Bill Deedes was Britain's most celebrated journalist when he died last year at 94. He had served 75 years in the inky trade and been a war hero, a Cabinet minister, editor of The Daily Telegraph, as well as the inspiration for two comic literary figures. And he was still producing his regular column until the very end.
Lord Deedes affected to hate the modern convention of journalists writing about other journalists. When his friend Stephen Robinson, until recently the Telegraph's foreign editor, asked to write his official biography, Deedes put up a show of reluctance before agreeing: "Better you, than some hooligan from the Guardian". Deedes warned Robinson he would find "no choir boys or tarts from Maida Vale"; but the book could not be published until after his death.
Robinson does not suffer from the occupational hazard of the official biographer, who reciprocates smarm for access. He quotes one colleague's description of Deedes as "an oleaginous creep and a goodtime Charlie who goes along with the powers that be". And he sometimes appears keener to debunk than to describe.
He misses something of his subject's ebullience and sense of fun. Seeing Deedes come into the bar at party conferences or trouble spots around the world, one's spirits would immediately lift. He had the gift of laughter – often against himself.
From a wealthy land-owning family, Bill was the first Deedes in 500 years to have to work for a living, after his father lost his money in the Great Crash. He became a reporter for the Morning Post. Sent as the most expendable member of staff to cover the war in Abyssinia in 1935, Deedes and his mountains of luggage caught the eye of Evelyn Waugh, reporting for the Daily Mail. William Boot of Scoop was born.
The fabled deference shown by his staff to Waugh's Lord Copper, owner of the Daily Beast, eerily prefigured Deedes's attitudes to his real-life proprietors. As Robinson puts it, "Deedes navigated a choppy journalistic sea with blithe dexterity, allied to boundless charm and a well-disguised determination" to advance his own career. For Deedes was a great survivor. He came through the Second World War unscathed – the only one of his Rifle Company to do so – ending as a major with an MC. Robinson suggests that his survivor's guilt contributed to closing Deedes up emotionally.
Although he married during the war, he never seemed able, says Robinson, to show his wife and five children the love he had for them. Instead he channelled his emotional energy into The Daily Telegraph, which had taken over the Morning Post.
He managed to combine his journalism with politics so successfully that he served briefly in Macmillan's Cabinet and, in 1974, became the Telegraph's editor. The chance that he was the golfing chum of the new Tory leader's husband, Denis Thatcher, inspired Private Eye to make him the eponymous recipient of the "Dear Bill" letters. It also latched on to his idiosyncratic lisp: "shurely shome mishtake – Ed".
Robinson has fun with Deedes's penchant for the mangled metaphor. "I smell the finger of the Labour party in this one"; or, "the Tory party needs to pull its trousers up". As he once put to me, when I made a film about him: "In the kingdom of the blind the cock-eyed man is king."
But Deedes was not one of nature's editors. By 1985, the Telegraph was haemorrhaging cash and the first words its new proprietor, Conrad Black, addressed to Deedes were: "Hail and Farewell." Deedes thought his Fleet Street career over. But the new editor, Max Hastings, charged with transforming the Telegraph, gave him a fresh lease of life. The WF Deedes byline was to stay, to reassure the suspicious core readership. He became the world's oldest roving reporter.
The Telegraph decided that Deedes should be coupled on assignments with a young female journalist. Robinson reveals how the octogenarian fell for Victoria Combe, who was in her twenties. Deedes admitted to his diary the sexual attraction he felt.
Although nothing ever came of it, he kept a photograph he had taken of her in his diary for the rest of his life, and would not stop talking about her to his family. His wife Hilary was deeply hurt. "For years she and her family had come off second best to the Telegraph," writes Robinson, "now she was coming off second best to a girl ten years younger than their youngest child."
Deedes outlasted Black at the Telegraph, but took strongly against the new owners: the secretive Barclay brothers. Shortly before his death, Deedes handed Robinson a memorandum bitterly attacking the new management, a "stinking mob", for seeking to turn the paper into something more like the Daily Mail. He felt he had become just "the shabby mascot" of the old Telegraph, and he knew Robinson would quote the memo. "As Deedes contemplated the destruction of the paper of the paper he loved," he writes, "he wanted belatedly, even posthumously, to get his revenge on the Barclays and to do them damage".
Robinson has produced a compelling, if sometimes warty, portrait of a man who remained true to the end to his first love: "the mackintosh trade", as Deedes called reporting. "Getting a good story remains truly exciting for me," the nonagenarian Deedes told me: "it's better than sex".
Michael Cockerell's award-winning political documentaries include 'Blair: the inside story'Reuse content