Soaking up the Sun

Profile: Stuart Higgins
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The Independent Online
One November day in 1982, Gloucestershire police made an alarming discovery in the grounds of Highgrove House, then the home of the Prince and Princess of Wales. A few hundred grassy yards from its inviting Georgian windows, among the new trees the Prince had been so keenly planting, they came upon a pair of intruders. The men claimed to be journalists; the officers took them to Stroud police station. The next day, an explanation emerged, with some melodrama, on the pages of the Sun: a photographer called Haydn Jones and Stuart Higgins, its royal correspondent, had been "testing security".

Fourteen years later, it is tempting to enjoy another Higgins slip-up. Until last week, the newspaper he now edits was confidently bellowing and jeering its way to cultural ubiquity. The Sun sells one and a half million more copies than any other daily; more importantly perhaps, its blood-red front pages - the Prince and Princess' divorce announcement, the Queen's rethink of royal expenditure - were gaining a wider credence than ever before. The Guardian followed them up; the Sun's royal divorce story won Scoop Of The Year, at both the major newspaper award ceremonies.

Last Tuesday, however, Higgins' paper published a less shrewd exclusive. Its strands have unravelled ever since: the blaring revelation ("Di Spy Video Scandal"), thinly justified again by concern for royal safety; the smirking rebuttal ("I Am The Diana Video Hoaxer"), bursting from the rival Daily Mirror; the chastened apology ("I am deeply sorry"), hanging from the Sun's masthead; and, most enjoyably of all, the tabloid's evident bewilderment ("Do You Know Anything About This Sting?").

The details of all this have been just as delicious. The film the Sun bought for pounds 100,000 was shot in south London, not Highgrove, from the back garden of a Wandsworth terrace. The lookalike playing Diana "felt embarrassed" kissing a highly approximate James Hewitt, "and wished I hadn't had a chicken tikka sandwich". The journalist who missed the clues, who wrote the front page story that claimed covert surveillance of the Princess of Wales, was one Stuart Higgins.

Only in May, he had written the Sunday Times a long review of a book about tabloids by a Guardian journalist called Matthew Engel. Higgins liked the book, despite its predictable jabs, and towards the end unwound into a general discussion of his trade: "The tabloids have been unjustly maligned," he wrote, "accused of telling royal fairy stories." He concluded: "A mistake is a mistake and can be used as ammunition to attack a rival, and to attempt to damage a rival paper's credibility."

There is profound embarrassment at the Sun about the video debacle. "It was not something people wanted to mention very much," says one reporter there. A former colleague adds: "Fortunately for Higgins, Diana doesn't have a pristine reputation. If it had been Princess Anne, he would have been out."

"Higgy" has survived the wrath of Rupert Murdoch. In his West Country way, he has turned the episode into a little newsroom quip: "One more thing like that," he told staff on Wednesday, "And I'm going to get myself committed."

The Press Complaints Commission does not quite get the joke, however. On Thursday, Lord Wakeham, its chairman, criticised "the events of the last few days", in particular "a stream of injudicious stories centering on the private lives of public individuals, backed up only by the flimsiest of public interest defences". Once again, he warned of the possibility of privacy legislation.

Higgins is used to this ritual. In May, for example, the Sun apologised for publishing an intrusive picture of Prince William at Eton - only a few months after solemnly promising to do nothing of the sort. Higgins will keep despatching his long lensmen, and contrite letters, until a government genuinely wants to stop him.

More interesting, perhaps, is what gives Higgins, with his company man's suit, his soft vowels and worrier's forehead, the ability and desire to keep on calling the official bluff. He is 40, with a wife and two children, a house in a west London suburb, and affable as MacKenzie was splenetic. "If you went past Stuart in the street," says Max Clifford, the publicist, "you wouldn't know him. That's what he wants and that's what he likes." Yet Buckingham Palace and Downing Street and anyone with even the most passing celebrity depend, to some extent, on the favour of this seemingly forgettable kingmaker.

