Amazed… shocked… it’s bit of a joke… couldn’t edit a bus ticket. These are some of the reactions to the appointment of Janet Street-Porter as editor of The Independent on Sunday. Others included the immediate departure of seven of the newspaper’s top journalists.
The idea of Street-Porter editing a national newspaper seems to have come as a surprise, especially to her. She says: “I’d never thought about it, but I wish I had.”
Independent Newspapers editor-in-chief Simon Kelner is the man responsible for putting the idea into her head, after initially talking to her about becoming a columnist.
The doyenne of youth broadcasting, now aged 52, tanned and looking at least ten years younger, is ironically now one of the oldest editors in Fleet Street. Yet Street-Porter probably has the least experience of print journalism. Her career began in 1968 as home editor of teen title Petticoat Magazine. After stints as an editor and journalist, her subsequent experience of print has been confined to the occasional article.
She began a career in broadcasting as a presenter of series such as Around Midnight and The Six O’clock Show for LWT, going on to create the Bafta award-winning Network 7. An early attempt to get into the BBC failed.
“My agent said ‘you will never get a job at the BBC as an executive because it’s dominated by public school boys and you know with your accent and your background you are not going to fit in’.”
Today, when regional accents are positively promoted by the BBC, her estuary English twang is not so hard on the ears. She claims that the BBC culture changed when the likes of her former LWT colleague John Birt and Alan Yentob rose to positions of power. In this new environment, she joined the BBC in 1988 as editor of youth programmes.
But she claims to have no intention of bringing this youth culture to the Independent on Sunday. “I have not been interested in youth culture for almost a decade, despite everybody’s attempts [to label me]. I had really moved into mainstream TV by 1990. Back then there was a difference between those over 30 and those under 30. You would be hard-pressed to see that these days.
“People’s tastes are much more complicated now. That’s good for newspapers – that’s what has driven all these new sections.”
Street-Porter moved on to launch Mirror Group’s Live TV. There she came to blows over the editorial direction of the channel with former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie. He ousted her in his enthusiasm to introduce topless darts, weather reports in Norwegian and the news bunny.
She rejected a move back into network TV, she says, because she had “already done it”. Instead, she went on to present and create TV series such as Coast to Coast and one on cathedrals which will be aired later this year.
But she denies that her new role will mark a return to the besuited corporate office environment. “I think the Independent is a pretty relaxed place. It doesn’t feel like the other world that used to exist at Mirror Group,” she says.
“I remember the case of a previous editor of the daily Independent. Kelvin (MacKenzie) said to me once: ‘I can’t understand that man – he wears cardigans.’ I think that says it all. He was mystified as to how anyone could do a job, any man could edit a newspaper wearing a cardigan, as if he had a mental or physical disorder.”
Street-Porter does not view her lack of experience in editing newspapers as a problem. “I have done loads of other things,” she says and erupts into her infamous raucous laughter. More follows, when it is pointed out that her CV runs to four pages. “All the jobs I’ve taken have required me to do something I hadn’t done before.”
She refers to her move to the BBC which was “an organisation I knew nothing about other than as a viewer”. There, she mastered the skill of delegation and of working with creative types such as Ruby Wax and Clive Anderson. “I think they would all agree, I let people express themselves and let them create their ideas. So when people say ‘you’re a control freak’, obviously I’m not. You can’t be a control freak in a big organisation.”
Sunday Business editor Jeff Randall prefers to reserve judgment on Street-Porter’s editing skills and sees her strength in lifestyle areas. He says: “As a Sunday newspaper editor you have to be both predictive and analytical at the same time, not merely a platform for yesterday’s stories. I do not think Kelner views her merely as an adjunct of the marketing department.”
Street-Porter is unlikely to have a problem with contacts when it comes to music, fashion and entertainment. That leaves weaknesses in business and sport which have acquired credibility on the daily, under Kelner.
Laura James, media director and head of press at New PHD, says: “Her high profile and her approach may reinvigorate what is quite a staid and worthy title. I can’t see that’s a bad thing.”
Stephen Glover, first editor of the Independent on Sunday, sees disadvantages in Street-Porter’s lack of newspaper experience, but believes these could be offset by her skills in dealing with budgets and large numbers of people. He adds: “But the other problem is simply the persistent under-investment in the Independent on Sunday.”
Street-Porter says: “As I haven’t started yet, it would be pathetic to say I need more money in that knee-jerk way people always do. But I’m not denying that the budget is tight.”
Since Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Newspapers took complete control of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday last year, investment has helped stem a circulation decline at the daily. The Independent had an average net circulation of 222,064 for the six months ending May, up 0.53 per cent on the same period last year.
By contrast, the Independent on Sunday’s circulation, which peaked at 400,000 in 1992, was 251,627 for the six months ending May 1999, down three per cent on the same period last year. Unlike the daily, it has come under little pressure from price-cutting by rival newspapers.
Street-Porter does not see the need for a major revamp, just fine-tuning. “There’s some really good writing but sometimes it seems rather densely laid out and it could do with more diagrams and boxes. All the sections need a clearer identity. The challenge for the Sunday papers is to be serious and entertaining at the same time.”
Zenith press director Damian Blackden says: “It’s a controversial appointment and although I’m not a fan myself, she’s a woman known for her strong opinions. It gives a point of difference for the title.”
The Independent on Sunday is developing a history of hiring, as one commentator puts it, “glossy broads” from other disciplines – first Rosie Boycott from magazines, and then Janet Street-Porter from the world of television. It remains to be seen whether Street-Porter can raise circulation rather than simply raising the profile of the newspaper.