The Sunday Telegraph has a new editor

Stephen Glover on The Sunday Telegraph's exuberant, extrovert and formidably intelligent new editor, Sarah Sands

When the axe fell, it was not the head of Martin Newland, editor of The Daily Telegraph, that flew off, but that of his counterpart at The Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson. What a blow! Mr Lawson became a national newspaper editor in his late thirties, having made a splash at the helm of The Spectator. Great things were prophesied for this ambitious man at the time of his appointment 10 years ago: he would go on to The Times or some other great job, and the world lay at his feet. Now he has been cast aside before his 50th birthday in favour of Sarah Sands, who was Mr Newland's deputy. Somehow I do not think Mr Lawson will be one of those former editors who will make a name as a columnist, but I may be wrong.

When the axe fell, it was not the head of Martin Newland, editor of The Daily Telegraph, that flew off, but that of his counterpart at The Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson. What a blow! Mr Lawson became a national newspaper editor in his late thirties, having made a splash at the helm of The Spectator. Great things were prophesied for this ambitious man at the time of his appointment 10 years ago: he would go on to The Times or some other great job, and the world lay at his feet. Now he has been cast aside before his 50th birthday in favour of Sarah Sands, who was Mr Newland's deputy. Somehow I do not think Mr Lawson will be one of those former editors who will make a name as a columnist, but I may be wrong.

Whatever one's view of him - and I have never been even an associate member of his fan club - there is no doubt that he has been shamefully treated by the Telegraph management, and in particular by the new chief executive, Murdoch MacLennan. After 10 years of loyal and perfectly competent service, Mr Lawson was unceremoniously hustled out of the Telegraph's offices at Canary Wharf as though his hand had been caught in the till. No normal company would treat a departing senior executive with such a brutal display of machismo - nor, indeed, would any previous regime at the Telegraph have acted in such a barbaric way. This is a black mark for Mr MacLennan that he will find difficult to wipe clean. Can this really be how the Barclay brothers want their top henchman to behave?

Only nine months ago, Mr Lawson was basking in a compliment paid to him by Sir David Barclay in a Guardian interview. He assumed he would soon replace the flagging Mr Newland at The Daily Telegraph. His wife, Rosa Monckton, one-time friend of Diana, Princess of Wales, was tireless in pressing his claims. And yet somehow it all went wrong. Mr MacLennan says privately that the decision to get rid of Mr Lawson was his own, but for some reason Sir David's high opinion of The Sunday Telegraph's editor changed. Perhaps he and his son, Aidan, and his brother, Frederick, did not like him when they came to know him.

There have been one or two controversial sackings at The Sunday Telegraph. Some stories may have irritated them. Sales have recently dipped, though not alarmingly. All these factors combined to play a part. My guess is that, in the end, Mr MacLennan may have been stung by criticisms that he did not know whether, or with whom, to replace Mr Newland at The Daily Telegraph, and was anxious to demonstrate that he could be decisive. In Sarah Sands, he had an ideal in-house candidate to take Mr Lawson's job. Her appointment, by the way, has led to the departure of her husband, Kim Fletcher, whose position as editorial director of the Telegraph Group was felt by all parties to be untenable.

Mr Lawson set out 10 years ago to turn The Sunday Telegraph into a rival of The Sunday Times, but he was never given the resources to do so. In the six months before he took over, The Sunday Telegraph's average sales were 691,722; during his final six months, they were 689,617. Over the same 10-year period, The Observer has lost a sliver of circulation, The Independent on Sunday has mislaid about a third, while The Sunday Times, largely aided by its new Irish edition, has risen some 8 per cent to 1,367,468.

Denied extra resources, Mr Lawson devoted himself to producing a series of scoops, as he had done as editor of The Spectator, and, as at the weekly magazine, many of them were obtained in such a way as to leave controversy in their wake. There was a great hullaballoo, for example, when in 2001 The Sunday Telegraph claimed that Lady Thatcher had bestowed her blessing on Michael Portillo as the next Tory leader, when, in fact, she preferred Iain Duncan Smith. But notwithstanding the intermittent accusations of foul play, it would be churlish to deny that Mr Lawson was a highly able scoop merchant. But scoops alone do not sell Sunday newspapers. How could The Sunday Telegraph compete with the multi-sectioned Sunday Times?

For my taste, Mr Lawson's Sunday Telegraph was a little charmless, clever without being witty, and sometimes slightly depressing, and I do not share his appetite for sleazy sex stories. Sarah Sands is about as different a person as it is possible to be. Whereas Mr Lawson is ruminative, politically orientated and brooding, his successor is instinctive, less politically hidebound and effervescent. Mr Lawson scowls at life, Ms Sands laughs at it. He is a depressive and an introvert, she is exuberant and an extrovert. But anyone who underestimates her intelligence would be making a bad mistake.

Here I should mention that I was once a colleague of Sarah's on the London Evening Standard, and that she is a friend. I shall try to be as objective as possible. On the Standard she was a mischievous editor of Londoner's Diary, and then features editor, in which job she enjoyed flying by the seat of her pants.

On one infamous occasion, in 1995, she seized an article off a fax machine, assuming it to be a not very favourable critique of Blairism by the former Labour MP Bryan Gould, which she had commissioned. In fact, it was an even less charitable article, submitted speculatively by Nick Howard, the 19-year-old son of Michael Howard. It was printed under Mr Gould's byline. Many on the Left, including Mr Gould himself, suspected a Tory plot, but it was an innocent cock-up. Sarah was given a friendly official warning by Stewart Steven, editor of the Evening Standard, and three months later left to become deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph. When the editorship of the Standard became vacant three years ago, Sarah was devastated not to be appointed.

