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.

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