Obituary: Sir Gordon Newton

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The Independent Culture
GORDON NEWTON was among the most successful and perhaps the most idiosyncratic of British newspaper editors since the Second World War, and arguably of the century.

He was unique among them, as far as I know, in having a dinner society founded in his honour (in 1975, three years after his retirement) whose subsequent annual meetings, initially in the Garrick Club and latterly in the Financial Times headquarters south of the Thames, he himself regularly attended. The first of these garrulous events arranged by alumni of the FT included Patrick Hutber, William Rees-Mogg, Shirley Williams, Christopher Tugendhat, Nigel Lawson, William Davis, John Higgins, Ronald Butt and others whose backgrounds and fascinated interest in Newton, then and later, provided the clues to the secret of his editorship.

There were three main elements in Newton's most capable and individualistic editorship of the FT for 22 years from 1950. To its old offices in Coleman Street in the City - later to the grandiloquent Bracken House - he recruited graduates, chiefly from Oxford and Cambridge, for brief training and swift appointment to key positions on the paper (which was also braced by already well experienced professional journalists). Some of them I mention above, and there were scores of others, who after their stints on the paper moved on (sometimes to his chagrin), invariably to impressive positions elsewhere in journalism, or in business or politics.

Newton was utterly dedicated to his work, taking a close interest in all aspects of the paper's editorial and design, in days when a smaller staff and tighter control made constant supervision possible. He kept to the now defunct tradition of demanding hard news, factual reporting and reasoned comment from versatile subs, reporters and leader writers; allied to this he had a sure instinct for what the common reader wanted or would tolerate, the common readers of the Financial Times in the 1950s being stockbrokers, forex dealers, small investors, company executives, people in government.

When quizzed, he would tap his teeth with his pen and say he saw his readers as "any man walking the pavement under St Paul's" (there was a superb view of St Paul's from the windows of his office in Bracken House, but he sat at his desk resolutely ignoring it, and facing the door). Even so, there was an element of mystery in his achievement and this encouraged all those who ever worked under him when they met each other subsequently to pass the time agreeably discussing what it really was that made him what he had been.

One of Newton's strange and unforgettable traits was the coining of marvellously apposite neologisms such as "heliocopter", and arresting phrases such as "hang your horses a moment" (to a reporter in too much of a hurry) or "that's right up your pigeon" (to a deputy editor he was sending to a conference in Moscow) or "it's enough to give you ulsters", said in exasperation. Some of the quasi-malapropisms attributed to Newton are apocryphal but there are scores of genuine Newtonisms on the record.

This aspect of Gordon Newton, like the stories of a style of prudent hands-on editorship that embraced telling a leader writer some of his sentences were too long and some too short, or that he should add "or maybe not" to the end of his comment, served to soften his image as well as gladden the heart. But he was a tough and determined man who made some enemies, especially when he was fighting his corner early in his editorship, and whose philistinism hurt some of his more fastidious peers.

A perceptive profile of "L.G." (Leslie having been his unused Christian name) by his colleague and friend Sheila Black appeared in the Director magazine in October 1972, to mark his 65th birthday. It began: "He was a right bastard . . ." "The bloody man too often turned out to be right, even when you knew he was wrong . . ." "He knew what he didn't want. . ." It went on: "The paper's undoubted success has taken from him that constant need to fight and to push and to make others do the same. When he took over, it was a glorified trade paper . . . the average daily sale was 58,686 copies. Today it overshoots 188,000 and is still rising . . ."

This simple evidence of Newton's sound management - sales trebled - was also made possible through his ability to collaborate, sometimes stormily, with other remarkable men who created the modern Financial Times, especially the extraordinary Brendan Bracken, the shrewd advertisement director Sydney Henschel, and the clever artistic Lord Moore (later Lord Drogheda), whom he sometimes described as "my goad" and with whom he had a fascinating, edgy, creative relationship that helped Drogheda to emerge as a strong management impresario.

None the less, Newton was the genius and the driving force. I remember - before the FT was an international multi-edition paper - his asking Andrew Shonfield (one of his sharper critics) and me if we could guarantee half a page of foreign news each day using information from a news agency (Comtel) and our few splendid foreign correspondents. Others recall the late nights he once spent seeing how best to make a combined paper of The Times and the FT when it seemed possible that the Pearson group would buy the former. His plan in the end envisaged the FT absorbing The Times in a wonderful hybrid. Into his old age, Newton's opinions on the press and its handling of events, especially in the overlapping fields of economics, business, political were always worth hearing.

In retirement, sticking to his tipple of gin and tonic, still smoking cigarettes through his eighties, gradually becoming more and more blind but still enjoying fishing up to the end of 1994, Gordon Newton kept an unclouded mind and eager interest in public affairs, the Press and the progress of the Financial Times. He could be harsh but he was never arrogant. "But I'm just a has-been," he said to a friend who was arranging a lunch between him and Rupert Murdoch, who had once enjoyed his company and advice. Although an eloquent and impressive speaker at the dinners given in his honour, in the editor's chair he avoided public attention. He was indeed rather a modest, rather an innocent man.

The latter proved to be the case just after his retirement when he took up a boardroom appointment to chair a company that went badly off the rails. Then, however, he went on to perform useful public service and add a commonsense component to several boards. Living in tranquil retirement with his wife at Henley-on-Thames, he relished his visits to London, above all to talk with the many successful people whose talent he had once fostered and whose careers he followed avidly, fondly and judgementally.

Newton once wrote several chapters of the story of his own life but found no takers among the publishers; they were privately printed last year, entitled A Peer without Equal. It made a rather romantic story of a public schoolboy (Blundell's) who had been good at sport, especially running, but wanted to be a surgeon or concert violinist, who'd read economics at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, before the slump ruined his father's glass business, and started his own firm making mirrors in Bethnal Green before going bust with a car accessory business and staying miserably and sometimes hungrily unemployed till he found a job on the old Financial News.

Commissioned in the Army during the Second World War, he turned down a "special mission" (as a German speaker) that would have meant his leaving the forces and this, Newton was convinced, was how in 1949 he was noticed - and remembered - by Brendan Bracken. After the war he had returned to the Financial News, which merged with the FT in 1945. He was features editor and leader writer, then spent a year as Lex before covering devaluation in Washington. When he became editor of the Financial Times Gordon Newton was a well-seasoned man.

Leslie Gordon Newton, journalist: born 16 September 1907; Editor, Financial Times 1950-72, director 1967-72; Kt 1966; married 1935 Peggy Warren (died 1996; one son deceased); died Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire 31 August 1998.