The Barclays pounce. So who's next in line for a binbagging?

Dominic Lawson is out. Sarah Sands is in. Jane Thynne investigates the proprietors' brutal game of musical chairs at 'The Sunday Telegraph'

It helps to have a rich sense of irony in Fleet Street. Last week, as editors and proprietors met at St Bride's Church to mark, on the departure of Reuters, the end of Fleet Street, one of its newer traditions was being enacted. A "stunned" Dominic Lawson, editor of The Sunday Telegraph for 10 years, had just been subjected to a "bin-bag resignation" - hustled out of his Canary Wharf office without being given the chance to collect his belongings.

It helps to have a rich sense of irony in Fleet Street. Last week, as editors and proprietors met at St Bride's Church to mark, on the departure of Reuters, the end of Fleet Street, one of its newer traditions was being enacted. A "stunned" Dominic Lawson, editor of The Sunday Telegraph for 10 years, had just been subjected to a "bin-bag resignation" - hustled out of his Canary Wharf office without being given the chance to collect his belongings.

The brutal dispatch of Lawson, 48, and his replacement by Sarah Sands, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph for the past nine years, has thrown fresh (and unwelcome) attention on the future of the Telegraph papers, which have been in the spotlight more or less constantly since the departure of Conrad Black and the arrival last summer of the Barclay brothers as proprietors. Kim Fletcher, the Telegraph's editorial director and husband of Sarah Sands, also announced his departure on Friday, and further staff changes are expected. The moves, following a round of deep job cuts at the Telegraph Group in February, have alarmed staff.

"People have had a big shock with the Barclays," said one Telegraph journalist. "Everyone was expecting a big investment and avuncular ownership but instead they're witnessing the most ruthless management in the papers' history. Perhaps because they paid a lot more for the group than they expected to."

Loud crashes on The Sunday Telegraph floor of Canary Wharf on Tuesday prompted speculation that Lawson was hurling furniture in rage. He was not, but he is said to be outraged both at the request for his departure, and the ungentlemanly method of it, the more so since earlier this year he had formed a dream team in anticipation of taking over the editorship of the daily paper.

"He was stunned, but he should have seen it coming," said one insider. "They wanted it more family friendly, less high-table intellectual. He was too arrogant and confident, not as malleable as they might have liked. This management want things done yesterday. They were annoyed he was so resistant to changing the format." And this despite Lawson having overseen a tabloid dummy of the paper that has now been favourably reviewed by Sands. But apart from Lawson's awkward relationship with proprietors - his surprise sacking of executive editor Con Coughlin earlier this year was, some claimed, prompted by Coughlin's cordial relationship with an admiring management - there were other pressing problems.

At 629,689 (excluding bulks) the paper's ABC circulation figure for May was down 7.1 per cent year on year, trailing The Sunday Times's 1.3 million. Though praised for his scoops, among them David Blunkett and the nanny's visa last year, Lawson also had black marks against his name. He had been forced to apologise to the Archbishop of Canterbury for a headline claiming that the Asian tsunami had caused him to question his faith - albeit a mistake made when Lawson was on holiday. His proprietors were understood to have been perturbed by a story speculating that Jesus was gay, which ran the day after the death of Pope John Paul II.

Above all else, however, it was believed that Lawson had failed to get in touch with the paper's feminine side. "The Sunday Telegraph has dead white male written all over it," said one ST journalist. "Dominic was not interested in 'lifestyle' and did this hard-edged anti-abortion campaigning which he thought would play well with management when what really plays well with them are successful commercial revenues."

Already the paper's admired news side - Lawson's forte - is being tweaked under Sands, with suggestions that more celebrity-based stories appear. "Sunday papers are less about news and more about lifestyle and culture sections now and we just didn't compete," said a staff member. Another said: "The game plan is to take on the Mail on Sunday. The irony for Dominic is that there were already moves to make it more feminine, like relaunching the Review section."

The name of Associated Newspapers crops up a lot among staff on the Telegraph titles, who believe that the ethos of the Daily Mail is rapidly supplanting long-standing Telegraph values. Murdoch MacLennan, the new Telegraph Group chief executive, was a long-time Daily Mail executive, and evidently felt Sarah Sands, herself an Associated Newspapers alumna, would be the one to inject girl-friendly gossip and glamour. Over the past few months she had, significantly, been wooed for a top job by Associated.

Certainly, there could be no more polar opposite to Dominic Lawson. As well as editing the sprawling Saturday edition of the Telegraph, Sands, who is 44 and has three children, has found time to write novels too. Charming and non-confrontational, she is a consummate office politician, though there is a guarded, somewhat distant edge to her persona which friends blame on the trauma of an early failed marriage to the actor Julian Sands. "She's a bit of a weird fish, quite cold sometimes, but she's head and shoulders above any of the other contenders," said a colleague. Educated at Goldsmiths College in English and Drama, she has never displayed the kind of obsession with political minutiae common to Sunday newspaper editors. "She realises you don't need to go on about every detail of the Tory leadership race. Readers are bored stiff by that."

