Christopher Jackson interviews a new star of journalism about life at The Mail on Sunday
When you pick up the newspaper what do you turn to first? For me, it depends on the occasion. After a sound sleep, I can face the enormity of the day’s issues, and brave the front pages. Usually, selfish for the next thing, I prefer the culture pages. But sometimes, especially when tired after a day’s work, I’ll go to the diary section to be pepped up by the human delights of gossip.
When I do so, it’s with appreciation that writing it is the hardest job in journalism; the gossip columnist specialises in the bite-sized indiscretion, the minor cock-up, the eye-popping peculiarity. What’s noteworthy is how little of this there is in today’s PR-burnished world: these stories are hard to find, and needing to be taut and punchy, hard to write.
At 26, Emily Prescott is already one of the best in the business, with a small team already working under her at The Mail on Sunday. Is this a declining sector? Every time I open The Evening Standard, the diary section – where Prescott used to work – seems smaller. Prescott bats this away: “If anything, gossip is booming. The Telegraph recently introduced the Peterborough column and The Times Diary was culled during the financial crisis but returned in 2013. Any shrinking pages are a sign of newspaper decline rather than a waning lack of love for gossip and whimsy I think.”
Prescott’s is a fabulous story. By nature softly-spoken and kind (‘Always be polite, no matter what’), she has shown tenacity to get so far so young. So how did she do it? After a range of almost hilariously non-descript jobs in recruitment and communications (“the pointlessness of those roles weighed very heavily on me”) Prescott decided that only one career would do. “I just really wanted to be a journalist,” she tells me. “So a few years out of university, I messaged Katie Glass on Instagram, saying I liked her features. To my amazement, I emailed her, we met up for a coffee and then she suggested I go to Diary events. I didn’t go to private school; didn’t grow up in London; had zero connections.”
Astonished, half-thinking the gig a joke, Prescott attended her first party. “Weirdly, I did really well; it was beginner’s luck,” she recalls. “It was a weird law event at one of the posh law firms, and Victoria Coren Mitchell had gone to speak. She said she’d been groped when she was a poker player and men would grope her under the table. It was a good news story – but a complete fluke!”
From then on Prescott hit the party circuit (“I found it such a thrill, just collecting lines”), and soon did stints at The Sun (“really useful”), The Express (“really awful, so depressing and bleak and SEO-driven”) and The Sunday Times, as the Saturday reporter (“wonderful”).
After that came a prolonged stint at The Evening Standard, a paper she obviously loves, and which connected her into the worlds of entertainment and politics. “It’s quite easy to get well-connected into Westminster. Now [at The Mail on Sunday], I do showbiz and it’s difficult to get access. But I could get any MP on the phone now, bar Rishi – and even there I could probably get his number.” Prescott isn’t bragging – or the type to brag – she just knows her craft and what it takes.
She recalls getting to know Sir David Amess MP, who was tragically murdered at his constituency surgery in 2021. “He was doing a campaign to get a statue of Vera Lynn. We spoke during lockdown, so maybe it was the thrill of talking to a stranger which caused a bit of a bond to develop. During the pandemic, interviews would be hours long; people were desperate for new voices in their lives. David was kind and thought of me a few weeks later, and called and said: “I have a potential story for you”. I was struck by the fact that the story wasn’t self-motivated. He had just remembered.”
Prescott explains the range of interviewees she’s experienced. “Sometimes – and this especially happens with very experienced interviewees – you feel like you’ve had a good interview and that they’ve told you something, but then you’ll listen back and there’s nothing there, except perhaps an anecdote which they wheel out every time.”
And what about young interviewees? “That can be frustrating – sometimes they’re just nervous. People often don’t understand that I don’t need a massive scandal, I just need something mildly interesting. When they’re so earnest, that’s difficult for a diarist.”
And what about the effect on Prescott as a person from having met so many well-known people? “I have to watch myself not to do too many celebrity mentions. A friend might say: ‘I saw so and so on the tube the other day’. I might reply: ‘Well, I went to their house the other day’.”
