Louis Kirby

Shrewd evening-newspaper editor


Louis Albert Francis Kirby, journalist: born Liverpool 30 November 1928; reporter, then courts correspondent and political correspondent, Daily Mail 1953-62, Deputy Editor 1971-74; chief reporter, then leader writer, political editor, assistant editor, executive editor and acting editor, Daily Sketch 1962-71; Editor, Evening News 1974-80, vice-chairman 1975-80; Editor, Evening Standard 1980-86; editorial director, Mail Newspapers plc 1986-88; Editor, UK Mail 1993-2006; married 1952 Marcia Teresa Lloyd (two sons, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1976), 1976 Heather Nicholson (one son, one daughter), 1983 Heather McGlone (two daughters); died 14 October 2006.

In 1976, Beaverbrook Newspapers and Associated Newspapers, the owners of London's two evening papers, began talks about a possible merger of the competing titles, both making a loss. But the talks soon hit a serious snag.

The Beaverbrook negotiators, led by Jocelyn Stevens and Charles Wintour, insisted that the new combined paper should be edited by Simon Jenkins, then Editor of their Evening Standard. Associated, in the persons of Vere Harmsworth - soon to become the third Viscount Rothermere - and David English, were just as adamant that their man, Louis Kirby of the Evening News, should fill the Editor's chair.

The refusal of either side to budge led to the suspension of negotiations the following year. Within three years, though, the Beaverbrook group had been taken over by Trafalgar House and renamed Express Newspapers. Simon Jenkins had stepped down from the editorship of the Standard to be replaced by his predecessor, Charles Wintour. The merger of the two titles went ahead in 1980 and Kirby became Editor of the new paper, in which both groups had a 50 per cent share until Associated acquired complete control in 1985.

The hybrid that Kirby created was briefly called the New Standard, in an attempt to incorporate elements of both titles. Paradoxically, though, it was much more closely related to the old Standard than to the News. Forced to make more than 100 journalists redundant, he wielded the axe almost entirely on his former colleagues. Said Stevens, still smarting at being thwarted over the choice of editor: "It was like the RAF winning the Battle of Britain and finding Goering in charge at the end of the war."

There was a sound commercial reason for this apparent anomaly. The News had traditionally been the paper for working-class London, by then a dwindling constituency. By contrast the Standard, under Wintour and his protégé Jenkins, had developed into the journal of the capital's savvy middle class, later dubbed the chattering classes. For the advertisers on whose support the new paper would depend, the Standard's was by far the more desirable readership.

The shrewd Kirby proved as adept at serving this target audience as his friend and mentor David English had been in re-launching Associated's Daily Mail as a mid-market tabloid nine years earlier. Indeed, Kirby had been heavily involved in the Mail's transformation. In 1962 he had joined Associated's Daily Sketch and had risen to become Executive Editor, under English, when the company decided to merge the Sketch with the Mail in 1971. English took Kirby with him as Deputy Editor of the Mail, until he was appointed Editor of the Evening News in 1974.

Born in Liverpool in 1928, Louis Kirby was educated at Coalbrookdale High School and took his first job as a reporter on the Wolverhampton Express and Star. In 1949 he went to Bermuda, where he spent two years on the Royal Gazette. On his return he worked as a freelance before joining the Daily Mail's office in Manchester in 1953. He stayed with Associated Newspapers for the next half-century - a remarkable record even in an era when journalists were less inclined than today to flit promiscuously from title to title and group to group.

He worked for the Mail in his native Liverpool and then in Dublin before being transferred to the head office in Fleet Street in 1956. Before long he was working in Westminster as the paper's lobby correspondent. In 1962 he moved to the Daily Sketch as chief reporter and climbed the editorial ladder to become Executive Editor under English, who was appointed Editor in 1969. He and English developed a rapport that ripened to become a lifelong friendship.

They were an ideal team. English, although charming when off duty, was a demanding and often irascible editor. Kirby, by contrast, was emollient, adept at smoothing the feathers that English had ruffled. He was also by then skilled in all aspects of newspaper production, and thus able to lead by example.

That was why, when the Sketch was closed in 1971 and English was appointed Editor of the Mail, he took Kirby with him as his deputy. Their brief was to turn the declining broadsheet paper into a tabloid without lowering editorial standards or compromising its mid-market appeal. By 1974, when Kirby was given his own editorial chair at the Evening News, the transformation had been successful.

At the News, he demonstrated that his respect for English did not amount to subservience. When the Mail acquired an exclusive picture of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, he agreed to buy subsidiary rights for the evening paper for £1,000; but the Mail had second thoughts and cancelled the deal. Kirby decided he would publish the picture anyway.

Senior executives on the Mail protested to Lord Rothermere and some even demanded the insubordinate editor's dismissal. Rothermere summoned him to his villa at Cap d'Ail in the South of France, but then delivered only the gentlest of rebukes.

One of the reasons for his appointment as Editor of the News was that Associated believed the tabloid format might be the answer to the evening paper's problems as well. Kirby duly oversaw the switch but the demographics of the capital worked against its success and within three years it was clear that the paper's losses could not be stemmed without merging with its rival.

He edited the merged Evening Standard for six years. One of his most far-sighted appointments was of Jeremy Deedes to edit the paper's Londoner's Diary. Kirby urged Deedes to make it the section of the paper where readers would turn first for riveting gossip about the movers and shakers in politics and show business, the capital's two most conspicuous industries. By and large, the diary maintains that character today.

In 1986 Kirby was promoted to be editorial director of Mail Newspapers and from 1988 to 1993 was political consultant to the Daily Mail. For the next 10 years he edited UK Mail, a weekly news digest for readers overseas.

If his career was remarkable for his loyalty to a single employer, his private life was not so seamless. He married three times, producing five children with his first wife, two with his second and two more with his third.

Michael Leapman

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