David Yelland on The Sun, Southwold and sobriety
Richard Bryson speaks to former tabloid editor David Yelland about his days at the Sun, his drinking, his relationships with Rupert Murdoch and Piers Morgan, and his great fondness for Suffolk
“I knew I had a drink problem from an early age. At 18, I was getting drunk every night”
When former Sun editor and recovering alcoholic David Yelland looks in the rear view mirror of his working life he sees a car crash, and one he feels lucky to have escaped.“It’s like one of those accidents you see where the vehicle is crumpled like a concertina and you wonder how anyone could have survived,” he says.But Yelland has not only climbed from the wreckage, he has put his life back on track with a job away from the stresses of running the country’s best-selling national newspaper. He also has a new relationship (his wife died Tania of cancer in 2006) and a much talked-about children’s book, The Truth About Leo, just published.He says the novel – set in a town not dissimilar to Southwold – may involve an alcoholic, who brings chaos to his young son’s life, but it is not about him.“It is the man I was dangerously close to becoming,” he admits. “I have been in recovery for five years and the book is about that process – about the beauty of recovery.”Yelland approached EADT Suffolk back in January and we met, appropriately in Southwold, a few weeks ago. Thoughtful, polite and quietly spoken he doesn’t fit the typical impression of a tabloid editor. Somehow I can’t see his first boss on The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, or his great rival Piers Morgan, writing a children’s book, even if the latter brought out a newspaper for schoolchildren. Then again, neither has endured what 46-year-old Yelland has been through in recent years.“I didn’t write it as a self-help book. I started writing in a rehab clinic and when I wrote, things began to make sense. I remember coming to this part of the coast and liking the fact Southwold was an old fashioned town that hadn’t lost its values. I wanted to set the book in a self-contained town by the sea and it seemed perfect.“The beach huts, the pier and the beach all feature, as does Southwold lighthouse . There is a prime minister character in the book called Barnaby Green, named after the small green near the chip shop in the town.”There are other local references. When Leo, the book’s misunderstood but resilient hero, is talking to his grandmother about football, there is mention of Ipswich Town and their England striker Paul Mariner.Yelland has been writing the book in a little rented studio by the harbour at Walberswick. “In my career I have spent time in America and I compare Walberswick to the Hamptons.“I also like the people I meet up here in Suffolk. Max, my son, may currently prefer trips to Center Parcs but I will bring him back to Southwold, I think it’s important.“The book is also my attempt to make amends with Tania. She was four months pregnant with our son when we learned in April 1998 she had breast cancer. She was so brave . . . I will never witness such bravery.“The father talked about on the pages is not me, but the mother is Tania and the boy a little like Max, though, thankfully, he has no memory of my drinking.”At the end of the story there is an uplifting moment when Leo meets the prime minister but also a poignant one when he discovers his dying mother’s final letter to him.Is this going to be uncomfortable reading for some?“Well, when I was pitching the idea of the book, one publisher looked at me incredulously and said: ‘How can you do addiction?’ But it had to be an honest account, so the alcoholism and the death of the child’s mother is in there. You can learn a lot from a child’s reaction to death. I can peer into Max’s eyes and see a great wisdom there already.“Children who suffer a loss very young can be very impressive human beings. It also makes you realise what’s important in life. . .it means you can instantly and easily turn off the television because it tends to distort what is really important.”If Yelland is considered and necessarily downbeat about some aspects of the book, he is not without a sense of humour.“Since the town is so like Southwold I pondered including the Adnams brewery in the story, the irony wasn’t lost on me,”" he says.A sequel is planned but one day, when the time is right and he doesn’t have to break any confidences, he would be able to write a good book on the lunacy of life in the tabloid fast lane. Before he was appointed editor, the most famous of the Sun’s guiding lights, the aforementioned MacKenzie, had made him business editor. Later, and quite implausibly for a reporter only interested in politics and serious news, he found himself the paper’s New York editor, doorstepping the likes of Eddie Murphy and Hugh Grant. “Murphy was at the Plaza Hotel and I refused to wait outside his room so I went and had an evening meal with Tania. Then, when we left the restaurant, we found ourselves in a lift with Murphy and he gave me an interview there and then.”Yelland became deputy editor of the New York Post, another Rupert Murdoch owned newspaper. Suddenly this adopted Yorkshire boy was shooting through the ranks of News International with Murdoch becoming both a confidant and a friend. “I was very, very ambitious but I now know ambition can be a dangerous thing.”He was asked for his thoughts on the Sun and put together a manifesto for change, one more liberal than the paper’s accustomed and carefully targeted right-wing direction.While looking around New York’s Museum of Modern Art he got the news . . . he was editor of the Sun with immediate effect.“I found myself on Concorde with a car collecting me from Heathrow and lunch with the Blairs at No 10 my first important meeting. I remember writing “who am I?” on a napkin. My life was changing at an extraordinary pace.“In my first conference I was told we had topless pictures of Zoe Ball on a beach. When I asked ‘Who is Zoe Ball?’ I was met with stares from everyone around the table.
