American journalistic heroes tend towards writers like IF Stone or Woodward and Bernstein - pillars of the fourth estate who kept check on the establishment. It says so much about Britain that our pre-eminent living journalist is also a fully paid-up member of the ruling class.
Lord "Bill" Deedes, 84, is the only man alive to have been the editor of a national newspaper and a cabinet minister. He has been the inspiration for two fictitious comic characters and could probably lay claim to having been Britain's first spin doctor. It is quite a record, and he hasn't stopped yet. He still works full time at the Telegraph, where he has been for 60 years this year, as a leader writer, roving reporter and columnist.
In these days of casual and short-term contracts in the national press, if you survive 60 years on the same newspaper you could reasonably be said to consider it your personal property. With the Deedes family this is all the more likely, because Jeremy Deedes, Bill's son, is managing director of the company. Now that Jeremy's son George is understood to be considering a career in journalism a dynasty looks ready to be made.
For the beginnings of that dynasty it may be instructive to turn to the best novel ever written about journalism. Evelyn Waugh met the young Bill Deedes when they were both covering the Abyssinian war in 1935. He used Deedes as his model for William Boot of the Beast newspaper in the comic classic Scoop.
William Boot was a member of the decaying landed gentry. William Deedes' father was a Kent landowner who lost money in the crash of 1929. However Boot was the meek writer of a nature column, while old Harrovian William Deedes had joined the Morning Post in 1931 as a reporter who would only be paid when his stories were printed.
After making his name in Abyssinia, Deedes became part of The Daily Telegraph when it took over the Morning Post in 1937.
After what Waugh would probably describe as a good war - Deedes was awarded an MC - Lord Deedes returned to The Telegraph before beating Ted Heath to become Conservative MP for his home town of Ashford in Kent.
It was these Kent Conservative Party circles that led indirectly to Deedes' second fictitious incarnation. Through the Kent party he met a rich businessman named Denis Thatcher. A 40-year golfing friendship ensued, and it was through Mr Thatcher that Deedes became the idealised recipient of the "Dear Bill" letters in Private Eye.
Macmillan chose Deedes for his cabinet because of his journalistic experience. He wanted him to take charge of the government's communications effort; in the Fifties election broadcasts that survive, Deedes looks less like Mandelson and more like Harry Enfield's Mr Chumleigh-Warner. Deedes left the Houses of Parliament in the September 1974 election and promptly became editor of The Daily Telegraph.
It cannot be assumed that having such an illustrious grandfather on the staff will mean immediate preferment for the young George Deedes. Jeremy Deedes did not start working for the Telegraph group until he had already been a journalist for 23 years. And it was no foregone conclusion that he would be a newspaper man.
Jeremy Deedes originally wanted to go into television, and won a place on the Southern TV training scheme. At the last minute the man who offered him the place was sacked, and his replacement didn't want Deedes. Instead he told Deedes to go off and train as a news reporter and he would give him a job later.
Jeremy started on the Kent & Sussex Courier in 1963 and never made it into television. He made it on to the Daily Sketch in 1966 before moving up through the Evening Standard (twice), the Daily Express and Today before joining The Daily Telegraph as executive editor in 1986.
In 1996 he became managing director, and has had his time filled with the increasingly bitter circulation battle with The Times. This has involved legal challenges and The Telegraph supporting its circulation with a discount subscription scheme that has wiped out its profits.
Whether or not the Deedes name helps young George in his future career, at the moment it probably precludes him from a job at The Timesn
Paul McCannReuse content