Former editor of the Sun David Yelland has cast further doubt over the claim by Downing Street director of communications Andy Coulson that he was in the dark about illegal phone-hacking at the News of the World during his time as editor.
Yelland, who was editor of the Sun for five years until 2003 and has edited another of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, the New York Post, told an audience of students at last week’s Coventry Conversations: “I can’t believe a fellow editor would not know phone tapping was in action.”
It is understood that Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who was sent to prison last year for his part in the News of the World’s phone-hacking operations, was paid around £100,000 by the newspaper for aiding in hacking celebriti Yelland told the audience he believed that any sum more than £1,000 would have to be signed off by someone “in deep carpet land”.
“It would be impossible for anyone at News International to not know what was going on”, he added.
Yelland’s comments will undoubtedly not be welcomed by Murdoch, who owns News Corporation, parent company of the News of the World. Yelland claimed to hold Murdoch in high esteem, calling him the “best newspaper proprietor of all time” and said that he had a close relationship with him during his time at the Sun and the Post. “He has a genuine interest in newspapers. Murdoch is rooted in newspapers and lives, eats and breathes them”.
Yelland’s talk was surprisingly open and on the record (see a live blog at cutoday.wordpress.com; podcast at www.coventtry.ac.uk/itunesU). He talked in detail about heavy drinking, which had started at Coventry and got worse during his career. He recalled drinking binges followed by sleep and a fourteen hour day in the newsroom as a regular cycle.
Yelland blamed one of his biggest mistakes as editor – allowing a front page headline about Britain being run by a ‘Gay mafia’ – on having been drunk in Dublin that day. Homophobia was not his scene, he said. He was mortified when he sobered up and read that headline and story. He later he checked himself into rehab and stopped drinking 2005 when he found out that his wife, from whom he was divorced, was dying of breast cancer. He is still teetotal now.
A worse mistake than the headline though, he said, was printing a topless picture of the soon-to-be Countess Of Wessex Sophie Rhys Jones. He did not say if it happened under the influence. Printing the picture lost over half a million copies over night, according to Yelland, and prompted an icy call from Murdoch. “It probably cost us ten million pounds.”
After five years as editor Yelland stepped out of the firing line of popular tabloid journalism and moved, via the Harvard Business School, into public relations. Today he is a partner at PR firm Brunswick and has represented the likes of BP during the Gulf oil spill scandal this summer and Lord Browne, the former BP CEO on his recent review into university fees. PR suits David down to the ground, he said. As a commander of information he is in his element being counsel to clients. Personal integrity in both journalism and PR is key, he advised the assemble students. “Once you’ve lost your personal integrity,” says David, “you’re gone.” Ambition and a determination to prove people wrong kept me going says David.
John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University and producer of the Coventry Conversations series. The talks series has just won the Cecil Angel Cup of 2010 for enhancing the reputation of the university.