MEDIA FORUM: Should Desmond buy Telegraph Group?

Richard Desmond seems determined to own the Telegraph. Should the industry be worried, Alasdair Reid asks.

Persistent fellow, that Richard Desmond - he is believed to have submitted a £500 million bid in last week's auction by Hollinger International of the Telegraph titles. Others with hats in this particular ring include the Berry family, the Associated Newspaper parent Daily Mail & General Trust, and two venture capital companies: 3i and Candover.

This auction may, of course, become irrelevant - the disgraced former Hollinger boss, Conrad Black, has already sold Hollinger Inc, Hollinger International's holding company, to the Barclay brothers for £260 million.

Now it's up to the courts to decide whether this pre-emptive move was legal, whether the assets of Hollinger Inc include or do not include the group's media properties and whether this deal really does give the Barclays control of the UK's biggest-selling quality newspaper.

In the meantime, however, the fact that Desmond is back in the frame sent a frisson though the media community. We've been here before - his track record not just as a media owner but also as a steward of a British political institution such as the Express has been the subject of much scrutiny and debate. And his re-emergence also serves as a reminder that whatever happens, Desmond already has a pretty decent trump card in his hand - the West Ferry Print plant that he co-owns with Hollinger.

Should advertisers be fearful about any of the possible outcomes? Paul Thomas, the press director of MindShare, says that from the point of view of a balanced advertising market, he'd prefer Desmond to DMGT. "On the other hand," he muses, "the downside would be that Desmond tends to run newspapers on a tighter cost-control basis and that would be difficult to square with the journalistic quality of The Telegraph. But no-one should forget the importance of the print site."

The most nervous bidder in all this process is surely DMGT. If Desmond were to acquire The Telegraph he could turn it into a tabloid that would open up a second front in his bitter war of attrition with the Daily Mail.

A dinky version of The Telegraph, with its politics and attitudes tweaked to make them even closer to those found in the Mail, could be very attractive to current Mail readers.

Roy Jeans, the managing director of Magna Global UK, argues that, given the levels of investment involved, it's worth assuming that editorial integrity would not be compromised by any of the possible purchasers.

Why, he wonders, would they spend all that money and then ruin what they'd just bought? He adds: "So the question is probably entirely about the ad market - and in that regard my main concern would be Associated selling (advertising in) The Telegraph alongside its existing titles."

For instance, it's well known that Associated takes more of a "take it or leave it" attitude to marginal money than The Telegraph has ever done.

And its policy on yield is shown no more clearly than in comparisons with its mid-market rival, the Express. The Mail's circulation lead over the Express is 2.5:1 in ratio terms. In ad revenue terms, the gap is 4:1.

Roger Eastoe, the managing director of the strategic marketing and media consultancy RE&A, thinks neither the Competition Commission nor Ofcom would intervene to block a deal, even if it did give the new owners an unhealthy amount of leverage in the ad market.

He states: "Both Associated and the Express will point to the ease with which the (ITV) merger went through. Advertisers' concerns seemed to count for less on that occasion - this time we will have to see. The share of ABC1 readers will be a key area of focus and I guess advertisers will worry more about Associated winning, based on the clout it will have in this market. Comparisons will be drawn to the News International ownership of the Times titles and The Sun and News of the World - in reality, it's not a comparable position, based on the difference in the core audiences of the titles."

But Phil Georgiadis, a founding partner of Walker Media, is sceptical about any print owner's ability to manipulate the market these days. He concludes: "In terms of the newspaper medium as a whole, we are seeing the market in decline in terms of its audience, and ad revenue is broadly mirroring that decline. What we need in this sector are strong, well-resourced media owners and many of those still in the picture could be described that way - be it the Barclay brothers, Associated or the Express. You can talk about advertising policies at the Mail all you like but I don't think anyone can dictate to the market on the back of declining circulations or readerships."

- "It would make the Associated position very much stronger, of course - it would be the market leader in terms of share of ad revenue. We would much rather see a situation where there were three more equally matched players." - Paul Thomas press director, MindShare

- "There would be a sharp intake of breath if the Mail, The Mail On Sunday and The Telegraph were under the same umbrella. I'm not necessarily saying they would be packaged up but, at the very least, the attitude to yield and price banding at The Telegraph would change." - Roy Jeans managing director, Magna Global UK

- "Both (DMGT and the Express) have to argue that there will be no abuse of the ABC1 market, which they would have a large share of - we estimate around 30 per cent. Many in the ad business think it may be inevitable that there would be an abuse on control." - Roger Eastoe managing director, RE&A

- "The one thing that we want is to see the new owners committed to The Telegraph as a media brand. In the end, that will deliver the best value for advertisers. Factors such as yield can easily be kept in check given the pressure the newspaper ad market is under." - Phil Georgiadis founding partner, Walker Media.

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