John Whale: Editor who supervised radical changes at the 'Church Times'

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The Independent Online

In a career that embraced both television and newspapers, John Whale was acknowledged as among the most stylish reporters of his generation. His elegant, perceptive prose was infused with a passionate concern for the use of language, which in 1984 he expressed in a book about correct English, Put it in Writing. The latter part of his career was devoted to covering religious matters, culminating in six years as editor of the influential Church Times.

His interest in Christianity was no doubt inherited from his father, the Rev John Seldon Whale, a Nonconformist minister and theologian, one-time headmaster of Mill Hill School, who died in 1997 aged 100. As a pupil at Winchester, where he had gone on a scholarship, the younger John showed a talent for acting. He continued to develop this interest when, after National Service in the Intelligence Corps, he went up to Corpus Christi College in Oxford, where he read Greats.

It was in a university production of Troilus and Cressida that he met his future wife, Judith Hackett. He was playing Ulysses and she was Cassandra. (Coincidentally, the title roles were played by Alasdair Milne – Whale's contemporary at Winchester – and Sheila Graucob, who would also marry.) After graduating in 1955 he and Judith spent a few years as jobbing actors and were married in 1957 in Minnesota, where he had been offered an academic post for a year.

Returning from America they moved to Paris, initially as English teachers. Here Whale made his start in broadcasting, on the English service of French radio, until in 1960 he successfully applied for a job as a reporter with the fledgling Independent Television News. In the five years since its foundation, ITN had become established as an innovative news provider, in some respects superior to the stodgy BBC. After three years as a general reporter he was appointed political correspondent and soon gained a reputation for his fluent analysis and first-rate contacts.

On the strength of that he was invited in 1967 to fill the coveted post of Washington correspondent for ITN. It was a turbulent time in US politics, and Whale provided notable coverage of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

In 1969 he was invited by Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times, to switch from television to newspapers. He became the paper's political reporter, with a particular interest in Northern Ireland – where he was the first to report suspicions that British soldiers were torturing IRA suspects. He also wrote crisp leading articles and kept an eye on the paper's grammar and usage of English, but in a non-didactic manner that ensured he remained popular with his colleagues.

During the 1970s Evans had gathered around him a group of talented, colourful and volatile journalists, occasionally given to panic and excess. They produced a famously vigorous and influential newspaper but needed someone to exert a calming influence, and Whale consistently assumed that role. "He had a headmasterly quality," a former colleague recalls. "He wasn't at all a typical journalist of the time – he ate slowly and drank moderately."

His allegiance to the Church was manifested when, in 1976, he became churchwarden at St Mary's in Barnes, south-west London. The first of his three books about Christianity, One Church, One Lord, was published in 1979 and in the same year, at his own suggestion, he became the Sunday Times's first religious affairs correspondent. When Rupert Murdoch bought Times Newspapers from Lord Thomson in 1981, Frank Giles assumed the editorial chair and made Whale an assistant editor, while he continued to write about religion. Giles had been Evans's deputy and ensured that the ethos of the paper was maintained in the early years of the new regime; but in 1983 he was replaced by Andrew Neil, whose style of editorship Whale found less congenial.

He was therefore gratified when, the following year, Alasdair Milne – his friend from school and university who was by then Director-General of the BBC – invited him to apply to be head of religious programmes for BBC Television. He was duly appointed, but did not much enjoy his five years at TV Centre. The BBC had long been notorious for the poisonous state of intra-personal relations in many of its departments, rife with rivalries and jealousies – very different from the camaraderie that had prevailed for most of his time on The Sunday Times.

Seeking an exit strategy, Whale set his sights on the Church Times, which was about to be sold by Bernard Palmer, its owner and editor. For some years he had contributed leading articles to the weekly church paper on a freelance basis, and he was the obvious choice when the new owners were looking for an editor in 1989.

In six years as editor he supervised radical changes. The paper moved from its old central London offices to Islington, and computerised technology was introduced. But his innovations in terms of content and format were more radical and more controversial. The changes in layout – and especially the new masthead – alienated many traditional readers, as did the introduction of a much more rigorous style of writing, with rigid separation between news and comment.

He enforced strict controls on the use of adjectives – usually to be avoided altogether – and on other common linguistic and journalistic devices that he thought added bias to reports. For instance, he would not allow reporters to employ any of the useful euphemisms for "he said", pointing out that such phrases as "he insisted" or "he claimed" introduced a judgmental element into what should be strictly factual reporting.

He became known for sending meticulously handwritten postcards to contributors acknowledging their work, although these could sometimes be acerbic. "You are a stranger to the comma," he once informed a writer who had failed to meet his strict standards of correct punctuation.

From The Sunday Times he had acquired an appreciation of investigative reporting, which he encouraged his reporters to pursue. The most notable scoop during his editorship came when the Church Times revealed the extent of the losses incurred when Lincoln Cathedral sent its copy of Magna Carta to Australia, resulting in a major ecclesiastical scandal. Sadly, none of these innovations led to an increase in circulation. The paper's core constituency of clergy and devout parishioners was dwindling, and it proved impossible to broaden its appeal.

Whale resigned in 1995, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The first prognostications were gloomy but an operation proved successful and he continued to live an active life, writing book reviews for the Church Times and other publications and spending half the year at his and Judy's second home in Normandy. But a stroke last March left him incapable of reading or writing and when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour he decided, along with Judy and his son Toby, not to undergo the long course of painful treatment that might briefly have extended his life. He died at home, as he had wanted.

Michael Leapman

John Hilary Whale, journalist and broadcaster: born Oxford 19 December 1931; reporter, ITN 1960-63, Political Correspondent 1963-67, US Correspondent 1967-69; political staff, The Sunday Times 1969-79, Religious Affairs Correspondent 1979-84, Assistant Editor 1981-84; Head of Religious Programmes, BBC TV 1984-89; Editor, Church Times 1989-95; married 1957 Judith Hackett (one son); died London 17 June 2008.