'What's the point of owning a paper and not interfering?'
As a senior executive at the Telegraph for 20 years - on and off - the departing Jeremy Deedes shares his thoughts about proprietors past and present with Tim Webb
Sunday 29 August 2004
Jeremy Deedes says he is lucky that his wife is "always very indulgent" when it comes to his career. She has to be. Deedes began retired life last year after stepping down as managing director of the Telegraph Group, only to rejoin in March as interim chief executive during its auction. "It was a case of better the devil you know," is how he explains the appointment. The Telegraph group certainly knows the family.
Jeremy's father is William Deedes, famously the former editor of (and still a contributor to) The Daily Telegraph, Denis Thatcher's correspondent in Private Eye's "Dear Bill" letters and an inspiration for William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's Fleet Street and foreign correspondents classic, Scoop. But Deedes (junior) concedes his current sojourn will soon be over. Last week, the new owners of the Telegraph Group, the Barclay brothers, said they would replace Deedes with Murdoch MacLennan from Associated Newspapers as chief executive. "Murdoch is a great friend of mine," he says. "He is a thoroughgoing newspaper man. It's a good result." At the moment he is engaged in negotiations with Mrs Deedes. "I'm trying to convince her that I did not earn £1m last year," he jokes, as this newspaper mistakenly suggested last week following his premature retirement.
Surprisingly, given the circumstances, Deedes has enjoyed his second stint. "It's an extraordinary thing to happen. But it has been a great experience," he says. He says the worst three months were at the beginning of the year when it emerged that former proprietor Conrad Black had done a secret deal with the Barclays to sell the papers. A Delaware judge later ruled this deal illegal. He is reluctant to talk about Black's behaviour, and subsequent allegations of racketeering and embezzlement. "A number of things in [court] documents have come as a big surprise, as they have to most of the staff."
In fact, he has mainly good things to say about his dealings with the former owner. "He was a model proprietor for most of the time," says Deedes, who joined the Telegraph as editorial director in 1986. He describes the meetings of the Telegraph board as "a very convivial lunch club". "The meetings were usually very lively. Conrad was a good stimulus to debate," he said.
He admits Black interfered in the running of the titles but not excessively. "Some people think you can own a newspaper but not interfere. What would be the point in that? Charles [Moore, former Daily Telegraph editor] and Dominic [Lawson, editor of the Sunday Telegraph] understood what the Telegraph was about. I'm certain there was some robust debate though."
He accepts that the appointment of Barbara Amiel, Black's wife, may have caused tension among staff. "I'm sure there were voices who said 'Was it a good idea that the proprietor's wife should write for the paper?'"
The Barclays, who vigorously defend their privacy, are a different kind of proprietor than the high-profile Black, he admits. Commentators variously label the Barclays as "secretive", "reclusive" or "enigmatic". Deedes, ever the diplomat, says: "They are successful people who have chosen to live a low-profile lifestyle. The sheer number of friends and acquaintances of the Barclays can hardly mean they are recluses." And of The Times's recent series of "exposés" he says, "if that is the best they can come up with, I reckon they have led pretty blameless lives."
He sees no contradiction in the notoriously private businessmen owning a national newspaper. Explaining their £665m purchase, he ventures: "They like to own nice things. We all like to own nice things. It's just that they can afford to own bigger things than you or me."
The biggest decision will be whether to follow The Independent and The Times and offer readers a tabloid, or compact, version. "The Barclays would like a serious newspaper which is not as cumbersome as a broadsheet. Once the new chief executive is in place the whole question will be revisited."
The Sunday Telegraph recently came in for some flak when James Brandon, a 23-year-old freelance, was taken hostage - and later freed - by militia men in Iraq earlier this month. It prompted criticism that national newspapers should not commission such young, relatively inexperienced foreign stringers.
"If someone calls up and says 'I'm going to be in Basra can I do a piece?' and they have a good track record, we would be mad if we said no," he says. "There will always be opportunists who have taken risks with their lives."
Deedes, whose son is a trainee reporter on the Telegraph, admits: "No parent would be happy. Your heart would be in your mouth all the time." But, he says, "we take very considerable steps to make sure people do not do anything stupid".
He is reluctant just to watch his father and son continue the Deedes tradition at the Telegraph. The man known affectionately by colleagues as "custard socks" (yes, he is wearing them during the interview) does not want to disappear altogether from the scene after almost 20 years' service at the Telegraph. "It would be nice if I could keep an interest here, especially with my father having worked at the paper as long as he has. I'm open to suggestions," he says.
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