The real reason the 'Telegraph' lost Patience

Why the Sunday paper's editor took issue with Will Lewis's digital revolution. By Andrew Murray-Watson and Tim Webb
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About a year ago, Patience Wheat- croft, newly installed as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, received a bottle of champagne. A rumour went round that it was from the management floor as a thank-you present for overseeing a number of redundancies at the paper. She sent it back upstairs unopened, and became an instant hero in the broadsheet's newsroom.

With a quiet, assured confidence, Wheatcroft was much admired by her staff for her consistency in decision making and her commitment to serious news.

But last week, her time at The Sunday Telegraph came to an end. It is not often that a story about a journalist's resignation makes the Today programme. But that is exactly what happened on Wednesday morning, when news of Wheatcroft's departure was broadcast to the nation.

She wasn't the only one fired last week. In a move described by one Telegraph journalist as "brutal and utterly unnecessary ", Hazel Gilbertson, secretary to four editors including Wheatcroft and a six-year veteran at the paper, was also given her marching orders. Shortly after being told her job was safe, she was summoned to see the head of human resources and told to leave the building. She was informed she could collect the things on her desk on Sunday, when the building was empty of staff.

The spinners within Telegraph headquarters would have you believe that Wheatcroft had to go because she was stubbornly opposed to the group's digital revolution, which has seen old-school newspaper hacks writing blogs and recording podcasts as well as providing copy for the next print edition. Last week came the launch of Telegraph TV, a free video-on-demand news service on the paper's website.

Over the past year, UK readers of the paper's website have doubled to 3.7 million.

The Sunday Telegraph has never found a real home within the group's state-of-the-art digital "hub" in its Victoria base. As daily scribblers contributed content for the Telegraph website, the Sunday journalists, in the main, continued to focus on that week's edition.

For Wheatcroft and her editorial team, the challenge was finding a role in an organisation that has become obsessed with embracing new media and the opportunities provided by the internet. But far from throwing her stilettos into the machine, she was on the verge of launching The Sunday Telegraph's own comment blogs on its website, according to one insider.

Wheatcroft's allies say that she grew frustrated at the Sunday paper being starved of resources while a slew of appointments was made to bolster the online team.

One says: "Patience believed it was only a matter of time before editorial departments across the daily and Sunday papers were merged to create a seven-day, 24-hour rolling news operation – a move that she believed would inevitably lead to The Sunday Telegraph losing its own distinct identity.

"She was convinced that the Telegraph Group's strategy would mean marginalising the Sunday paper."

Will Lewis, editor of The Daily Telegraph and now editor-in-chief across both titles, refused to comment on the specific reasons for Wheatcroft's departure. But he did say: "When you have a tight-knit management team, it is important that everyone is passionate about pushing in the same direction."

Wheatcroft joins a growing list of former Telegraph editors who have bitten the dust since the stable of papers was bought by Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. Since the pair got their hands on the titles in July 2004, the Sunday and Daily Telegraph have had seven editors in total.

Dominic Lawson, who spent 10 years in charge of the Sunday, was the first to go in 2005. Martin Newland got the boot from the daily after a series of rows with Murdoch MacLennan, the newspapers' chief executive. He was replaced by John Bryant, who was replaced by Will Lewis.

On the Sunday, Sarah Sands lasted just eight months at the helm before being summarily dismissed. Wheatcroft, who was poached from The Times, where she was business editor, lasted 18 months. She has now been replaced, for the time being at least, by Ian MacGregor, the deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph and one of a number of senior editorial figures who have been recruited from the ranks of Associated Newspapers.

Dominic Lawson says the editorial merry-go-round is damaging. "Over the past two years, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph have got through six or seven editors – I've rather lost count. There is a pattern of behaviour here: the same owners managed to appoint seven editors of The Scotsman in their 10 years of ownership. This sort of capriciousness is in very sharp contrast to groups such as Associated Newspapers, Times Newspapers – or indeed the Telegraph Group under its previous owners.

"Perhaps Express Newspapers is the only one to have suffered from a similar sort of managerial St Vitus' dance – although in recent years even that newspaper group has achieved a form of stability."

During her time at The Sunday Telegraph, Wheatcroft was seen by her colleagues as cerebral, considered and serious. But there had been rumblings recently that perhaps her editorial judgement was skewed towards weightier political and business issues at the expense of lighter reads.

Whereas Sands was criticised for fulfilling the mandate given to her by MacLennan to make the paper more "youth orientated", Wheatcroft has been accused of taking it too far in the other direction.

However, readership during her tenure has held up. The Sunday Telegraph's circulation has declined 1.88 per cent in the past year, a fall that compares favour- ably to most of the title's rivals.

Lawson says: "There has been something especially directionless about the comings and goings at The Sunday Telegraph. Sarah was presumably brought in to shift it in the general direction of light entertainment, but then she was fired without explanation after eight months and replaced by Patience, who reversed almost all of the stylistic changes of her predecessor. Now, also with no explanation to the staff, she too has been cast aside."

Senior figures at the Telegraph believe that MacLennan has been the driving force behind the revolving-door policy at the papers. The former managing director at the Daily Mail has had run-ins with several editors but enjoys the Barclay brothers' full backing. And as Wheatcroft can no doubt testify, he does not tolerate dissent from his editors.

MacGregor is a paid-up supporter of the Telegraph Group's digital ambitions. However, he still needs to win over his new staff to the idea if he is to enjoy a longer tenure than Wheatcroft.

Seven editors in 10 years: the Barclay brothers' 'Scotsman' record

The succession of swift departures at the 'Telegraph' titles was mirrored during their proprietors' decade-long ownership of 'The Scotsman', where there were no less than eight occupants of the editor's chair. They were:

Jim Seaton

Martin Clarke

Alan Ruddock

Tim Luckhurst

Rebecca Hardy

Iain Martin

John McGurk

Ian Stewart