How Dear Bill Became Editor

By O'Sullivan, John | The Spectator, August 25, 2007 | Go to article overview

How Dear Bill Became Editor


O'Sullivan, John, The Spectator


In 1974 the Daily Telegraph was teetering on the edge of unaccustomed conflict.

Maurice Green's long and successful reign as editor was ending at the very moment when the paper's editorship was rising in significance. The Tories were to lose two elections that year. A challenge to Ted Heath's leadership, probably from Keith Joseph, already looked inevitable. How would the Telegraph lean?

Green himself was a premature Thatcherite who as early as 1973 told friends she would be the next Tory leader.

But who would succeed Green? His deputy, Colin Welch, the witty intellectual who had recruited many of the paper's star reporters, columnists and critics and whose hand was not at all invisible in its monetarist editorials? Or the City editor, Kenneth Fleet, whose pages had been friendlier to Heath and Tory interventionism?

Rumours spread that Lord Hartwell, a liberal proprietor who was the author of an admiring book on Keynes, favoured Fleet. If Fleet were to win, Welch would probably resign and the Telegraph would shift politically leftwards.

This seemed a terrible prospect to those, such as Frank Johnson and me, whose views, loyalties and very careers were tied to Colin's wagon -- and not only to us. Nick Garland was among the many Telegraph people who admired Colin's gifts without sharing his politics. He proposed that Colin's supporters should write a letter to Hartwell pressing his cause. I agreed. We recruited Frank. The three of us drew up an unsubtle appeal that said little more than 'Dear Lord Hartwell, Please make Colin editor.' And we began seeking signatures.

We were fortunate that almost our first recruit was Ian Colvin. Ian was an adventurous journalist who, after a month or two's absence, would appear at the editorial conference fresh from reporting alongside Kurdish guerrillas. A whiff of cordite hung always about his well-tailored shoulders. We admired Ian, but more as a Richard Hannay than as a Machiavelli. We were wrong. Ian read our attempt and smiled indulgently.

'No, no, no, this will never do. You can't write directly to Hartwell. Nor ask directly that Colin become editor. That kind of thing would intrude on Hartwell's prerogatives. No, write to Maurice.

Something like this . . .' Whereupon Ian sat down and wrote, without pause, an appeal to Green to use his good offices with the proprietor to ensure that Colin did not leave the paper. …

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