Is hers the toughest job in Fleet Street?

The 'Sunday Express' has endured a 25-year decline. But the rot stops here, says its new editor. Sue Douglas talks to Rebecca Fowler

As the editor of the Sunday Express sits elegantly at her desk, dressed in red crepe, surrounded by pictures of her children and a magnificent view of the Thames, she appears more than comfortable. But the readers of the newspaper, once among the most popular in Europe, are confused.

They wrote in droves last week to protest against an acerbic attack on Delia Smith, the beloved cook, and her "shamelessly boring" followers by Julie Burchill, the lesbian columnist and former punk. A number even telephoned in consternation because they believed Burchill was the new editor.

They were reassured that Delia was still held dear, and that the Sunday Express was in fact being steered forward by a charming 38-year-old married mother of two. Sue Douglas, who took the helm of the newspaper on 1 January, is mildly amused by the mistake. But it is unlikely to be the first incident to shock possibly the most entrenched readership of any British newspaper, a third of whom are over 60 years old.

Douglas has taken arguably the toughest job in Fleet Street; she must turn around a newspaper that was once among the most influential in the world and rescue it from a decline that set in 25 years ago and has seen circulation dip to 1.3 million; she must hold on to an ageing readership but also attract a new generation; and she must steer the paper, known for its slavish following of the Tory party, into a changing political arena.

It has been an impressive start. Tony Blair wrote for the paper, prompting more shaking of walking sticks from the traditional readership; the paper broke the story of the furious relationship between the Princess of Wales and Tiggy Legge-Bourke, the royal nanny, and with a mischievous flourish Douglas has borrowed mottoes from other newspapers, including The Independent's: "It is. Are you?" and, from the Financial Times, "No Sunday Express, no comment". She has even persuaded the Princess of Wales to consider writing a column for the paper on her charity work.

It is Friday afternoon, the busiest day on a Sunday newspaper, and Douglas says she is both thrilled and exhausted by her experiences of editing so far. "I love every second of it. It's an adventure. I veer from ecstatic highs, like getting the Tiggy Legge-Bourke and Princess Diana story, to the terrible nadirs of seeing the circulation figures every Monday morning, and an advert for transvestite bottom pads being placed next to one of the best features in the paper."

The choice of Douglas for editorship must have been made with ease. She has marched down the male-dominated executive corridors of Fleet Street in her stilettos with a brazen courage that has confounded hostile colleagues. Her charm, with both men and women, is formidable and she can find a level with anyone from the most fraught journalist to royalty. She is a combination of Killer Bimbo (she was reputedly the inspiration for Susan, the voracious journalist heroine of Julie Burchill's bestseller, Ambition) and heroic head girl, glamorous and streetwise, but also bright and a winning leader.

But are Douglas's talents and tenacity enough to perform the miracle on Fleet Street, and re-create the heyday of the Sunday Express where others, Robin Morgan, Eve Pollard and Brian Hitchen, have failed?

Douglas, a grammar school girl, began her career on a medical magazine after university, moved to South Africa for 18 months, freelanced, and then joined the relaunched Mail on Sunday. Stewart Steven, her most celebrated mentor, appointed her as medical correspondent, and she went on to become features editor before moving to a four-year spell at the Daily Mail.

But it was on the Sunday Times, which she joined in 1991 as an associate editor, that Douglas emerged as a serious contender. While her predominantly male colleagues were suspicious and hostile, Douglas built up her reputation, secured the Andrew Morton biography of Princess Diana for the paper, and secured her role as a tour de force in people management.

According to Douglas, it was the best training for the most cut-throat end of journalism. She also took her chance when she was promoted to the number two seat to launch herself as a mother of two young children, Fraya and Felix, and marry Niall Ferguson, an Oxford historian.

Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, was determined she should be accepted, and took the male executives out to dinner to introduce her in her first week. "She's good and I want you to support her," he said. They smiled and shook her hand, but afterwards crammed into the gents and exchanged withering predictions on whether she would last more than a week.

When Douglas sent each of them a personal invitation to lunch, they gradually accepted, with the exception of one section editor who consistently refused or cancelled. In the end he sent her a message that said: "I don't do lunch." She inquired: "Well, what do you do?" He messaged her back: "I go to the gym." "Well, let's go to the gym then," she replied.

But Douglas did not win the ultimate prize. When Andrew Neil left the Sunday Times in 1994, Rupert Murdoch gave the editorship instead to a more traditional candidate, John Witherow, then managing editor of news. Disappointed? "Yes I was, of course," says Douglas. But the experience was important. "I learnt to cope in any environment. It gives you resources to fight your way through the jungle."

The decision not to award Douglas the top job is a telling measure both of Douglas's perceived vulnerabilities, and of the position of women in Fleet Street. Murdoch was concerned that she did not have the political vision or intellectual weight. She would have been crashing through one of the last great glass ceilings in journalism: no woman has edited a national broadsheet.

"Men constantly underestimate women," says Douglas. "I have a first in biochemistry from Southampton University. No one would know that. It's not relevant. I'm married to an Oxford historian, I spend a fair amount of my social life with dons. Because I happen to like clothes and looking reasonably elegant, people think that's all you're interested in."

