My Mentor: Ann Leslie on Sir David English

'He had a slightly spivvy, gossipy and manipulative charm'
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The Independent Online

I never wanted to be a journalist. I fell into the business by accident after graduating from Oxford in order to fill in time before I decided what I really wanted to do. David English made me realise that what I really wanted to do was be a journalist.

David was foreign editor on the Daily Express in the days when the latter was a powerful newspaper interested in foreign news. He had a slightly spivvy, gossipy and manipulative charm - but if he lost faith in you, a terrifying coldness. I, like many of his staff, was both thoroughly alarmed and thoroughly exhilarated by him.

I became a foreign correspondent largely because he had unshakeable faith in me - when others, understandably, didn't. He sent me on a story in Guyana and I blew it. The macho thugs on the foreign desk jeered: "We told you so, David. Girlies can't hack it!"

When I wanted to run the New York bureau the then editor refused on the grounds that "You can't have a WOMAN running a bureau!". David would say, "When I'm editor, you can run any bureau you want." I realised that he would never become editor because the proprietor was Sir Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook's son, who only knew and cared about power boats and women.

When I resigned I was summoned to Aitken's office to explain why. Among my reasons were that his decision not to make English editor would eventually prove to be the downfall of the Express. And I was right.

When David became editor of the Mail, he wanted me to be on the staff but I refused: never a good idea with David to be just another taxi in the line. But I accepted a contract and he continued to play a dominant role in my professional life.

I heard of his death a couple of minutes before going on to a live broadcast debate; I fled to the Ladies' to sob, and the male producer said, "You can pull out, Ann, and I'd understand." But I knew David wouldn't "understand". So I went ahead. David despised wimps, and going ahead was a kind of tribute. You weren't a wimp, David, and neither was I.

Ann Leslie is a foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail

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