David Yelland profile
As much of the nation gets stuck into Piers Morgan’s diaries, The Sun’s former editor, and Morgan’s former adversary, David Yelland, was in Scotland earlier this week to meet and greet clients of Weber Shandwick, where he is now senior vice chairman.
Eager to get the inside track on why he chose to publish those topless pictures of Sophie Rhys-Jones, why he vehemently opposed Tony Blair over the introduction of the Euro and how he managed to smuggle convicted train robber Ronnie Biggs back into the UK, I asked Yelland whether his diaries will be published in time for Christmas?
Yelland replied: “I will not be publishing my diaries because it would destroy too many loyalties.” Thus having clearly considered the project before deciding that while that may be Morgan’s style it is certainly not his own.
Yelland is one of the most instantly recognisable media personalities around and, as it turns out, he is not the ogre that one would perhaps expect the former editor of the nation’s biggest selling newspaper to be. For instance, it’s hard to picture Yelland hurling a torrent of abuse across the editorial floor Kelvin MacKenzie-style.
But Yelland reflects on his days at The Sun with an understated sense of achievement.
“I am very proud of my five years at The Sun,” he said. “The circulation went up during my stint and I got through it without losing too many friends. It was a massive responsibility, but I realise now that I was very lucky to have got that out of the way so early on in my career. I was only 34 when I took over, the same age as Piers at the Mirror. I was lucky though because the spotlight was always on Piers, which took the focus off me.”
Yelland had actually been working in New York for seven years in senior editorial roles with News Corporation when asked to take the top job at The Sun. He said that at that time the UK was like a foreign country to him, which in itself presented challenges for him in his role.
Yelland said: “I suppose I felt a sense of exhilaration and fear when Rupert (Murdoch) offered me the job, as anyone would. I suppose in hindsight I should have known Rupert wanted me to take over The Sun as he kept asking me questions about it despite the fact that I was deputy editor at The New York Post. I knew Stuart Higgins was having some trouble, but it was one of those times when I had an idea of what was coming, but I didn’t believe it.”
Yelland recalls his first year as being particularly difficult, but it was made even more so by what Yelland considers to have been his biggest mistake.
“My biggest regret from that time was publishing the topless Sophie. That was a mistake, which we perhaps could have got away with, but I felt that we should not try and get away with it. As a tabloid editor you can get away with most things, but eventually things do catch up with you as they did with Piers.”
So, what did Yelland learn about himself as both a journalist and as a human being during a time when he has admitted himself people did exactly as he said?
He explained : “I suppose the biggest thing I learned about myself is that I have a conscience. If you are going to be a real long-standing tabloid editor for more than 10 years then you have not got to care about certain things. I also used to agonise about things too much because, in our society, The Sun does matter. I also learned that I can work pretty hard. It was a seven day a week, 365 days a year job. I could never relax, no matter how far I went to get away from it. I once went to Barbados, but was still in touch with my Blackberry. That said, when you are away from your paper that is when you have to be the most careful as you are ultimately responsible for what goes out.”
Yelland’s responsibility now lies with making Weber Shandwick the premier provider of PR solutions in the UK and Ireland. He joined the consultancy last summer following a period of reflection on his 14 years with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Yelland explained: “I didn’t just wake up one day and decide that I wanted to work in PR. I had been thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my career while I was at The Sun. I wanted to cross the great divide into management, but it was a question of how I did that. I was going to do it with News Corps in Australia, but for one reason and another that didn’t happen. I went to Harvard to do a course and other people on that course kept asking my advice because I had held the editor’s position at The Sun. It was really the time I spent meeting people there that made me decide that I wanted to do this kind of work.”
So how has he found the transition from journalist to PR?
“I suppose I feel comfortable in this role after a year,” he said. “It is only since I have been with Weber Shandwick that I realise just how little journalists are actually told. In this role I get to meet a wide range of interesting people, and they tell me everything about their business and what they want to do with it. As a journalist you never really get that sort of information.
“Weber Shandwick is about much more than PR. A lot of the things we do you cannot really class as PR. I suppose looking back at my time at The Sun, I now realise that I could have done with a Weber Shandwick to talk to. I could have done with some sound impartial advice from somebody that essentially wasn’t after my job.
“I have learned recently how more and more pitches are going through procurement departments. I do not really know how that process works, but I want to know because, while I might know the chief executive of a major company, it is never a forgone conclusion that we will get the business because of the procurement process. So I need to know this stuff.”
And looking to the future, does Yelland intend to attain as high a profile position in the PR world as he did in the murky world of journalism?
“I have never really been particularly ambitious, but if you keep working hard then things tend to happen for you, particularly in PR. A lot of the stuff we do is behind the scenes and I do not feel the need to have my face plastered all over the place, I never have.
“I suppose my ambition is to make a success of my second career. It’s a learning curve for me at the moment, but I am enjoying finding out how everything works. I have learned a lot in my first year not just from the senior people I work closely with, but also from the junior staff I work with. I know there are certain things that I don’t have to do because someone else will take care of them, but I am the type of person that wants to know how things are done, so I am learning a lot.”
As for Christmas presents, with Yelland’s staunch refusal to publish his diaries, I guess it’s back to the drawing board.