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22 October 2021

What went wrong for Emily Sheffield at the Evening Standard?

The task David Cameron’s sister-in-law faced as editor would have defeated most candidates.

By Ian Burrell

The sorry tale of Emily Sheffield’s short tenure as editor of the Evening Standard has given new resonance to the old media adage: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

Sheffield’s blue blood was remarked on from the moment of her appointment. The daughter of a baronet, she is sister to David Cameron’s wife Samantha, aligning her with his former chancellor and close friend George Osborne, whose editor’s seat at the Standard she inherited. 

This pedigree was no doubt part of the reason why the former deputy editor of Vogue was chosen by the Standard’s owner Evgeny Lebedev, a prominent figure in London’s high society and now a Conservative peer. 

It also provoked an angry reaction. Guardian columnist Owen Jones said Sheffield’s hiring was a sign of “the giant revolving door that is the British Establishment”. The blogger Mic Wright referenced her in a piece decrying nepotism and the existence of media dynasties: the Dimblebys, the Corens. “It is considered terribly déclassé to point out that many people are elevated to columns or onscreen positions far more quickly by dint of their DNA.”

In the case of Sheffield, her elevation to editor has clearly not worked out. After 15 months in the role, she has stepped down “by mutual agreement”. Charles Yardley, the paper’s CEO, acknowledged “her valuable contribution to the Evening Standard during this challenging time”. The departing editor expressed gratitude to colleagues for “their support… in this incredibly challenging period of history”.

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Others were less sympathetic. “The internal view,” said a source, “was that she was not [focused on] digital, treated staff poorly and was way out of her depth.” One senior colleague noted that Sheffield “hadn’t been the editor of a publication before – it’s a tough job”. They echoed that she was “out of her depth”.

But the task she faced as editor would have defeated most candidates. Having assumed the role three months into the pandemic, the job was less silver spoon and more rat sandwich, to use a newsroom expression. For a title dependent on the mass physical distribution of its printed product, Covid-19 was a disaster. Sheffield’s opportunities for building relationships with new colleagues were undermined by substantial job cuts (a 40 per cent cut to newsroom staff) and home working.

To say Sheffield was selected simply for her Notting Hill set credentials is harsh on a career journalist who launched a paper while at the University of East Anglia and was snapped up as a graduate news trainee by the Guardian, which named her student journalist of the year in 1995. She did five years at the Standard before heading to British Vogue. This is a far cry from her predecessor Osborne, whose journalistic experience before becoming editor was mostly confined to fending off questions from the Westminster lobby. 

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While some were appalled by the way Osborne sashayed into the news industry, others at the Standard described his 2017 appointment as “a brilliant move in terms of raising its profile”.

In selecting Standard editors, Lebedev is looking to replicate the success his family enjoyed in choosing Geordie Greig, the old Etonian former editor of Tatler, to oversee the London paper’s successful rebirth in 2009 as a mass circulation, advertiser-funded free product. Like Greig, now editor of the Daily Mail, Marlborough-educated Sheffield spent years at the elite Condé Nast magazine stable and has a high-end social network.

Editing the Standard involves representing it at glitzy events such as the paper’s Theatre Awards, and producing the glossy ES Magazine, billed as “the life and style bible for Londoners”. But during Covid, the paper expanded its social mission. It won the Society of Editors campaign of the year award for Food for London Now, in which it raised over £10m to feed the poor and partnered with the Felix Project, a charity co-founded by Justin Byam Shaw, a director of the Standard. Lebedev played an active role in the campaign.

The paper has also spent the pandemic trying to accelerate its transition to digital. Though its print edition will be retained, circulation was cut from 900,000 to 500,000, with copies delivered free to homes at the height of the crisis. While Sheffield has been commended for her part in creating a “digital first” publishing strategy, the operation is being led by Yardley, who has a track record in building digital revenue streams during his time at Forbes, and the Standard chair John Paton, who has helped put sister title the Independent on a profitable, digital-only footing.

Sheffield might have famous connections but she was surrounded by dynamic and powerful figures inside her own organisation. For a period, Osborne overshadowed her by retaining the title “editor-in-chief” before he departed for banking last February. Being a high-profile editor was not easy for her, especially during a pandemic. She decided enough was enough.

Highly ambitious, Sheffield had applied for the top job at Vogue but was defeated by Edward Enninful. “I’d always wanted to be editor-in-chief,” she wrote in the Times, admitting that she cried when she was later made redundant.

Now she has lived her dream in the most difficult of circumstances. It turned out not to be quite the privileged position that many imagine.

[See also: Can the New York Times succeed in London?]