When suave, sophisticated Sue Douglas became editor of the Sunday Express, fusty house journal of Little England's pottering classes, fur was bound to fly. But even she has been taken aback by the difficulty and acrimony of the ensuing culture clash
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IF YOU WALK over Blackfriars Bridge towards the great grey-and- black ship of the Express Newspapers building on a blazing midweek afternoon, a strange sight comes steadily into view. On the riverside terraces that so temptingly girdle its hot stack of offices there is not a single Sunday Express journalist. None of the old lunch-thickened absentees, jackets carefully left at their desks, contentedly reddening over pints from the River Room, one of two in-house bars. No gossip at sun-raked tables, Sunday's deadlines a delicious eternity away as the greenish depths of the Thames slide by. Instead, empty seats, wood warming for no one. An out-of-season resort never looked so forlorn.

Inside, on a noticeboard by the lifts, a memo from the managing director explains: "I do not believe it is appropriate for a modern media company to encourage and sanction staff to drink during working hours..." The River Room, it adds, has been closed: "Staff entertaining staff is no longer an 'approved' use of the restaurant facilities." Across the long sweep of the Sunday Express newsroom, the memo has had its effect. Every desk is in use, every chair filled. Phones are answered. Ties are still knotted, conversation a choppy hum. Against all the new acres of pink carpet and pastel-striped wallpaper, coffee cups, not bottles, are the debris.

At the far end of the room, in the fourth-floor prow of the ship, a glass- walled office with its door shut contains the editor whose lobbying stopped the drinking. That the ascetic behind the closed blinds should be Sue Douglas seems, however, a little surprising. She is qualified for the official job, of course - since filling in as editor of the Mail On Sunday 10 years ago, at a bratty 28, she has hacked her way through Fleet Street's male-planted thickets with professional abandon. But when she finally got her own paper in January, Douglas was perhaps better known for being what her colleagues, straining for the euphemism, usually call "fast": spikes for heels, short tubes for suits, bony shoulders and a toss of hair, all a frame for melting eyes and a mouth that could bewitch and drain drinks like the queen of an airport novel. In 1989, just such a book, Julie Burchill's Ambition, sold a luridly-fictionalised version of Douglas to hundreds of thousands. Its heroine was called Susan Street and she ate men and meetings. As I wait by the glass wall for my squeezed- in hour's encounter, the repeated warning "She'll have you for breakfast" comes repeatedly to mind.

Twenty minutes early, the door opens. Out of the office's north-facing shadows a small, flat voice says, "Do you want to come in and start now?" Then Douglas steps out into the newsroom glare, very tall, hands behind her back making her seem even thinner. She does not offer one to shake. She is dressed all in blue, in a suit whose thin cotton rises to her throat, extends to her wrists, and drops in a swoop of skirt nearly to her ankles. At first, when she speaks, a slight gap showing between her front teeth, she hardly looks at me. Instead she turns her delicately pointed face towards the wide, distracting window that wraps a whole side of the office. When she does pull her gaze away from St Paul's, she cannot sit still. She leans forward, folding her arms on her desk, leans back, crossing her fingers behind her head, shifts in her chair and looks at the wall.

Last month, Douglas was taken to an industrial tribunal by Graham Jones, a deputy news editor whom she had sacked - along with a dozen other journalists - within a fortnight of taking charge of the Sunday Express. Jones said that he had been "tossed aside like a toffee wrapper". The tribunal agreed: Douglas, it concluded, was "hiring and firing with complete disregard to the laws of good employment practice"; Jones's dismissal was "utterly irrational and whimsical".

Puzzlingly, the "Lady Macbeth" and "Queen Herod" of subsequent newspaper comment starts our interview by seeking approval for her dagger-work: "You have to be instinctive. The only unusual thing here was that it was a woman sacking a man. Women do employ very different tactics to men in business - because otherwise it's hard to achieve what you want..." I notice that her eyes are very big, her eyelashes a fluttering blur. "You have to be more cunning."

