Brian Hitchen: Admired and respected tabloid editor behind whose easy grin was a ruthless and indefatigable chaser of stories

 

Brian Hitchen was an archetypal tabloid journalist of what is now termed the old school. He was supremely self-confident, ruthless, indefatigable in pursuit of a story and, like many of his contemporaries, scornful of the abilities of today's practitioners of the trade, emerging from what he called "half-baked courses" in journalism.

Most of his career was split between two of the principal tabloid groups, the Mirror and the Express, highlighted by his seven years as editor of the Daily Star, the younger sister of the Daily Express. But the story for which he was most renowned occurred a decade earlier, in 1974, when he was news editor of the Express. It fell to him to co-ordinate the tracking down of Ronnie Biggs, one of the Great Train Robbers, who had escaped from custody and subsequently disappeared.

Following a tip-off, Hitchen sent a team of reporters and a photographer to the Brazilian capital. He operated in the greatest secrecy, so that no rival newspaper should get wind of the story. He told Detective Jack Slipper of Scotland Yard that Biggs had been traced but at first did not say where. "Only five people knew about it, and Slipper and his sidekick from the Yard didn't know where they were going until two days before," said Hitchen. "I bought the tickets to Brazil and gave them to him. The Daily Express threw a party for the news agency that covered Heathrow airport to distract its staff, otherwise they would have seen two Scotland Yard detectives getting on the plane and told everybody." The result was a legendary scoop, even if it did not result in Biggs's recapture: the Brazilians would not allow his extradition because he was about to become a father.

The incident well illustrates why Hitchen, a rotund man with pugnacious features, was liked and admired by colleagues. Another former editor of the Daily Star, Derek Jameson, wrote in his memoir, The Last of the Hot Metal Men: "I have a warm place in my heart for Brian Hitchen, cuddly editor of the Daily Star. He looks like everyone's favourite uncle. Behind the easy grin is a tough newspaperman."

Born in Lancashire in 1936, Hitchen was educated at Hegginbottom School, Ashton-under-Lyne, leaving at 15 to become a copy boy on the Daily Despatch in Manchester. After a year he became a reporter on the Bury Times and then the Manchester Evening News.

In 1957 he graduated to the national press, as a reporter on the Daily Mirror, first in Manchester and later in Fleet Street. In 1963 he joined the paper's Paris office. The role of foreign correspondent appealed to him, and in 1964 he was posted to the US, serving in both New York and Washington. It was a time when the New York bureaux of the Fleet Street papers were lavishly staffed and could afford to send reporters from there all across the country, as well as to the Caribbean, Latin America and the Far East, where Hitchen spent time covering the Vietnam war. Between assignments he was a core member of the group of some two dozen resident British correspondents who would meet convivially of an evening at Costello's bar on Third Avenue.

Returning to London in 1972, he was deputy news editor of the Mirror for a year until being poached by the Express as news editor. In 1976 he was lured back across the Atlantic to be assistant editor of the National Enquirer, a racy American tabloid sold mainly in supermarkets, specialising in lurid tales of the sensational and the supernatural. After a year he was made head of the Enquirer's European bureau but in 1978 accepted an invitation to be assistant editor of Now!, a weekly bankrolled by Sir James Goldsmith which folded after two years.

Hitchens then returned to the Express group as London editor of the Daily Star, launched three years earlier. In 1986 he moved to be deputy editor of the Sunday Express, returning to the Star as editor a year later. In that role he gained a reputation for cool judgement that led in 1991 to his appointment to the new Press Complaints Commission, the self-regulatory body that succeeded the Press Council.

Occasionally he found his roles as editor and regulator to be in conflict. In 1992 Lord McGregor, the first chairman of the PCC, attacked the press in strong terms for its intrusive coverage of the growing rift between Prince Charles and Princess Diana – amounting, he said, to "an odious exhibition of journalists dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls". Without criticising McGregor openly, Hitchen defied his strictures by running a headline the following day: "It's all true, says Di's pal".

Nevertheless he remained a supporter of self-regulation. Commenting on the Leveson Report in the British Journalism Review last year, he wrote that the PCC should be retained, even if it was "no longer the efficient, unbiased machine it was during my four years as a founding member".

He served on other public bodies, including the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee and the Honours Committee for Media and Broadcasting. Stepping down from the Star in 1994 he returned to the Sunday Express for a year before leaving to establish a public relations firm and to run an Irish magazine publishing company. The Irish connection stemmed from his marriage to Nelli O'Hanlon, from Kildare. Both were killed after being hit by a car in Altea in Spain.

Brian Hitchen, journalist: born 8 July 1936; CBE 1990; married 1962 Ellen O'Hanlon (died 2013; one son, one daughter); died Altea, Spain 2 December 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own