“Once I was in such a state I got up and put on an extra shirt and tie for a meeting with Murdoch. It wasn’t until I got back to my office that I suddenly noticed – horrified – that I was wearing two shirts and ties.”
“I was asked to choose the next Page Three girls. The idea of Page Three was anathema to me anyway but I also had a wife recovering from breast cancer.“In my first year we carried lurid stories about Lenny Henry and Ian Botham as well as topless pictures of Sophie Rhys-Jones and I regret them all.“We also ran stories critical of the BBC yet now, several years on, I have many friends in the Corporation. Indeed my partner Charlotte works for the BBC.“I found I was being judge and jury over all sorts of breaking news. There had to be a instant reaction. I knew I was setting the day’s news agenda.”Did that pressure result in him drinking more?“I think from an early age I knew I had a drink problem. At 18, unbeknown to my parents I was getting drunk every night. I was drunk every night for 24 years and that is no exaggeration.“But I was good at hiding it and people at the Sun didn’t spot it. When we drank after work they thought I was being convivial, just mixing with the team.Print profiles at the time even described me as a ‘sober’ character.“I started drinking in the afternoon with a few beers or wine from the office fridge. Because I liked expensive Chardonnay I tried to kid myself I wasn’t an alcoholic.“Once I was in such a state I got up and put on an extra shirt and tie for a meeting with Murdoch. It wasn’t until I got back to my office that I suddenly noticed – horrified – that I was wearing two shirts and ties.”There were, however, some proud moments. Keeping a level head after 9/11 and writing a leader headlined “Islam is not an evil religion” gave him a lot of satisfaction. That and a reluctance to run scare stories of Britain being attacked probably helped Yelland build up a good relationship with MI5 chief Stephen Lander.After 9/11 Yelland decided to run a front page story of news that the Queen had a rubber duck in her bath. It was a light hearted alternative to all the other national paper front pages. “I figured that if we scared our ten million readers every day we were effectively doing the terrorists’ work for them.“We also ran some full colour Monets to tie in with an exhibition at the Royal Academy.“But I realised I was being questioned and I soon knew I was not the ideal person for the job.”Yelland’s opposite number at the Mirror, Piers Morgan, a journalist who had made his name on the Sun’s Bizarre entertainment column, was certainly highly critical.The two exchanged insults with Morgan being particularly nasty, mentioning Yelland’s alopecia, a hair loss condition he has suffered since the age of ten and attempted to hide for a while under wigs and hats. But Yelland will not be drawn on his relationship with Morgan. “We both said regrettable things to each other and we are very different people. Good luck to him, he has achieved what he wants . . .”Yelland stepped down from the Sun in 2003. “Five years was enough,” he says.“But do you know what really sold copies of the Sun? More than the news, Page Threes, the stories that invaded people’s privacy, it was sport and in particular football.“Looking back on it all, it was odd Rupert called me in to become editor on the strength of my interests in politics and news. He had no real interest in the front page, showbiz or gossip but he was paying me to edit a newspaper in which they were all important. I somehow forgot that I should have acquired an interest in those things.”Now he is involved in the world of PR, advising company heads like Terry Leahy of Tescos on key business decisions. “I’m being paid to be calm and honest, not angry, and use my expertise to advise on how companies are being perceived in the real world. ‘Should I hire this person?’ ‘Should I take this bonus?’ ‘How will this situation play out in public?’ I find it very rewarding and exciting.”He says he is contented now, having found happiness and peace with “a woman I care for deeply and a son from whom I have learnt so much.“I am there for him, physically and emotionally,” he says.“I made a pledge when Tania died that I would never let her down again. I would never let her son down. I would stay sober for the rest of my life and give back more than I took out.”
The Truth About Leo by David Yelland is published by Penguin, priced �6.99.
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