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Dan Wootton. Photo/Getty Images

Kiwi journalist Dan Wootton on his royal scoops and tabloid career

Born and raised in New Zealand, tabloid journalist Dan Wootton has made a name for himself by breaking big stories in the UK, particularly about the British monarchy.

Breaking: the BBC is forced to acknowledge an oft-reviled British red top famous for such dubious exclusives as “Freddie Starr ate my hamster” over a story that arguably helped alter the increasingly bumpy course of the British monarchy. “Dan Wootton of the Sun was the first to report that the couple were thinking of moving overseas,” wrote BBC media editor Amol Rajan, with what reads like slightly gritted teeth. “He got the scoop and deserves credit for that.”

Wootton, formerly of Lower Hutt, now executive editor of the Sun, broke the story that knocked Brexit and the impeachment of US President Donald Trump out of the headlines. The paper that backed Brexit gleefully deployed the term “Megxit” to describe the shock “stepping back” from senior royal status of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. To borrow another of its barking headlines, it was the Sun wot won it.

Recognition at last. “Yes, finally,” sighs Wootton. “Finally!” It must be satisfying. “Oh, my gosh, it’s been so satisfying. The Sun never gets the credit it deserves. When awards are handed out, we’re very often ignored and our rivals will very often win if they fit a more liberal, acceptable agenda.”

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Photo/Getty Images

He would say that. It’s spoken with the unclouded certainty with which he says everything. Even his “Dan speaking!” on the phone in London, late evening his time because that’s the kind of hours he works, rings with bulletproof self belief and a hint of challenge.

Dan, speaking: he’s lively company, as irrepressible as his paper. He’s been in the UK since he was 21. By then he had already been a columnist for Wellington’s Dominion Post and featured as a teenage panellist on TVNZ advice show How’s Life? His precocious extracurricular activities didn’t go down well at Naenae College. “Mum had to write a note in my log book, saying, ‘Dan needs to take period five off school today because he’s going to interview the Prime Minister.’” He interviewed all the party leaders before the 1999 general election. “Everyone agreed to sit on bean bags and play this hipness quiz I developed. Helen Clark did it. Jenny Shipley refused to sit on the bean bag. I was annoyed at the time. I look back now and think, well, she was the Prime Minister. She probably had a right not to sit on the bean bag.” He’s been a pain in the posterior of the famous and powerful on the receiving end of his exclusives ever since.

You have to believe it when he says he has always had a passion – a word he uses a lot – for the media. See photo of baby Dan fiercely scrutinising a newspaper held upside down in his tiny fists, already in training to storm the topsy-turvy domain of Northern Hemisphere tabloids.
Wootton with Madonna. Photo/Supplied

“We’re orf again: Prince Harry and Meghan could move to Canada for 2020 and ditch HRH titles after ‘feeling side-lined’ by royals,” the Sun reported on January 7. A day later, the Sussexes, startled into trying to wrest back control of the narrative from the very sort of media they left the UK in the vain hope of avoiding, took to Instagram. “We did prompt the release of their statement, which is part of royal history,” notes Wootton serenely. The statement outlined the couple’s plans to “carve out a progressive new role within this institution”. The Sun (beside itself): “Queen sad … Charles and Wills furious.”

The rest is a zillion column centimetres. “Everyone wants to know who my sources are, obviously,” says Wootton. He will say this: he breaks stories. He has won awards. Sources, insiders, “close friends” tend to talk to him. “I have multiple sources and have had across all of this. One of the palaces will not talk to me whatsoever because I’m not in the official royal rota system. That doesn’t stop me breaking stories about their particular principal, as they call them; their royal. I’m, like, more fool you if you don’t want to brief me. Then you don’t have an opportunity to try to get the story shaped in a way that works for you.”

He broke the alleged falling out of Kate Middleton and Meghan. “Things that the rest of the media didn’t want to pick up on but now have proven to be a big part of this story. A lot of people won’t follow up stories that quote insiders or friends but these people can’t speak on the record for obvious reasons. I find it depressing when journalists just wait for official statements to be released. I’ve never been a journalist who wants to wait for an official statement.”

With Barbara Knox, who plays Rita on Coronation Street. Photo/Supplied

Indeed. The death of Princess Diana while being pursued by paparazzi constitutes a spectral subtext to the story. “Prince Harry lost his mum at such a young age,” Wootton says. “No one ever recovers from that.” She had her own complicated relationship with the media. “One of the last people she called before she died was Richard Kay, then royal correspondent for the Daily Mail.”

