pertinent question: Do you blame the sellers of fake news, or the buyers? Or maybe both?

* Since 2016, circulation and revenue of the Daily Express was in steep decline.

  • Watch my speech about newspaper lies: 

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