Media Perspective: Money-mad mayor is out to settle score in Associated feud

Mayor Ken Livingstone has become obsessed with money. A 20 per cent hike in bus fares while cutting back on the frequency of some key routes?

Tough, the punters will have to swallow it if they want expensive new bendy buses.

So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that he's attempting to maximise additional revenues for Transport for London - all for the good of the people, you understand. Last week, Livingstone got his sabre out and gave it a darned good rattle in the face of Associated Newspapers, proclaiming his intention to throw open the London free newspaper market by inviting newspaper groups to tender for the right to distribute an afternoon freesheet via the Tube.

Obviously, it's the people of London who will benefit, apparently, from a better Tube service achieved with the extra revenues generated. Nothing, of course, to do with Livingstone's long-running feud with the Associated titles the Daily Mail and Evening Standard.

Livingstone has waded into a debate over Associated's monopoly on distributing newspapers via the Tube, now five years old but won after a competitive tender issued by TfL. He's clearly hoping to put pressure on the Office of Fair Trading, which has been investigating, at a snail's pace, whether the deal is anti-competitive. The mayor is apparently supremely confident the OFT will rule that it is, thus allowing TfL to invite tenders not only for the afternoon contract but also (five years before Associated's deal runs out) for the mornings.

The official lines from Associated and Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell amount to pretty much the same : they both await the OFT's ruling with interest.

However, it seems that Associated is willing to negotiate with TfL but would look to retain its morning contract (and, to be fair, Metro has been a spectacular success) and also pitch against the likes of Desmond for the afternoon distribution. Whether it would go with a free Evening Standard or an evening Metro remains an interesting discussion.

Desmond has been fingered as the favourite to grab the afternoon contract, but some senior Associated figures are also expecting competition from News International, rumoured to have been developing a London freesheet for some time. Metro International, which publishes free morning titles in 63 cities globally, is also monitoring the situation.

Expect Livingstone's intervention to hasten the OFT's decision and then an almighty scramble for ownership of the London freesheet market. Livingstone's primary objective might well be to fill the public coffers, but a bloody nose for Associated would be a bonus for him. For advertisers, Metro keeping the morning contract and an Associated rival winning the afternoon business would seem the ideal solution.