Some people are less than delightful to interview, Prescott says. “David Attenborough wasn’t incredibly charming,” she recalls. “When I say I’ve spoken to him, he’s so many people’s hero, but I’m not part of the fan club. He’s had an immensely privileged life, but he’s quite curt, and I have spoken to other people who have said the same. He is in his 90s though, so I forgive him a bit.”
And has she ever had any pleasant surprises? Prescott pauses. “Often the extreme right-wing people can surprise you. Like Nigel Farage – I won’t say he’s lovely but he’s funny and has good manners. I think there is a tendency for Right wing people to have better manners. I’m not quite sure why? Edmund Burke (sometimes hailed as the founder of conservatism) spoke about manners being more important than laws!”
The move to The Mail on Sunday has led to an increase in her visibility. She recalls doing the media law module on the NCTJ course (which she completed alongside her early jobs), but then tells me what it’s really like to wage war each day on the battlefields of UK defamation law. “I’m very protected now,” she explains. “I can message the lawyers and ask the question – and you do get a feel for whether something might be defamatory. But actually, more important than that is having the confidence to say: ‘This is not illegal; this is not a problem’. I’m always getting legal letters telling me to back off – even Prince Harry’s psychic has sent legal letters!”
It’s in the nature of gossip to rile people: “That’s because it’s not PR,” says Prescott, smiling. But now, after Twitter run-ins with Jeremy Clarkson and Gary Lineker, she’s more likely to brush off any furore. Nevertheless, those fandangos – silly and needless as they are – tell you a lot about the job of being a high-profile journalist. Prescott managed to elicit in Clarkson that most 21st century of psychological states – the Twitter ‘meltdown’. This occurred when Prescott wrote a funny – and not especially mean – story about Clarkson’s daughter, who had complained on Instagram about the effect of the Russia-Ukraine war on influencers (‘the great casualty of the Russia-Ukraine war!’ Prescott laughs). But upon publication of her story, Prescott woke – on a hangover as it happened – to a thousand messages, from the dreaded Twitter ‘mob’; specifically, Clarkson’s Twitter mob. The former Top Gear presenter had twice tweeted her (‘he failed to ‘at’ me properly the first time, so did it twice’), lampooning her journalism.
The sainted Lineker meanwhile piled in on her after coverage Prescott had given his two sons – one story about George Lineker’s business, and a second about Tobias Lineker, who had secured a job DJ-ing at Raffles. Having read these pieces, I’d certainly say that worst things happen at sea, and that Lineker, handsomely paid by the BBC – that is, by the taxpayer – would do well to marry his gift for volubility with a balancing tendency towards reticence from time to time.
Prescott recalls: “Lineker tweeted me calling me ‘unnecessarily nasty’, then George Lineker piled in, and wrote that I was ‘useless’. They lack an understanding of the Diary. Does Tobias Lineker want me to say he’s innately gifted and self-made? I appreciate people have to defend their sons, but Gary Lineker can use Twitter in that way knowing it’s not bad for his sons’ businesses, and also knowing that no-one criticises anybody for calling out The Mail. A friend of mine asked me how I felt after that, and initially I couldn’t remember what it had been about so I’ve definitely hardened.”
Nowadays Prescott’s week is constructed around the demands of delivering her copy on time for the Sunday editions. The best time to catch her is undoubtedly a Monday, and her tough days are Thursday and Friday, on which days all right-thinking people shouldn’t contact anyone toiling to produce our Sunday papers.
Prescott’s success is considerable but there is far more to come. A recent feature for The Spectator about Americans buying up stately homes shows how easily she can do long form journalism too. I should add that she can also draw and write superb poetry.
Recently, Prescott was interviewing Michael Gove. When she began introducing herself, Gove interrupted her: “I know who you are, Emily.” Gove – for once, some might say – is ahead of the curve. Soon, everybody else will know her too.