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February 29, 1996


AP Business Writer

LONDON (AP) -- Funny thing about Punch. Britons stopped laughing years ago and the irreverent weekly died in 1992, after poking fun at the establishment since the grand days of the empire.

But Punch is coming back, flush with cash from the chairman of Harrods department store, Mohamed Al Fayed, who said Wednesday it will be the first title in his startup media company, Liberty Publishing Ltd.

The Egyptian-born entrepreneur is reviving a British icon at the same time he fights British officials who refuse to grant him citizenship. But executives of his new publishing company insist Al Fayed won't use Punch as a platform to settle political scores. Punch hits the market in September.

"I believe his solemn declaration that he wishes this to be a truly independent company," said Stewart Steven, a former editor of London's Evening Standard who came out of retirement to become chairman of Liberty publishing.

"The editor of Punch is not going to get daily telephone calls from Mohamed Al Fayed," Steven told a group of journalists gathered around the old Punch Table, with initials of past editors, writers and British royals carved into the wooden top.

He said Punch considers The New Yorker a role model and competitor, hiring top writers and cartoonists in hopes that the magazine will become a must-read in Britain.

When Punch faded a few years back, many considered it nothing more than a relic.

"We're going to remove Punch from its position in a dentist's waiting room ... and put it in people's homes," Steven said.

He said the four-year lapse might be good for Punch, because the new editor, veteran journalist Peter McKay, inherits a great tradition but will be able in many ways to start over from scratch.

Al Fayed plans to invest heavily in the publishing venture -- including Punch -- on the belief that quality products will make money, Steven said. He declined to say how much his boss might be willing to spend.

Liberty Publishing intends to grow by acquiring established companies, perhaps in television, radio and newspapers.

The company will initially operate only in Britain but could spread to continental Europe, said the chief executive, John Dux, formerly managing director of News International Newspapers, Britain's biggest newspaper publisher whose titles include the tabloid Sun and broadsheet The Times.

The Liberty executives would not say precisely which publications they want to buy.

They were asked about one Sunday newspaper, The Observer.

"Yeah, sure," Dux said. "The Sunday Times, Independent -- for the right opportunity, we've got fairly deep pockets."

Dux said he would be greatly disappointed if the company "has not expanded beyond Punch by the end of the year."

Punch was founded on July 17, 1841, and became known for sharp satire, commentary, distinctive cartoons and a cover featuring a pointy-nosed character called Mr. Punch. Punch is even credited with inventing the word "cartoon" as used in its present sense.

But it foundered in later years and was finally closed in April 1992 by owners United Newspapers, finding that although it had changed with the times, its barbs had lost their edge.

When Punch closed it was selling 33,000 copies a week, down from its 1948 peak of 175,000. The owners had said they needed a circulation of 75,000, plus more advertising, to turn a profit.

Steven declined to discuss any numbers.

"We are convinced there's a huge market," he said. "That's my bet. That's Mohamed Al Fayed's bet."

Although Al Fayed has tangled with the government before, most recently in his fight over British citizenship -- which he believes was denied on political grounds -- he recognizes Punch and other publications won't maintain their credibility if he tries to use them as a mouthpiece, Steven said.

Al Fayed did not attend the news conference with his newly-hired publishing executives, but in a statement he promised "the senior industry figures who will lead the company have the freedom to develop the business entirely independently from my other commercial or personal interests."

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