Frank Johnson

Parliamentary sketch writer
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The Independent Online

Frank Robert Johnson, journalist: born London 20 January 1943; messenger boy, Sunday Express 1959-60; reporter, Walthamstow Post 1960-61; reporter, Walthamstow Guardian 1961-65; reporter, North-West Evening Mail 1965-66; reporter, Nottingham Evening Post and Guardian Journal 1966; Assistant Lobby Correspondent, Liverpool Post 1966-68; Lobby Correspondent, Liverpool Echo 1968-69; political staff, The Sun 1969-72; Parliamentary Sketch Writer and Leader Writer, Daily Telegraph 1972-79, Parliamentary Sketch Writer and Columnist 2000-06; Columnist, Now! magazine 1979-81; Parliamentary Sketch Writer, The Times 1981-83, Paris Diarist 1984, Bonn Correspondent 1986-86, Parliamentary Sketch Writer 1986-87, Associate Editor 1987-88; Associate Editor, Sunday Telegraph 1988-93, Deputy Editor (Comment) 1993-94, Deputy Editor 1994-95; Editor, The Spectator 1995-99; married 1998 Virginia Fraser (née Grose; two stepsons, two stepdaughters); died London 15 December 2006.

Frank Johnson's working-class roots, of which he was rather proud, made him an improbable star in the firmament of right-wing polemicists who clustered around The Times, The Spectator and the Telegraph newspapers towards the end of the 20th century.

The rest had learned their flamboyant conservatism at the most prestigious schools and universities. Johnson received only a basic state education, but his quick, savage wit and lack of affectation placed him among the most effective political writers, as well as the most readable. Max Hastings, one of the editors he worked for, used the word "genius" to describe Johnson's parliamentary sketches.

Comparatively few commoners provide details of their father's profession in Who's Who, unless he held military or academic rank. Johnson, though, was careful to note in his entry that he was born in 1943 to Ernest Johnson, pastry cook and confectioner, and Doreen Skinner. They lived in Hackney, just north of the East End of London.

He failed the 11-plus and went to a secondary school in Shoreditch that happened to have an arrangement with the Royal Opera House to provide the children needed for certain productions. Recognising that rehearsals took place during the day, and that he could therefore miss some lessons, he volunteered for the chorus of several operas, although he would write later: "Of the vocal arts we were entirely deficient. We simply shouted with the utmost vigour."

The apogee of his stage career came in 1957, when he was cast as one of the two boys clasped to Maria Callas's bosom in Norma. It was also his swansong - at 14 he was getting a bit big for the parts - but those three years in the chorus left him with a lifelong passion for opera and ballet, which often spilled over into his writing.

He quit school at 16 to become a messenger on the Sunday Express. The sense of adventure in Fleet Street made an immediate impact on him and he resolved to train as a reporter. He left London after a year to work his way up on a series of regional newspapers until he was noticed by Larry Lamb, about to become the first editor of Rupert Murdoch's Sun. Lamb took Johnson to London with him and appointed him to the paper's political staff, based in the House of Commons.

The Sun quickly began to challenge the Daily Mirror as Britain's best-selling tabloid, but its success was not due to its political coverage. Circulation really took off when it began printing pictures of near-naked women on page three. Johnson, still living with his parents, would tell friends how he felt obliged to tear out the offending page before his mother could get to the paper.

In 1972 Andrew Alexander, who wrote the parliamentary sketch in The Daily Telegraph, told him he was moving to the Mail, and wondered whether Johnson would be interested in the post he was vacating. The sketch, made up of sceptical and waspish reporting of goings-on in the Commons chamber, was a comparatively recent introduction into daily journalism, having been pioneered on The Spectator in the Fifties by Henry Fairlie and Bernard Levin. It was politics presented as pantomime, reducing MPs to the level of mere mortals by focusing on their absurdities and pretensions and the pointless slanging matches between them.

Johnson had never done anything like it before, and assumed that Alexander had recommended him because they shared unfashionable conservative opinions. He was given the job and later wrote perceptively on the surprising differences between the cultures of The Sun and the Telegraph. On his old paper, "the male staff were well-dressed, clean and obviously went home to their wives after work". Moreover, they treated each other courteously. On the other hand, after his first week on the Telegraph he ventured into the office pub, the King and Keys, to be greeted by a drunken colleague telling him: "Get back to The Sun, get back to the gutter where you belong."

Despite that discouraging start, he proved an inspired choice as sketch writer, his sharp sense of humour quickly gaining him a following among readers and the admiration of his peers. In 1977 he was named sketch writer of the year in the What the Papers Say awards. Later he was assigned to writing leading articles in which, like many of his colleagues in the paper, he displayed enormous admiration for the radical right-wing policies of Margaret Thatcher, who became Prime Minister in 1979.

That was also the year when the financier James Goldsmith launched his weekly news magazine Now!, and Johnson was one of several stars of Fleet Street hired to staff it. Despite its raft of big-name writers, the magazine never achieved a high enough circulation to move into profit, and Goldsmith closed it after two years.

