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Proprietors shape the ethos of a paper


Tiny Rowland's control over The Observer
Anthony Howard Writer
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One of the odd things about being a newspaper proprietor is you don’t have to go into the office to impose your will. Lord Beaverbrook virtually never went into the Daily Express offices. Did everything by telephone and Dictaphone. Messages sent to editors and stuff. Mr Rowland, who was the effective owner of The Observer at the time I was there, only, to my knowledge, came into the office, I think probably three times in seven years. Once to entertain a sort of strange Indian mystic on the top floor. Once to a very unsuccessful lunch where he had a row with the staff, and once, I think, when the building was opened, by Princess Alexandra... the new building we’d moved to. But he hardly ever came in. On the other hand, he kept a very firm control.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the man he appointed to be business editor, whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, used to have a supper with Tiny Rowland every Wednesday evening. Tiny Rowland lived in some style in Chester Square in Belgravia, and this man used to go to supper there and get his instructions for the week. And I only found out about that long after I’d left. With the rest of us, he tended to use the telephone. He was a man of exquisite courtesy, and when I was in charge of the paper when Donald was away, you would always get a phone call, and he normally… because he was busy with Lonrho during the week, it normally was Saturday at about… you knew at about 12:15 on Saturday, you’d get a phone call, your secretary would come in and say, 'Oh it’s Mr Rowland, Sir', and he’d say, 'Oh'… I didn’t know him that well in those days, I think he always called me Mr Howard then. And he’d say, 'Oh Mr Howard, is this a convenient moment? You’re not too busy?' I said, 'No, Mr Rowland, perfectly fine. No worry at all'. 'Well, just one or two things I wanted to mention'. And he’d then go into a screed about, sort of, various leaders in the Sudan whose name I couldn’t even spell. I had to try and sort of scribble away, and basically you ignored it. But he would always say, 'And what are you going to lead on? What’s the story going to be?' And so, I suppose, rather much as you knew by noon on Saturday, papers go into the first edition at six o’clock, you told him what was being planned. And he’d say, 'Well, who’s the profile?' I remember once I had to say, 'The profile is Edward Heath'. 'Is what?' Because he hated Heath. And I said, 'Yeah, well, it’s not all that flattering'. 'I should hope not!' Sort of thing. And anyway, he took a very, very close control.

He also had a, sort of, man of affairs, who was his viceroy for The Observer, and he would come into the office. He was called Terry Robinson. I think they had a fall-out later and poor Mr Robinson went off to do some other job, but for a time, he was the rising star in Lonrho, and he did come into the office. And would always be a bit of a nuisance, I remember. A man of very limited accomplishments, who was, sort of, an accountant, basically.

Mr Rowland was not a man of limited accomplishments. He knew a lot. He had great, sort of, German charm. He was, of course, German by origin. He was incredibly good-looking, looked rather like George Sanders, a famous film star of the 1940s, had beautiful manners, but was thoroughly sinister. I don’t know. I mean, my view is that what really happened, and this perhaps may be difficult, and I hope I don’t defame anyone, but what happened is that Rowland liked to have people in his power, and Donald Trelford had been very brave at one stage. He’d gone out to Zimbabwe and had come back with a hair-raising report of the massacres going on in Matabeleland and all the rest of it. And I don’t think he got back until actually the Saturday evening, so I was at the seat of custom, and I did say to him, Donald, 'You know that it’s going to hit the roof, this'... because he’d gone out to celebrate five years of independence for Zimbabwe... 'and we all know that the boss, Mr Rowland, is very keen on the Zimbabwe regime, and there is going to be a terrible row'. He said, 'Well, I know, I know. I’ll be able to handle that'.

Nonetheless, it caused a tremendous explosion. Rowland was absolutely furious, and from that moment on, I think Donald became slightly of a marked man. He saved himself by submitting his resignation and Rowland saying, 'That was very generous of you, but I’m not going to accept it'. So that, sort of, bought him time. But I think they watched him, and unfortunately there were one or two indiscretions in Donald’s private life which all surfaced in, I think, the Daily Mail, with an Indian lady called Pamella Bordes, and from that moment on, I think Rowland felt that he had the editor of The Observer in the palm of his hand. And I mean, I think in any other regime, an editor who had been, sort of, blazoned over the pages of a not-very-friendly hostile daily paper for the affair he was conducting – Donald was married at the time, got a family and all the rest of it – would have been lucky to survive. I think Rowland took the view that, from now on, he’ll do as he’s told. And roughly, basically, I have to say, I think that’s what happened.

Of course, when the ownership changed, and when The Guardian bought The Observer in, what was it... 1993 or thereabouts... then Donald didn’t survive after that and immediately there was a change in editor. But I think he was protected, and he was editor for 19 years or thereabouts, I think. 17, 19, something like that. He was protected by Lonrho and Mr Rowland in particular, feeling that he would now become biddable, because they had been alarmed about him before and now they thought that they’d got him and therefore they could make him do what they wanted to.

Now that maybe very hostile, and no doubt Donald will tell a different story himself, but that’s how I see it from outside. And I’m not saying that he hadn’t, earlier on, shown considerable courage and independence. In fact, I mean so… at the time that the great Zimbabwe row was going on, he actually came to my office and said, 'Look, I’ve got some papers here. Have you got a safe?' I said, 'No, I haven’t got a safe, I’ve got a lock-up filing cabinet'. He said, 'Well, I think they better go into that, because I’m sure those Lonrho people will come around at the weekend and they’ll break into the safe and they’ll have a look at one of these depositions I’ve got', and the rest of it. So they went into my filing cabinet, and it showed how suspicious he was of them and they were of him at that time. But then it all changed.

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 Express, The Observer, Zimbabwe, Matabeleland, massacres, William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, Lord Beaverbook, Princess Alexandra, The Honourable Lady Ogilvy, Terry Robinson, Donald Trelford, Roland Rowland, Tiny Rowland, Pamella Bordes, Edward Richard George Heath, George Henry Sanders

Duration: 6 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018