She is also firm on her decision to hand the everyday care of her children over to nannies, who live in Oxford, while she pursues the rigorous timetable of an editor in London during the week, only returning to the family home at weekends. "They're too young to realise I'm not there much. The loser isn't them, the loser is me. But on the other hand, men have done it for ever."

Douglas is developing her role as editor cautiously. She had her first private meeting with the Prime Minister last Thursday and hosted a Soho party for her new staff (many of whom are women with whom Douglas has worked on other papers).

Already the Douglas image has shifted subtly. Some of the flamboyance has gone from her dress, the heels are lower, but she is straightforward about the role her sexuality and charms have played in winning her success. "I will always use everything I've got. If people fall for that, then good, I'll do it as I did as a medical correspondent, on doorsteps, and as a features editor. Then they get the charming, educated approach. Then who knows? I think I've lost if I have to stand there and appeal to people by screaming."

The Douglas mythology, a collection of Fleet Street stories in which she stars, including a whiff of scandal over intimacy with Steven, is also being put to rest. Douglas dismisses the stories, pointing out that the Burchill book is fiction. "You can't let these things bother you. Most readers don't even know the names of their editors anyway."

Douglas is convinced that her future rests in re-creating a Sunday Express that is reminiscent of the paper in its heyday: foreign corespondents across the world, extensive sports coverage and a credibility that meant big names wrote for the paper. She also claims the paper will bring more scrutiny and questioning to its political coverage.

Douglas, who once described herself as "wobbly left", now claims she is centrist. "As one gets older, you move more right, but I don't feel compromised politically. What's exciting is the gap closing between both parties to such an extent."

If Douglas pulls it off at the Sunday Express, she will be the heroine of Fleet Street. "If I can be a distillation of the talents of people I worked for, Stewart Steven, David English, Andrew Neil; if I've learnt anything from them, I can do it. I'm a product of my experience."

All about...

THE DAILY AND SUNDAY EXPRESS

March 1986

Sir Nicholas Lloyd becomes editor of the Daily Express. Circulation is about level with the Daily Mail: around 1,891,000.

March 1991

The Sunday Mirror's Eve Pollard is appointed editor of the Sunday Express. She presides over a pounds 30m revamp. Result: an upbeat, women-friendly tabloid. The boost, however, is temporary. Circulation at Pollard's arrival is 1,617,000 - sales soon resume their decline.

May 1993

Rumours abound that Lloyd and Pollard (his wife) will mount a management buy-out, convinced that under-investment is responsible for the Express titles' decline. The chairman, Lord Stevens, is understood to regard the Lloyds' interest as treachery.

August 1994

Pollard resigns as editor. She is replaced by Brian Hitchen, editor of the Daily Star. Strained relations with Lord Stevens and a further 9 per cent circulation fall in three years - down to 1,488,000 - are said to be behind her departure, though she remains a consultant to the paper.

July 1995

220 redundancies are announced on the Daily Express, Sunday Express and Daily Star.

November 1995

Lloyd quits. Some say he is leaving of his own accord. Others see his resignation as the enforced departure of a liability. He is, they say, the last editor in Britain solidly behind John Major. Under Lloyd's 10-year tenure, circulation fell from slightly under 2 million to just over 1.2 million. In the days of Lord Beaverbrook, its post-war owner, it sold in excess of 4 million.

Lord Stevens comes under pressure from the City to sell, following news that a consortium led by Andrew Neil can bid up to pounds 300m for the Daily and Sunday Express. Andrew Lloyd Webber discusses a separate bid, offering pounds 100m towards a pounds 300m bid with partners, while Tony O'Reilly, owner of Irish-based Independent Newspapers, also shows interest. However, appointments of new editors to both titles, Richard Addis (a former Daily Mail senior editor) to the Daily Express and Sue Douglas (former deputy editor of the Sunday Times) to the Sunday Express, suggest Lord Stevens is determined to stop the rot.

January 1996

According to the Evening Standard, Addis and Douglas want their papers to be "intelligent but not intellectual, serious yet populist, responsible but not staid..." With mastheads, typefaces and page designs changed overnight, the Standard's verdict is that "it is as if the Daily Express is conducting an experiment in public...".

Circulation shows a 36,000 rise for the Daily Express to 1,288,000 in the wake of Today's demise, but the Mail's jumps by 100,000, to 1,937,000. The Sunday Express stands at 1,333,000, against the Mail on Sunday's 2,043,000.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people

Harry Potter actor suffered 'severe flu-like symptoms' on a flight from London to Orlando

Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
News
news

Rap music mogul accused of running two men over in his truck

News
Gywneth Paltrow proposed that women seek out a special herbal steam-treatment service
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Arts and Entertainment
tv

First full-length look is finally here

Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
Tax now accounts for ‘nearly 80%’ of the price of a bottle of whisky
news

Arts and Entertainment
Peppa Pig wearing her golden boots
film

"Oink! Oink! Hee hee hee!" First interview with the big-screen star

Life and Style
tech

Biohacking group hopes technology will lead people to think about even more dystopian uses

Arts and Entertainment
film
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Film director Martin Scorsese
film
News
news

The party's potential nominations read like a high school race for student body president

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Guru Careers: Sales Director / Business Development Manager

£35 - 45K + COMMISSION (NEG): Guru Careers: A Sales Director / Business Develo...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Manchester - Urgent Requirement!

£30000 - £35000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee