Lord Rees-Mogg: 'Times' editor who later brought high moral purpose to his public service

 

The future novelist Simon Raven and the future editor William Rees-Mogg were together at Charterhouse, the Surrey public school, during the Second World War.

In his 1982 memoir, Shadows on the Grass, Raven described an incident where Rees-Mogg, umpiring an inter-house cricket match, gave a number of patently wrong decisions so as to rig the game against a team whose housemaster had in some way crossed him. Raven later admitted to employing some artistic licence, but added: "He did like umpiring very much and he was also a great plotter."

Both those characteristics can be traced through the umpire's subsequent career as opinionated columnist, magisterial editor, company director and office-holder on several august public bodies. A consistent thread running through all those roles was his sense of high moral purpose, based on his adherence to the precepts of the Roman Catholic church; but although that won him many admirers he invariably forged powerful enmities as well. "There are those who have found me difficult," he once wrote, "but my own judgement is that I have not been difficult enough."

His superficially diffident manner cloaked a streak of ruthlessness and intense personal ambition. Politically and philosophically he was a conservative, though he described himself as a Whig. He first met Margaret Thatcher on the committee of the Oxford University Conservative Association, and they were mutual admirers. In the 1970s and 1980s they shared an enthusiasm for a monetarist economic policy. It was she who appointed him to regulatory positions in broadcasting and the arts, with a brief to assault the liberal icons of unlimited artistic freedom and generous public subsidy. In 1988 she made him a life peer.

William Rees-Mogg was born in 1928 to a Somerset landowner married to an Irish-American classical actress. Although brought up in his mother's Catholic faith he was not sent to a Catholic school but to Charterhouse, because of its academic credentials. Simon Raven – who later drew on Rees-Mogg when creating the devious Somerset Lloyd James in his Arms for Oblivion novels – remembered him as a sickly boy, frequently excused games. Another contemporary, the cabinet minister Jim Prior, confirmed it: "He was an eccentric schoolboy. He loved old books and watching cricket but not playing it: a thinker, not a doer."

He became head of school and won the Brackenbury History Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. Called up for National Service, he spent two years as an education sergeant in the RAF – the only occasion in his life when he did not rise effortlessly into the officer class. At Balliol he read history and was expected to gain a first-class honours degree. Instead he made a conscious choice to engage in the political life of the university at the expense of his studies. He was elected President of the Oxford Union in 1951, but left with only a second-class degree.

His first career break came that year, the result of a profile of him in Isis, the Oxford student journal. In the interview he maintained that he read the Financial Times each morning over breakfast. This was brought to the attention of Lord Drogheda, the FT's managing director, who told the editor, Gordon Newton, then seeking young recruits to his staff. Rees-Mogg was hired, and before long was chief leader-writer and an assistant editor.

He harboured political ambitions, and for a while combined his role on the FT with a part-time post as a speechwriter for Sir Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister. In 1956 he was chosen as Conservative candidate for a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Chester-le-Street, which he fought again in the General Election of 1959. But in 1960 he decided to concentrate on journalism when he joined The Sunday Times as economics editor. The following year he was also made political editor, and in 1964 became deputy editor to Denis Hamilton.

In 1966 the Canadian tycoon Roy Thomson, who had owned The Sunday Times since 1959, bought The Times from the Astor family. Long regarded as the voice of the ruling élite, the paper, edited by Sir William Haley, had a circulation of little more than 300,000 and was struggling to come to terms with the second half of the 20th century. It had only just broken with its 180-year tradition of filling the front page with small ads. Thomson made Hamilton editor-in-chief of the two papers and invited Rees-Mogg to edit The Times, with a view to increasing circulation by making it more relevant to the younger generation.

He was in the right age group yet his establishment credentials were sound enough not to alienate the traditional readership. But his connection with the cultural interests of most of his contemporaries was tenuous. He did not mix easily with them and had adopted the lofty persona of an older man, more at home in clubland (he was a member of the Garrick) than in "swinging London". John Grigg, historian of The Times, labelled him "an English gentleman-scholar". Had the phrase been current, he would have been the archetypal Young Fogey.

Aware of this potential weakness, he appointed a handful of senior executives of his age or younger, some former colleagues at The Sunday Times. In the summer of 1967 he created a stir by writing an editorial defending Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones after they had been convicted of drugs offences. None of his predecessors would have considered taking up such an inflammatory cause.

His effectiveness as an editor, though, was compromised by two self-inflicted handicaps. The first was his refusal to learn to type: his editorials were written in longhand. The second was his insistence on leaving the office at around 6.30 most evenings, before the content of next day's paper had been finalised, and he scarcely ever appeared on Sundays. This was because he set great store by an affectionate and well-regulated family life. In 1962 he had married Gillian Morris, a Sunday Times secretary, and they had five children. They spent the working week at their house in Smith Square, a short walk from the Houses of Parliament, and weekends at their country place in Somerset.

Successful editors usually stay at the office until 8pm or later, but as long as he was satisfied with the features and editorials, his principal priority, he was content to leave the news pages to his lieutenants. Nor did he make strenuous efforts to forge good relations with members of his staff below executive level. They found him aloof and patrician. Although his closest friends testified to his warmth and geniality – a favourite party turn was his soft-shoe shuffle with the TV personality Robin Day – to others he came across as more interested in issues than people and, quite literally, buttoned-up. His office attire was invariably a dark blue double-breasted suit, the jacket scarcely ever removed.

Initially, though, the paper's broader agenda, combined with a well-funded marketing campaign, produced results. By 1968 the circulation was approaching 450,000; but the cost of printing the extra copies was not being matched by increased advertising revenue and Lord Thomson found he was having to pour in more and more money. The management lost its nerve and proposed that the drive for extra readers should be put on hold.

