Even by its own ferocious standards, the newspaper middle-market had a fairly exceptional few days last week. A temporary truce between the Daily Express and the Daily Mail may have been brokered over the weekend, but it will be hard for both sides to forget the unparalleled venom of the Daily Express' editorial broadside over the previous few days.
A series of three articles attacked the Mail's owners, the Rothermere family, for their historic Nazi sympathies and extra-marital affairs, contrasting these vices with their flagship newspaper's trumpeting of patriotism and family values. The first two pieces ended with the bannered request: 'Show this article to a Daily Mail reader.' The final article, listing celebrities with a loathing for the Mail, contented itself with: 'Stick to the best, the Daily Express.'
Of course, this explosion of editorial bile wasn't unprovoked. The Daily Mail circulated a mailshot in December forcefully reminding Express readers of Richard Desmond's soft porn connections and including vouchers for the Mail. Desmond is reported to have demanded instant retaliation.
The man tasked with that retaliation is Chris Williams, the former third in command to Rosie Boycott, who has occupied the editor's chair since her departure in January. The assault on the Mail has given him the chance to make his mark in dramatic style. 'They are a warning shot that there is to be a serious campaign of opposition to the Mail,' he says. 'That professional campaign will continue.'
Williams accepts that readers might be a little bemused by the war of words going on between the two rival papers. Media agencies appear even more sceptical: 'They're talking to their readers about a paper that they don't read,' one agency source says. 'It could lead them to question the paper's editorial integrity.'
'There's a kind of arrogance about the Daily Mail, this sense that its domination of the middle-market is complete and irreversible,' Williams says, who himself spent eight years on the staff of his current opponent. 'We're trying to show that it still has a fight on its hands.'
On the surface, Williams seems an unlikely choice to lead such a charge.
His style is soft-spoken and studiedly calm, something that has led to accusations of him being overly detached in the past. However, Boycott experienced a different side to his character when she attempted to sack him on her arrival at the Daily Express and he simply refused to leave.
In further contrast to his predecessor, Williams believes in dodging the spotlight and has earned a favourable reputation as an editor willing to work alongside his troops rather than in elevated seclusion behind the office door.
If he is to lead from the trenches, then Williams' editorial attack on the Mail gives some indication of the ground from which he plans to direct that fight. It is the Mail's habit of moral preaching that came in for most heated criticism in last week's pieces and this appears to be a signal of what the new editor will define his editorial mix against. 'Where its style is hectoring we can be positive and upbeat.'
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the Daily Express's new position as a stablemate to OK!, Williams sees celebrity coverage as crucial to this feel-good offering. He explains: 'People are interested in style and glamour and I think that has a significant part to play.'
An appreciation of glitz is not the only area in which Williams seems a more natural editor for a Desmond title than Boycott could ever be.
'Rosie spent a huge amount of time and energy on campaigning for an agenda that was entirely hers,' he says of his predecessor's political stances. 'It's fair to say that we will be setting that aside but that doesn't mean we'll be abandoning compassion.We're interested in politics that affect people's everyday lives.'
Williams also talks of cutting the number of celebrity columnists at the paper, something that will doubtless appeal to Desmond's famously frugal ownership style. In fact, the amount of apparent common ground makes it surprising that Williams' securing of the hot seat appeared to be such hard work. And with the DTI nodding its approval for Desmond's takeover, theoretically the owner could dispense with the continuity that Williams represents.
In the end, the possibilities for Williams' reign will be set by Desmond's purse strings. Williams points to the substantial investment already made in the newly revamped Sunday Express and increased daily pagination, as evidence that the funds will be there.
However, the value of all this could be limited if the marketing and promotions muscle isn't available to back it up.
THE WILLIAMS FILE
1971: Press Association, reporter
1977: Daily Express, sub-editor
1982: Daily Express, features editor
1988: Daily Mail, deputy features editor
1994: Daily Mail, assistant editor (features)
1995: Daily Express, associate editor
2001: Daily Express, editor.