Why the Sunday papers cause a major headache at Number 10

Scandalous stories about politicians tend to break on a Sunday. David Hill tells how Downing Street handles the problem.

David Hill
David Hill

The Sunday papers are a phenomenon unique to the UK, being totally separate from the national papers that come out on the other six days of the week.

As they have only one hit a week, each paper is desperate for the leading political story of the day, and they all know that, on most Sundays, broadcasters will take their lead from whatever happens to be the latest political splash.

Then the Sunday journalists who have not succeeded in getting a winning splash may spend some time on Sunday trying to persuade the Monday morning papers to keep going with the story they have come up with.

The whole process is nerve-racking and fraught with uncertainty, which is why the Sunday papers will often take more of a risk with the accuracy of a story than a daily would.

For Downing Street, the Sundays are, to put it mildly, a headache. They go to press on Saturday evening when politicians are spread far and wide, and the stories often appear without any prior ­notice from the newspaper to the politician or department involved.

For Downing Street, the Saturday will usually have been taken up fielding calls from journalists either fishing for possible stories or seeking to stand up stories they intend to write.

Many will be more about character assassination than straight politics, not least because ‘sensation' is more the order of the day on a Sunday than during the rest of the week.

So, with many stories, you have no idea who will be aff-ected, or what the content will be, until the paper comes out. As a result, we need a process to deal with this.

Every Saturday night throughout the four years I was there - as happened bef­ore I arrived and, I believe, still happens - there was a 10.30pm conference call with the relevant departments and politicians to consider the implications of what was going in the papers and agree lines and further action.

This was necessary on a Saturday night because, unlike during the week, every paper was striving for its own lead ­political story.

During my four years at Downing Street, I missed only three such conference calls. I participated in them ­wherever I was - in the UK, abroad, and even while on ­holiday. Since leaving the job, the most common comment I get from friends is how different my Saturday nights are now.

David Hill was Downing Street communications dir-ector from 2003 to 2007 and is now a director at Bell Pottinger. This is an extract from a speech to Westminster University last week

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