Ian Burrell: Thanks to Saatchi, Trinity Mirror’s ‘Sunday People’ has new bounce

Media Studies: Sue Douglas, publishing director, is convinced there remains demand for racy Sunday content

Through the long years of its decline, the managers, editors and reporters of the Sunday People must have given great thought to what might revive a brand that has its roots in the newspaper publishing boom of the late 19th century and was beginning to feel like an anachronism.

I don’t suppose any of those ideas involved Charles Saatchi, great advertising pedigree though he has. But an unsavoury public episode in which the reclusive Saatchi seized his wife, Nigella Lawson, by the throat has given fresh oxygen to an old red top.

For the past few weeks, its pages have exuded a new confidence. The Nigella scoop was the sort of agenda-setting story that the News of the World became known for in its better days, causing a flutter in the breasts of its rivals as its first edition dropped on a Saturday night.

Helpfully for the People, the principal participants in this sad tale are a source of fascination for all sections of the news media. The paper reflected this in its headline “Arti Choke”, referencing the couple’s influence in the worlds of art collecting and fine food.

Despite the subsequent frenzy of interest, the People has stayed on top of the story, reporting from week to week the further developments in the break-up of one of Britain’s most high-profile marriages.

It has taken stick for poking its nose into a personal tragedy. This was a photo exclusive, the product of a paparazzi culture that has been a major contributory factor in dragging newspapers down in the public estimation and incurring the prospect of greater regulation. Many of the celebrity complainants who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry clearly had the “paps” in mind when they held forth on press intrusion.

To answer this criticism, the People gave space to its snapper – bylined only as “Jean-Paul” – to explain that the images were a depiction of “27 minutes of madness” and not a distortion of a fleeting contretemps. “People have asked why I didn’t intervene, why I didn’t go over. The answer is simple – I would have been arrested. I’m paparazzi so everyone hates you to begin with.”

The People could also point to the fact that the story had been the most-viewed piece in the history of the website that it shares with its sister titles the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror. Just because the public seems to regard the paps as loathsome individuals doesn’t mean that the fruits of those long hours on the pavement cannot be the source of fascination.

There is a new bounce in the pages. Editor James “Scottie” Scott is getting the most out of a small but hard-working team that includes a core of female show-business specialists. The paper’s readership has a slight majority of women. The byline of reporter Susie Boniface, better known online as the award-winning blogger Fleet Street Fox, has also been prominent of late. The left-leaning paper has campaigned hard against the Government’s controversial “bedroom tax”.

By happy coincidence, the editorial resurgence of the People has happened within days of Trinity Mirror having installed new management with special responsibility for galvanising the title.

Publishing director Susan Douglas is a Sunday newspaper veteran. The Nigella scoop was a triumph for the People’s picture desk – but Douglas’s arrival helped ensure that the extra budget was available to do the buy-up. I gather the paper will be encouraged to be bolder to capitalise on the Sunday version of The Sun, which is regarded as a timid imitation of the News of the World.

Almost from the moment that Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World in July 2011, Douglas has been convinced that a demand remains for racy tabloid content at the weekend. Even Murdoch’s launch of a Sunday edition of The Sun in February last year didn’t dissuade her and her Phoenix Ventures company began discussions to buy a majority stake in the Sunday People, prompting talk that Trinity Mirror had lost interest in the paper.

If it had, few could blame it. Founded in 1881 (some 38 years after the News of the World), it has neither the notoriety nor the brand loyalty of its old rival, despite having enjoyed a circulation north of five million in the Sixties. In these times, news publishers want digital brands that live seven days a week.

The People is, in this sense, an anomaly, trying to reach a wired-up readership through a website called “mirror.co.uk”. Douglas, a former Condé Nast executive who recovered from a horrific riding accident, is assisted by the Aston Martin-driving Rupert Howell, who formerly ran the commercial team at ITV. Together they must find a way to boost the title’s profile in digital.

The Sunday People can’t rely on print sales alone. Even with the boost of one of the tabloid exclusives of the year, its circulation slipped again last month to 415,075, down 7.8 per cent on last year. Douglas and Howell will look for ways of building a digital presence for their Sunday paper that fills the gap between weekly publication days. Rather than a stand-alone website, I understand this is likely to take the form of mobile alerts.

But, following the cost-cutting years of the former Trinity Mirror CEO Sly Bailey, this backing for the Sunday People is a positive signal from her successor, Simon Fox.

The Beeb will get clobbered again over high pay-offs, but it’s doing a good job

The BBC will publish its annual report on Tuesday, inevitably providing fodder for further negative coverage of its expenditure on management salaries and pay-offs.

Director-General Tony Hall told the Public Accounts Committee chair, Margaret Hodge, last week that despite his introduction of a £150,000 cap on settlements for departing executives there were another 11 whom he had failed to deploy elsewhere who would all be getting in excess of the top limit.

But with the opprobrium later this week, we should remember that the BBC is enjoying welcome success on the programming front. Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory not only brought in a stunning 17 million audience and helped drive 27 million UK browsers to the BBC Sport site, it gave the broadcaster the kind of moment in history that it needs as it begins the long haul to charter renewal.

More than simply covering a tennis court, the quality of the broader BBC television output has not fallen off despite recent negativity surrounding its journalism. Alan Yentob’s hypnotic BBC1 Imagine on Rod Stewart last week reminded me of Cracked Actor, his 1974 documentary on David Bowie.

BBC2, in particular, is in fine form – from new sitcom Count Arthur Strong (despite the annoying audience laughter) to factual shows such as Rick Stein’s India and The Route Masters, a documentary series on the London buses, that showed me a side of the capital I didn’t know was there. There’s more to the BBC than over-rewarded managers.

The company formerly known as News International moves camp

As I suggested it would in this column two weeks ago, the company formerly known as News International has upped sticks from its long-term home in east London.

Moving to a new site alongside The Shard tower at London Bridge will give an extra emphasis to the rebranding of the business as News UK, an attempt to draw a line under the damaging hacking scandal. Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenants will wince less at images of the old News International gatehouse and its “waffle” logo when they appear during the coverage of this autumn’s criminal trials of its former senior executives Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks.

Waving goodbye to Wapping also gives the company distance from the violent strike of 1986.

Particularly significant in this move to a site called “The Place” is the grouping of News UK with other News Corp British businesses: the local division of Dow Jones and the publisher HarperCollins. Aligning journalists from The Sun with staff working for the likes of Doris Lessing, Neil Gaiman and Deepak Chopra can’t be bad for softening the image of the newspaper stable.

Twitter: @iburrell

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