Obituary: Malcolm Rutherford

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a sad irony in the fact that Malcolm Rutherford was at the time of his death the obituaries editor of the Financial Times and that his last article, which appeared in Saturday's issue, was on the subject of the newspaper obituary.

He had firmly held views on this as on other matters, but he is not likely to be remembered for them. Instead he will be recalled as an astonishingly influential foreign correspondent in Bonn and as the paper's chief political commentator and Friday columnist in a highly charged decade. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke thought him one of the best half dozen journalists of his time, "a serious premier division journalist, always very engaging and interesting to talk to".

Rutherford had succeeded his former Spectator colleague, David Watt, as political editor, and he was a hard act to follow. Rutherford's insight into the Conservative Party in the late Seventies was probably greater than Watt's would have been and the memorable columns that he wrote about the "Gang of Four" at the time of their breakaway from the Labour Party were some of the finest ever penned by a political journalist. As David Owen recalls, it was a conversation with Rutherford about a left-wing call that Labour should commit itself to leave the EEC that led to the coming together of the "Gang of Three".

Rutherford was quick to realise the significance of what Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and Geoffrey Howe were arguing in the 1970s and towards the end of 1977 suggested that the Tory party had become the party of ideas while the Labour government had relapsed into a rather bland safety-first mode. Perceptively, and rather sooner than most contemporaries, he detected the unmistakable shift in the intellectual mood that prefaced the Conservative victory in 1979.

While never a Thatcherite, he nevertheless had considerable sympathy with what she was trying to achieve. That sympathy did not extend to her stance on Europe. Rutherford remained throughout his career a convinced and powerful exponent of the view that Britain's future could only lie in Europe. Once that came to be generally accepted, he argued and believed that the British would then find themselves truly at home.

Gordon Malcolm Rutherford was born in 1939 and educated at the Newcastle Royal Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read English. The high seriousness of his thinking is often found in Balliol men, coupled in his case with an intellectual self-confidence that never spilt over into arrogance. On coming down from Oxford in 1962, he found employment as the arts editor on Ian Gilmour's Spectator. The magazine had a policy of recruiting bright graduates, even if they had little or no journalistic experience. Rutherford was soon writing for the front half of the magazine as well.

His main interests lay in foreign affairs and the theatre and when Iain Macleod took over the editorship in 1963 he became, despite his youth, foreign editor at a doubled salary. Rutherford asked whether he must confine his activities to The Spectator and was told in no uncertain terms that his new chief did not regard a weekly magazine as a full-time job.

Taking Macleod at his word, Rutherford, together with Richard Gott, Hugh O'Shaugnessy and John Kettle, founded Latin America in 1965, a journal designed to provide in-depth reporting on an area with which Britain had once had close connection. When further titles followed in its wake, it became the Latin American Newsletter.

In 1967 Gordon Newton, editor of the Financial Times, picked Rutherford out to be the paper's diplomatic correspondent. He was working with another journalist still in his twenties, J.D.F. Jones, the foreign editor, who was determined to expand the specialist coverage of different regions and to provide much greater depth in the analysis of what lay behind the news. In 1969 Rutherford succeeded the paper's long-standing German correspondent in Bonn and quickly became an expert not only on German politics but also on the industrial and financial scene.

He took a clear-eyed view of the German scene, believing that it was essential if we were going to join the EEC and be happy within it, that we should understand where the Germans were coming from and take them as they really were. German industrialists thought him a penetrating analyst of their concerns, while his obvious affection for Germany, backed by a wealth of knowledge, made him a highly influential commentator on German politics. It was said, only half in jest, that Rutherford's influence was as great, if not greater than that of the British Ambassador.

In 1974, he was brought back to London as defence correspondent, bringing an appreciation of the strategic dimension to the Financial Times's diplomatic coverage and a new sophistication to its coverage of world affairs. Both at Bonn and in this new post, he contributed much to Jones's drive to improve the quality of the paper's foreign coverage, but above all the clarity and depth of analysis on offer. Like Jones, Rutherford knew that there were other sources from which straightforward news could be obtained and that what the Financial Times must offer was a profoundly influential coverage of what lay behind the news.

In 1977, when David Watt went to Chatham House, Rutherford was offered the job of chief political commentator and Friday columnist. He brought an intellectual cutting edge to the task, and was more than ready to offer considered judgements on the men and issues of the day. If his was not entirely a new style in writing about politics, the judgements offered were always interesting and sometimes memorable.

In 1981, he published a strongly argued book favouring the European cause, Can we save the Common Market? It was his belief that if membership remained a major issue in politics, that would mark the failure of the whole enterprise so far as Britain was concerned, but even in the face of later events, he remained a totally convinced European.

After more than a decade in the job, Rutherford agreed that it was time for a change and he took over the "Men and Matters" column, changing its name to "Observer" to allow it wider scope. Subsequently he became chief theatre critic, where he displayed considerable independence of mind and an approach to drama which was said on occasion not to please those who were subject to his critical wit and acumen.

His last move in 1995 was to take over responsibility for the paper's obituaries. He took the view that only those who had made a genuine difference to the world which the Financial Times covered should have their role summed up for posterity and if there were days or even weeks without anyone worth assessing that was better than "filling a set page with nonentities and worthies". The job was one, therefore, which gave him the time to write a series of heavyweight reviews of political memoirs and other accounts of politics. Another task that he greatly enjoyed was editing the memoirs of Gordon Newton, which were published in 1997 as A Peer Without Equal.

Although he never lost contact with mainstream journalism and continued to take a knowledgeable interest in the rage of issues covered by the paper, he was increasingly preoccupied with his role on the council of Chatham House and had recently been appointed to its executive committee.

A man of keen and somewhat heterodox intellect, with an extremely powerful memory, he read widely and invariably had interesting things to say about a whole range of issues. Courteous in manner, he was tenacious in his opinions and always ready to argue his corner with skill and wit.

The finest tribute that could be paid to any journalist, from a natural opponent, is Kenneth Clarke's, calling Rutherford "one of the few people I knew for whom there was no need for the tag "de mortuis" since he was genuinely one of the very few of whom there was nothing ill to say."

Gordon Malcolm Rutherford, journalist: born 21 August 1939; Arts Editor, The Spectator 1962-64, Foreign Editor 1964-67; Diplomatic Correspondent, Financial Times 1967-69, Chief German Correspondent 1969-74, Defence Specialist 1974-77, Assistant Editor 1977-93, Chief political commentator 1977-88, Chief theatre critic 1990-94, Obituaries Editor 1995-99; married 1965 Susan Tyler (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1969), 1970 Elizabeth Pelen (three daughters); died 14 December 1999.