Anthony Howard: Journalist, broadcaster and writer, respected as one of the most astute political analysts of his generation

In August 2009 Anthony Howard was the guest on the Radio 4 programme With Great Pleasure, where significant figures introduce readings of prose and verse that have meant much to them. Of the ten extracts he chose, six were from political memoirs of his contemporaries, while the one poem in the list, Wordsworth's "Upon Westminster Bridge", is a hymn to the area of London that was the setting for Howard's most notable work. It was not hard to identify the principal passion of his professional life.

For nearly 50 years, almost until his death, he was among the most astute and authoritative analysts of British politics. He wrote for numerous newspapers and journals, made frequent broadcasts on radio and television and was the author or editor of a number of books that dealt with the recent political past. And although he edited the weekly New Statesman for six years, he never became editor of a national newspaper – a role he certainly coveted and deserved.

Born in London in 1934, he was the son of a clergyman, but was disinclined to follow his father into the church. He attended Westminster School and Oxford University, where his interest in politics was signalled by his election as chairman of the University Labour Club in 1954 (succeeding Jeremy Isaacs) and the following year as president of the Oxford Union. He initially trained as a barrister, but his career path changed when he was called up for National Service in 1956 and commissioned in the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, serving in the Middle East during and after the Suez invasion.

Like many educated men conscripted into the armed forces, he was appalled at some of the conditions they were made to endure and by the seeming incompetence of the top brass. He wrote articles on these themes and submitted them to the New Statesman, where they caught the attention of Kingsley Martin, then coming to the end of his 30-year stint as the journal's editor.

The publication of these initially anonymous articles persuaded both Howard and potential employers that his true calling was journalism, and on leaving the army in 1958 he was engaged as political correspondent of Reynold's News, a fading Sunday paper (it closed in 1962) allied to the Co-operative Movement. After a year he was recruited to the Manchester Guardian, where his clear promise was recognised in the award of a Harkness Fellowship that allowed him to gain experience in the US.

In 1961, John Freeman, who had just taken over from Martin at the helm of the New Statesman, invited Howard to become the journal's first-ever political columnist. It was a move that would define his career. A long period of Conservative rule was stuttering to a halt and the Statesman was influential in defining Labour's policy for its next term of office. Howard enjoyed privileged access to the senior politicians who would, in 1964, become ministers in Harold Wilson's administration.

He stayed with the journal until 1965, the year of two events that further altered the course of his life: he married Carol Gaynor, also a journalist, and he was asked by Denis Hamilton, the editor of The Sunday Times, to take on a role that was then unique in British journalism. He was to be the paper's Whitehall correspondent, cultivating contacts with civil servants to reveal the truth behind how policy decisions were made. The principal instigator of the initiative was Hamilton's deputy, William Rees-Mogg, who wrote a leading article describing it as "a major departure, and one which if it is successful will change British newspaper practice in an important way."

In the event, the experiment bore just a single fruit – a detailed examination of the disagreements on economic policy between the Treasury and the newly-created Department of Economic Affairs. The article included quotes from named civil servants, something previously unknown in British political journalism. Wilson was appalled and issued an edict barring civil servants and ministers from talking to Howard.

This effectively put an end to the initiative and the following year he moved to The Observer as its Washington correspondent. After three years in the US he returned to the New Statesman, as assistant editor to Richard Crossman, the former cabinet minister. Crossman quickly gained a reputation as a disorganised editor and Howard and his colleagues found themselves having to do most of the donkey work to bring the journal out on time every week.

In 1972 Crossman was fired by the journal's board, then led by Sir Jock Campbell of the Booker Group. For the first time, the next editor was chosen by a semi-democratic committee made up of three directors and three senior members of the editorial staff, nominated by their colleagues. A short list of six names was compiled and Howard was chosen by a comfortable majority.

In his book A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, Alan Watkins – a member of the committee that selected him – wrote of Howard: "He was the most conscientious and industrious editor for whom I have worked. Letters were answered by return of post, manuscripts read all the way through. Unlike most literate editors, he read the whole paper, not just the parts of it that had been written by himself." Although contributors for the most part enjoyed writing for him, he was notoriously frugal with the magazine's funds and paid some of the lowest rates in London.

He spent six years in the post. Although during his tenure the journal was highly regarded, it had to compete for circulation with its direct rival, The Spectator, which had seen a revival in its fortunes. In 1978 he was replaced by Bruce Page; yet he continued throughout his life to take a sympathetic interest in the weekly's fortunes, writing letters of encouragement to new editors when they were appointed.

After leaving the Statesman, Howard went off for two years to edit The Listener, a weekly journal owned by the BBC. Then, in 1981, he was invited by Donald Trelford, editor of The Observer, to return to the paper as its deputy editor. Howard stayed in that post for seven years, but the relationship between the two men was always uneasy. Trelford was energetic, a first-rate newspaper technician and a good manager of his disparate staff. Yet he was three years younger than Howard, who carried more weight as a public figure and could never rid himself of the conviction that he, rather than Trelford, should be occupying the editorial chair.

By now Howard was making a name for himself as a television pundit. Although his face could not be described as televisual, his range of contacts, his ability to explain issues succinctly and, above all, his conviction that in politics personalities counted for more than policies, meant that he was always worth listening to. For three years he presented Face the Press, a programme based on an American model, and also appeared on the BBC flagships Panorama and Newsnight.

In 1993, Howard accepted the position of obituaries editor on The Times, although he was no great admirer of its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, and disapproved of the powerful influence he was able to wield on successive British governments. Obituaries were going through a period of change, led by The Independent and the The Daily Telegraph, which had broken away from the mould of dry-as-dust records of a person's life and achievements, giving their obituarists the freedom to include assessments – sometimes controversial – of the subject's contribution to his or her field, spiced with revealing anecdotes.

In moving The Times obituaries closer to that model, Howard occasionally courted trouble. In 1998, when Rev. Brian Masters, the Bishop of Edmonton, died, he insisted on writing the obituary himself so that he could attack the Bishop's fervent opposition to the ordination of women. He described Masters as "one of the last relics", adding: "The best that could be said of his sermons was that they tended to be short." The paper received scores of complaints and the obituary was denounced by the Bishop of London from the pulpit of St. Paul's. After quitting the field of obituaries in 1999, Howard contributed a weekly column to The Times for the next six years.

His books were nearly all about politics. In 1965 he collaborated with Richard West to produce The Making of the Prime Minister, an account of Wilson's rise to power, and later he wrote well-received biographies of R.A. Butler and Richard Crossman. He also edited Crossman's diaries for publication. His final biography, diverting at last from politics, was Basil Hume: the Monk Cardinal, published in 2005.

Howard was a clubbable man (a member of the Garrick and the Beefsteak) and an enthusiastic gossip. He was a regular attender at the informal gatherings of a clutch of high-profile columnists at El Vino's, the wine bar that stands near the junction of Fleet Street and the Strand.

He was awarded the CBE in 1997 and two years later his contribution to journalism was recognised by his peers when the television programme What the Papers Say presented him with the Gerald Barry Award for his lifetime achievement.

Anthony Howard, journalist, broadcaster and writer: born London 12 February 1934; married 1965 Carol Gaynor; died London 19 December 2010.

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