MEDIA: He may not know what he wants, but he knows how to get it

He declared Tony Blair a public enemy, then wrote the obituary for William Hague. Can't the new Sun editor, David Yelland, make his mind up? Or is he an editor in the MacKenzie mould, who prefers a stunt to a story?
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Late last Monday afternoon, Gregor Mackay, William Hague's press officer, was in Bournemouth for the start of his party's annual conference the following day. His mood was good. Hague's poll of his party on the euro had been passed with a majority and the conference was a chance to start the party's fight back.

Then he found out about the following day's front page in The Sun. After long conversations with the paper, he received a faxed copy, and was later seen with what has been described as the "darkest of dark looks" on his face. Despite protestations that The Sun declaration that the Tory Party was "dead... no more... it has ceased to be... this is an ex-party" was just a "silly stunt", the party was rattled.

The Sun had, only months before, attacked Tony Blair as "the most dangerous man in Britain" because he was leaning towards a European single currency. The Tories could have been forgiven for thinking that their party poll, and strengthened anti-euro stance, would earn the backing of the anti- euro Sun.

"It dominated the week in Bournemouth," says one conference observer. "It might have looked like a silly stunt if it had been a good week for Hague, but The Sun managed to predict the arguments with Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine and the fact that Hague gave a flat speech on Tuesday. There was a palpable feeling of depression and old age about the conference."

The "dead parrot" front page was important, not just because of its impact on the Tory party, but because, taken in conjunction with the attack on Tony Blair, it gives more evidence of The Sun's new style under its new editor. The question is whether such stunts are enough to get The Sun back in touch with the late Nineties.

David Yelland, 35, arrived in the editor's chair from the Murdoch-owned New York Post in June. He has declared himself pleased with the effect his Tony Blair front page had. He claims it grabbed the headlines for a week, and got The Sun talked about again, despite the fact that sales slumped on the day itself. This perceived success is no doubt what encouraged him to repeat the exercise with the Tories. "The stunts that made The Sun famous were Kelvin MacKenzie's, and that is a very difficult act to follow," says Robin Esser, former editor of the Sunday Express, and media consultant to the tabloid which has genuine claim to have tapped the Nineties' zeitgeist - the Daily Mail. "David seems to be trying to make an impact by concentrating on stunts, but it seems the message is a little blurred. The Sun still supported Blair, after attacking him."

MacKenzie's stunts had the merit of both humour, and following a consistent line. Invading Germany with lots of Page Three girls, because German tourists get to sun-loungers first, may have been xenophobic, but that suited The Sun's ideology and was carried out with wit and flair.

It may also be that the times are no longer right for tabloid stunts. Despite years of economic growth, and the claims that we are Cool Britannia, Britain no longer feels like a "Soaraway Sun" society. Factors as diverse as job insecurity and a better educated population point to more serious times - which even Kelvin MacKenzie observed when he decided earlier this year to make The Mirror a more serious read. Even he might not be able to put enough fun in The Sun to aid sales.

Yelland is a very different beast to MacKenzie. He has a quiet, personal manner, is said to be thoughtful and complex, and edits his paper in the US style - "He stays in his office and doesn't prowl the newsroom issuing threats in the stereotypical tabloid manner," says one Sun insider. "This meant people weren't sure what to make of him at first. Because he's quiet, some claim he's not really in charge, but he is."

Mackenzie put Yelland on The Sun's business desk in the Eighties and he quickly made his mark by turning business stories in to readable fare for readers. His success led to a short, unhappy period as The Sun's New York correspondent, before a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch led to his appointment on the New York Post. His style has meant an unwillingness to engage in the traditional bashing of The Mirror that Sun editors normally enjoy. Despite Piers Morgan claiming on Radio 5 Live never to have heard of Yelland when he got The Sun job - though he in fact attended Yelland's wedding - The Sun editor has been restrained, even when The Mirror sent photographers to snap him after part of an IRA trial was abandoned because of a Sun contempt of court.

The only reaction from Yelland to Morgan's baiting was during the coverage of Murdoch's bid for Manchester United, when a Yelland editorial defended his boss, claiming: "One paper, edited by an immature joker with a somewhat limited future in journalism, portrayed him as a red devil..."

This quiet style means that Yelland pulls back from using his stunts as a full publicity barrage. When appearing on the Today programme on the day of his Blair front page, he listed the ways his paper did support the Prime Minister. On the BBC's Question Time last week, he refused to write off Hague.

Stunts, by their very nature, are the most visible of a few quiet changes the red-top's new editor has brought in. A key element in his strategy is to bring in more women readers - ie, Daily Mail readers.

The Mail is the target of both The Sun and The Daily Telegraph - a reflection of the other change in society since the glory days of Freddie Starr and the hamster. Women make up much more of the workforce, and are tending to get married and have children later than before. As a result, they have more disposable income for longer, and are consumers of more of the goods advertised in the media. They are the growth market, and it sometimes seems that everyone but Loaded is chasing them as an audience.

At The Sun, the Page Three girls have survived, but have been de-personalised, with their captions removed, and the pictures restyled to be more naturalistic. There is a distinct sense that Page Three is incidental to Yelland's Sun in a way that, even 18 months ago when Melinda Messenger was discovered, would have been hard to believe. Effort is also being put into The Sun's Saturday product. A new TV guide was launched this weekend to fight off The Mirror's Saturday guide, The Look. It may also help to end the old saw about builders not bringing the paper into the house on Saturdays, where their wives will see it. On top of this, the paper is currently hunting for a senior writer in the Lynda Lee Potter mould to attract her Daily Mail type of female reader. Yelland wants more long reads about serious topics that are not just there for titillation, or for men. He also wants to sharpen up the turnaround of features so they are more immediate and news-led.

Yelland himself likes to point to more coverage of straight news such as Clinton, Northern Ireland and, strangely, trade unions, as evidence of his new regime, but there have been few big changes so far. The Sun is, after all, still Britain's best-selling daily newspaper, so Yelland's changes are necessarily as quiet as he is. This is still the newspaper that chose to lead its front page a few Saturdays ago with the news that two members of the Spice Girls had become vegetarians.

But there is a limit to how slowly Yelland can go in making his changes. Since his arrival, the paper has managed a slight increase in sales, but the long-term picture is still bad. In the first six months of 1996 it was selling an average of over 4 million copies a day. For the last six months it has been 3.6 million. The Mirror, although still 1.3 million copies a day behind it, has managed to halt its decline, but The Sun's slide remains at around 4 per cent a year.

This falling circulation has had a dramatic effect on the paper's finances. In the last six months, The Sun's cover price has brought in around pounds 6m less than during the same six months a year ago. This has increased the importance of the pounds 230m the title makes a year from selling advertising. But now a recession is upon us, which will hit the red-top market disproportionately hard. "To The Sun, Dixons, Comet and Currys are God, The Son and The Holy Ghost," says Paul Mukherjee, press director of Mindshare, a media buying agency. "Those retailers are there week after week buying up pages."

If Yelland cannot halt the slide of The Sun, media buyers will have the motivation and the ammunition to force down its advertising rates - currently the newspaper gets around pounds 30,000 for a colour page. Some advertisers, such as the mass-market car companies, may be tempted to move to another medium altogether, in the face of a recession and a circulation decline.

Given this imminent threat, it seems unlikely that some gentle moves to attract women and a series of political stunts will be enough to turn the paper around, and keep it making the money News International is used to. The difficulty for Yelland is that being male-centred and non-political is what The Sun is, and always has been, about.

That said, David Yelland claims that throughout his career people have underestimated him.

The next few months will show whether he can continue to make this claim.