Since joining The Daily Express 18 months ago as editor, Gary Jones has sought to put an end to its "Islamophobic sentiment” and anti-immigration rhetoric, efforts he hopes are being noticed by wary advertisers.
“If I was a media agency, I would've been very cautious about taking space in The Express,” Jones admits to The Drum. “Why would I [have] put an advert in The Express when its image in the marketplace [was] not a positive one?”
Jones, a former Sunday Mirror editor, leaped across the political divide to helm the title after Reach acquired it from Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell in a £126.7m deal. Soon after, he replaced Hugh Whittow who had been in place at the paper since 2011.
At the time, the British National Party website claimed the newspaper had been “seized by the far-left”; and perhaps from their perspective, it had. In 2016, The Daily Express ran more than 70 front pages targeting migrants – one every 5.2 days. A 2013 headline that read ‘BRITAIN IS FULL UP AND FED UP. Today join your Daily Express Crusade to stop new flood of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants’ was one of the more controversial rallying calls from the title.
When he joined in 2018, he wanted to strike a balance between overhauling the way the newspaper reports on issues like immigration with appeasing its circa 307,000 readership.
He cycled through old headlines and “realized the enormity" of the job. Besides the strident stories, the coverage was “samey, blinkered, narrow-minded, and largely irrelevant," he says.
One positive is that it managed to “keep a very loyal readership" despite them being "quite badly served".
His path back to the "glory days" of The Express as "an institution, an aspirational newspaper that spoke to millions” would see him focus on "proper" campaigns, investigations and news stories, and topics that "are actually worth debating".
Brexit is one such issue he's walking a tightrope on. Jones says that though reader data suggests most Express readers are Brexiteers (former editor Whittow personally took credit for Brexit and deviated from the paper's long-history of the Conservative support to back Ukip in 2015). Jones believes it is not his job to influence readers on the political situation.
“They're entitled to their views, and they're passionate. But I have softened the tone. I don't want language that is inflammatory,” he adds of its Brexit coverage.
Instead, the ambition is to have these stories with “an opposing say” and a degree of balance. But in doing this, he remains “very fearful of alienating the readers” and confesses he's had many “sleepless nights”.
“It's not good if your readers think the editor is against them. My job is to serve them and make the paper worth reading and I think we’ve achieved that.”
In his first year on the job, circulation dropped 12% to 314,516, a bigger fall than rivals (The Sun 8%, The Mail 9% and The Telegraph 10%). However, this year it is declining slower than The Sun and The Telegraph, indicating that Jones' vision may be taking shape.
As well as better serving readers, he also hopes to be driving an advertiser reappraisal.
“Commercially I want brands to buy into the readership,” he says, which is largely the elders of Middle England.
“They've got money, they take four holidays a year and have good lives. Their houses are pretty much paid off. They are prosperous and active. They are loyal and respond well and to respected brands. Despite the trials and tribulations of The Express over a few decades, they stuck with it.”
Jones now must persuade brands that might have ignored The Express in the past to communicate with this group.
Has it really changed?
Under his steerage Jones proudly says it's not longer petitioning to ‘stop the flood’ of migrants. Instead, he lays claim to campaigns such as getting over 75s a free TV licence again (60,000 readers signed letters of support) and pushing to get the NHS to stock Cystic Fibrosis drug Vertex, which it says could help extend the lives of some 10,000 UK people with the illness. But has it really made the u-turn across all aspects of its editorial?
A spokesperson from Stop Funding Hate reflects on The Express's transformation: “The positive changes at the Express highlight the role that brands and consumers can play in helping to build a healthier media environment. By switching advertising away from publications that continue to demonise minorities, while supporting those outlets who report accurately and fairly, advertisers can help to make hateful clickbait unprofitable, and incentivise a more responsible, less divisive press.”
Former Times journalist and The New European columnist Liz Gerard has been keeping a close eye on the tabloid coverage, particularly its choice of language.
The word 'migrant' appeared in 23 news stories in the first seven weeks of Jones’ editorship. She wrote: “Most [mentions] were neutral, some were really positive... in the last seven weeks under his predecessor, there were 49 mentions. All negative."
It's clear there was an immediate turnaround in tone. But has it lasted?
Gerard says: "Gary Jones’s reversal of the paper’s attitude to foreigners and immigration is as interesting as it is welcome. In his first weeks, there was a dramatic shift in The Express. The front pages were far more energetic and the subject matter far newsier and more diversified than under his predecessor."
While "weather, dementia, statins, pensions and Brexit" remained on the agenda, immigrants and health scare stories don't.
Jones was able to temper the language without "tempering its stance at all on Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn," continues Gerard.
"This shows that it’s perfectly possible to appeal to a Leave-supporting, Conservative readership without recourse to racism and lies about minorities. It’s one thing to attack Corbyn, a man in public life who has chosen to be where he is, another to blame anonymous people who can’t answer back for all society’s ills."
Gerard also believes that this spells success for groups like Stop Funding Hate. "It is quite legitimate for people to campaign successfully against 'hateful' news coverage without hampering press freedom."
For Jones, the clashes with Stop Funding Hate have subsided. "Stop Funding Hate – those are pretty powerful words,” he says.
Jones concludes: “When [Stop Funding Hate] said we were moving off their radar that was a real positive and was really personally and professionally important.”