The working, or otherwise, of this Douglas charm is of interest to more than media watchers. Her new job is not just as one more female newspaper executive, with all the accompanying pressures - like personal criticism for the staff purges all editors currently perform - nor merely to bandage another organ of the press that is steadily bleeding readers. It is to reverse the accepted paradigm of modern newspaper decline. Over the past 30 years, the Sunday Express has shrunk, first with an end-of-empire slowness and then, more recently, in a panicked week-by-week retreat. In the mid- Sixties it was a broadsheet selling 4 million copies to all classes, with reporters in places like Buenos Aires and Delhi; AJP Taylor wrote its international analyses, the photographs were vast and daring, and Pope Paul's visit to Jerusalem was given most of the front page. By the end of last year, under Douglas's predecessor, the Sunday Express was a blotchy tabloid selling barely 1.3 million, to the oldest readers of any paper. Its stories were Little England at its meanest and most reality-defying: "Timebomb Tide Of 15m Migrants", "Militant Plan To Storm Windsor". Its most prominent feature was a campaign against kettles taking longer to boil. (Europe, apparently, was to blame.) For its journalists, the future was a low vista of staff "economies" and desperate lapel-tugging promotions. Other papers watched their own possible deaths foretold.

Other institutions might have worried too. For the signs of weakness in the Sunday Express - the innovations squandered, the lack of investment, the squeezing out of profits, the fossilisation of practice and product, the flight from confident globalism into cornered nationalism - might have been copied from a casebook of contemporary British decline. It is even said that Brian Hitchen, the old regime's last editor, fancied himself the right man for the job because he looked like a bulldog.

DOUGLAS, who does not look like a bulldog, talks about saving the Sunday Express with a slightly studied fervour. "I don't know if you remember the first time that you ever saw someone on a train or a bus reading a story you'd written," she says, choosing her leaning-forward pose. "Being editor is the same kind of thing, except it's the whole paper. You're endlessly frustrated about it but endlessly excited, and that never goes away."

Douglas has set her journalists to work on a rather different Sunday Express. The thick tabloid type has gone, replaced by austere broadsheet lettering; the gardening features' age-old doze in the magazine has been interrupted by interviews with musicians called Bjork and Ice-T. Where Hitchen demanded the flogging of criminals "till their bones showed through", a guest columnist, TV celebrity Jonathan Ross, now confesses, "I've Smacked My Children, Too, And It's Wrong."

The sense of overthrow is intentional. "I thought the Hitchen Sunday Express was awful," says Douglas without hesitating. "It wasn't a paper I would ever read... unquestioningly sycophantic to the Tory party, had no authority, the stories didn't interest me, it had no impact..." She is less crisp, however, about what to replace it with. She suggests a paper for younger readers, for more AB readers - the usual chimeras of every media marketing department - then reaches back to former glories: "Foreign coverage that was unparalleled, amazing news stories... It was the paper for the chattering classes." She runs through the attributes a little automatically, like an interviewee who has just mugged up. What in particular was good about the paper? "I don't remember it. But what's interesting if you ask any of its long-term readers is that they say it was accurate, authoritative..." (Douglas always says "it", not "we", when she means the Sunday Express.) Did she used to read it in the glory days? "No."

In January 1964, just before Lord Beaverbrook died, 46 years after launching the Sunday Express, the paper featured an essay entitled "Will 1964 See Krushchev Fall From Power?", written by AJP Taylor. That autumn, Krushchev fell. In April this year, Douglas ran the headline "A Bunch Of Shits" in the most deafening type on the front page, claiming to quote the Prime Minister about his Eurosceptic MPs. Commentators were aghast. The edition now hangs behind glass over her desk. "A couple of hundred readers probably did go over the 'Shits' headline," she says. "I doubt very much that it was many more than that." She drops her voice to a thrilled near-whisper: "The Prime Minister still asks me, 'How did we get it?' "

But who are her readers? Douglas looks out of the window. "OK. Age profile: 35 per cent of them are over 60. They're very family- oriented... They're politically literate in a way actually I was pleasantly surprised about. The television programmes they watch are things like Panorama and Question Time and the news." From here, her description begins to flicker and blur, as if between her actual readers and what she would like them to be: "They don't go out much. They do eat out and they do travel... They drive Volvos. Reading habits: really popular things are the crossword - my God, if you move that, all hell breaks loose."

