He used to be a shy boy

PROFILE: David Yelland; A move upmarket could follow a surprising choice to be the new editor of the 'Sun'.
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The Independent Online
IT IS SAFE to say that Rupert Murdoch likes a surprise. In 1981, Fleet Street rumour had Nick Lloyd, now Sir Nick, down as a certainty to become editor of the Sun and successor to Larry Lamb. Instead a raucous former Sun sub-editor by the name of Kelvin MacKenzie got the job.

Likewise in recent months there have been rumours circulating that Stuart Higgins would be departing the helm of the Sun, to be replaced by the woman who was recently appointed his deputy, Rebekah Wade. A 30-year-old high-flyer from the News of the World, she was the public face of the newspaper on the Today programme last week, discussing the Paul Gascoigne affair. Instead Mr Murdoch has chosen as only the fourth editor of Britain's best-selling daily newspaper a relatively obscure, prematurely bald, 35- year-old Yorkshireman universally described as "quiet". He is called David Yelland, and he is charged with taking the Sun in a new direction at a time when the tabloid end of the newspaper market is shrinking.

Although still selling more than any other daily, the rate of the Sun's circulation decline is faster than its rivals' despite a lower price. From selling more than 4 million at the end of the Eighties it is now down to 3.7 million and is losing sales at an average of 5 per cent a year.

A better educated and more affluent population is trading up to the mid-market press, so that the Daily Mail is now within 20,000 copies a day of the Mirror. "Dumbing-down" and price-cutting at the Times has meant that some tabloid readers have made the leap to the broadsheets. Faced with these changes, the Mirror and the Sun have both identified a need to move upmarket to follow readers, and Yelland's background - in particular his record over the past four years at Murdoch's New York Post - has marked him out as the man for the job.

To parochial Fleet Street eyes Yelland's appointment seems strange. His British national newspaper experience amounts to two years on the Sun as city reporter and city editor, and an unspectacular few months as the Sun's man in New York. It is not the track record of a hardened, door- stepping newsman of tabloid stereotype.

"I remember him as incredibly, incredibly shy," says Geoff Teather, assistant editor of London's Evening Standard and the man who gave Yelland his first job on the Buckingham Advertiser. "He used to go red incredibly easily, he was terrible at spelling and was, I'm afraid, the butt of a lot of jokes. I think the last time I saw him I hit him over the head with a telephone directory."

Everyone who knows Yelland testifies to his quiet, self-effacing manner, sometimes attributed to his early hair loss. After the Buckingham Advertiser he joined the Northern Echo in Darlington and took a holiday to Hamburg with a group of Geordie journalists. He did not quite fit in, according to one who was there. "Well, the rest of us were pretty much plastered the whole time, but David just tagged along, quiet and sober. It was four mad Geordies and a sore thumb really."

Despite the social disadvantage of not being a big drinker, Yelland progressed through the regional press during the late Eighties, eventually specialising in finance and business stories. It was enough to get him taken on by Kelvin MacKenzie as a city reporter at the Sun in 1990. Within months he was city editor.

"He was brilliant," says Patrick Hennessey, a former colleague. "He got to know his subjects totally and to know contacts like Branson, Lord Hanson and Lord King very well." He also made his mark by keeping his boss briefed about the City so that MacKenzie could have informed conversations with Murdoch.

Yelland's particular talent was spotting how a story could be turned so that it had an appeal outside the business pages. He came up with the simple device of dividing up BT's profits so that they could be expressed as pounds per second. He frequently managed to propel otherwise dull business stories on to the front page by giving them a fresh angle.

And business stories had become important to the Sun. The Eighties and early Nineties privatisation programme had created millions of working- class small shareholders. The Sun's business pages were virtually personal finance pages, talking to readers about their investments.

As finance editor, Yelland would also meet Murdoch from time to time and could talk knowledgeably about News Corp, its rivals and the City.

He was quietly ambitious. Colleagues at the Sun remember him betting with Piers Morgan, then showbusiness editor, about who would be first to get an editorship. Morgan, the original "boy editor", beat him to it when he took over at the News of the World in 1994: he is now Yelland's rival at the Mirror and is still only 33. Yet Yelland can obviously be a quick mover himself - he met his estate agent wife, Tania, when she was showing him around a flat.

As a MacKenzie protege Yelland was given the prestigious job of New York reporter, a demanding beat that covers almost everything in the Americas. There are whispers that he was not a success there and that when the Waco conflagration occurred he needed to be helped on the story by more experienced freelance reporters. It is rumours like these that prompted the gruffer end of Fleet Street to mutter negatively about Yelland's appointment last week.

Whatever his reputation as a general reporter, in 1993 Yelland was quickly snapped up by Murdoch's New York Post on the safe patch of financial reporting. John Cassidy, who hired Yelland at the Post, insists he was not placed there by Murdoch: "I poached him. He is a very bright guy, hard-working, he knows a good story when he sniffs it and, importantly, knows how to display it."

Out of sight of Fleet Street, Yelland picked up important experience at the Post. He became deputy editor two years ago and, crucially, has been there while the newspaper has moved subtly upmarket. When Rupert Murdoch first owned the Post in the Seventies it was a red-blooded tabloid and home of classic headlines that included the infamous "Headless body found in topless bar".

However the newspaper market in New York is largely supported by retail advertising, and too garish a newspaper environment scares off such custom. In the Nineties Murdoch's strategy has been to keep the front pages brash, but has moved closer to a more sophisticated, metropolitan read on the inside.

The strategy has also been accompanied, as ever with Murdoch, by price cuts and so has been a success. The paper's 430,000 circulation is slowly creeping up on its arch-rival the Daily News, which sells 700,000 but is in long-term decline.

As deputy editor, Yelland has been in charge of the day-to-day running of the newspaper: deciding on the front page, chairing the news and features conferences. The editor, Ken Chandler, has been there for many years and largely leaves the running of the paper to a group of three or four senior executives. It is this experience that will be crucial to the Sun.

The extent of the cultural upheaval facing the so-called red-top tabloids should not be underestimated. The Mirror has even considered the possibility of dropping the red from its masthead, and the Sun is considering the future of its Page Three girls. The newspaper that once accused Liverpool fans of urinating on the dead at Hillsborough even ran a cuddly advertising campaign earlier this year with the slogan "dedicated to the people of Britain".

It is thought that Stuart Higgins's "showbusiness and royals" brand of tabloid journalism was admired at the top of News Corporation, but he was not thought strong enough on the straight politics, business and hard news stories. This is where Yelland's strengths are thought to be.

But it must be remembered that the new editor's politics, in the truest sense, are meaningless. Kelvin MacKenzie was a Sun editor whose own personal politics flowed through the newspaper. Today's New Labour Sun needs an editor who allows Rupert Murdoch's business interests to flow through the politics of his paper.

Yelland has never expressed strong political views, and no one can remember him making a pronouncement on the issue of the single currency. The Sun's attitude to Europe will be crucial to Labour plans to get Britain into the single currency after the next election, but David Yelland isn't the man the Government needs to influence.

Yelland anyway has enough on his plate. He has to stop years of decline that not even price-cutting, royal divorce and royal death have been able to stop. It may be that whatever the strengths of Murdoch as a talent- spotter and David Yelland as a journalist, the two are fighting the tide of history.