Like his mother, Prince Harry likes going off script. “That’s the aspect of him that people love, though in this case it did backfire spectacularly because he backed the Queen into a corner. For her, protecting the royal family as an institution is going to be more important than however much she loves him and wants him to get what he wants.”

It’s a game. You have to wonder why Prince Harry didn’t just shut up, fob off questions, sort things out with “the Firm” before responding. Then it wouldn’t have looked as if he blindsided his 93-year-old grandmother and royally pissed off the entire House of Windsor. “Totally,” Wootton says. “I couldn’t believe that they released the statement. Buckingham Palace didn’t want them to do that; Prince Charles didn’t, Prince William didn’t.”

With Elton John in 2018. Photo/Supplied

Still, a win for the Sun. “It turned what was a big story for us into a monumental, massive historic moment for the royal family.” He can understand why the Sussexes went rogue. “The story was the truth and they didn’t want the Sun being the only source of their feelings. Strategically, was it a good thing they did, in terms of getting a better deal from the Queen? Probably not.”

Wootton was home for Christmas with his parents in Wellington when he lobbed his bombshell. Distance made things tricky. “I was dealing with Buckingham Palace. They were able to be more evasive with me, perhaps, because of the time difference.” Wootton informed Harry and Meghan’s representatives about the story on December 28. “It was 10 days between that and when we first ran the story. They had a hell of a lot of time to respond. If I had been in the UK, there’s no way we would have waited that long. We were still taking a significant risk. But I was very confident of my sources and luckily the editor trusted me enough to run with the story.”

Other publications were left scrambling. “What annoyed me was that all the royal commentators started piling in and most of them didn’t know anything about what they were talking about. They started saying things like ‘absolutely no way Harry and Meghan aren’t going to use their titles’; ‘no way their office will be moved to Canada’. And sure enough that’s exactly what happened.”

With Dolly Parton. Photo/Supplied

They must hate you, I say. “I think they do. And I think Harry and Meghan hate me, too.” Don’t get him started. “The thing that astonished me is how petulant and impetuous Harry is, and Meghan. The fact they were so upset about the Queen releasing a picture of her with the heirs to the throne: Charles, William, George. I’m sorry, Camilla’s not in that photo, Kate’s not. They were looking to be offended at that point. I’ve described them in the past as professional victims.”

A bit of hate goes with the territory. “Oh, yes. So much hate.” He doesn’t let it get to him. “If I did, I wouldn’t leave the house. I’d shrivel up into a little ball. I accept that I have chosen to do a very controversial job. People are going to say horrible things about me.” He can’t complain. Though he does, a little. “Everything I write is based on serious amounts of reporting. I’m not calling people the ‘c’ word. But the trolls online can’t see the difference.” It’s too easy to blame the press, he says. And the power balance may be changing. “I’ve got to personally really think about what I do and what I write because I know that the celebrity can instantly respond on Twitter and they might have 75 million followers behind them.”

The stress of it all. Perhaps it was good being at home when Megxit went down, going through old memory boxes with his mum. But there’s no escape from the media. He came across 1980s copies of the Listener. “Like the mag when Prince Andrew and Fergie got married.” Spooky. The very day we speak, Wootton tweets a less jolly Sun story about the Prince. “Breaking: Prince Andrew has provided ‘zero co-operation’ with the investigation into his paedophile friend Jeffrey Epstein, according to head prosecutor.” Wootton was working for the News of the World in 2011 when it ran the now infamous photograph of Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein together. “They were able to picture them walking through Central Park. That’s after Epstein had gone to jail for child-sex trafficking. If News of the World had not done that investigation, no one would have known that Prince Andrew secretly continued his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein.” The story goes on. “The Sun has a reward out for [Epstein associate] Ghislaine Maxwell. We will pay £10,000 to anyone who helps us track her down.”

 With Nicole Kidman at the GQ Awards last year. Photo/Supplied

2011. That was the year the News of the World, launched in 1843, was shut down in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Wootton was working there. “I started after Clive Goodman had gone to jail for admitting to hacking phones. It was made abundantly clear to me by the editor, Colin Myler, who’d been brought in to clean up the newspaper, that everything would be totally above board. I had to give evidence at the Leveson inquiry. Any time anyone asks me about it, I’m like, ‘Hey, look, I was in the royal courts of justice under oath that I have never hacked a phone.’ I have never done anything illegal in the pursuit of my journalism. It’s on the record.”