Douglas lives in a flat in Soho and a honey-stone farmhouse outside Oxford. She rides, and is married to a right-wing history don called Niall Ferguson. She does not see her children, aged one and two, between Wednesday and Sunday morning. Does this give her much in common with her readers? "Probably more than we think... I live in the country. I live with a very big garden, and a house that I enjoy." She has slowed right down. "And my family life: a young family, my husband is also very busy, so the weekend's utterly sacrosanct - so in that sense, I suppose, yeah, I'm like our readers." Douglas points out that the flat is rented. Then she sharpens her syntax: "I don't think you have to be exactly the same as your readers to speak for them. It's where you yourself have come from. If you worked bloody hard, and clawed your way through it all, then you have a lot more in common with so-called ordinary people..."

She is almost angry. For the first time, she is staring at me. I have had my hour; beyond the office blinds, bottles may be sliding out of newsroom drawers. I agree she may have a point.

Her childhood supports her case for ordinariness: she grew up on the Richmond Road in Kingston during the Sixties and early Seventies, the traffic heading for London a constant rumble beyond the Douglas net curtains. Her father was an engineer; her mother grew bored of their semi ("pebbledash"), and became a history teacher. "I used to hate all that 'What does your father do?' when we went to parties," says Douglas. "It's about being a woman, being lower middle class, living on the wrong side of town... One's insecurities are what drives one..." While the other children popped tar bubbles in the street, she studied for grammar school and Southampton University. "The first in our family to go to university," she points out.

Douglas got a First in biochemistry in 1978. She tried and dropped management consultancy ("unbelievably boring"), and medicine ("I didn't want to go and look after people's ingrown toe nails and appendices for the rest of my life"). Then journalism of a sort suggested itself, via an advertisement in the New Scientist for an editing job on a GPs' index of rare diseases. Douglas learnt to write "witty" headlines for articles about degenerative conditions. She acquired a South African boyfriend; when he went home she followed and began a newspaper career there. In 1981 Douglas returned to London and sent an article about South Africa to the Guardian. "We think your piece is rather contrived," was their entire reply. She settled for casual shifts on the tabloids. Then the Mail On Sunday was launched, disastrously at first, and, with established reporters steering clear, Douglas was hired as medical correspondent. Knowing "about science" was enough; within 18 months she was promoted to features editor. A fat decade for the press was beginning - the Sunday Express aside - with new titles and supplements offering openings for women journalists that the male- dominated world of "hard" news had previously lacked. Douglas had the confidence to take advantage. "She always picked other people's brains very quickly," says a colleague from the Mail On Sunday.

This haste had a purpose. "I want to prove that I can do it - edit a newspaper," Douglas says, sitting quite still for once. "But had I not embarked on this career, then 'it' would be to be successful - ultimately the most successful - in whatever walk of life I'd chosen. I find it interesting that other people aren't like that, don't care about being mediocre... I care terribly."

She also had Stewart Steven. The Mail On Sunday's editor had spotted and promoted her; Douglas was good at her job - having ideas and coaxing new work out of writers twice her age - but she and Steven also became close enough for rumour. When he had a heart attack in a Brighton hotel during the Conservative party conference, she was in his room to call an ambulance.

Now, Douglas answers the obvious question before I can finish asking it: "I can only think the gossip is sexism because it does happen to most women," she rushes out, louder than usual. Then she laughs winningly: "And an awful lot of it has stopped since I got married!" At the time, though, she did not seek to avert attention. Male colleagues remember her skirts in some detail. Douglas drove a fast car, drank flashily, and lived next door to Burchill in Duncan Terrace, one of Islington's grandest. "If people aren't talking about you it's probably then that you have to get worried," she says. "I've said to female reporters that if you work in a predominantly male world - say you're a medical correspondent - then it's very easy to get stories compared to a male colleague. You simply take said doctor out to dinner... And you've got an advantage. It's not a feminist or gender-related issue. It's about using the assets you've got, and if you regard your sexuality as an advantage in certain contexts, I can't see any difference."

