I managed to scrape on to a newspaper course, doing my indentures on a local newspaper in Kent called the Sevenoaks Chronicle. On my first day there I was asked to check out a fire, so I dialled the number, asked "Has there been a fire?" and was told "yes" - after which I said "Thank you very much" and put the phone down. I really had a lot to learn.
But local newspapers are terrific places: the camaraderie is good, and you are trained to do lots of different things. And I got one great scoop, through meeting someone in a pub who worked on The Selina Scott Show, about how Selina's co-presenter kept copying Selina's wardrobe, and I think I made my entire year's salary by selling that story to the Daily Star.
Then, in 1986, when I was 25, I joined Londoners' Diary, on the London Evening Standard. Richard Addis, now at the Express, was my editor, and Peter McKay, a terrible old rogue, was brought in to train me. It was an inauspicious beginning: I went out for some drinks with some old Fleet Street lags at the end of my first day, fell down a big flight of stairs, and went to hospital with concussion.
The diary gives you a very good knowledge of who's who and what's what, and access, which is everything - a lot of stories I've got since have been through old diary contacts. I was always good at getting quotes and wheezes. Londoners' Diary had a reputation for employing a lot of well connected people and I had no connections, but that made it easier for me, because other people would often be asked to phone someone and would turn white, because that someone was their uncle, say.
And I was lucky to have some really strong personalities to learn from during my time at Associated Newspapers. When Stewart Steven was editor of the Standard, he waged a campaign about London hospitals, which I said was boring. But he said that if you want to be a convincing paper you must believe in things - even though it might be going against the grain or that you might risk looking obsessive - and he was absolutely right. And from Paul Dacre, I learned that if you don't get a story you should really feel sick about it - that, though it's not a matter of life or death, you've got to do your absolute best.
Although I've always worked under men, my being a woman has never really been an issue. When I first joined Londoners' Diary I had a small child and was asked whether that would get in the way, but other than that it hasn't been mentioned. All I would say is that I think occasionally men in newspapers are threatened by women breaking down the hierarchy. On the Standard men were very attached to status symbols like offices and cars and having the right size televisions in their offices, and I remember, when I was heavily pregnant, sitting in somebody else's chair at conference one morning and seeing the man whose chair it was go blue in the face.
I've always been incredibly happy in every job I've done, and have never particularly wanted to move. But when Richard Addis became features editor of the Standard I was bumped up to diary editor, and then, when he went to the Sunday Telegraph, I was made features editor. I then became executive editor, and then associate editor, before coming to the Telegraph in late 1995.
I wasn't traditional Telegraph material - I imagine some of its distinguished former leader writers would turn in their graves at the thought of some former diarist madam turning up here - but I don't feel the least bit gippy about it now. The challenge now at the Telegraph is keeping ahead: it's the market leader, and has managed to beat off The Times, but you can never be complacentn
Interview by Scott Hughes