Best job in the world: Sir Max toasts 45 years in journalism
The winner of this year's Edgar Wallace Award for fine writing talks to Matthew Bell
Sunday 26 April 2009
In Who's Who, he lists his recreations as "shooting and fishing" but there's nothing Sir Max Hastings likes better than to sit down at a blank screen with a deadline looming. "I get a terrific adrenaline kick out of it even now," he says.
It's been nearly 45 years since he first tried, on a holiday job at the Londoner's Diary on the Evening Standard, and he was hooked. It helped that his first jobs involved going to New York on the Queen Mary and doing the Cresta run in St Moritz: "Journalism is glamorous and it allows you to live a life you never otherwise could have done."
Since then he has worked as a war reporter, leader writer, military historian and, for 16 years, as an editor. He went freelance after stepping down as editor of the Evening Standard in 2002, and it was for his ability to be "equally at home writing in the Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Sunday Times" that the London Press Club awarded him the Edgar Wallace Award for fine writing last week. Previous winners include some of the biggest names of 20th century journalism: Keith Waterhouse, Anne Leslie, Matthew Parris and The Independent on Sunday's own Alan Watkins.
Coming from a family of journalists – his father was in the BBC and his mother edited Harper's Bazaar – Hastings only fleetingly considered a different career. "I thought of becoming a soldier but I realised after a brief experience in the Parachute Regiment that I wasn't quite up to becoming a successful soldier." He went to Oxford but left after a year. "I would regret leaving if I thought I would have got a first but I know I wouldn't so I don't".
His brief stint at university may support a reputation for impatience, but his direct manner has endeared him to many. As an editor, he admits to having made mistakes: "When I started, I'd never run anything other than a pheasant shoot. But the most important thing for an editor is to make decisions. You get forgiven for making bad decisions, but from the point of view of people around you, the key thing is to make them."
Although he enjoyed his time editing, he is happier now as a writer. "The strain of being an editor – my God! When you go out of the office for a few hours or worse still for a week's holiday you can't put a box on the front page saying the editor's away so he's not responsible for what's in the paper. One of the things I love about simply contributing is that I don't have to think of all the big issues. I only have to think about what the hell I'm going to write for next Tuesday."
Hastings admits to feeling lucky to have got into journalism – "nepotism I'm afraid" – and for the period in which he worked: "when there was loads of money". But he is not overly pessimistic about the future. "I can remember very well back in 1960 people said the Daily Express was finished. It's been in decline for nearly half a century but it's still going.
"You can't just say, 'oh print is finished', but print has obviously got to change. If I were running a newspaper now, I would be looking at getting the cost-base down substantially over the next five to 10 years. It's a tragedy but if the revenue is not there to support it, what else can you do?"
Although he has had a policy of not discussing The Daily Telegraph since he left in 1995, he is scornful of broadsheets that demand journalists work across several platforms. "Blogging is catastrophic for broadsheet journalism. It's disastrous to ask people to file every few minutes. It's asking a lot of them to find something intelligent to say once a week or even once a day, but asking them to say something intelligent every couple of hours is beyond crazy."
His self-censoring policy extends to the Standard, although he reveals that he warned its former proprietor, Lord Rothermere, of fundamental problems more than seven years ago. "It's been obvious for a long time that the Evening Standard could not go on as it was. I said that to Lord Rothermere when I was editor. Evening newspapers worldwide have been in chronic decline and the Evening Standard has been defying gravity."
He is full of praise for his old friend Veronica Wadley, who, he says, "did a fantastic job. She was a much better editor of the Standard than I was". But he feels grateful not to be involved any longer. "The structural problems seem to me to be insuperable".
Hastings has enjoyed a gilded life, rising to the top of his profession, travelling the world, and ending up in the West Berkshire countryside with his wife, dogs, shooting and plenty of books and columns to write. His advice to other journalists is to write books on the side: "If you've been slaving away on a daily newspaper, the danger is you wake up one morning in your fifties, and you look in the mirror and say well is that it then? Otherwise it's a great life – you can't beat it."
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