Loyal political correspondent
Tuesday 18 April 2006
George William Clark, naval officer and journalist: born Bedford 27 April 1918; political correspondent, The Times 1950-81, European political correspondent 1981-83; OBE 1984; married 1949 Grethe Nørving (two sons, two daughters); died Sidcup, Kent 4 March 2006.
Although loyal to The Times, for whom he worked for a third of a century from 1950 as a political correspondent in Westminster and latterly in Strasbourg, George Clark had another set of loyalties - to the House of Commons Press Gallery and Parliamentary Lobby, of both of which he was chairman; to Parliament; to the freedom and multi-faceted nature of the press; and to democracy.
It was this set of values that gained the esteem of such varied political editors as Sir Harry Boyne of The Daily Telegraph and Peter Zinkin of The Daily Worker. It was also this set of beliefs which led him to encourage, perhaps crucially, if somewhat clandestinely, the late and great Tony Bevins to hive off, and support Andreas Whittam Smith and others in founding The Independent. Clark told me years later that he thought another quality broadsheet would be good for British journalism.
George William Clark was born in Bedford in 1918 and went to school at the Clapham Road Elementary School. He started work as a messenger boy with the Bedfordshire Times, where he went on to become a trainee reporter. In 1939 he volunteered for the Navy and was posted to the Mediterranean fleet. He always felt that he was supremely lucky to come through the Second World War. In 1941 he was the only person on his destroyer who understood German. His allotted task was to listen to the radio exchanges between aircraft attacking Valletta Harbour.
His destroyer was hit and sunk and the crew had to swim for their lives. Most of his shipmates decided to go to the cinema the following day - alas it was directly hit by a German bomb and they were killed. Clark never forgot his contemporaries, nor did he forget the British and Germans who had forfeited their lives during the Battle of the Atlantic. One of his shipmates told me that he had acted with reckless courage in pulling some of the German survivors out of the water. Although he didn't say much about it in the House of Commons he attended the Bismarck reunions in Hamburg, as a welcome guest.
It was this belief in Europe which, towards the end of his career, prompted him to ask The Times to send him in 1981 as political correspondent to Strasbourg and the European Parliament, in which he fervently believed. He was one of the few members of the Westminster Press Gallery who had taken any interest whatever in the doings of the indirectly elected members of the House of Commons who were sent to the European Parliament in 1976-79. He also spoke fluent Danish, the mother-tongue of his wife of 56 years.
Among many colourful episodes in which Clark was involved was a spat with Richard Crossman (whose Parliamentary Private Secretary I was). Crossman made a personal criticism of him during the censure motion of 7 July 1969, "That this House regrets the muddle which has surrounded the proposed introduction of higher charges for dentures and spectacles", moved on behalf of the official opposition by their then spokesman on health, Lord Balniel (the present Earl of Crawford and Balcarres). Crossman, in his wind-up, said:
I shall tell the House what happened, relating it to what was said, because it is an interesting example of what was called news creation in the good old days of psychological warfare. It is interesting to a psychological warrior to have his techniques applied against himself and to see what happens. It all started on the evening of 23rd June, when Mr George Clark told me that he had an absolutely red-hot tip, from a source
which was bound to be taken seriously, that the charges were definitely deferred. I had very little time, and I said that there was not a word of truth in the story. Not unexpectedly, on reading The Times the next day, after my categorical denial, The Times's lead headline on the front page was "Charges For Glasses and Teeth Deferred", sub-headline "Crossman Grows Cautious".
Crossman proceeded to rubbish Clark and for some years they never spoke to one another, after having had a fairly intimate working relationship. When he knew he was dying, Crossman contacted Clark to apologise, explaining that he had had no option other than to attack him in self-defence, albeit that he knew Clark was accurate as usual.
Clark had ears like Jodrell Bank for a good political story, many of which he acquired by rummaging round the House of Commons in the very late hours and early hours of the morning. He had good sources in the Conservative Party and even better sources in the Labour Party. One of his prime sources in the Tories was the late Humphrey Atkins, later to be Margaret Thatcher's Chief Whip. His best source over many years in the Labour Party was James Callaghan.
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