ON THE BUSINESS PAGE
A new era has been heralded in at the Daily Mail. For seasoned business editor Ruth Sunderland, the conversation between the paper’s readership and businesses is important. Andrew Thomas reports on her relationship with PRs, her experience in the city and the future of the Mail itself
Photographs by Jeff Leyshon
The Daily Mail is often described as the Marmite of the British daily press. There is no middle ground – its editorial positioning is shorthand for small-C conservative values that are as fiercely protected by some as they are held in contempt by others. Before Britain was split in half by Brexit, it was opinion towards the Daily Mail that defined one’s political attitudes: middle England pitted against the liberal establishment.
All that seems challenged by the appointment of editor Geordie Greig in September, who replaced outgoing editor Paul Dacre, stepping down after a remarkable 26 year tenure. Yet, if views of the Daily Mail are defined by sentiment towards Dacre, that underestimates the way the Mail’s values runs through the fabric of British society. Critics may see the Mail as divisive, but it has always been a campaigning paper, with those campaigns ranging from the pursuit of justice for the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence to minimising society’s plastic usage. Greig’s experience at the Mail on Sunday, the Independent and the Standard has shown he is likely to bolster those campaigning credentials while possibly reducing the paper’s reputation as a hectoring bully.
There’s no underestimating the revolution a change of editorship can bring to a national newspaper. A new editor needs to make a mark, and make it quickly. Greig swiftly brought in allies: journalists and editors with whom he’s worked before and whose loyalty he has. One early appointment was Ruth Sunderland, brought with him from the Mail on Sunday as the Mail’s new business editor.
It is hard not to like Sunderland, assuming, of course, that she hasn’t editorially challenged your privilege or held you to account for wayward business practices. She is instantly friendly yet equally direct with a bluntness that highlights her northern roots. Brought up in the north east during the early ’80s, Sunderland witnessed firsthand the effects of economic distress, her father losing his job as an electrician at the local iron works. He never worked again and Sunderland says this tore her family apart, possibly contributing to his premature death a few years later. Yet those difficult days sparked in Sunderland an interest in their causes. She says, “There were these very human events, awful for us, but as a curious teenager I wanted to understand why it had happened, what were the forces that had driven it. So I became interested in business and economics.”
That interest saw her leave Newcastle University with an English degree, preparing for a move to London and a first job as a trainee accountant with Touche Ross, now Deloitte. She stayed long enough to finish her first set of exams, a process she says was invaluable, “Early on at Touche Ross, I realised I wanted to be a financial journalist. Learning to find my way around a P and L and a balance sheet, learning about investment ratios, couldn’t have been a better start.”
She made the switch into journalism starting at Which? Money before shortly switching to the Investors Chronicle, a publication she still admires. “It is a fantastic magazine. I learned so much under the late, great Gillian O’Connor. She was my mentor, and taught me about the stock market, about PE ratios – the basic stuff which perhaps financial journalists don’t cover these days.”
It wasn’t just the basics Sunderland was learning. This was shortly after the Big Bang, the sudden deregulation of financial markets in the mid-’80s, making the city alive with cash, larger-than-life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ personalities – and scandals. Sunderland says, “It was an amazing time to be a journalist. Every day provided a new story. There was BCCI, Polly Peck, the Guinness scandal. These were the stories of my early career.”
It was those scandals, however, that helped form an attitude, a personal manifesto even. “The explosion of energy in the city and then the subsequent crash at the end of the ’80s made me think that, like me, there were plenty of people out there having experiences in their lives they didn’t comprehend and probably wanted to understand,” Sunderland says. “I feel very strongly that business is not some rarefied area for geeks and specialists, and it is my job, our job as journalists, to try to help people understand how it relates to their lives.”
Sunderland is adamant her responsibility to her readers is not merely to report but to campaign, “Standing up for people is incredibly important. We are a paper that is pro-business, and we applaud economic success, but it is really important that we stand up for our readers, and hold business people to account.”
Ensuring accountability is, Sunderland feels, a role uniquely suited to newspapers. She argues passionately that greater care is taken by newspapers than from anonymised accounts from the wilder shores of the internet, and is angry when blatant truths are disregarded as fake news. “I think it is a shame that the debate has sunk to this level of incivility. People should be entitled to have an opinion that is different from others, but there is a difference between those and facts,” she says, adding that people are not aware of the level of accountability of most newspapers. “If we make mistakes and get things wrong, there are plenty of people rushing to tell us. There are procedures we have to go through and we will, from time to time, print corrections. We are accountable.”
This accountability goes both ways and while US President Donald Trump may refer to the press as ‘enemies of the people,’ Sunderland says good comms people understand the role of media and have a genuine desire to work with it. “I think it is very misguided if people don’t want to deal with journalists – it’s not about me or about the paper. Surely any sensible CEO or senior PR person wants to reach our readers, online or in print. They are not only their customers, but maybe they are their employees, or their investors. One CEO said to me that if he gets quoted in the Mail, it has far more traction with his employees than anything from his internal comms department.”