By reputation, he is highly competent. Since Rupert Murdoch moved Kelvin MacKenzie away from the Sun in January 1994, to prowl in a smaller cage, Higgins has padded round the paper's newsroom, editing with calmer purpose. Recently, when Scottish Courage, a brewing conglomerate, suggested marketing a Sun Lager, Higgins said no: "It wasn't quite right for our profile." But early last week, offered another peep into Highgrove, this judgement eluded him. As a former subordinate puts it, "What will hurt was that it looked amateurish."

Higgins started early. In 1972, aged 16, he left school in an outer Bristol suburb called Kingswood, and joined a local news agency. "In the 17 years I ran South West News," says Roland Arblaster, now a reporter at HTV, "Stuart was the only one we took on that young."

In the newsroom Higgins was shy, a young lad who played football at weekends and was saving up for a Triumph Herald. Out reporting, however, this mildness was just what he needed: "If you met him in a bar," says one old colleague, "You'd tell him everything about yourself in 20 minutes."

Every six months or so, Higgins would take his book of contacts compiled from such meetings and ring his way right through the alphabet. One name he reportedly acquired was a Wiltshire lady called Camilla Parker-Bowles. He also gained a reputation. "Everybody talked about him," says John Roulston, the agency's current editor. "The sun shone out of him... He was always held up as an example."

South West News was a well-worn conduit to Fleet Street for stories and journalists. In 1979 Higgins' contacts book got him a job as the Sun's reporter for the region. In a year, he was promoted from provincial court cases to covering film premieres in New York; Higgy was in.

The first Highgrove incident did him little harm: with Charles and Diana's wedding in 1981 the bubble of royal stories had started to swell. Higgins' equability, moreover, had internal as well as external uses for the paper. He became features editor, a news editor and, in 1991, at only 35, deputy to the roaring MacKenzie.

Playing the straight man had its perils, though. The more Higgins mutely smiled at MacKenzie's fulminations, the more MacKenzie began to enjoy them. One day, as recorded in the classic history of the Sun, Stick It Up Your Punter!, the editor had an idea, mid-rant: "Higgy, you take it all, don't you?" he shouted across his desk. "You just sit there soaking it all up... You're like a sponge..."

The next morning "Higgy The Human Sponge" made his Sun debut. Readers were invited to call his direct line: "He can't live without a tongue- lashing." While Higgins, as ordered, attempted to perform his normal newsdesk duties, his dignity died by a thousand abusive calls, some of them by staff pretending to be readers. A "well-spoken woman from Essex" rang: "My God, you're so ugly," she said. "I've never seen anyone so ugly in my life."

But the sponge bided his time. When MacKenzie took a rare holiday, Higgins edited the paper with cheeky deftness. In 1992, thanks to a handily-placed personal source in Wiltshire, he caught the Princess of Wales with an army officer called James Hewitt.

The following year he published a likeness of MacKenzie (who was known to resist any appearance in his own paper) as a cartoon Mr Whiplash.

Nevertheless, when MacKenzie moved on, the Sun's popular dominance was expected to crumble. Higgins was a middle manager, a figure of fun at best. The paper was too shrill for the times: even Murdoch thought out loud in a magazine interview about abolishing Page Three.

Higgins surprised them all. He did not shout; he did not reign from his office; he deigned to speak to other papers. "The atmosphere of the Sun has totally changed," says Max Clifford. "He's the nicest person I've ever worked for," added a Sun reporter.

And Higgins still has his Bristol guile, patiently researching and writing some of the stories that have made his editorial name. Even circulation has stayed above the four million he inherited.

Then again, his reinvention of the Sun can be overplayed. When Higgins condemned xenophobia during Euro 96, he added, "I think we can get away with blitzing Fritz."

The aptness of the video hoax is that it played on the Sun's own insatiability. You could see this appetite growing feverish as last Tuesday approached: royal stories of varying degrees of triviality had taken the front page on the previous Friday, Saturday and Monday.

And perhaps Higgy is not such a mild man, for all his tennis and newsroom banter with his female staff. Camilla Parker-Bowles may talk to him three times a week, or she may not, but when he needed a funny front page last July he still shoved her on the news stands, gobbling a hot dog. The headline: "Camilla Loves A King-Sized Sausage".