Bob Edwards: Journalist who edited the 'Daily Express', 'The People' and the 'Sunday Mirror'

 

When Bob Edwards was appointed editor of the Sunday Mirror in 1972 it got him into the Guinness Book Of Records as "the Fleet Street editor who has worked on the most titles". Not an earth-shattering achievement, perhaps, but a record of sorts. He remained in the job for nearly 13 years, a record on that newspaper.

He had identified his future career – his ultimate ambition being to edit the Daily Express – while at Ranelagh, Berkshire, where he won a prize for writing in the school magazine before joining the Reading Mercury. After conscription (RAF ground crew) he joined the Windsor Labour Party. Ian Mikardo, Labour MP for Reading, alerted him to a vacancy on Tribune and sent him along to meet the editor, Michael Foot.

He was taken on and by 26 was the editor (1951-54). He came to the notice of Lord Beaverbrook and was offered a pay rise and a leader writer's job on the Evening Standard (1954-57); Foot had already been recruited. Edwards stood as Labour candidate for Merton and Morden in 1955 and refused to write leaders supporting the Suez War in 1956. He nevertheless moved quickly up through the system, becoming deputy editor of the Sunday Express (1957-59), then managing editor (1959-61) and editor (1961) of the Daily Express.

It was a career shift that hadn't gone unnoticed by the chattering classes. When challenged on BBC TV about his own association with Beaverbrook, Randolph Churchill had responded angrily: "I'm not a hack like some of these editors are. Do you think I'm a sort of Bob Edwards who's taken away from Tribune and put on the Daily Express at 10 times the salary to write exactly the opposite opinion that he wrote before?" Edwards sued, primarily on the basis that Churchill had been awarded £5,000 damages against The People when they described him as "a paid hack". But Beaverbrook did not support him and he eventually settled for payment of his legal costs by the BBC.

Another accomplishment, unnoticed by Guinness, was that Edwards, uniquely, held the editorship twice. He could stop conversation at dinner with the words, "I remember when I was fired as Express editor, for the second time..."

It was a good story. His son, Josh, told him the report of his dismissal had been on the six o'clock news. Bob said he shouldn't worry – they would keep the house, the car and the yacht, that there was a mysterious freemasonry called "the editors' club" and he would be found another job, somewhere. He had misread the youngster's concern: Josh feared his chums might rib him, hearing that his father had been fired. Bob told him: "If that happens, just ask them, 'If your daddy had been sacked, would it have been on the six o'clock news?'"

Following his sacking, Bob went into El Vino, remarking to the barman that it was the first time he had noticed hearing the bells of St Brides, the journalists' church in Fleet Street. The barman replied: "Oh yes. It's such a hoot! Mr Lancaster [Terry Lancaster, then Express foreign editor] has paid the verger to ring them because his editor..." There was a pause, then he continued: "The bells? Ringing? Oh, really, I hadn't noticed." In fact the barman had misread the plot. The bells were being tolled in mourning; Lancaster was disgusted at the treatment of his boss.

Shortly after the first firing, Beaverbrook had relented. He sent him to Glasgow to edit the Evening Citizen and after a year in exile brought him back as editor of the group's flagship daily, where he remained until 1965, the year after the proprietor's death. Those were heady days: the Express had the biggest team of journalists in the history of British newspapers. In 1963 Edwards introduced the paper to cheque-book journalism by buying up Christine Keeler's memoirs for £2,000. Inspired by the lay-out genius of associate editor Harold Keeble, he also created Photonews – allotting the top half of page three to the best photograph of the day.

With sales of 4,382,500 during his first term as editor the paper was the largest selling daily on earth. It targeted the aspirational wannabes of the Swinging Sixties. Hugh Cudlipp sneered that "it pretends to have a readership of two-car families with 2.4 children in semi-detached mock-Tudor homes – but they're not like that, they are merely people who want to be like that."

The point wasn't lost on the editor. When his assistant, George Millar, pointed out one night that the paper had four stories about public schools, whereas their readers couldn't afford private education, Edwards, who had been a prep-school boarder, told him: "I know they can't. But they like to think that the editor thinks they can."

The Express would be toppled as best-seller in 1965 by the Mirror, which achieved five million a day – but only after Edwards had left. The editorship of The People (1966-72) was more comfortable politically for him, if only because he no longer needed to follow the "ludicrous political persuasions" of his megalomaniac former boss.

Edwards – effectively a champagne socialist with Savile Row suits, hand-rolled cigars and a castle in Oxfordshire – always claimed to be working class, sometimes describing his father, who had never troubled Bob's mother with the formality of marriage, as "a milkman", although in fact he had been a director of United Dairies. Now he had a totally Labour-supporting – and non-aspirational – mass readership drawn wholly from the downtrodden classes.

From Sam Campbell he inherited a fiercely campaigning newspaper that under legendary crime reporter Duncan Webb largely cleaned up the protection rackets and brothels of London's Soho. Edwards continued in much the same spirit, exposing bent detectives on the take from pornographers and "vice kings". It required a certain amount of bravery: Webb's life had (allegedly) been threatened so often he worked behind a screen of "bullet-proof" glass. But when Scotland Yard got nowhere tackling internal corruption, Edwards, Express-style, put teams of hard-nosed reporters on the job.

The circulation, already more than five million, increased while he was at the helm; but it dropped 250,000 in 1970 when he fearlessly exposed a 21-year-old cold-blooded British army massacre of 25 Malaysian civilians suspected of harbouring terrorists, a scoop that many readers (and politicians) considered to be disloyal to "Our boys"...

His final editorship, of The People's sister paper, the Sunday Mirror, suited him best. Now the readership was what would become known as the "sane left", and what socialist Bob would describe as "nice people". In fact he saw them as being very much like Express readers (more than 40 per cent of whom, according to a contemporary readership survey, also voted Labour).

But despite his record-breaking achievements he was seen as cautious; under him the tabloid was never reported to the Press Council (almost certainly another record). The Sunday Mirror was the first newspaper to learn the sordid details of the "Jeremy Thorpe affair" in a dossier brought in by builders who discovered it while clearing a house. It was a story for which his contemporaries would have given their eye-teeth, but Edwards handed it to the politician, keeping a copy in his safe until it was exposed by rival papers.

Perhaps his greatest attempt at a world exclusive was in November 1980 when the news desk learnt that Prince Charles, unaccountably spending time on the royal train in sidings near Swindon, had been visited by a mystery blonde who had stayed until the early hours. Further investigation suggested that the car in which she arrived (its number had been logged at the local signal box) belonged to Diana Spencer's mother and, under the bold front page headline "Royal Love Train", conclusions were drawn. Publication brought a swift denial from the Palace.

Edwards announced in print that he stood by the story and that he had been lied to by the Palace before (when it denied rumours of a romance between Princess Anne and Mark Phillips); when his reporters returned to the scene the incriminating page had been ripped from the signalman's log book, and Nigel Dempster in the Daily Mail thereafter referred to Bob Edwards as "the man who called the Queen a liar".

He believed the story cost him the knighthood he had assumed would be inevitable given his track record in journalism and a lifetime of support of Labour: he was appointed CBE in 1986.

Robert John Edwards, journalist: born 26 October 1925; CBE 1986; married 1952 Laura Ellwood (divorced 1972; two sons, two daughters), 1977 Brigid Segrave; died 28 May 2012.

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