It was a difficult time. “Many great journalists lost their jobs. Probably Rupert Murdoch himself now would say that it was a mistake to close it. At the time, I probably would have thought my career’s over. I was the last showbiz editor of the News of the World.” You wouldn’t want that to be your epitaph.

He rose from the ashes, joining the Sun in 2013. It’s a paper that, alongside Megxit, runs such daunting exclusives as “Wild West End Woman flashes bum as she wrestles pal who called her fat in Leicester Square”. That one comes with a video best avoided. Surely, the tabloids often appeal to readers’ darker angels for clicks. “Well, no, I’m obviously not going to agree with that. I’m not going to lie. The Sun ran some absolutely abhorrent and shocking things in the 1980s, but so did other media. What I say is people who criticise the Sun don’t tend to read it. Our leader column every day is probably as closely examined by government ministers – us and the Daily Mail – as any other paper.”

With Ed Sheeran. Photo/Supplied
He bats away suggestions that Meghan has been treated more harshly than Kate. Yet she can’t even eat avocados without the Daily Mail explaining, “How Meghan’s favourite avocado snack – beloved of all millennials – is fuelling human rights abuses, drought and murder”. He’s okay with that. “I’m not defending them, but that was one feature. They are very clever with their headlines.”

He’s adamant racism isn’t a factor. “I’m very strong on this point.” Yet words such as “exotic” get used, and such headlines as the Daily Mail’s “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton”.

Wootton cites the treatment Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson and Sophie, Countess of Wessex received. “Far more brutal than Meghan Markle ever got and I’m not excusing that.” The male royals cop it, too, he says. Yes, but at least they get attacked for actually doing something. “Well, Fergie was caught sucking someone’s toes in public who wasn’t her husband,” muses Wootton. I think it was the other way around. “Yeah, having her toes sucked.”

He rejects the notion of institutional racism in the media. He had a panel about the subject on his radio show. Labour MP Harriet Harman said, “I should point out also that … three white people having a discussion about whether racism exists or whether unconscious bias exists is another example of how it does.” Wootton remained unconvinced.

So, no apologies. Except sometimes. There was his story – “Not in Meg backyard” – that maintained the Sussexes had banned Windsor Castle staff from using a car park. “We issued an apology but not the level of apology that Harry and Meghan had tried, legally, to get us to,” says Wootton. Staff were barred but not at the behest of the royal couple. “I’m not trying to say for a single second that newspapers don’t make mistakes. My goodness, we publish a newspaper 364 days a year. Decisions are made on the hoof. We desperately try to get everything right.”

[After our interview, it's revealed that Hollywood star Johnny Depp is suing the Sun's publisher, News Group Newspapers, and Wootton for libel over a 2018 article he wrote that alleged Depp had been abusive to his ex-wife, Amber Heard.]

With The Spice Girls in 2018. Photo/Supplied

He’s nothing if not loyal. So, is the “executive editor” title, in part, a reward for that? “My job is quite unique. I will some days edit the paper when the editor is off.” He has a weekly opinion column and a podcast. “Last year, I had Dolly Parton, Celine Dion, Madonna … Big names still want to talk to me and to the Sun.” He breaks stories. And, yes, as you’d imagine, he has had some interest from other companies lately. “Where the company has been really supportive is that they have been able to tailor a role.”

Before we speak, it’s announced that he will be taking over the drive-time show on talkRADIO, like the Sun, part of News UK’s stable, from veteran broadcaster Eamonn Holmes. He’s been doing a Friday night slot there. Until last November, he spent 10 years appearing on breakfast television for ITV. Like his childhood hero, Paul Holmes, he likes burning the candle at both ends.

He still marvels at how things have gone. “When I first moved here, someone said to me, you’re never going be on TV in the UK with your accent.” Ah, the class system. “I hate it. It’s absolutely horrific.” New Zealanders can sometimes fly under the radar. “Yeah, no,” he says, driven back into full Kiwi patois by the subject. “Here I’m just the antipodean class – everyone picks on you slightly but everyone is also very fond of you, really.”

Yes, he thinks about coming home. “My dream scenario would be to split the year, but in my job it’s  essential to be there at the coalface, to be in London. I feel like I’m riding this for as long as I can because it’s been an incredible adventure.”

So, he’s still thirsty for the scandals, the bombshells, all the platforms, all the hare-brained news of the world. “I love journalists who just let their work speak for itself in print, but I have never been that person, not since I was a teenager,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to do it all.”

This is an updated version of an article first published in the February 22, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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