Newspapers Ex-Editors: And no you can't clear your desk

As Sarah Sands joins the pantheon of sacked editors, Tim Luckhurst, who's been through the experience himself, reports on the reality behind one of Fleet Street's classic rituals
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The Independent Online

An insider says: "Sarah had sensed the support draining away. She felt very alone and suspected there was a problem. But it was done brutally and long before she had a proper chance."

Sands's settlement with her former employers explicitly prevents her discussing what happened. Most former national newspaper editors are bound by similar agreements. One who falls into that category says: "The real professionals would not have sacked her like that. Rupert Murdoch doesn't just hire and fire editors, nor does Lord Rothermere. There is a real air of unprofessionalism about giving an editor a free hand to redesign the paper and then sacking her for doing it."

Rosie Boycott, the editor of the Daily Express between 1998 and 2001, says: "I can't think of anything worse than walking in on Tuesday morning assuming you are going to take conference and having that knife fall. When that happens to a newspaper editor you go from one minute having immense status and position to having nothing at all. I feel very sorry for Sarah Sands. She is very good and nine months is a pathetically short time."

The loss of status is dramatic. Several national newspaper editors have chauffeur-driven cars and serviced accommodation. Newspapers are not democracies and the editor's word is law. The sense of power he or she experiences in the newsroom is at least comparable to that of a cabinet minister and often greater.

Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors, says: "The editorship of a national title is the pinnacle of a journalist's career. It involves a mixture of acclaim, excitement and power. But it is not just a job. The creativity and commitment required make it a way of life. Editors are tough creatures but no matter how much of a brave face they put on it - and how much their bank balance is swollen in compensation - nothing can console them when it is taken away."

One of Sands's predecessors, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, who edited The Sunday Telegraph between 1986 and 1989, remembers feeling terribly shocked, despite being sacked in a chivalrous way. "I was taken for a very luxurious breakfast in Claridge's by Andrew Knight, who was then running the Telegraph Group. He was just telling me the bad news when my poached eggs arrived. I was very hungry and for a moment I didn't really take it in. Greed conquered my concentration. At first when it happens you don't blame yourself. You blame the circumstances."

Bob Satchwell says that can be fair. "Editors frequently lose their jobs for reasons beyond their control. They can be fired on the proprietor's whim or because someone down the line has made a mistake. Sometimes they are sacked because the company they work for refuses to spend enough promoting the newspaper. Even under brilliant editors circulations decline when owners do not invest."

Some are sacked for becoming more famous than their proprietors. Andrew Neil's friends claim this is the real explanation for his dismissal after 10 highly successful years as editor of The Sunday Times.

Some victims show their anger. One former Sunday newspaper editor was so incensed about her dismissal that her employers felt compelled to change the security codes to prevent her getting access to the premises. Piers Morgan, sacked in 2004 as editor of the Daily Mirror after the newspaper conceded that photos of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi were fake, had to be physically escorted off the premises. "The company secretary and a security guard frogmarched me to the lift, took me downstairs and put me out the door. I was outside in shirt sleeves. I had to get my secretary to come downstairs with my jacket and phone."

Many others maintain the pretence that they were not really sacked. They resigned. It is usually fiction, but easy to sustain because editorial dismissals are often presented as resignations. Press releases asserting that the editor is "leaving to pursue other projects" should be read with extreme scepticism. They very rarely mean that he or she had the option of remaining in their post. The form of words is dictated by the employer in return for a large redundancy cheque. Worsthorne regrets that "I didn't get the half-a-million-pound pay-off that editors tend to now. That must be a big consolation."

Rod Liddle, the editor of the Radio 4 Today programme between 1998 and 2002, really did have a choice. After writing a contentious column for The Guardian, the BBC gave him an ultimatum: give up the column or resign. "I knew I should continue, but I was gripped by an adolescent spasm of not wanting to do what I was told. It was a dignified resignation but I then spent a very fraught weekend worrying because I had just gone from having a salary of £80,000 a year to earning £300 a week. I remember our nanny saying, 'You won't need me from Monday, will you?'"

Rosie Boycott is another rarity. She wanted to leave the Daily Express. "My departure was fairly unique because I was begging to be sacked as soon as Richard Desmond became the proprietor. The actual sacking was perfectly OK, not humiliating or saddening. I just shook hands with Mr Desmond and then continued working for six weeks while he sorted things out."

Such a relaxed attitude is rare. Bob Satchwell says: "For most editors losing the job is gut-wrenching in a way others can hardly imagine. Editing is a highly creative business. You have to be a fairly charged and emotional person to do it." Despite achieving every journalist's dream of resigning on principle - and his subsequent success as a columnist - Rod Liddle still regrets his departure. "I did love it at Today. I know I will never have as good a job again."

Boycott acknowledges that ex-editors soon learn that the prestige they once had never attached to them personally. "It's not you that has status. It's the job."

I realised that very quickly in the wake of being sacked as editor of The Scotsman in June 2000, after a brief illness resulted in a tenure even shorter than Sarah Sands's. Andrew Neil told me he was letting me go as we drank mid-morning coffee in Glasgow's La Bonne Auberge hotel. I wasn't allowed to go back to the office to say goodbye to the staff. Once I was gone though, aspiring columnists who had begged me for an opportunity to write for my opinion pages attacked me in print. One colleague who had fought to join my senior editorial team decided that it was no longer opportune to know me. Invitations to lunch dried up just when I had the time to accept them and politicians no longer felt compelled to answer my telephone calls.

Sarah Sands may be more fortunate. There is widespread agreement that she is a very able editor who deserves another chance. The same generosity is not extended to her employers. A successful former popular tabloid editor says: "The Telegraph Group has become strangely profligate with editors recently. They have shed Dominic Lawson, Boris Johnson, Martin Newland and now Sarah Sands." That's a heavy turnover of top talent even in a notoriously insecure profession.