Stewart had doted on Sarah, partly because she was fun and talented, but also because she was utterly loyal to him, as she had been to his predecessor, Paul Dacre. Now she became equally loyal to Charles Moore, editor of The Daily Telegraph, exaggerating his admittedly considerable strengths, and ignoring his occasional faults. Stewart fondly described this to me as "a geisha complex".

Sarah knew a lot about the more disreputable aspects of journalism which had escaped Charles's notice, and she helped to make The Daily Telegraph less stuffy - some would say more dumbed down. She also learnt a great deal about politics, and became a good columnist. When Charles jumped ship in October 2003, a few months before Conrad Black's disgrace, it seems not to have occurred to him that she might have made at least as plausible a successor as Martin Newland.

This was the point at which Sarah divested herself of whatever remained of her "geisha complex". She was noticeably less starry-eyed about Mr Newland, and sought the editorship of the Saturday edition of The Daily Telegraph, which she ran as though it were a private fiefdom

What kind of editor will she be? Mr Lawson may have been respected by his troops but not widely liked. On the whole, that is as it should be: editors are often popular because they are not good at making difficult and unpopular decisions. Sarah will be liked for a good reason. She is skilled at getting the best out of writers - briefing them well and, understanding their insecurities, making shrewd and, where possible, sympathetic judgements of their pieces. Even so, editors have sometimes to make hard, even ruthless, decisions - canning articles, chiding as well as praising, even sacking people - and Sarah may find these daunting.

When I speak to her, she gives a characteristically larky and partly ironic account of her Sunday Telegraph. It will not contain "freaky stories" about "women who have been buried alive". It will be a "whizzy newspaper" that is "clever and fun and more positive" and "less gloomy". New picture bylines will show "happy, smiling faces".

This is a deliberately daffy response that conceals her deeper intentions. A plan to turn the paper tabloid will probably be retained. She has already signed Jeremy Paxman and Sandy Toksvig as columnists (a good decision, I wonder?), and seems reluctant to get rid of Terry Wogan who, although engaging as a man, must be one of the world's worst columnists. The serious Kevin Myers of the Irish Times has been given the heave-ho. Murdoch MacLennan has said that Sarah will be reviewing the colour supplement and other sections, as no doubt she will, but she will devote a lot of energy to producing sparkier comment and feature pages.

The person who will feel most dismayed by Sarah Sands' elevation, other than Dominic Lawson, is Martin Newland. He has lost an able deputy and, according to one source, been informed that head-hunters will find him a new one. Mr MacLennan has shown that he has teeth, which one day quite soon may be dug into Mr Newland's flank. The fate of the highly profitable Daily Telegraph is of immeasurably greater importance to the Barclay brothers than that of the Sunday paper, which is a relative sideshow. Sarah's well-judged appointment is the precursor of a much more momentous decision.

'She will flirt, but you know who's boss'

When Auberon Waugh was on his deathbed, he made Sarah Sands promise she'd put a naked woman on the front of The Daily Telegraph. She kept her pledge, recently sneaking on a picture of a topless girl.

Sands has been annoyed by the suggestion that she will replace The Sunday Telegraph's stodgy political agenda with a lifestyle focus. But she does plan to brighten the paper up with a high-velocity mix of lively news and features. She's already hired three new columnists - Jeremy Paxman, Sandi Toksvig and Anna Stothard.

The new editor is a traditional Tory in the sense of believing in family values and individualism, but is softer on social policy. Left-wing in youth, at 44 Sands is in many ways a Thatcherite, advocating hard work and education as the road to self-improvement.

She has her fans in the Telegraph Group who praise her heady mix of fun and hard work. Others say she's a smooth operator with an instinctive understanding of office politics. "She will ask you into her office and flirt with you, but at the same time let you know who is the boss," says one journalist.

An early flirtation with theatre turned into a lifelong interest. After Methodist boarding school, Sands studied English and drama at Goldsmiths' College, London, where she tried to run a theatre company. When she asked the casting director if she could join as her assistant, she was told: "But you love stories - you ought to be a journalist."

Wild in her youth, Sands's first marriage was to the actor Julian Sands and she counts theatrical luminaries among her close friends, including John Malkovich. She is now married to Kim Fletcher, who announced his amicable departure as Telegraph Group editorial director in the same week as his wife's appointment. They live in west London with her 19-year-old son by Sands and their children, 13 and 10. A friend recalls Sands aiming for street cred by claiming to live in Shepherds Bush, although north Kensington is nearer the mark.

As a rookie reporter on the Sevenoaks Chronicle in Kent, Sands sold a scoop about Selina Scott's co-presenter copying her wardrobe to the Daily Star. In 1986, she graduated to the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary, under Richard Addis. She built an enviable contacts book and later ran the diary. From there she became features editor, then executive editor and associate editor, before moving to The Daily Telegraph as Charles Moore's number two in 1995, making her mark as editor of the Saturday edition.

The Sunday Telegraph's first female editor may be best summed up by a former colleague: "She's not a simple person, a cardboard cut-out, like so many editors. She's a proper person."

By Ciar Byrne

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