Not long afterwards a group of journalists, who had been on the paper since before the Thomson takeover, issued a round-robin deploring moves to make The Times less élitist. They believed it meant the dilution of its status as the paper of record. Some were incensed by an investigative project, involving concealed tape recorders, which resulted in police officers being charged with corruption. It was, they thought, no part of the Times's agenda to organise undercover operations that undermined established authority.

A more determined editor, imbued with reforming zeal, would have ignored these protests; but Rees-Mogg, while giving the rebels a dressing-down, had sneaking sympathy. Hard-hitting investigations were not his natural territory. (Nor was gossip, as editors of the paper's Diary column discovered.) As at school, he preferred the role of editor as umpire, handing down verdicts from on high rather than dirtying his hands by getting involved in the actual game.

Giving way, then, to some of the strictures of the journalists, and to the demands of his cost-conscious management, he put the higher-circulation strategy into reverse. The price of the paper quickly rose from eight old pence to a shilling. Investigatory journalism took on a lower profile. From that point, as readers drifted away, Rees-Mogg's editorship and Thomson's ownership were destined to fail.

The 1970s were a turbulent period for the national press in terms of industrial relations. The printing unions had the power to stop publication simply by staging walkouts or calling mandatory meetings at a key stage in the production process. They used this power to devastating effect to pursue pay demands and maintain manning levels far in excess of those required, Crucially, they resisted the introduction of modern computer-based production systems.

After a series of stoppages the Thomson management announced that The Times and Sunday Times would suspend production in November 1978. The architect of this tough approach was Marmaduke Hussey, the chief executive, but Rees-Mogg gave powerful support. They did not envisage, though, that the suspension would last nearly a year. Publication resumed at the end of 1979 with the problems still unresolved. Roy Thomson had died in 1976 and his son Kenneth was impatient with this constant drain on the group's resources. When Times journalists went on strike over pay the following summer, he decided to sell the two papers.

Rees-Mogg's first response was to try to gain financing for a staff consortium to buy The Times. His friend Harold Evans was trying to do the same with the Sunday paper, but it became clear that the management was determined to sell to an existing newspaper group, and within a few months Rupert Murdoch emerged as the successful bidder. Rees-Mogg welcomed the new proprietor in an editorial, but resigned in February 1981, as soon as the deal had gone through. Later that year he received a knighthood.

Rees-Mogg was not short of opportunities to extend and broaden his career. Thatcher appointed him vice-chairman of the BBC board of governors; he was made a director of GEC, and he indulged a personal passion when he bought Pickering and Chatto, a venerable publisher and rare bookseller with a shop in Pall Mall. In 1985 he became chairman of the publisher Sidgwick & Jackson.

Another appointment, which received little attention in Britain, was to the International Committee of the Pontifical Council for Culture, advising the Vatican on how cultural and social changes could affect the work of the church. The Catholic faith played an increasingly central role in his life, and he was a strong believer in life after death. "The reality of religious experience is my strongest personal conviction and it has strengthened with each passing year," he wrote in 1992. He counted this committee as one of the most interesting he had ever worked with.

By contrast, he found his time at the BBC the least satisfying of his public roles. When he was appointed vice-chairman it was on the understanding that he would become chairman the following year, on the retirement of George Howard. However, he found Broadcasting House an unsympathetic environment, with the management obsessive about warding off interference from the governing body. "I resented what seemed to me an exaggerated ... complacency," he wrote. Turning down the chance to be chairman, he was made Arts Council chairman as consolation.

The Arts Council appointment came at a time when the Government was pruning subsidies to the arts. "What the arts needed," Rees-Mogg said in a retrospective interview, "was someone with the objectives of a bank manager." He appointed as general secretary Luke Rittner, who had a background in finance. In 1984 they issued a policy document, The Glory of the Garden, which sought to switch funding towards companies in the regions. This meant less for organisations such as the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House, and provoked impassioned protests. Peter Hall, Director of the National Theatre, cried "Betrayal!" and briefly closed the Cottesloe. Yet Rees-Mogg was not an opponent of the arts, believing they were in good shape when he left in 1989.

As vice-chairman of the BBC, his most controversial issue arose in 1985 when the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, protested about the corporation's intention to screen a programme that included a long interview with Martin McGuinness, the Irish Republican leader. Rees-Mogg was in the forefront of those wanted it banned. He saw it as a symptom of anarchy at the BBC, with programme-makers flouting procedures aimed at the exercise of editorial control. After five years on the board he declined the customary two-year extension.

His next public appointment was to head the newly-formed Broadcasting Standards Council, a characteristically Thatcherite creation aimed at driving excessive sex and violence from home screens. Its first job was to write the rules by establishing a code, and Rees-Mogg set in motion a series of public consultations. The result was less prescriptive than some feared.

He stood down in 1993, but continued to contribute to debates in the House of Lords. In 1986 he had started a weekly column in the fledgling Independent and in 1992 switched to The Times. He continued to write trenchantly for The Times and the Mail on Sunday until shortly before his death. He wrote several books, mostly on global economics. His autobiography, Memoirs, was published in 2011.

One of the great satisfactions of his final years was to see his son Jacob succeed where he had failed, in being elected to Parliament in the Conservative interest in 2010. Lord Rees-Mogg was recently diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

William Rees-Mogg, journalist, author and public servant: born Bristol 14 July 1928; Editor, The Times 1967-81; Kt. 1981; cr.1988 Life Peer, of Hinton Blewitt; married 1962 Gillian Morris (two sons, three daughters); died 29 December 2012.

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