At 28, she edited the Mail On Sunday while Steven was on holiday. Moved to the Daily Mail, she held her leaving party at the Ritz. Then it all got trickier: rivals for the Mail's top job jostled her, even, says one former colleague, set out "to destroy her". Douglas endured four "horrific" years. "But at the same time I learnt so much," she adds quickly. "My personality is such that I don't believe people are going round hating me."

In 1989 she left for the Sunday Times. In calculated contrast to her new boss, Andrew Neil, "She was totally unaggressive and unirascible," says one of her former subordinates. "But if politics meant she should stab you in the back she would." When Neil stepped down in 1994, Douglas was favourite. But again she was denied: her lightness of touch, so useful for features about lifestyle and the arts, was seen as a disadvantage. Douglas had to wait until the end of 1995 for her breakthrough. Finally, Express Newspapers offered her the editorship of the Daily Express. She would be the first ever woman to command a daily paper. Then they changed their minds and gave it to a man. She had to settle for the Sunday.

HER revolution there may not be going quite as planned. Press pundits generally like the new Sunday Express, readers less so: circulation has weakened further from 1,287,000 in her first month in charge to 1,229,000 in May. Douglas affects calm - "We are losing sixtysomethings, but we have been all along... I don't think we can do much about that, personally" - yet this very calm gives a hint, at least, of someone cleverly overhauling an old ship while an un-blockable hole slowly leaks below the waterline.

Douglas says she will she not stay on the ship for ever. She would still like a daily. And her "people skills", as her many admirers refer to them, could equally be applied to another paper, being concerned more with creative management and "ideas" than with an attachment to a particular kind of journalism or politics. (The latter have shifted, in successive interviews, from "wobbly left" to "centrist" to "I don't see how they're relevant.") One of her most loyal allies admits, "She'll have a brilliant idea, and then she won't read the copy when it comes in." Someone less loyal says: "She might as well go and run Coca Cola."

Douglas is a modern technocrat: genuinely keener than her predecessors to bring diversity to the newsroom, but readier, too, to sack loyal old servants. She defends her decisions with warm words: "When we were at the tribunal, and Graham Jones started talking in headlines, I just thought, 'Oh my God.' I could almost feel the hot breath of all the journalists behind me. I don't think that one does any of these things lightly. An editor's on trial as well." Yet the decisions remain cold: the first Carol Malone knew of her firing as the Sunday Express's main columnist was when nearby sub-editors began working on copy from her replacement, one Julie Burchill. The newspaper, moreover, has a very contemporary British atmosphere: of bright new management applied to a product that continues to fail, like our ever-unreliable trains, piled high with their new private-sector logos and liveries. The Express building is surprisingly grand, with mirrored lifts and layers of secretaries; the Sunday Express itself is a model of elegant tabloid modernity. But both are increasingly empty, even dismissive of the employees and customers who once made them function. Perhaps Douglas's first job as a management consultant was not irrelevant after all.

Staff say the old hands who remain are not won over. They may not be drinking as much, but they remember her predecessor fondly, not least for offering them whiskies in his office at the end of the week. When Douglas has her photograph taken at the end of our interview, switching with ease between frail and fierce poses in the building's high white lobby, staff pass her with faces registering distance, even uncertainty as to who she is. They may never really know: Express Newspapers has acquired a new proprietor, Lord Hollick, since Douglas was appointed.

Her charm gives her a chance, of course. Back in her office, she lets the next appointment run even later by showing me copies of a magazine she would like to imitate, published with the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Her frankness and enthusiasm, and her artlessly curling photographs of children and labradors on the wall behind, make her seem warmer for a moment. But the impression remains that this place is not ultimately for her. The El Pais supplement is all white space and asymmetry, a world away still from the Sunday Express. And the person waiting to see Douglas is Peter York, a style consultant not noted for his understanding of the northern pensioners who remain a substantial proportion of her readers. He spots Douglas across the newsroom, and strides over, immaculately quiffed and suited. They meet halfway. A few reporters, still working, look up. Sue and Peter kiss each other on both cheeks. !