CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - LONDON NEWSPAPERS. The fight between Express Group and Associated has a new twist

Richard Desmond has fired yet another shot across Associated Newspapers' bows in his ongoing battle to launch an evening freesheet in London, with his decision to refer Metro's publisher to the Office of Fair Trading.

There is a long history of antipathy between Desmond's Express Group and Associated; Desmond's rival title will now not be called the Evening Mail following an Associated injunction, and its launch has been delayed several times. Associated is taking the threat seriously.

Desmond claims that Associated's exclusive distribution deal with both the London Underground and London Railtrack stations is anti-competitive and an abuse of chapter two of the Competition Act, which guards against "abuse of dominant position".

While unwilling to comment on the OFT referral, Associated sources maintain that the distribution deal was only recently negotiated and was done through a totally open tender process.

The deals, which give Associated exclusive rights to distribute its free morning paper Metro and to sell its Evening Standard at the stations, are long-running (the first is up for renewal in 2010) and Associated maintains they are watertight.

Indeed, sources close to Associated claim that Desmond's Express Newspapers did not even bother putting in a bid when the contract come up for tender last year.

Desmond claims the Associated deals are uncompetitive because, although Associated does not publish a free evening paper, they prevents Express Group from doing so.

No-one doubts that Desmond's move is a smart one. But few believe that, given the length of the judicial process in examining anti-competitive practices, it will pay off. They also doubt that given the nature of the contracts, there is a case for Associated to answer.

Desmond has already had to delay the launch of his paper from June until the autumn, and observers think it likely that he will be forced to distribute his paper on the streets rather than in bins at the stations, which will have an impact on its advertising value.

But there is a glimmer of hope arising from the resentment that the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, reserves for Associated's titles, following a stream of negative press. If he manages to take control of London Underground and Transport for London, he may look to weaken Associated's grip on the London press, a stated aim. It will be interesting to see if the Daily Express starts to promote the mayor in order to curry his favour.

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