Command of English that came from an understanding of power

Twice last week, as I drove home from Broadcasting House, my pager went off. On Monday it was a tip-off that Kelvin MacKenzie was leaving the Mirror. Two days later, it was the news that Sir David English had died.

The departure of one threw into sharp relief the death of the other. Both brilliant editors, of different generations and styles of publication, they created papers which reflected the hopes and fears of their readers, doing so with a drive and flair that made The Sun and the Daily Mail, on their day, a true reflection of what many in Britain were feeling.

David English was, in the headline of one obituary, the Editors’ Editor (an accolade he won in the long-running Observer magazine feature which asked people in different professions to rate their peers). A journalist who had performed most jobs on the paper better than his colleagues – and still could – English built a team of top writers, reporters and section editors, whose words could inspire, inflame and amuse his middle-class audience. Rival editors admitted that the Mail became the paper they turned to first.

But he was also, without doubt, the Advertisers’ Editor, the man who – from the ashes of two burnt-out titles, the Sketch and the Mail – created a new type of publication: a newspaper with the wit, drive and glamour to compete with TV. For he also understood the huge importance of design, showcasing the words and pictures with a style that often made the news and feature pages of the Mail truly memorable.

Over time – in close partnership with his proprietor Lord Rothermere – English turned the Mail into a classy, modern, well-written, mid-market tabloid, which embodied the aspirations of the middle-class readers that many advertisers would give their right arm for. It was an audience once owned by Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express, which in its heyday in the Sixties delivered ABC1 readers by the yard (making huge profits in the process). Under English, the Daily Mail offered a more modern alternative – eventually launching a sister Sunday that was to steal the Sunday Express’s clothes.

The masterstroke, of course, was to identify women readers as the key to advertisers’ hearts and to create a paper they not only wanted to read but were proud to carry as a badge. It was exemplified by FCB’s superb ad campaign: “Every woman needs her Daily Mail.”

According to the old Fleet Street joke, The Times was read by those who ran the country and the Mail by the wives of those who ran the country. And there was a good deal of truth in this, since the Mail was the archetypal “second paper”. But like Cosmopolitan, English’s Mail also identified the young working woman as a new and valuable market – and cleverly pitched itself at these as well as those at home.

Where English was particularly fortunate was in his proprietor, Lord Rothermere, who – having put his trust in his bright young editor – backed this up with the time and money needed to turn the paper round. After 20 years as editor of the Mail, English was promoted in 1992 to chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, where he retained a huge influence on the company, its newspapers and its other media interests.

This relationship was in marked contrast to those at the Daily Express – where the editor’s door seemed perpetually revolving – and the Murdoch empire, where no editor, even the most successful such as Kelvin MacKenzie and Andrew Neil, was allowed the luxury of a feeling of permanence.

Of course, MacKenzie’s achievement was not the same as that of English – others had already built The Sun from the rubble of two earlier papers – but he gave it a wit and drive that made it unique and drove the Daily Mirror into even greater difficulties.

Since he left, MacKenzie seems not to have fulfilled himself. His stay in another part of the Murdoch empire, BSkyB, was shortlived and while his reign at Mirror TV was great fun, making Live TV much talked about – if not greatly watched – it was only recently, when he became involved in the Mirror newspapers, that he seemed to have found himself again.

The Mirror, since he arrived, seems more confident in its more news-oriented, less trivial persona – though chief executive David Montgomery was quick to assert that this strategy pre-dated MacKenzie’s arrival.

Last week’s decision to throw that in to bid for Talk Radio took many by surprise and sparked conspiracy theories. Reports that News International is taking a 20 per cent stake in the consortium led some to believe this is Murdoch’s way of halting the Mirror’s revival and bringing back a valued editor without infringing a non-competition contract. Others believe MacKenzie could make a success of Talk Radio, though the station’s management – which has begun to revive its fortunes and has launched a bid to buy it themselves – believe he would take it downmarket and back to its failed shock-jock past.

Time will tell, but the contrast with David English’s career is acute. English was able to challenge all his energies into developing Associated Newspapers – thanks to Lord Rothermere, who unlike Murdoch has usually stuck with his star editors and managers.

Their one disappointment was their failure to become big in TV. Though Teletext has done well and English took pleasure in his chairmanship of ITN, they backed the wrong horse in British Satellite Broadcasting, and cable ventures, like Channel One, have not set the world alight.

But the disappointment is relative. Sir David English’s true legacy is that he reinvented newspapers for the TV age, inspiring many broadcasters to take his medium as the model for their own.

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