The sudden death of Ian Craig, who was a stalwart of the Westminster press lobby for more than 25 years, has generated a stream of tributes unusual both in their number and in their warmth.
In a quarter of a century as political editor of the Manchester Evening News he was known at Westminster not just as a sharp journalist with a nose for news but also as a most gentlemanly, friendly and helpful person. "Ian had a fantastic ability to read the political weather," was one of the compliments paid to him. His long-time friend and lobby colleague Ian Hernon summed him up: "He was an old-school reporter, pretty hopeless at technology, who believed that his job was to dictate stories fast and first. Often from the pub." Another political journalist, Adel Darwish, wrote mournfully: "The press bar felt empty and sad yesterday afternoon, with one of us missing."
Ian Craig, born in 1945, grew up in Glasgow and North Wales. As a teenager one of his early jobs was putting plastic gifts into copies of the girl's comic Bunty, produced by D.C. Thomson. He was sacked for trying to set up a union branch in the sternly anti-union firm.
He began to make a name after getting a junior job with the evening paper the Liverpool Echo, interviewing the Beatles and treasuring a photograph of himself having tea and biscuits with them. In his off-duty hours he was much involved in theatre, directing a production of Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons.
Moving on to become local government editor, he established a reputation as a tenacious reporter who could unearth many stories. The Merseyside political labyrinth provided a useful journalistic grounding for Westminster, where in the early 1980s he went to work as the Echo's lobby editor. In 1984 he moved to the Manchester Evening News, spending the next 25 years in the Westminster village.
In bidding farewell to him, Ian Hernon delivered a sombre valedictory: "He joins a regiment of pals who never made it to retirement. They include fellow hacks, officials and politicians. The point is that this is a killer place. Long hours, the hothouse atmosphere, stress, the political roughhouse, travelling, separation from families – and, let's be honest, 17 bars – all combine to prevent many making old bones."
Craig was proud of the fact that over the years he interviewed five prime ministers. In a tribute one of them, Tony Blair, described him as "a very talented journalist and a true gentleman." Craig, however, did not particularly warm to Blair, once writing: "He was not an easy person to interview. Unlike John Major, who gave the impression he cared what you thought, Mr Blair always seemed to have something else on his mind as he answered questions."
Craig cut a distinctive figure at Westminster with his immaculate sense of dress: he was once described as "dapper to the point of dandyness." The former Newspaper Conference chairman John Hipwood said of him, "With his trademark long-striding walk and his navy blue beret, he was well-known in the Commons and around Whitehall."
Away from Westminster he and Brendan O'Malley co-wrote a book, The Cyprus Conspiracy, which was short-listed for the Orwell Prize. It argued that the 1974 partition of the island came about partly because of an American plot to maintain military bases there.
Together with his collaborator Paul Desmond he also produced highly-regarded short films on topics such as Vincent van Gogh. At his death they were working on a project on Elvis Presley impersonators. In May 2008 the pair put together a project which encompassed both Craig's interest in film and his enduring fascination with the Commons: they raised money for charity with a 15-minute film on the closure of the Press Bar in Westminster. Inevitably entitled Time Gentlemen Please, it took several prizes at film festivals.
Craig said at the time: "The Press Gallery bar has been the scene of many dramatic moments over the years and it was sad to see it demolished as part of refurbishment of the Gallery. We were pleased to film the old bar before it went and to put on record the views of veteran journalists."
The tributes to him were numerous. Jon Smith, political editor of the Press Association, described him as "always the consummate professional who knew where the stories were and worked hard to get them." He added: "He was such a well-loved member of the Lobby who always made time to help colleagues."
According to Andrew Grice, political editor of The Independent, "Ian was a gent, an extremely kind and generous man who always had time to help and advise colleagues and rivals – which is not always the case in the competitive world of political journalism. I will always be indebted to him."
David Hencke, chairman of the press gallery, said: "Ian will be sorely missed. He was a great guy – incredibly friendly to everyone. He had a great nose for news and kept well abreast of everything happening in Westminster." The former Manchester Evening News editor Mike Unger described him as "one of the great political journalists of his generation, with an outstanding record in both local and national politics. He was quiet, thoughtful, intelligent and hugely calm under pressure."
The paper's former London editor Ian Wylie recalled: "We worked alongside each other for the best part of a quarter of a century and in all that time we never once had a cross word. The number of shocked colleagues paying tribute to him is a mark of what a lovely man he was."
Ian Craig, journalist: born 14 May 1945; died London 23 October 2009.