EX SUN EDITOR DAVID YELLAND RETURNS TO HIS ALMA MATER
Strange beasts ex tabloid editors.They either go up(Hugh Cudlipp,Rebekah Wade,David Montgomery) or out (too numerous to list). One of the latter David Yelland editor of the Sun for five years to 2003 came to share his wisdom with today’s journalism students at his alma mater-Coventry University. Yelland studied economics there nearly three decades ago. This was his first public return-to speak at the Coventry Conversations the successful weekly series which brings media movers and shakers to Coventry each and every week. Writes John Mair…
Yelland was surprisingly open and on the record (live blog at cutoday.wordpress.com; podcast at www.coventry.ac.uk/itunesU). It was almost as though he had come home and wanted to unload himself. The big issues came fast and furious- first the drinking which had started at Coventry but got worse and worse during his stellar journalistic career. He recalled benders followed by sleep and a fourteen hour day in the newsroom as a regular cycle.
He blamed one of his biggest mistakes as ‘Sun’ editor-allowing a front page headline about Britain being run by a ‘Gay mafia’- happening because he was drunk in Dublin that day. Homophobia was not his scene. Yelland was mortified when he sobered up and read that headline and story. Indeed, in his own words ‘Having always been a liberal I was quite rebellious, I don’t think they knew what they were getting” on his role as editor of The Sun. He was a founder of the Social Democratic Party whilst at Coventry. Later he checked himself into rehab and came off the journalists juice finally in 2005 when he realised he would be a single parent as the wife he had divorced Tania was dying of breast cancer. He is still teetotal though he refused to discuss whether he was an AA attender.
His biggest mistake as ‘Sun’ editor -he did not say if it happened under the influence was printing a ‘topless ‘picture of the soon to be Countess Of Wessex Sophie Rhys Jones. In reality not very topless as some Sun Page Three afficiandos complained. .” Printing the picture lost over half a million copies over night and prompted an icy call from Murdoch’ he recalled “It probably cost us ten million pounds”.
University for Yelland was not just drink but also running the Students’ Union Communications for three years. Coventry-then the Coventry (Lanchester) Poly was not his first choice for higher education. A bizarre set of A level results saw to that(Grade E in economics ‘A’, Grade I in Economics ‘S’. He puts it down to a ‘butterfly mind’).In his words ‘Not feeling like I’d done well enough when I first got here’ was his initial reaction. By then, he had decided he wanted to be a journalist and wrote over 100 letters of application on graduation before getting on the Westminster Press Training scheme ’one of the best’ he told his audience. That trajectory led to ‘The Sun’ as City Editor at just 27.
But during university and right up until he was 31 he hid one big secret. He was bald. David had developed alpocea as a teenager and his wig hid that. It was only when he was posted to New York as the Sun’s man in the US that he plucked up courage to ‘come out’ from under the wig. First he did some dry runs by going to the toilet of The World Trade Centre in Manhattan (as is was until 9th September 2001)taking off his wig walking round the block and coming back to put it on again. Eventually he confined the wig to its box forever ’There were plenty of bald men in New York’ he remembers. It was liberating.
In New York too he developed his special relationship with Rupert Murdoch who had just purchased the New York Post. Yelland-who was neither enjoying nor producing much for the Sun from the US capital -was installed as deputy business editor then business editor then deputy editor of the NYP. He recalled weekends when he was in charge and Murdoch would drop by in casual clothes to chew the cud.
Yelland is a huge fan of the man some regard as the Devil Incarnate, the modern Citizen Kane. David believes he is the ‘best newspaper proprietor of all time’ and is actually a closet liberal “believing in free movement of labour as he does free movement of capital’ Yelland got quite close to the boss. “You can feel like a member of the family – but you’re not” says David on working for Murdoch. A point he consistently reminded himself of and that obviously served him well. “He has a genuine interest in newspapers” says Yelland ”Murdoch is rooted in newspapers and lives eats and breathes them’ This shows in his relationship with his editors worldwide. David says he would ring up the editors asking “what’s not in the paper.” to find out what was really happening. Expecting professionalism above all else Murdoch is truly committed to the business.
Being an editor on a tabloid –with their pyramid structure meaning the Editor’s word is final-led him to be rather sceptical on the current story about Andy Coulson who was his number three on the Sun but went on to edit the News Of The World during the Clive Goodman/phonetap scandal. Coulson, today the Director of Communications to the Prime Minister David Cameron, denies knowledge of any illegal phone tapping despite £100,000 a year being paid to the private detective concerned.’ I can’t believe a fellow editor would not know phone tapping was in action’, especially with the rumoured remuneration of £100,000 to a private detective in The News of the World’s case. ‘Anything more than £1000 would have to be signed off by “someone in deep carpet land. It would be impossible for anyone at News International to not know what was going on” says David. He did, though, go on to advise Coulson to keep his head down to hope the Guardian would go away!!
He showed his liberalism by backing the Good Friday Agreement which brought an end to the 30 year troubles in Northern Ireland. The Sun was the biggest selling newspaper on the Island of Ireland-one in three of the papers which sold in the North-and he felt he had a responsibility as an editor to lead the way to then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s new horizon of peace
Eventually after five years as Editor he stepped out of the firing lineof popular tabloid journalism and ended up via the Harvard Business School on ‘the dark side’-in public relations. Today he is a partner at one of the biggest and ritziest Brunswick LLP and represents the likes of BP during the Gulf Oil Blowout scandal this summer and Lord Browne,the former BP Ceo on his recent review into university fees. PR suits David down to the ground according to him. As a commander of information he is in his element being counsel to clients. Personal integrity in both journalism and PR is key. “Once you’ve lost your personal integrity,” says David, “you’re gone.”. Ambition and a determination to prove people wrong kept me going” says David .A suitable epitath?
John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University.He invented and produces the Coventry Conversations.They have just won the Cecil Angel Cup of 2010 for enhancing the reputation of the university.
With thanks to journalism.co.uk