Russell Twisk: Editor of The Listener and Reader's Digest


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The Independent Online

Russell Twisk was a journalist and editor who topped the masthead of two of the UK’s largest circulation magazines, The Listener and the Reader’s Digest, over a period of two decades.

In the latter role he interviewed a number of leading personalities for the magazine, including George W Bush, Tony Blair and Baroness Thatcher. High-profile portraits such as these brought a significant boost to the magazine’s circulation figures, which peaked at over six million in 1993.

Russell Twisk was born in 1941, the son of an English mother and Dutch father, and was educated at Salesian College in Farnborough. When he contracted tuberculosis, aged 19, and was hospitalised for seven months, he was encouraged by the hospital librarian to read, and began writing short stories. He met his future wife, Ellen, the following year at Midhurst Community Hospital, after a recurrence of the illness. They married in 1965.

His first role as a journalist was at Golf Illustrated, where he found himself in the fortunate position of being paid to write about one of his hobbies. After a number of freelance roles, he joined the editorial staff of the Radio Times in 1966 and became deputy editor five years later. In The Fred Astaire Story: His Life, His Films, His Friends (1975), published by the Radio Times as a special edition, he indulged his passion for the great singer and dancer.

The Listener, first published in 1929, was the more intellectual stablemate to the Radio Times, providing a varied and in-depth analysis of the BBC’s output and the issues raised in its programmes. In 1981, the journalist Richard Gott was interviewed and chosen to become The Listener’s new editor. But at this time, candidates for appointments of this type were routinely scrutinised by MI5 for their suitability, and Gott was turned down because of what the security service perceived as his“ultra-leftist” political leanings. Twisk was given the role instead.

During his time at The Listener, he was able to increase the magazine’s circulation while maintaining the high standards for which it had always been known. He gained admiration from his readers and from his contributors, to whom Twisk had given a new freedom of expression.

Twisk remained as editor until 1987, when new joint BBC-ITV owners and management took over, appointing Alan Coren, former editor of Punch, to take the magazine in a different direction. The last edition of The Listener came off the presses just four years later. Gott explained of the changes at the time, “The big mistake was to try to turn it into a magazine like The Spectator, instead of using the vast resources of the BBC.”

The same year, Twisk was appointed editor at Reader’s Digest. In parallel to that job, from 1989 to 1994, he wrote a radio column for The Observer. Upon his retirement in 2002, when Reader’s Digest magazine still had a circulation of more than one million, he said: “I was 60 last year and thought I should try some new things. I have been editing practically all my life. I am leaving the magazine in very good nick and I’m trying not to eat bananas sideways...”

As well as his journalistic and editorial activities, Twisk was active on a number of boards of charitable and professional bodies, including as a member of the Press Complaints Commission, from 1999 to 2002. In that role he was present when PCC chairman Lord Wakeham stood down in the wake of the Enron scandal. Twisk said that Wakeham’s decision was the right one, noting at the time, “You are commenting on how other people are doing their jobs, you are sitting in judgement on newspapers; and I think if you yourself are the subject of much speculation about how you’re behaving, that makes your situation impossible.”

Twisk had latterly been a board member for the Next Century Foundation (NCF), a charity devoted to conflict resolution. William Morris, the secretary general of the NCF, said Twisk was involved in the organisation from the beginning. “The NCF was founded to deal with the Israel-Palestine issue. He was very actively involved from its inception and had a real concern for this... He believed that without resolving it you would get nowhere. In person, he had that wonderful quality of taking people at face value without judging them. He was a wonderful man who always had a kind word for everyone, who believed very much in the brotherhood of man.”

Twisk had had a stroke in October last year, and died peacefully in his sleep earlier this month.

Russell Twisk, magazine editor: born London 24 August 1941; married 1965 Ellen (two daughters); died Midhurst, West Sussex 4 August 2013.