Unlike some journalists, Sunderland says she respects comms people, “I think it is a very difficult job and I think the ones that are good at it actually provide a real service.” She singles out the financial services sector adding, “During the bailout of the banks, some of the comms people, at Lloyds and RBS for instance, were brilliant. Hugely professional in very difficult circumstances; and in my view, have been very honest.”
“Standing up for people is incredibly important. We are a paper that is pro-business, and we applaud economic success, but it is really important that we stand up for our readers, and hold business people to account”
Despite her respect, however, Sunderland says, “It’s not our primary responsibility to be a cheerleader for business – our primary responsibility is to our readers. There are something like 50 PRs to every journalist, so there are plenty of people to advocate on the side of business,” she says. “My job, primarily, my first, my last, my everything, is to my readers. I do think business has the potential to be a great force of good and I will applaud success when business merits it, but business is here to serve society, and in turn, my readers, not the other way round. There isn’t an abstract division, with my readers on one side and business on the other; my readers are part of businesses. They work for businesses, they rely on businesses for their pension, often they set up businesses. CEOs read the Mail, everyone reads the Mail, so I don’t recognise the division.”
For Sunderland, the optimism about business’ potential is a recurring theme. Like most journalists she’s reluctant to name any individuals she admires (“They end up doing something really silly, and you end up with massive egg on your face.”), but is finally drawn to cite Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of FTSE 100 insurance firm Legal and General, “Not just because he’s from the north east like me, although that doesn’t do any harm in my eyes. He is incredibly intelligent and is a huge believer in investing more creatively in Britain, through Legal and General, investing in infrastructure, and using people’s pension money and savings to work on projects that improve all of our lives, as well as providing pensions. And he has been prepared to speak out, and I admire that.”
The need for business to speak out is a topic on which Sunderland is passionate. She says business leaders need to be braver, although she skirts delicately around the Brexit issue. Under Greig, the Mail on Sunday had been firmly against Brexit but it is too soon to see any changes in editorial direction on the Mail. Although Sunderland is happy to admit voting ‘remain,’ she says she is a pragmatist, cryptically adding, “We are, where we are.” Despite her calls for greater business courage, Sunderland doesn’t think business leaders had a responsibility during the Brexit debates. “I don’t think [business leaders’ decisions to keep quiet] was about cowardice,” she says. “One has to assume that around 50% of their employees, their customers and the world in general was pro- or anti-Brexit. So business leaders don’t want to offend large sections of their constituency, and I get that.”
Having written for an anti-Brexit paper for the past year, it will be interesting to see whether her sentiments, or the sentiments of the colleagues who have joined her from the Mail on Sunday, will make its way into the Mail’s copy. She is dismissive of the idea that journalists are licking their lips avariciously from the sidelines waiting for an Armageddon to happen. “I don’t think any journalist wants to bring about destruction. We have pensions, we have savings, we have jobs we would like to keep. We’re the same as everyone else. We’re not harbingers of doom. I don’t see myself as a horseman of the apocalypse that wants to create destruction just so I can write a story about it,” she says.
The new role at the Mail is the culmination of a hard year for Sunderland. Her first days as city editor on the Mail on Sunday coincided with her husband being diagnosed with HPV throat cancer. This spurred her on to campaign to get the HPV vaccine administered to teenage boys, as well as teenage girls, and she is proud of what she and her husband achieved, although her reluctance to take credit is typical of her modesty “There were other people working on this campaign before me. But it was a great privilege, as a journalist on the Mail on Sunday, to even play a small part in it. So many people got in touch with us about it and it made a difference, to the campaign and to Mike’s recovery.”
For the moment it seems there isn’t the opportunity for much more than work in Sunderland’s life. But, she is loving the new job. “Everyone’s working so hard, its a bit bonkers really. I get up at 5:30, exercise and then I take the bus in. It’s just me and cleaning ladies heading into work. It is strange because I was working with Geordie at the Mail on Sunday, and now here at the Daily Mail, 200 yards down the corridor, with some of the same old colleagues. It feels different, yet with elements of the same,” Sunderland says.
It’s unlikely, however, that the Mail will stay the same. Every editor brings change and adds his or her own unique stamp to their paper and Greig is unlikely to be any different. It will be interesting to see what kind of change will be seen on the business pages. Whatever may happen, it is clear that Sunderland will have made her impact. “I don’t think big change happens overnight,” she says. “Come back and ask me a year from now. That would be the right time to ask that question.”
Curriculum vitae: Ruth Sunderland
2018 - present Business editor, Daily Mail
2017 - 2018 City editor, Mail on Sunday
2010 - 2016 Associate city editor, Daily Mail
2006 - 2010 Business and media editor, The Observer
2000 - 2006 Deputy city editor, Daily Mail
1996 - 2000 Banking editor, Mail on Sunday
1992 - 1996 Personal finance editor, Daily Express
1989 - 1992 Features editor, Investors Chronicle