'Something very lovely will happen at the Telegraph'

Sarah Sands, new editor of 'The Sunday Telegraph', speaks to Sholto Byrnes about 'lightening up', Tunbridge Wells, and why she loves a dashing colonel

The circumstances have not been ideal. When Sands was elevated to the position after the surprise sacking of Dominic Lawson, she said she wanted readers to treat the paper "like a party, a nice place to hang out". Sands, a former deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, was expected to bring a lighter touch to the Sunday paper, as she had to the daily on Saturdays. She got a picture of a topless woman on to the front page of the daily, thus fulfilling a promiseto Auberon Waugh.

But events have overtaken her. After the London bombings the nation was not disposed to party. Sands's features and lifestyle strengths did not seem appropriate when hard news coverage was required. "One's not in a frivolous mood. "But also everyone goes home at the end of the day, and those private joys, like if your child has passed an exam, will always be there. After September 11 there was a house and garden fair which the Telegraph sponsored, and it was one of our best years. People wanted to be at home with their loved ones, wanted candles and lavender for the fortress of the home. In terms of levity, you pick your moment."

Levity has long been Sands's hallmark, but only the foolish would mistake this for lack of purpose or ambition. Speaking of the changes planned for the paper before the end of the year, she says: "Something very lovely is going to happen." The girlish tone should not disguise the fact that these will be major changes. "We're looking at what's compact and what's not," she says, "and at big product development." New sections or magazines are expected, with a greater emphasis on the arts. "By background I have more of that than previous editors," says Sands, who studied English and drama at university and whose brother is the cabaret artist Kit Hesketh-Harvey.

So far change has been slower than might have been expected. Since Sands took over at The Sunday Telegraph, the front pages have been dominated by the London bombings and their aftermath. But inside, her touch has already been felt. The news pages, she says, are marked by "better execution and more humour". Most striking, apart from the way the design has subtly been opened up so that the copy can breathe more easily, are the changes on the comment pages.

The profile, a fixture whose time Sands believes to have passed, has gone. The Irish Times's big man, Kevin Myers, is out. New columnists have been hired: Jeremy Paxman (who will be back after negotiations with the BBC), Mary Wakefield, The Spectator's assistant editor, and Anna Stothard, daughter of the former Times editor Peter Stothard. All sport new, deeper, relaxed photo-bylines. Instead of grimly authoritative, they now appear more cheerful. "There were quite a lot of scowling people," says Sands. "The difference is in the expression." She hopes that her commentators will strike the reader as "people you would want to hang out with".

This fits in with Sands's desire that the paper should "wear its learning a little more lightly". "We're not just a bunch of cardinals," she says. Contrasting herself to the cerebral and stand-offish Lawson, who is the son of a former Tory chancellor and whose wife was a close friend of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, she says, "I don't come from a particularly grand or patrician background. I'm not talking to anyone from a great height."

Sands wants her Sunday Telegraph to reflect a "new kind of conservatism which is much more all-embracing". "We've been accused in the past of being a bit inward-looking or a bit stuck on certain themes," she says. "It was a sense of getting into new territory and rediscovering conservatism."

This includes both what Sands calls "the fundamental, bourgeois conservatism" of education, hard work and self-improvement, and gathering the young readers that both Telegraph titles need. "Young people are absolutely conservative," she says. "They're more entrepreneurial, they're more risk-taking and active. They don't expect things to be done for them. It's odd that we still discuss conservatism in terms of it being dying and old, when it is how, on the whole, young people think." To them, says Sands, buying her paperdoes not prompt the thought, "Does that mean I have to live in Wiltshire?"

Sands considers outdated the whole "Torygraph" image, the "Oh, you're for retired colonels in Tunbridge Wells". Not that 44-year-old Sands has anything against Tunbridge Wells, where she grew up, or colonels. "A lot of the most dashing, funniest and interesting people I know are colonels, so I won't have a word said against them. It seems odd to insult someone who's led a life of public service. You wouldn't go, 'Oh God, you write for doctors.'

"I'd like the paper to be like your iPod," she once said, "containing all your favourite things." I suggest to Sands that the colonels probably don't know what iPods are, still less own them. "Of course they do," she exclaims. "That's what's so wrong with liberal thinking - the way you mass people together to get these categories."

