Wednesday 23 June
The news desk had been contacted by an angry whistle-blower. They claimed to have irrefutable evidence that the married Secretary of State for Health was breaching his own lockdown rules by having an office affair with an aide. My first thought was – bloody hell, what a story, it can’t be true.
The source told us they had footage of Matt Hancock kissing his glamorous adviser Gina Coladangelo on 6 May in his Westminster office. A quick check of the government rules that Hancock himself had devised and demanded that the nation follow showed that kissing someone from another household was most definitely not allowed. This was an open and shut case of public interest – and a contender for story of the year.
Thursday 24 June
Reporter Rob Pattinson was dispatched to see the video – it was 100 per cent Hancock. Picture research quickly turned up countless pictures of Hancock and Coladangelo together.
Hancock had brought Coladangelo in as an aide in March 2020, which set alarm bells ringing. If he had hired Coladangelo after starting a romantic relationship with her, he had broken all the rules. More public interest.
My next call was to our general counsel. We had to be clear on the legal position before going any further, and our team took advice from an external QC.
It was a shocking video. I couldn’t believe a cabinet minister would behave like that in his government office at 3pm. Why take the risk? We knew the public would be angry about the hypocrisy. Sun readers had been contacting us throughout the pandemic furious about being unable to hold the hands of dying loved ones in care homes and hospitals.
We had to get the story in the next day’s paper. The senior team discussed how we could stop our rivals seeing it – either in print or online. Usually, newspapers put the next day’s content on their websites at around 10.30pm, and other news outlets can then pick up the story. We put nothing online until after 1am and held back the physical copies of the print edition.
Harry Cole, our political editor, came in to help write the story, and we all talked about the tone we should take, which pictures to use and the headlines.
Much would be dictated by the reaction from Hancock when we alerted him. I made the call – we had spoken a fair amount during the pandemic, and we had worked together on projects such as our Jabs Army campaign, which got readers to volunteer to help staff vaccination centres.
I won’t divulge details of the call, but I told him we had the story and that I was running it because the public interest was so strong.
Some may have expected a pun headline on page one – a joke about sex from the best headline writers in the world. But we agreed this wasn’t an old fashioned “kiss and tell” from a bygone era. This was a serious piece of responsible journalism about a cabinet minister potentially breaking the law, and behaving with extraordinary hypocrisy. We splashed the story, using some of the video grabs on pages one, two, three, four and five.
We held back the video of Hancock embracing Coladangelo for a day, knowing the story would have enormous reach online with the words and the pictures. The Sun’s video went up the following night.
Friday 25 June
It’s rare for a story to remain exclusive in a digital age, but our rivals knew nothing until they woke up the next morning.
You know you have a big story when your phone is pinging incessantly from 5am. This wasn’t just a Westminster bubble story – it had huge cut-through.
The public were as angry as they were about Dominic Cummings and his rule-breaking visit to Barnard Castle during the first lockdown, and it cut across political divides. Hancock needed to resign immediately.
Excruciatingly for the BBC, by 9am it still hadn’t been able to work out how to cover the story – was it a sex scandal, or a political exposé? Such are the chilling effects of privacy laws, particularly to the BBC, which has been burned before. At first, the story the BBC picked up from that day’s Sun was about racing pigeons mysteriously going missing. Pretty soon after, our front page was on every news bulletin in Britain. It drove record levels of page views on our website, and it was trending on Twitter.
As an editor in the digital age, we have so many ways of reaching the consciousness of the nation. My daily conference starts with the most searched items on Google. That morning it was Hancock.
The days of measuring performance on print sales alone are long gone. Instead we use this digital data, analysing what people are reading on Facebook, Google and Twitter, as a tool to give them more of what they want – on our website, or apps, or social channels. The Sun reaches more than 38 million people every month. And with this story we must have reached almost every smartphone in Britain when we put the video up. It has had more views than any other in the Sun’s history.
Saturday 26 June
Despite the Prime Minister declaring the matter “closed”, there was no way Hancock could survive public anger. He resigned – 36 hours too late. It’s rare that a news exposé unites the left and the right in British politics. But everyone was in agreement that this was a story that was overwhelmingly in the public interest.
It’s our job at the Sun to hold the powerful to account without fear or favour, and we’ll carry on doing so. Despite the interruption of England vs Germany, I sense this story isn’t going to go away for Hancock or the government any time soon.
Victoria Newton is editor-in-chief of the Sun
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.