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You can't be an editor unless you've tried to be a writer


Anthony Howard Writer
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I think, looking back, the great pleasure of reaching even the tiny position of power in journalism, editing a small weekly paper like the New Statesman or indeed being deputy editor of The Observer is the chance you're given to encourage talent.

And I'm amazed at how little a lot of people, or a lot of editors, take of this. That I was very lucky that I was encouraged, I suppose. First of all, basically the editors of Reynold's News were no good at all, but by Alastair Hetherington at The Guardian, he sort of brought me on, as it were, and taught me quite a lot of what I tend to know about journalism. Lucky with John Freeman on the New Statesman, though John was a cold fish, but he was, you know, I think a very good editor for me to work for at that stage of my career. And I tried, I think, when I got to be in my forties myself, or even later, to do that for other young people who I thought were talented. I was… when I was… I mean, the first editor who I worked for was a man called George Scott. He's long-forgotten. He edited an obscure weekly paper, which I think sold about 5,000 copies, called Truth, which went back to the days of Henry Labouchère in the 19th century, when it had been quite a power in the land, but by the time George was there in 1955, '56, it was a pale shadow of what it had been. But my goodness, George knew how to spot talent. I mean, who did he have working for Truth? He had Bernard Levin, he had Alan Brien, he had Philip Oakes. I'm trying to think who else. I'd say me. But considering he only could pay about £10 an article, it's amazing what he did.

And that idea of an editor being a kind of Carroll Levis, he was an old trash and talent man from the BBC, or even a Hughie Green, you know, a sort of talent-spotter is, I think, probably the most important part of what the job of being an editor should be. I was very lucky when I was young and still only in my 30s myself, I had, working for me on the New Statesman, I had working for me then James Fenton, I had Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Claire Tomalin, now gone on to be most famous literary biographer of her day, was my literary editor. No, they were very talented people, and I always, I suppose, looking back, saying well, whatever I failed in in the New Statesman, I failed in a lot, but in the six years I was there, I think I did quite a lot to bring on talent. Most of them haven't gone on being journalists. They've gone off to be other things, but at least I spotted at the beginning the potential there. And I think, to some degree, I managed to do the same on The Observer, perhaps not... less dramatically, but people I'm proud of having encouraged there, people like Patrick Bishop, who now writes very successful books, who I took under my wing there. I think Robert Harris, who I brought in from being a television reporter to be our political editor on The Observer, now a, sort of, famed thriller writer and novelist. I'm trying to think who else was there I brought on a bit.

Oh, there was a very bright young man who now writes the column... Tim... in The Daily Telegraph. I can't remember his name because I'm getting senile, but he is Mandrake on the Telegraph and has done very well for himself. Not, I think, perhaps the same harvest that I had when I was younger, but still there were people I'm proud of having brought on. And then, even when I was obits editor of The Times, I took quite a lot of young writers under my wing. And some of them have done very well. They're not yet in their full flush of success, no doubt, but I was always keen, I think, to not have… I can't bear old sweats. I mean, when I went to The Times, to be editor of the obit section, a very humble job, really, but the only staff I had were people who'd been, sort of, thrown out of other departments and who were real old soldiers. They knew how to swing their lead. And I thought, look, and I can't live with this. And I went to see the managing editor, and he said, 'Oh Tony, this is very difficult, very difficult. They've been loyal servants'... and [unclear] 'They're just a crowd of idlers'. [He said] 'And oh, I don't know, Tony I'll do my best for you, I'll do my best'. I think I got rid of one of them. That was pretty hard going. And then I did manage to extend the staff and bring on quite a number of young people, including the present Times art critic, Rachel… oh dear, Johnston... Campbell-Johnston, who's been a great success. She was a secretary when I brought her on, and so I'm very proud of what she's done. And she was a wonderful writer. And I brought on a very bright girl called Lois Letts, who's now married to Quentin Letts.

I think when I was younger, I was less good at bringing on women, but as I got older, I got easier dealing with women, and therefore my two proudest people at The Times, I think, were both women. But I suppose when I was younger, I was more… and I think, oddly enough, one of the people who first wrote for me was… her first articles were published by me, was Tina Brown. And Tina, I think, always thought I was a bit edgy with women, and so, for that matter, did Bel Mooney, who actually wrote somewhere that I wasn't good at dealing with women. It greatly annoyed me at the time, I remember, but we remained friends and I still see her. But I think they were probably right. But in old age, I got perhaps better at it, or more confident, or something.

And no, I think that is the only… looking back, after 50 years, the only, sort of, thing I take pride in, really, is not that I produced excellent papers. They often weren't excellent, but that I did bring on some really excellent people. And that I do think is quite an important job to have done in life.

[Q] And what did you teach them?

Goodness knows. I mean, one of the people I brought on, I remember, was young Patrick Wintour, who came to the New Statesman in my latter years there. And in those days, you got some kind of grant. You got… sort of like employing the disabled, you got a sort of grant if you had young people who were being sort of apprentice journalists. And I can remember going through this pantomime scene with Patrick, where he came to sort of sit beside me on my desk like some inspector taking notes. And I sort of said, well, when we come to write an article, this is what we do. And I don't think it deceived anyone. I think we got the grant, but I didn't really. I think that… well, I hope I gave encouragement. I mean, they always used to say there was a code that… I think I used to get sort of teased about it, that if I said that's fine, it meant the article was pretty average and no good, really. 'That's fine', I'd say. And there were other adjectives that went up the scale.

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: The Observer, The Guardian, New Statesman, Reynold's News, Truth, The Daily Telegraph, Mandrake, The Times, Hector Alastair Hetherington, John Horace Freeman, George Edwin Scott, Henry Labouchère, Henry Bernard Levin, Philip Barlow Oakes, Alan Brien, Carroll Richard Levis, Hughie Green, Hugh Hughes Green, Claire Tomalin, James Martin Fenton, Christopher Eric Hitchens, Julian Patrick Barnes, Martin Louis Amis, Patrick Bishop, Robert Dennis Harris, Tim Walker, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Lois Letts, Quentin Letts, Tina Brown, Beryl Ann ‘Bel’ Mooney, Bel Mooney, Patrick Wintour, Alan Watkins

Duration: 6 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018