Frank Branston: Journalist who exposed local corruption and became mayor of Bedford
Friday 27 November 2009
Frank Branston was a brilliant investigative journalist, specialising in local government issues in Bedford and Bedfordshire. He founded his own newspaper, Bedford on Sunday (later Bedfordshire on Sunday), and became Bedford's first directly elected mayor in 2002. He also wrote two novels.
The son of Francis and Gladys Branston, Frank was educated at Sloane Grammar School in Chelsea, where his headmaster was the prolific literary text-book editor Guy Boas, and his English teacher Robert Pitman, who later joined the Daily Express. Branston was first employed as an office-boy at the Sunday Express, and continued selling stories to the papers after being called up into the Royal Artillery in 1959. After de-mob in 1961, he joined the Romford Times as a local government reporter, and was encouraged by a councillor always "to tell the truth as best you can, and let the chips fall where they may", which Branston tried to make the motto of his career.
After various reporting jobs, as well as working in PR and as an agency journalist, Branston became an investigative reporter on The People, during which time (1965-67) he was involved in the exposure of the fraudulent insurer Dr Emil Savundra. After marrying Marlies in 1968, Branston was appointed chief reporter of the Bedfordshire Times by its editor-in-chief, Douglas May.
The activities of leading members of Bedford borough council soon came under Branston's scrutiny. Two aldermen, Ronald Gale, owner of an ironmonger and builders' merchants, and Arthur Jones, an estate agent who was also Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire, had created a web of property-development companies which benefited from planning permissions granted in meetings closed to the press and public, as well as to most members of the council. Though the law appeared not to have been broken, there was a lack of transparency in various land deals which Branston worked hard to expose, in news stories and his fortnightly political gossip column, "Left, Right and Centre". The stories also appeared in Private Eye and featured in a local by-election campaign. Messrs Gale and Jones did not seek election to the new Bedford district council in 1973. Branston was the first weekly newspaperman to be chosen as Provincial Journalist of the Year, in 1974.
None of this endeared Branston to many of his colleagues, or to May's successor as editor, who also resented Frank's NUJ activities. As May said in a tribute to Branston on the day of his funeral, the Bedfordshire Times then proceeded to "commit suicide" by not appointing their best reporter for 50 years as news editor. Branston left, but was unable to get a similar job.
Branston briefly joined the Bedford Rural Labour Party, returned to news-agency work in London (covering the IRA bombing campaign which ended in the Balcombe Street siege), and wrote two thrillers, An Up and Coming Man (1977) and Sergeant Ritchie's Conscience (1978), dealing respectively with local government and police corruption.
With friends in the local Labour Party, Frank pondered the idea of a new – free – newspaper in his adopted town, and the first issue of Bedford on Sunday appeared on 6 March 1977. His fellow directors were Brian Constant, a former Bedfordshire police inspector, and Councillor Bob Elford, a greengrocer. After a shaky start, a combination of professionalism and irreverence attracted (as Branston, the founder-editor, had predicted) a strong advertising base, and the circulation of the (paid-for) Bedfordshire Times went into a steep decline, culminating in its closure in 1995.
In 1986, after having to settle a libel action, Branston resigned as editor to force the issue of the directors' disagreement over the paper's future. He eventually bought out the interests of Constant and Elford and became chairman of a new parent company, Local Sunday Newspapers (LSN) Ltd, and retired from the editor's chair, though he continued to contribute an occasional column. Something of a gourmet, he had often written reviews of restaurants under the pseudonym Sean Quarrie. In 2005 the company was sold to Iliffe News and Media.
Branston's final, unpredictable career move was into local government, in the role of directly elected mayor of Bedford, after Bedfordshire on Sunday had campaigned for a local referendum, requiring the collection of 5,000 electors' signatures. Since 1973, Bedford had been a "hung council", thought by some to be a cause of economic decline. Branston was elected in 2002, and presided over a "cabinet" system of "portfolio holders" drawn from different political groups.
Like many former radical critics who attain power, Branston proved a rather conservative administrator, seeing himself as the managing director of the council, and he was often photographed hobnobbing with money men and property speculators in an effort to promote (for the public benefit) the kind of developments in the town centre and elsewhere which he would no doubt once have criticised in print. He became mayor too late in life to embark on the shake-up of the borough's administrative structures which he had previously advocated.
Branston was a witty and acerbic conversationalist, completely lacking "the embarrassment gene", as his old friend Nic Davies said. As a public speaker, he was more abrupt than might have been expected, and the abrasiveness which had served the campaigning journalist so well prevented the mayor from acting as a conciliator. He would write strong letters to the local press in rebuttal of even minor criticisms of his policies. His column in the council's monthly Bedford News (a publication he had vowed to axe before his election) was always worth reading, and in it he put the case for his pet projects with humour and persuasiveness.
The strain of the mayor's job – especially the prolonged battle with Bedfordshire county council for the status of new unitary authority, which he and the borough won – had begun to tell on Branston, who suffered a severe stroke two weeks before he died.
Frank Branston, journalist, and mayor of Bedford: born Retford, Nottinghamshire 9 May 1939; married 1968 Marlies (two daughters); died Bedford 14 August 2009.
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