A framed photograph of the former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore and Spectator editor Boris Johnson in hunting gear stands next to Sands's desk. Unlike either, or Lawson, she went not to Oxbridge but to Goldsmiths in south London on leaving the Methodist private school in her home town. Her grandfather was a Methodist chaplain. Is she religious? "In so far as I wish I were better," she says. "I go to church sometimes. I still find gambling very difficult: I've never bought a Lottery ticket. But that's the only manifestation of my Methodism." That, a low church view of interior decoration, and Mrs Thatcher. "She was so good at the housework, always cooked for Denis. I'd like to say I always cooked for Kim."

Kim Fletcher, her second husband (she had a brief, youthful marriage to the actor Julian Sands), is the outgoing editorial director of the Telegraph group. Fletcher, a former editor of The Independent on Sunday, was deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph while Sands was his opposite number on the daily. Did they talk about what they were both working on? "People here would sometimes say to Kim, 'Oh, you'll tell Sarah', about a story, and then be very surprised when I didn't know about it. He kept all sorts of secrets from me. But we didn't talk about things at home. With three children, there's quite a lot of shift work going on."

Sands stresses her admiration for her husband. "I respect him probably more than anyone as a journalist," she says, but admits to one occasion when their positions clashed. "When he was on the IoS I did outbid him for something. But all the conflict at home is about who's taking the rubbish out - the normal domestic stuff."

No doubt Fletcher will be advising on the forthcoming changes at The Sunday Telegraph. "The whole balance of the Sunday market is going to change," says Sands. "Particularly having worked on the Saturday edition, I'm very conscious that people have done a lot of reading already before Sunday. So you've got to give them something new and exciting. To bore your audience is the rudest thing you can do."

DIARY

A tried and tested formula

Staff at the Daily Mail are urgently pondering persistent rumours that Mail executive editor Jon Steafel is about to become deputy editor, or even editor, of The Daily Telegraph. The gossip has reached the Telegraph, where staff are increasingly intrigued by their proprietors' appetite for employing Associated Newspapers' personnel. Is it the Stakhanovite work ethic that the Barclay brothers most admire, or the ability to articulate right-wing Conservative ideas in pomposity-free prose? Sanguine Telegraph insiders admit both attributes would be useful.

Mail's Street of Shame

And has all this talk of his lieutenants jumping ship distracted Paul Dacre? Last week the Daily Mail's editor-in-chief certainly seemed to have taken his eye off the ball, or, in this case, balls. On Wednesday, the normally prurient voice of Middle England featured a double-page spread devoted to the most vulgar place names in Britain, uncovering not only Sandy Balls, but also Upper Dicker and East Breast. The Mail even managed to find a street near Smithfields in central London that is not included in the London A-Z or on Ordnance Survey maps. Its name? - Back Passage. "It seems that Back Passage is so minor it is not worth printing," says a spokesman for the Corporation of London. Not so minor for the "family values" Mail.

When Boris is away...

Before leaving for a family holiday the editor of The Spectator and Conservative MP Boris Johnson insisted that in his absence his organ should do nothing to diminish the leadership chances of Tory contender David Cameron. Alas! What should the mag's political editor Peter Oborne almost immediately do but write a piece criticising Cameron for copying Tony Blair. Since telephonic connections are tricky in Bozza's destination of choice (Uzbekistan), the blond one should consider rushing back before the Spec dumps on Cameron further, or yet even more horror - declares for Liam Fox.

Will Andy be McNabbed?

How long will Andy McNab's columns continue to grace the Mail on Sunday? Word is that the ex-SAS man is beginning to get itchy feet. Don't be surprised if, in the not-too-distant future, McNab turns east to Wapping, where The Sun also rises.

The invisible man

Rumblings at The Daily Telegraph over the photo by-line on the paper's Spy gossip column. When Spy's editor, Celia Walden, is in place, the column features a full frontal picture of the beauteous Celia in a flimsy dress. When she's not, her deputy, Jonathan Isaby, receives a byline but no pic. Could this be related to the fact that Isaby has a somewhat, ahem, fuller figure? Isaby is said to be upset - and so are readers, who have written demanding to know what he looks like.

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