YOU COULDN'T MAKE IT UP

The Sun says: `Hands off our gays'. Then it says: `Is there a gay mafia?' Is David Yelland the most volatile tabloid editor in Britain? We think you should be told
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The Independent Culture
The famous slogan is still there on the door to the newsroom: "Walk tall. You are now entering Sun country." And here on a leather and chrome chair in a relatively modest side office, sits the man in charge. In this month's list of the 300 most powerful men in Britain he only ranks 73rd - "only" because many would put David Yelland, for five months editor of the country's biggest selling newspaper, a lot higher than that. And he works, of course, for the list's No2 - Rupert Murdoch.

For a man that powerful, let it be said, Yelland is youthful, friendly, quiet, thoughtful-seeming, about as far removed from the bawling kind of tabloid editor as you could imagine. But it's been another big week in the roller-coaster life of the paper since he took over. A fortnight ago, The Sun appeared to break new liberal ground with a sympathetic editorial after the "outing" of Peter Mandelson by Matthew Parris on BBC Television.

Then this week on Monday, in the wake of what many people in the Labour Party and beyond regard as the indefensible intrusion into the private life of the Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, The Sun produced a front- page editorial questioning - without a shred of evidence - whether there was a "gay mafia" running Britain - together with some merciless and - though Yelland does not accept the charge - homophobic mockery of Mr Brown as he tried to go about his business as a minister.

Let's start, however, with the story of the day. In the midst of all this, Matthew Parris is sacked from his column in The Sun, and the paper's editorial announces that it will not out gays - unless "we believe it can be defended on the grounds of overwhelming public interest".

So what's going on? Well, says Yelland, the decision to part with Parris was taken during a think tank in Dublin on the papers' development. "I have a great deal of respect for Matthew especially what he does for The Times I don't think he does his best stuff for The Sun. Yes, the Newsnight episode was a factor as he had told Parris. But "He's taken that to mean that Peter Mandelson put pressure on us." Mandelson did not even know about it, let alone press for Parris's departure.

But how on earth does that high-minded approach square with the coverage of Nick Brown, outed by its sister paper the News of the World?

"I think you're confusing lots of issues here. There's a difference between outing people, which requires invading people's privacy and telling the entire world that somebody is homosexual when they don't want it to be known, which we'll no longer do. And there's a difference between that and ... and ... getting the debate going. That's what we do. That's what I see my job as doing, sometimes in a very controversial way ... My job is basically to cause the maximum controversy without actually ruining peoples' lives."

Though he won't discuss it , Yelland's view appears to be that neither he nor The Sun who carried the original revelation about Nick Brown - and according to some Sun sources would not have done. And that they had tapes from the young man who had had a relationship with Mr Brown and easily could have run a story - indeed certainly would have done five years ago.

Yelland rejects any suggestion that his paper's policy towards gay sexuality has lurched from one extreme to another. "I'm not saying that all our readers absolutely love homosexuals ..." but presumably quite a lot of Sun readers actually are gay? "Of course, We've got 10 million readers. The days when people discriminate openly or even privately [against gays] are passing. Whether its passed yet is a question mark. The Sun has to be ahead of the curve partly because that's our job, its the way we've always been seen, but partly because we can affect the debate."

But hang on. Are suggestions of a "gay mafia" "ahead of the curve?" I put it to Yelland that with some experience of covering British politics I have never noticed the slightest evidence that gay politicians especially club together - much less plot with each other any more than anyone else. "We're not just talking about the Cabinet. We're talking about the higher echelons of society." The elite, he argues know that there are gay people in powerful positions. "But our readers don't; even Independent readers don't. Our argument is that we should get rid of all this prejudice and people should feel free to be gay and the whole thing would go away."

"The fact is people do get hired and promoted in the higher echelons of British society because of their friends, because they're part of this small world, and the gay world is a part of that." Ho hum. this is less than convincing. But Yelland will not expand on this. "I can't defend my position on the gay mafia without outing people."

Although Yelland doesn't believe in outing people he does believe that prominent homosexuals are sensible to out themselves - including newspaper editors. "The first thing is if I was gay I hope I would have the courage to say so, because if a national newspaper editor were gay that would probably help move that debate forward. Some people in prominent positions are doing a disservice to their community by staying in the closet."

Understandably Yelland doesn't want the interview dominated by the gay issue. Plenty else has been happening. For one thing the paper has just sacked Geoffrey Boycott after his conviction for assault in France. Though Yelland won't give a figure or discuss the Boycott contract, it was a big decision which may cost the paper a cool pounds 350,000 or so. But thousands of women readers of every age telephoned in after the paper's five pages of deeply hostile coverage of the Boycott court case and told him it was the right thing to do.

So what about the paper's close - some say incestuous - relationship with the Labour Government? Oddly, despite the difficult time it has caused Mandelson recently - it has also done what some people think of as blatant sucking up - including an odd news piece - baffling to anyone who had been at the Labour conference, saying that Mandelson's politely received speech had had "delegates rolling in the aisles". The explanation is straightforward, says Yelland.

"It was Dave Wooding's piece. I love David dearly but he went way over the top. He's now left the paper, so I can say that. It was not rewritten in the office.

"It was `bollocks' to suggest the paper had been ingratiating itself with Mandelson because of Mandelson's power to decide the News International bid for Manchester United. He had had a heated conversation with Mandelson the evening of the Parris outing - which after all was the day before Mandelson referred the bid to the MMC. "I would never reveal what the conversation was but he was not happy that we were putting it in the paper so the idea we were nice to Mandelson because of any pressure from above is not true. We have been very critical of him actually. I do think he's a very bright guy. He some one who if he does something we approve of we would say so." Like Blair and Brown, Mandelson is a high-profile politician about whom The Sun writes a lot. And what about the Euro, after the Sun's leader suggesting that Blair, marvellous a Prime minister as The Sun thinks he just might be the "most dangerous man in Britain". Yelland - personally, he says, a long standing opponent of EMU, clearly - and right believes - that The Sun has had a big effect on the Euro debate, though he is surprisingly modest about saying so. A total of 150,000 readers phoned in support after that leader - more than after the death of Princess Diana. And yes, the paper's plan is certainly to keep on opposing EMU - up to and including a referendum, if there is one. Except that Yelland allows himself just one caveat. "Unless it works."

As for the paper's overall relationship with the Government, Yelland insists, it is more frictional than it looks. For a start, whereas, when the paper supported Thatcher it never "printed a criticial word". It now "shits over all Tony Blair" some of the time. He won't say how often he speaks to Blair - or to Alastair Campbell - who he says has "gone nuts" with the paper twice this week, though on what, he won't say.

As Yelland points out, we've spent most of our time talking politics. As it happens, he found today's story about Ben Needham, the missing boy who disappeared on Kos in 1991, "a lot more exciting".

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