a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


Tiny Rowland, Lohnro and the decline of The Observer


It's an advantage not to be a writing editor
Anthony Howard Writer
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

[Q] Being an editor is, of course, having power, isn’t it? Can you say a little about power?

Being an editor, you don’t have all that much power, but I suppose I’ve never been editor of a national paper, I’ve only been editor of weeklies. What I suppose the… yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, the editor of the Daily Mail is a very powerful individual, no doubt about it, and, you know, much more powerful, probably than a cabinet minister. And when I was younger, I used to say to myself, when I indeed was working on The Guardian, which would you prefer to be? Would you prefer to be a cabinet minister in the fullness of time, or would you prefer to editor of The Guardian? And the answer I always gave myself is I’d prefer to be the editor of The Guardian. I never would have got within striking distance of becoming editor of The Guardian, but I might have done if I’d stayed there and spent my life there, I suppose.

No, I mean, being editor is like being a conductor of an orchestra, really. You mustn’t push yourself forward all the time. A writing editor is a great mistake, that somebody who’s only interested in what he himself does, will never, I think, be an effective team leader in a newspaper or a magazine.

One of the troubles with Dick Crossman, who was a friend of mine, when he became editor of the New Statesman much too late, because he was about 63 years old, in 1970, was he was basically only interested in what he wrote himself. And he wrote quite well himself. He wrote book reviews, he wrote the diary, he wrote leaders, but everything else in the paper wasn’t really of interest to him. He wanted to be the star. And I don’t think you can do that. I think that I always knew, when I was editor of the New Statesman, that I had far more talented writers on the staff than ever I would be, and my intention and hope was to give them their heads, and whether it was Martin Amis or Christopher Hitchens or James Fenton or Julian Barnes, you know, they were very talented young men, younger than me. And I did write myself, occasionally. Not occasionally, because I wrote quite a lot, because I did the diary quite a lot, but I never thought that I should be the star turn of the paper. And I think that is a good rule. I think one of the problems, perhaps, with Rees-Mogg, was that Rees-Mogg was far too much a writing editor when he was editor of The Times. Now he doesn’t write a lot of signed articles, but he wrote the leaders most days.

Somebody like Peter Stothard, who became editor long after Rees-Mogg, but was editor of The Times what, between about 1992 and 2002, you know, very seldom wrote anything. And I think that’s quite a good thing. He played with other people’s articles, he’d improve them, he’d sort of rewrite the leader, recast it, but he wouldn’t actually… he wasn’t a writing editor. And on the whole, I think it’s probably an advantage not to be a writing editor. And you’ve got to show that, I think, you know how to do it, but you mustn’t sort of always put on the cover, if you can, in the weekly papers, you know, Anthony Howard on… it should be… that’s a bad sign if it’s the editor who’s doing that.

I certainly found that I wrote more when I started in the New Statesman than I did in the later years, and I became more interested in, you know, the whole package, rather than anything I was doing. And I became particularly interested, and one of the odd things about it was that journalism really is a young person’s career. It’s marvellous until you get to be about 35. You’re earning more money than most of your contemporaries, you certainly have a more interesting time than those friends of yours who are second secretaries in British embassies abroad, or whatever it may be, or assistant principals in the civil service, and everything seems to be in the garden, seems to be lovely. And then gradually, and this is only just, things reverse themselves. Your contemporaries who joined the diplomatic service become ambassadors. You are already on a downhill descent, that, you know, always there will be… editors will be looking for young people. And therefore, a journalist who’s carried on, and some of them have done it with great distinction, people like James Cameron, but doing the same thing for 30 or 40 years, I think have a very tough job of it, in that they’re really not improving their performance, even though they’ve got greater experience, but they’re not really improving their performance, what they were doing in their 30s, and they’re still doing the same thing.

I was jolly lucky, in that in 1972, when I was 38, I got the option, really, of changing my whole way of life, that, certainly in a small paper like the New Statesman, although in those days it was a rather more substantial paper than it is today, you know, the whole… what I used to call the whole sweet shop side of the business opened up. Budgets, sales, projections, all of this kind of thing. And you came from being a sort of shop assistant, you became, you know, the kind of… what shall we say the... not the chairman of the company, but sort of the manager of the place, anyway, and because you have a board above you... even if you’re in journalism. And I did find, to my great surprise, that whole sort of sweet shop side of running a small business was, you know, really quite interesting, quite rewarding. And certainly, if I hadn’t had that gear change at the age of 38, I think I’d have found it hard to keep going. And I admire tremendously those people who have, people like Alan Watkins doing the same thing today as he was doing 30 years ago. People like Peter Jenkins, now dead. But, you know, they kept on going on, kept on at the last, doing their thing. But I think I’d have found that very difficult.

And so, from the moment I became editor of the New Statesman in those days, because I was quite a young age, not that young now, it looks to me, but at 38, until I left when I was 44, and then I went out of work, I think, for a year, and then I went to The Listener, which was a BBC publication in those days. And that was rather different, because you were part of a bureaucracy, and I didn’t find it entirely rewarding, that side of it, being under the sort of BBC General Manager of Publications. Dreadful man. Dreadful. Called Holmes. I used to go and see him and say, 'John, I wonder if we might do X, Y or Z', and he'd say, 'Tony, I don’t think that’d be wise. If we were to go down the road, who can tell where it would end?' That was the kind of basis of BBC management in those days, and… so I did find that a bit depressing. And so when, out of the blue, Donald Trelford, who was then editor of The Observer, said would I come as number two on The Observer newspaper, after some thought, because it’s not the same as being number one, after some thought, I said, 'Yes', and went to The Observer in 1981, I think, end of 1981, after only doing The Listener for less than two years.

[Q] As Deputy Editor?

As Deputy Editor of The Observer.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Daily Mail, The Guardian, New Statesman, The Listener, BBC, The Observer, Richard Howard Stafford Crossman, Christopher Eric Hitchens, James Martin Fenton, Julian Patrick Barnes, William Rees-Mogg, Peter Stothard, Mark James Walter Cameron, Peter George James Jenkins, Alan Rhun Watkins, Donald Trelford

Duration: 7 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018