Donald Trelford: The qualities an editor needs to reach the top

Media Studies: All the tributes celebrated Howard as the Lost Editor – the fact that he never edited a national newspaper

It must be galling for many famous people that they are not around to read their own obituaries, though that might be a blessed relief for others. Editors of Obituary pages are in a privileged position, but rarely well enough known to make their own columns. One who did was Anthony Howard, who qualified not because he ran the obituary pages on The Times for several years, but because he was one of the most distinguished political journalists of the past half-century.

The Times was the only paper with a ready-made obit of Howard. The others caught up the next day. The Times's tribute was so warm – and clearly written by a close friend (Roy Hattersley is my uninformed guess) – that I wasn't the only person to wonder if Tony had commissioned it himself. He was so concerned about how history would perceive him – and had such a love of mischief – that I wouldn't put it past him.

All the tributes celebrated Howard as the Lost Editor – the fact that he never edited a national newspaper (the closest he got to this was being my deputy for seven years at The Observer). For all Tony's many fine qualities, both personal and professional, I'm not sure that he was really cut out for this role. A modern editor has to be an all-rounder. Tony's interests were unusually narrow.

A key factor in any journalist's career is timing. National editors are usually appointed shortly before or after their 40th birthday, having worked their way up the internal executive ladder (Peter Preston and I were 37, Harold Evans and Rees-Mogg 39, Alan Rusbridger 42, Paul Dacre 44). At that time in his life Tony Howard was editing weekly magazines, the New Statesman (at 38) and The Listener (at 45). Until he was nearly 50, he had never held an executive position on a national paper.

These were the real reasons why Tony never reached the top job, not the explanation offered in his Times obituary – "because he didn't want it enough to compromise with his principles or enough to feign admiration for people whom he despised... Had he been a worse man he might have become a great editor." On this reading, editors are not appointed because they have the requisite qualities, but because they are unprincipled creeps. It was true that I asked Tony to leave because he was trying to unseat me, but it was not true, as asserted in two of the obits, that he went to Tiny Rowland about it.

It is a pity that his sudden and untimely departure should be overshadowed in this way, for Tony Howard should be remembered for the great man he was and for the many fine things he achieved in his lifetime, not for a prize that eluded him.

Suspicions over the Telegraph exposé

Complaints are already piling up at the Press Complaints Commission about the undercover reporting by the Daily Telegraph that embarrassed Vince Cable and other Liberal Democrat MPs. The test will be whether, in lying about their identity, pretending to be constituents and using hidden tape-recorders, the reporters breached clause 10 of the editors' code of conduct. The key sentences are: "The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices ... Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge ... can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means."

The Telegraph is confident that it can pass the public interest test. If Lib Dem MPs were saying one thing in public about their coalition partners and something else in private, then it can be argued that voters were entitled to know this. Likewise with Cable: if he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch's media empire, then it was clearly inappropriate for him to have a quasi-judicial role in weighing the rights and wrongs of a BSkyB business deal.

But why, then, didn't the paper major on the Murdoch story, which leaked out through the BBC and almost led to Cable's resignation? Instead, it highlighted Cable's grandiose claim that his resignation could bring the Coalition down, which was judged to be of greater interest to its readership. It also maintains that it was spreading out its "goodies", as it did in its reporting of the MPs' expenses scandal.

The suspicion remains, however, that the Murdoch story might have been buried because the bias admitted by Cable could damage the campaign by newspaper owners, publicly supported by the Telegraph Media Group, against any further media acquisitions by News International. If so, the paper would have been trimming its news instincts to suit its owners' corporate needs.

The PCC should investigate the complaints even if there is a public interest in the revelations. One wonders, for example, how many other covert campaigns were conducted by the paper that never saw the light of day because they didn't reveal anything newsworthy. Were there "fishing trips", which are explicitly banned in the code of conduct?

One can't help wondering what the late Bill Deedes would have made of his old paper's use of undercover reporters to tape the confidential conversations of MPs in their constituencies. "Not the conduct of a gentleman" is the sort of thing he would have said. But the modern Telegraph group, with former Daily Mail men running its management and editing both its newspapers, may not care too much about that.

Donald Trelford was Editor of The Observer, 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University.

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