Media: Hanging up the peashooter

Anthony Howard, one of Fleet Street's great mischief makers, has retired. His only regret is that he was never made Ottawa correspondent.
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Anthony Howard is now a grand old man of journalism. He is 65 and newly retired. He has just received the Gerald Barry Award for Lifetime Service in the What the Papers Say awards. But at heart he is still a mischief maker.

At first, he will admit this only grudgingly. But, I say, your first act of journalism - writing an anonymous diary as a national serviceman - was something for which you could have been courtmartialled. "Yes, well that is true. Yes. Hmm."

Then he warms to the theme. He says that someone has to be the one with the peashooter. "You know the first question Lord Beaverbrook asked me when I went for an interview in, oh, 1958 or so, was `Do you want to make mischief?' I found that very appealing. But I didn't really believe him. He wanted to make mischief for Gaitskell and Labour but not the Tories."

The conversation had strayed yet again into political territory. This is the way with Tony Howard. Just when you think you've left the subject for good, he wiggles it back into the conversation. He almost became a politician several times over. In the end, each time, he chose journalism - or journalism chose him.

"I'm not sure it was the right decision. What would I most have liked to have been? Most of all, editor of The Guardian." When he joined that paper in 1959, he was forced to give up being a prospective Labour candidate. "I can remember when I went up to Manchester saying to myself, as you do when you are 25, what would you rather be, a Labour cabinet minister or editor of The Guardian? I came down for editor. So I think I may have made the wrong choice."

The last time I saw Tony Howard he was a deputy editor and it was more than a decade ago at The Observer. There he was known as erudite, gossipy and good at making a decision. You would take a problem or a page proof into his room - it never seemed an office - and he would pause and have a think before making his decision. He never tried to fob you off.

He believes that he was in with a chance to become editor of that paper. In the end, Donald Trelford stayed on and Tony says that he knew the game was up when Donald suggested that he might want to go back to Washington. This was in 1988. "I said, you know I don't believe in going back. I'd done that in the 1960s. So I wasn't fired but the hint had been given."

It is fun to talk to Tony Howard. He has a wonderful memory for detail and he often comes up with exact dates or headlines or names from 30 or 40 years ago. He prepared for a career at the Bar at Oxford but then, as a national serviceman, couldn't resist writing for the New Statesman. It was his belief that no one in the officers' mess read the magazine and so he signed the last one. He quickly discovered that he was wrong. "There was a move to courtmartial me but luckily the commander, a man called Bernard Fergusson - that is with a double s by the way - said don't be silly, that's exactly what he wants."

He was making pounds 5 a week in the Army and was offered a job at Reynolds News, which was "pretty second rate" but paid well at pounds 1,500 a year. He wrote a young man's view of Parliament and had been in the job a few months when Lord Beaverbrook summoned him. Several job offers came of this but the politics were wrong and he decided to approach The Guardian instead.

This seems to have been when he really began his career. He took a pay cut, left his flat in London and his desk at the House of Commons for the delights of digs in Manchester. He worked in a room with lots of desks and two telephone booths. No one liked to answer the phone. There were no named bylines.

He left in 1961 to be political correspondent for the New Statesman and was then wooed to The Sunday Times to be the first-ever Whitehall correspondent. This was a disaster, not least because Prime Minister Wilson had issued instructions that no one was to talk to him. "It was a very frustrating period. I occasionally got some tiny chipolata in the paper but really it was nothing."

Out of the blue The Observer asked him to be its Washington correspondent. This was where he made his name but it was his next job, as editor of the New Statesman, from 1972 to 1978, that he says was his own personal high point.

He then had another flutter with the idea of politics. "I did indicate I was available for a seat. It would never have worked. Thank God it didn't. If it had, I would have gone into the Commons in 1979 and faced 18 years of opposition." Instead, he became editor of The Listener and, in 1981, went back to The Observer for what would be seven years.

He says he has always been "bi-media". He went to the BBC for a few years and is still always popping up on Newsnight. He finds such instant commentating much easier than writing, which only gets more difficult. "I now find that writing a serious article is rather intimidating." Does he procrastinate? "Oh yes. I'll do other things first. Like write letters. Or do my VAT!"

In 1993 he took his last job, as obituaries editor of The Times. Legend has it that this was the job he wanted in what he calls the "evening of my days in journalism". In fact, he insists, the job he actually named was Ottawa correspondent - "a real deadbeat of a job". Whatever the truth, he has enjoyed editing the pages tremendously. "It became a more fashionable thing to be."

So what motivates him? Stories? Writing? Money? He has been proud of the odd story or two, though dislikes what he calls the "major row" school of journalism. Good writing is what he cares about most. He mentions Roy Hattersley and Alan Watkins. "But I don't think we have anyone today quite in the league of Bernard Shaw in his heyday or possibly Gore Vidal in America."

He has never gone anywhere for the money. He once shared a flat with Michael Heseltine and told him he did not see the point of making money from something like property development. "It is just boring." He is now ghosting Heseltine's memoirs. There may be another book, "something political". As I leave, I say he seems old-fashioned. He says he likes to think he's "modern". I find this so old-fashioned as to prove the point.