Johnson, though, had jumped ship just before it sank. In 1981 Rupert Murdoch acquired The Times and appointed Harold Evans to edit it. Conscious of his proprietor's right-wing predilections, Evans thought it would be prudent to recruit a prominent conservative ideologue, and Johnson seemed to fill the bill. His judgement was confirmed when Johnson, after less than a year on the paper, won further professional recognition, as Columnist of the Year in the 1981 British Press Awards.

His writings about politics in the Telegraph, Now! and The Times were collected in two books, Out of Order (1982) and Election Year (1983). They were notable not just for the barbed jokes, good as they were, but for frequent flashes of real insight. Here is a comment on Roy Jenkins, then leader of the Social Democratic Party - one of his favourite butts:

He has that element of self-parody always present in truly serious people. It is a little lacking in Mr [David] Steel. It is there in Mrs Thatcher, much of her "bossiness" being attributable to it.

After two years he was ready to broaden his scope, and dipped into the role of foreign correspondent with short stints in Paris and Bonn. Failing to make the impact abroad that he and his editors had hoped, he returned to the Commons press gallery, clearly his natural habitat. In 1987 he was made associate editor but the following year was lured back to the Telegraph group as an associate editor and columnist for the Sunday paper. He rose to be deputy editor, until in November 1995 the proprietor, Conrad Black, asked him to edit The Spectator, the fashionable house organ of the Tory right that he had acquired in the late Eighties.

This should have been a significant career boost for Johnson. Both his predecessors in the post, Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson, had moved on to become Editor of The Sunday Telegraph, and Moore was now taking over the daily. Yet although during his tenure The Spectator's circulation remained buoyant at well above 50,000 a week, there was a perception that it lacked some of the panache it had acquired under its two previous editors. Staff complained that he lacked decisiveness and a writer in The Times called the magazine "predictable and lacklustre", without teeth.

In part this may have been due to Labour's landslide election victory in 1997, and the subsequent loss of confidence among Conservative politicians and journalists, having suddenly to adjust their tone from triumphalism to despair. Conrad Black saw the need for a change of editor, and in July 1999 he found a pretext. Johnson ran an article documenting the curious number of deaths of young women who had relationships with members of the élite Kennedy family in America. It was illustrated on the the front cover by a series of memorial crosses with the women's names on them.

Although Black was no friend of the liberal Kennedys, he found the cover a grave breach of taste. He dismissed Johnson as Editor, replacing him with the (unrelated) Boris Johnson. Frank Johnson returned to the Telegraph and to the parliamentary sketch, although as his health deteriorated he confined himself to writing a weekly column - the last, "Red braces: a sign of creative genius", appeared last Saturday. He filed his final story for the paper on Sunday, after witnessing the tenor Roberto Alagna walk out of Aida at La Scala.

In 1998, in late middle age, he married Virginia, the widow of Simon Fraser, the Master of Lovat, acquiring an instant family of two stepsons and two stepdaughters.

He will be remembered as one of the sharpest writers and commentators of his generation, with a philosophy drawn from this quotation from Goethe, reproduced at the beginning of his first book: "The intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, the responsible man hardly anything."

Michael Leapman

Frank Johnson was not so much savage as derisive and conscious of the funniness of serious politicians, writes Edward Pearce.

He preferred eccentrics to the sensible people who make terrible copy. Dennis Skinner will always be "The Beast of Bolsover" because Johnson, the Tory, adored the doctrinaire, rough-mouthed ex-miner who damned the Tories ­ "All they want to do is line their pockets" ­ before damning most of the Labour Party for selling out (long before they did). "The Beast" was meant as praise and taken with pride. Frank Johnson disliked received opinion and always made the case against it, even to the length of cultivating the Bavarian hate figure Franz-Josef Strauss. It all went to the grit of contradiction.

He was a much better editor of The Spectator than Michael Leapman allows, not least because he indulged odd characters, including a future New Labour MP, sycophantic beyond the norm, to write their natural nonsense and provide copy inadvertently amusing. One of the great loathings of his life was for the then Kimberly Fortier (later Blunkett's Quinn), commercial manager of the paper, "Dreadful woman, dreadful. Oh!" She in turn was shocked at his indifference to commercial matters and concentration on the arts. Did they really need a ballet column?

"That's the page I turn to first."

Frank read and read, studied and studied, for the sheer joy of it. He taught himself French and German to high levels. He was old high culture without an atom of snobbery. He read books instead of having heard about them. I have never seen a classical music collection like his. The knowledge of opera and ballet was expert and deep, but also delightfully provocative. Surely the libretto of Il Trovatore was dreadful? "Ah you mean Cammarano. No, Cammarano was a great man, great man", and he launched into a specious but brilliant defence.

If he was a great sketch writer, he was an even more brilliant conversationalist. Is there a diary? If so, there is something splendid awaiting us.