Gossip is in her blood - she edited the Evening Standard diary and more recently The Minx, a well-sourced media diary in the Telegraph, and she has a sharp wit. "Her leader conferences are so funny. She is consistently the wittiest person in the room."

"She is always saying we must have prettier faces, we need more glamorous pictures, this article's not bitchy enough, there are too many old men," says one colleague.

As always with newspaper reshuffles, Sands's move will have implications far beyond its immediate impact, in particular at the daily paper. For The Daily Telegraph, amid a climate of change and declining circulations throughout the industry, is at a critical moment in its history. It remains the only former broadsheet daily not to have announced plans to change its size, though it has prepared dummies for a compact edition.

Though its circulation is steady, rumours circulate daily about the future of its editor, Martin Newland. Only last week the most recent candidate of the rumour mill, Patience Wheatcroft, business editor of The Times, denied she had been approached. Sources at Associated Newspapers suggest talks have been held with Peter Wright, editor of the Mail on Sunday.

"The trouble is, Martin has never given off an air of confidence or leadership," commiserated one colleague. "He still has a shell-shocked air, as though he is the victim of some strange practical joke." Nonetheless Newland has received assurances over his future, at least in the short term, and last week was planning major changes to the central section of the paper - a shake-up of columnists and the way the pages are organised.

He may also be engaged in choosing a new deputy. The paper's executive editor, Neil Darbyshire, the paper's managing editor Sue Ryan, the comment editor, Stephen Robinson, and Sands's former deputy, Corinna Honan, are among those tipped to replace Sands.

The reshuffle ripples may reach further - to the editorship of The Spectator, also owned by the Barclays, where Boris Johnson is said to be "highly nervous". "The Barclays took all that stuff about Boris's affair [with Petronella Wyatt] very badly," said one insider. "It offended their sense of propriety." Matthew d'Ancona, currently deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph, has been mentioned as a contender, as has Michael Portillo.

Meanwhile Dominic Lawson is left to plan his future. "All journalistic careers end badly and I think he'll find the loss of power and prestige difficult," said one of his journalists. But on Wednesday, just a day after his resignation, Dominic Lawson was at The Ivy having lunch with Ed Victor, the literary agent. Coincidence, or what we on Sunday newspapers call forward planning?

DIARY

No sweat for Lawson - yet

Life as a mere mortal may come as a shock to the departing editor of The Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson. One sweltering summer's day during his reign, Lawson found himself sharing the lift with a member of his staff who - quelle horreur - was not wearing a tie. Desperate to indicate to his editor that he would soon be properly attired, the scribbler fished a tie out of his pocket. "So you put your tie on when you come to work?" asked Lawson. "Yes," replied the underling, nervously explaining that it was very hot on the Tube. "Ah," said Lawson, "the Tube..."

Double Standard

Meanwhile, very odd behaviour by Associated Newspapers followingLawson's departure. The Evening Standard's Wednesday media section contained no reference to the previous day's events, but on Thursday the Daily Mail carried a speculative item on Lawson's future. The word-for-word piece then appeared in the Standard's Londoner's Diary later that day.

Gnasher Wilby bites back

At his leaving do last week, nothing seemed to cheer recently departed New Statesman editor Peter Wilby so much as the cartoon that David Simmonds had produced for the party invitation. "I'd like to thank David Simmonds for his picture," said Wilby, "because he has given me two front teeth. In fact for the past five years I've only had one."

Not guilty: no comment

Never let us confuse the Financial Times with a newspaper. Last Tuesday's issue managed to avoid any mention of the Michael Jackson trial verdict from the night before. Surely Jacko's victory might have merited a tiny mention given his business interests?

Jones struggles at the Helm

There are worries about the future of George Jones, veteran political editor of The Daily Telegraph after what is said to have been a "stonker of a row" with his deputy, Toby Helm (brother-in-law of Tony Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell). Telegraph editor Martin Newland is said to have given Jones a rocket, leading to suspicions that the long-serving political editor willtake retirement sooner rather than later.

So who's the little lady, Val?

Scott Mills might have done his homework before interviewing guests at the Batman Begins premiere. When Val Kilmer bounded up to the Radio 1 DJ with his The Postman Always Rings Twice co-star and announced, "This is Charlotte Emerson," Mills ignored the actress. Kilmer gallantly praised his English co-star, and eventually - reluctantly - Mills turned to her. "And are you enjoying London?" he asked. As the audience watching proceedings on the cinema screen cringed, Emerson frostily replied: "Yes. It's very nice having Val here."

Roebuck vs Henderson

Finally, the sports news, and as tension mounts ahead of the England-Australia Test series, the mood is affecting the cricket press too. Michael Henderson, not unknown to confront fellow scribes, recently had a go at player-turned-correspondent Peter Roebuck in a piece in The Wisden Cricketer, for which both men write. In his riposte, Roebuck says that "Henderson must remove that tweed jacket and scarf... the better to convince that he is not really a braggart and a bore. At present he impresses only the Little Englanders who surround him and whose spokesman he has so ill-advisedly become." A matter for the adjudication of the third umpire?

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