Obituary: Mike Randall

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EDITORS WHO leave a permanent legacy to journalism are those allowed time by their proprietors to settle into the job and develop a national newspaper that readers eventually identify with. Mike Randall was one of the larger group who occupy the editorial chair only briefly, before falling victim to managerial insistence on quick, palpable success. Their failure is seldom anything to do with talent; more the product of being in the right place at the wrong time.

The wrong time for Randall was 1963 when the Daily Mail, where he had been an associate editor, was engaged in a long battle with the Daily Express for domination of the broadsheet middle market. William Hardcastle, later to become a broadcaster, had been appointed editor of the Mail in 1959 but, although it devoured the News Chronicle the following year, he had been unable to lift its circulation much above two and a half million, while the Express was selling four million copies a day.

Randall was one of the few former News Chronicle executives to survive the merger. When Lord Rothermere (Esmond Harmsworth, grandfather of the present holder of that title) grew impatient with Hardcastle's inability to increase circulation, he appointed Randall to replace him, famously telling a friend at the Beefsteak Club: "I tried a short, fat one and that didn't work. So now I'm having a long, thin one."

The long, thin one was earnest and diffident, lacking the flamboyance of Hardcastle and some other Fleet Street editors. He told Rothermere that his aim was to take the paper upmarket of the Express, at the same time directing its appeal to younger readers and reintroducing some of the liberal values of the old News Chronicle. Although the ageing Rothermere's politics were very far from liberal he gave Randall his head for a while. The new editor fired several of the Mail's old guard and introduced a number of intelligent young writers, notably Bernard Levin. He launched some vigorous and successful campaigns on consumer issues, and was named Journalist of the Year in the National Press Awards for 1965.

The paper's sales, though, continued to drift downward; and an editor who is politically at odds with his proprietor inevitably leaves himself exposed. His changes offended influential members of the staff and their hostile whispers eventually reached the proprietor's ear, confirming his growing doubts about the editor he had appointed. In 1966, when Randall was laid up for some months with a bad back, Rothermere made Arthur Brittenden editor in his place. Only under Brittenden's successor David English did the Daily Mail, transformed into a tabloid, begin to catch up with the Express and eventually overtake it.

It was not Randall's first editorship. After working as a teenager as a shipping clerk in Brazil, he returned to Britain at the start of the Second World War and, declared unfit for military service, joined the Daily Sketch in 1940. The following year he was taken on by Lord Kemsley's Sunday Graphic and became its editor in 1953, aged only 34. Soon afterwards he moved to the Daily Mirror - then the dominant tabloid paper - as assistant features editor and in 1956 he switched to the News Chronicle.

His dismissal from the Daily Mail in 1966 came a few months before Harold Evans began his highly succesful 14 years as editor of the Sunday Times. Evans was keen on the kind of investigative and campaigning journalism that Randall had initiated at the Mail, and he invited Randall to join his staff in the role of chief assistant to the editor. Randall found that a bit demeaning, so they settled on managing editor (news), under which title he played an indispensable role in bringing the complex investigations of the Sunday Times Insight team and others on to the printed page in a readable and compelling form. His journalistic skills always lay in this technical area: he had never been a reporter.

Randall had not quite discounted the prospect of another editorship. He was, after all, still only in his forties. In 1969 the Mirror Group, under Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King, decided to offload The Sun, their ailing mid-market title. One potential buyer was the ambitious Robert Maxwell, who invited Randall to edit the paper if his bid was successful. Randall shared a platform with Maxwell as they presented their plans to the paper's staff; but he always had his doubts about the project and had decided not to be involved even before it was clear that The Sun would go not to Maxwell but to Rupert Murdoch.

That episode marked the end of Randall's editorial ambition. He remained at the Sunday Times during the period of its greatest success, before taking early retirement in 1979. Unable immediately to find another suitable position in journalism, he worked on a mushroom farm and then as a fruit- picker before helping to establish the short-lived Sunday Standard in Glasgow. In 1988 he wrote a book about his career called The Funny Side of the Street.

His cool, unassertive competence and his instinct for bringing out and projecting the essence of a story earned him the affection and respect of people who worked with him. His personal life, though, was less smooth: he married and divorced three times, fathering two daughters and a son.

Michael Randall, journalist: born London 12 August 1919; three times married (one son, two daughters); died London 10 December 1999.